It’s easy to stand on a mountaintop and praise God. Not that there aren’t people who, upon reaching a mountaintop, decide to praise themselves instead. (While it may take a lot of our own effort to get to a mountaintop, effort’s nothing if God decides that’s not where you should be.) When everything slots into place and effort pays off and wonderful things happen, it’s easy to stand there and shout about how good God is, and all the wonderful things he’s done. Said wonderful things are wonderfully on display for the world to see.
Sitting in a pit is different. There’s some effort involved. I’ve discovered that I have a point at which I don’t see the good things anymore. Feel wretched enough, and we forget a kind favor, or good food, or that morning we got to sleep in. Feel wretched enough, and we have difficulty feeling loved at all, either by other people or God. Blessings arrive with a dull thud. I have to disregard my emotional state for a bit, step back, and say, “No, really, God’s looking out for me. No, really, he’s good. No, really, it hurts, but there’s a more to it than that.”
When people hear praise to God coming from a mountaintop, they might say, “Yeah, well, everything’s just going lovely for you, isn’t it? It’s luck. Or circumstance. The minute you come down, you’ll stop. It’s easy when you’re up there.” Like Satan in the book of Job, it’s easy to think that people only like God ’cause he gives them what they want.
At the same time, when someone praises God from a pit, people might say they’re “clinging to” religion. They hear the poor and the sick talking about how great God is, they might say, “Yeah? So why are you poor and sick?” Or, “You’re just saying that ’cause it’s all you got left.” They think those at the bottom need to believe in something, or else they’ll go mad with despair.
Plenty of people hold both views at the same time. I wonder if they suppose that the two types simply have different reasons for their faith. The only way to answer that is to be someone who praises God from both places.
For one thing, it lays out exactly how much circumstances matter. Which is to say, they do. They do enormously. What I do and how I do it relies on circumstances, on my emotional state, on other people’s circumstances, on resources and the calendar and lots of other things. But who I am should not depend on circumstances. What I believe should not depend on what I have. My perspective changes as I age, which it should, and refining it and adjusting it are good things to do. But the foundation stays the same. Regardless of the time or the place or the situation, the foundation is unmoved.
It lays out how much stuff matters. Which it does. Stuff is resources and beauties, or obstacles and garbage. But Got is not hindered by stuff. He does not depend on stuff. He can do wonders with a lot, with little, and with nothing at all. He doesn’t like affliction, but he’s not unwilling to use it. He can take us down some very dark roads, into blind places, through deserts and tundra, through thorns and stones, and out the other side. He’s with us in the wide halls of a forest in spring, in music and dance, in feasts and games and triumphs. He’s with us also in hospitals and cemeteries, under bridges and in prisons, in crackhouses and minefields. He’s with us in every house, full or empty, loved and loveless, brand-new and falling-down. He can make beauty in the most horrific places.
There’s no such place as a no-God’s-land.
It lays out how much we matter, which is more than circumstances or stuff. The refining of our souls is worth more than our happiness or safety. The consolation of our souls is more important than our pride or shame. God leads each of us where it’s best for each to go, which isn’t the same as easiest or nicest. Neither is it the same as toughest or darkest. And it’s never quite the same as anyone else’s. It’s possible to be grateful for a lesson that hurt to learn, and it’s possible to learn from an undeserved gift. Mountaintops are wonderful, and it’s a joy to be on one, but pits are useful, and sometimes what we learn at the bottom of one can lead to mountaintops later on: for us and others.
Circumstances matter. Stuff matters. It’s important whether we’re on a high or in a low, or plugging away at the middle. Where we are isn’t a ranking, or a scorecard, or (necessarily) a test of how well our faith is doing, or how tough we are. Rather they’re important insofar as how they affect us, how we react, what we see and what we learn. They’re important in what they reveal to us, how we use them, and what we look to when we find ourselves there. Mountaintops aren’t meaningless and neither are pits. They mean lots, just not necessarily what we assume they mean. They mean the most when we find ourselves in either and discover God is there too.
Stand on a mountaintop or sit in a pit, and praise God both times. ‘Cause he’s there with us.
Two weeks ago today, my grandfather died — Al, husband to Grandma Irene who died in October. Hence the lack of posts. As before, we spent a lot of time telling stories, and there were plenty I’d never heard before. There were a few that told of things my grandpa went through that surely had him in a pit. But they were things that, decades later, probably helped lead to mountaintops: for him, for his children, for his grandchildren, and for many people who knew him.
I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
—Job 42:2-3 (ESV)