Storm on the Mountain

By

A jaunt to the mountains is always a good idea. I especially like it when I want to interrogate God about the direction of my life, while also letting him know I’m a little miffed with the current particulars. Several weeks back, I was befuddled in soul so I packed my faithful blue hatchback and headed for the hills. I stayed in a mountain cabin with airy rooms, a steady supply of coffee, and a dimly lighted little porch just shaped for hours of brooding.  My plan was to do quiet, restorative things: read, take very gentle hikes, and generally make enough quiet space in my brain for God to speak some…encouragement? Direction? Anything would do.

But the resting was not to be. I don’t know what possessed me, but I spent most of my time acting like a mountain goat. I hiked every trail in reach. My cabin, set right at the feet of great, jutting boulders in the foothill valley that flanks Pikes Peak, was perfect for meditation, prayer, and…climbing. In my heart and feet was an insatiable desire and a restless energy that set me on a series of long scrambles up red, muddy hillsides, out onto craggy, storm-shadowed cliff edges in quest of, well, I wasn’t sure what. A deeper drink of storm sky. A wider view. An end to my fitful thoughts.

But my thoughts were tenser than ever by that afternoon when I hiked up the top ledge of a canyon. I had checked my trail guide and thought I would be out for a short, easy climb. I must have missed the turn because an hour in, I was still going up, too far to turn back but flummoxed as to where the downward road might be. I stopped to check my map and noticed abruptly how the air had pooled and stilled and the sky turned an ominous grey. The hot, pin-drop silence of air just before thunder filled the woods and then was shattered by a terrific crack. Great. Every mountain dweller has a cache of people-being-struck-by-lightning stories. I was pretty sure I was about to become the stuff of legend.

So I jogged. Up and up and up, gasping for breath at the ten-thousand-foot altitude, sweating first, then soaked and chilled as the rain came pelting down. Finally, drenched to my skin, with the constant threat of electrocution just behind and the trail ever, always, mind-bogglingly up, I got furious. My anger wasn’t so much at the fact of my predicament as it was that I felt this wild, dirty climbing was a metaphor of my life. More than a metaphor, my heart felt that my past year had been a literal lung taxing, foot bruising scramble after God—his presence in my workaday life, his love amidst my fallenness, his will for me in a world of unlimited options and frightening isolation.

Finally, I gave up running and plopped myself down under some scrubby pines. This was my day of rest and I was going to take it however I could get it. I ignored the lightning, embraced the fact that I was going to come out of this muddy, and asked God point blank how much longer I was going to have to climb. This was really what I had come to the mountains to figure out. How much longer, I demanded, was God going to tax my mind and soul to the limit with his upward road? The answer, to my shock, was immediate. It was in question form, of course, but clear as dawn: how long was I willing to climb?

Sitting there, I realized that my life, my story, was one set in mountains. From a childhood shaped by parents in missions, to my own decision to become a writer, the roads I had walked were lonely, upward roads. Someone should have warned me that trying to be a writer would set me amidst artistic barrens and beauties I could never have dreamed. But then, someone should have told me the same thing about believing in God. The writing life, the faith life, are both an uphill climb, and a climb made most often in loneliness. Every part of my life  seemed tailor made to cast me into a soulish wilderness and I suddenly found this hard to bear. I inwardly railed at God that I was doomed to a mountain life when what I yearned for was ease.

I begged for the valley then. I sat there in the rain, pleading for rest, for a break from writing, for release from conviction, for relief from the dramatically beautiful, yet utterly demanding road I walked in loving God. I was tired of struggling for new projects, of wringing my brain out like a rag for every deadline. I was tired of being lonely, of trying too hard to belong, of being misunderstood, of hurting. As the rain poured harder, I told God that loving him seemed always to lead up mountainsides.

But the thought stopped me short. Sitting there, soaked and shivering, I had to wonder if any follower of God gets an easy road. What if we are all called to this mad uphill dash when we claim God as our own? What if all makers and artists, all lovers of people and God in every walk of life are called to this mountainside scramble after holiness? The thought was so distressing it got me straight to my feet.

But I could not shake it as I slipped my way down the mountain. It grew as I slept that night and met me in the morning when I finally got that coffee and quiet. With that idea—the truth that every lover of God must journey uphill and into the wilds—came a calm I had not expected. I was finally able to face a truth I had never grasped before: the mountain road is never going to end. Real faith means to climb. Creation of any beauty, the giving of any great love, means an uphill road and a stormy sky. With that realization, I was finally able to ask the one, burning question that I needed to. Did I truly want the valley life?

I believe we can reject the mountains and run for the grasslands and God will still love us. I believe that there is such a thing as a valley faith. It’s real, it just doesn’t go anywhere. A valley faith is one that chooses not to take on the struggles of radical love and risky vocation. It’s fine. It’s virtuous. But it stays home and locks the gate. And sometimes, honestly, I’ve wanted that, even prayed about it. I’ve wanted to compromise a few convictions, give up the strain of creation, relax the tension of sacrificial love. But in the end, I always have to confront my own heart, the heart that has been stirred by God’s love and kindled by his beauty. And that heart stares me down and asks; do I want to give up the chase after God’s presence? Do I want to abandon the beauty, the knowing of truth that forces me to wrestle down the words that will describe the best and deepest things I have ever known?

The answer is no. I realized that morning on my little cabin porch that I had prayed for ease because I was weary. God understands that. He knows the strain of a faithful life. But I knew I had prayed the wrong prayer. What I needed to pray for was vigor. Not release from struggle, but a newborn strength to help me bear the wilds of this wondrous road. Not escape, but a heart sparked by hope, a will empowered by supernatural courage.

