Over the past 15 years of driving back and forth from the Bay Area to Santa Barbara, I have often noticed that the drive along the 101 freeway is one that is mixed with a plethora of experiences. At some points on the freeway, one is able to enjoy the fresh salty ocean breeze with the sound of waves crashing and seagulls cawing in the background, at another the stale dryness of the drought induced valley full of dried yellow grass that rustles in the wind, in some places there are elevation changes that bring different temperatures and color and lushness to the terrain, and in others there is the dampness/coolness of the fog as one enters into the heavily wooded areas intermixed with the signs of human habitation that distinctly changes the landscape into areas of concrete civilization. This diversity of experiences often reminds me of the journey of the Christian as well!
Like the 101 freeway’s diversity, the Christian life is meant to bring about a “fullness” of one’s life in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To the uninitiated, this is often seen as to mean that are lives are meant to be happy, carefree, without worry because we have Jesus and in many ways we are insulated from pain; it is expected that we are to have spiritual experiences that are bright, warm, filled with peace and blessing. Yet like the changes along the journey of a drive along the 101, the Christian is quickly reminded that this journey is not simply just those things; our journey is also hard, dark, filled with suffering and pain. The reality is one’s journey of faith also has shadows. We cannot simply gloss over the pain and hardship and skip over to the fun stuff.
The truth is our lives are not just filled with a gospel of fullness but one that includes emptiness. Our God not only gives, but He also takes away! Just as our spiritual lives can not flourish without God’s abiding shalom, so it cannot also mature without the dark night of the soul. Our Spiritual lives/experiences can also be filled with pain and anguish that is not about simply adding things to our lives, but also about the taking away and transforming who we are from the inside out. God comes not only as the great giver but also the great disturber of our lives. Our lives can expect to encounter difficulty! Thomas Merton once wrote that:
“while we may have the generosity to undergo one or two such upheavals, we [often] cannot face the necessity of further & greater rendings of our inner self.”
These tough spiritual experiences are painful and difficult, and often after a few, we simply want them to stop and to no longer have any!
In my journey with God, there has been amazing transformation and seasons of abundance, and yet it is in this journey into the light with God that one starts to be exposed to darkness as well. From moments of great joy and happiness… such as my times in ministry and the new relationships built with amazing people to my time at Western Seminary, it has also been filled with times of heartbreak, disappointment, loss, and difficulty. It was as God started to reveal what it means to follow Christ that I started to see that the journey involved more changes to the terrain and circumstances than what I had expected! This was like the long drives along the 101 at times. One cannot wait to get through certain areas because they were so boring with no change in terrain (or lack thereof)… and it would leave one so exhausted, and frustrated hoping for it to be over.
The reality is that these are the moments where we must submit our lives to Christ and to realize that there will be changes, and we must be open to these changes. Even the best spiritual growth/dynamism/movement is fraught with hardship and difficult. Our natural inclinations after encountering these hard parts of our journey, is to ask to stop, to be flustered, and to give up… “please God, no more!” But this is not the way of the Christian. We are called to walk the narrow and unfamiliar path; we are called into a downward mobility, to give up, to sacrifice, to serve. We are challenged daily to let go of our way and to walk the unique journey of faith. It is ultimately in losing our “life”, that we in fact truly gain a life in abundance and joy. Like this long drive along the 101 with changing circumstances, pretty soon, we will reach our destination and be filled with joy as we realize that without going through the good and the bad, we would never have been able to finally arrive at home!
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).
Inspired by “Seeking the Silences” by Charles Ringma