I loved going to youth rallies when I was a teen. I loved seeing kids my age gathered together for a purpose. I loved the uplifting speakers. I loved the wonderful singing and powerful worship. I loved the mountain-top experiences.
And I still do.
But, I have to be careful not to measure the success in my spiritual life by these experiences, by how encouraged I feel, or how “spiritually energized” I am. Not every spiritually successful experience is a mountain-top experience. In fact, the prophets show us otherwise.
God loved His people so much that even when they turned on Him and were downright rebellious, He still pursued them. He sent them prophets. “Minor” prophets and “major” prophets; miraculously gifted prophets and average Joe prophets; teaching prophets, preaching prophets, and even prophets who played at charades. But, one thing all of the prophets had in common was that their lives seemed to be characterized by suffering. They lived in the valleys, and only occasionally got to visit the mountain-tops. Most of the time the very people they were sent to preach to hated them. And they were still some of the greatest examples of spirituality and godliness that we have.
But it is hard for me to say that I want to be like them because it is hard for me to want to live in the valleys, and so much of my “spiritual” mentality revolves around how spiritually successful I feel.
C.S. Lewis, in his book The Screwtape Letters, writes from the perspective of one demon teaching another how to lead a person away from God. Here is his demonic advice for creating havoc in someone’s spiritual life:
Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.
Of course, feelings are not bad or demonic. We are told in scripture to encourage and build up one another. They just aren’t a very reliable measure of our spiritual life. Just because I feel closer to God does not mean that I am, and just because I feel far from God does not mean that He is not standing right next to me holding my hand. In fact, the moments when people feel farthest from God because of suffering or illness or loss are often the very moments they grow closer to Him. They realize He is there even in their greatest agony, even in the valleys.
I pray that I can measure my spirituality by something more than how I happen to feel. I pray that I can trust God for forgiveness rather than trusting in my own extremely variable feelings of being forgiven. I pray that I can learn to visit the mountain tops but thrive in the valleys. That would be true spiritual success.