Down From the Mountain
“My God! My God, why have you left me all alone? Why are you so far from saving me— so far from my anguished groans?"
In Psalm 22, David expresses his isolation from God and the suffering of his life. His prayer involves questioning God, his existence, injustice, and God’s relationship to it all.
I believe one of the most important lessons the American evangelical Church must learn from the Old Testament Scriptures is that life takes place down from the mountain.
In our American evangelical church context, spiritual “highs” or “mountaintop experiences” are often celebrated and sought after as the most vital experiences of a Christian life. The Church looks towards Moses, Peter, and other spiritual superheroes (Isa 6.8) to emulate, and thus, creates an incessant drive to achieve the same levels intimacy with God. However, as we study the Old Testament, we realize that it is not mountain top experiences that are vital, but rather a robust journey with God -- a journey that has difficult periods of doubt, confusion, misdirection, faithfulness, and endurance. I think this is a particular problem in Christianity today in part due to our emphasis on conversions and “testimonies.” Testimony is actually a misused term in Christianity in that it is typically used to depict one’s transformative moment as a new follower of Jesus Christ. However, conversion or the “mountaintop” moment is not where one spends his or her life. David had a long and difficult journey with God that included despair, doubt, and massive mistakes. Yet, in churches, we rarely hear sermons that speak to the depths of pain that David experienced during his life, his true testimony. Likewise, churches today often avoid speaking about suffering or even stagnation in our own lives. I believe this is a space in which the Old Testament can particularly serve an American Church that prefers to focus on the transformative moments of the New Testament.
While the New Testament was written within a century of Jesus’ life and incorporates a generation or two after Jesus, it is important to remember that the Old Testament tells the story of God’s covenant with people over thousands of years. In this way, God is vulnerable to the flow of history. When we read the Old Testament, we see God remain faithful to God’s covenant even when people fail God and systems of power that are not God’s ideal come into effect. For example, while Israel becomes a powerful nation under David’s rule, this is not necessarily God’s ideal for Israel or humanity. In other words, Israel’s kingship is an act of rebellion that God works with. This message has deep theological implications for our society today, which should serve as both a challenge and encouragement. God makes a covenant with humanity in the midst of our personal flaws, society’s systematic failures, and our unjust methods. Our personal and communal journeys with God could be served by this message that emphasizes God’s long-term faithfulness and willingness to pull us closer towards covenant, justice, and righteousness in time. The Old Testament teaches us that life is not about accumulating mountain top experiences, but rather our enduring personal and communal desire to live justly with God. The Old Testament shows us God’s relationship to people using a wide range of stories, history, and poetry. May we continually come down from the mountain and engage our communities with justice, and create healthy spaces for people to write, sing, speak, and express both their joy and pain in the valley.