Who can walk to the high and holy places of God? I opened my Bible to my old familiar haunts, Isaiah, the Psalms, and found my answer in the poetry of their words. Those who rise on the strength of His own wings. Who can traverse impossible ways, as Abraham and David, Joshua and Jesus? Those who pray not for escape, but for zeal, for Spirit’s breath in their lungs, and Spirit fire kindling their hearts to endure. We can run for the valley and God will still love us, but I decided that I didn’t want to. With David, I wanted to believe that:

God girds me with strength and makes my way blameless.

He makes my feet like hinds’ feet, and sets me on my high places.

He trains my hands for battle so that I can bend a bow of bronze.

His right hand upholds me. His gentleness makes me great.

He enlarges my steps under me. My feet have not slipped.
(Psalm 18)

So mountain life, here I come. I know that exhaustion, petulant storms, and rocky hillsides of writer’s block will dog my steps. But I’m climbing upwards toward this God who beckons me on, whose wildness plays all around me and challenges me to chase him. I’m climbing in search of the love I have not yet given, the stories I have not yet told, the hope that is a light, silvered and pure, at the far edge of the storm. The road goes ever on, as Bilbo says, and I’m determined to follow it to the wild end.

Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she's not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.


27 Comments

  1. Kent McDonald

    Breathtakingly beautiful, insightful prose. “The road goes ever on” and I am determined to follow it to the wild end.

    Everyone’s story is unique, and the story of life is always in God’s hand. I am grateful for storytellers who reflect on the journey and enlighten us with His Truth.

    Thank you for a wonderful, challenging read. I hope you don’t mind, but I have placed your story (with a link here of course) in the spot light on my front page.

    May God’s richest stories yet be in your future.

  2. Brenda Branson

    Great capture in words of the tension between struggle and desire for comfort.

  3. Judy

    This brought Christina Rosseti’s poem, “Up-Hill”, to mind.
    In it she expresses her exhaustion and loneliness in the midst of the long journey of faithfulness. She begins the first verse asking God, “Does the road wind up-hill all the way?” A little later she asks, “But is there for the night a resting place?” and “Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?” In the last verse, still in the long weariness, she begs, “Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?” and finally “Will there be beds for me and all who seek?”
    If you are not familiar with it, you might like to take a look.

  4. Shelbi

    This was so beautiful, Sarah, and just what I needed today. I’ve often felt that the most worthwhile experiences are those which require something from us. I believe that this is how God engages our hearts and minds during our spiritual pilgrimage: to show us in our wearied souls or battered bodies that the path he has on will be revealingly glorious at the mountain’s summit, and worth every ounce of pain we endured on the way. Again, thank you!

  5. Terry

    Great writing. I like to hike in mountains with very steep hills. I have gone to desolate places seeking closer walks with God and felt such similar things from this writing. Thank you so much for sharing.

  6. Matthew Benefiel

    Great thoughts Sarah. While I’m no professional writer my dabbles in it seems to force me into loneliness, it may very well be because we writers are forced to seek out the extremities of our minds. I know my is a pretty lonely place, many times by my own doing. Being an engineer by trade I can tell you that it is no peaceful valley, it may have started that way, but I’ve had my fair share of days where I want to get out and do something else.
    I’ve also seen enough of my own heart to know that selfishness can destroy the best of things. From marriage to profession I’ve slowly destroyed the things that I thought I had going for me and it came in slow doses until I found myself buried beyond my own measure; that was when I realized my mountains. I’m not sure any of us can have the peaceful valley life. Mainly because when life gets easy we get lazy, we loose focus, and we leave the safety of our Father. Not all go through the high mountain passes, but each of us must face the struggle ahead, which is really ourselves.
    God doesn’t let us sit in our easy chairs, because He knows our hearts. Christ came to die for our broken hearts, He knows us well and loves us still. So He allows us to fall back at times (the consequences of following our own hearts) and then when we see the mountain ahead, the struggle against what we have so far accepted, He get’s us on our feet and moves us forward. You see it in the lives of all our fore-fathers: Noah, Abraham, Moses, David…the list goes on, these men failed and fell from grace, but God never let them go and we see the outcome of their faith, the moments they came down out of the mountains and found the only true valley is Christ.
    My pastor told me a few months back that each step in life is preparation for the next; each is hard at the time, but when we look back we realize that God moved us in baby steps. What we worry about as kids seems to pale in comparison as adults, yet without those years as kids we would be consumed. The ultimate end of these struggles? God’s arms, it is the only place we should be. Throughout our lives God keeps stripping away that which we depend on, the things that we hold most dear, until all that is left is Him; strangely, at that moment, all that He has stripped away is returned, but it means more this time, because our focus isn’t on those things, but on God. When we loose sight of that, we find the storms blowing and the struggle coming, until we flee back to the place we belong.
    I love the line from Colony House’s song I Had to Grow Up: “I can’t keep fighting for a steady life, so I’ll ride the wind like a feather towards home.”

  7. Deb

    This gave me the perspective that I desperately needed today. Thank you! God used it to remind me that I have been praying the wrong prayer. Instead of just asking for leisure; for rest because I am weary, I choose to pray for courage and new strength for the journey I’m on.

  8. Loren Warnemuende

    Well goodness, that just about sums up realizations I’ve been stumbling toward in the past couple years!

    “I was finally able to face a truth I had never grasped before: the mountain road is never going to end. Real faith means to climb.”

    Sigh. I know it’s worth it. I will try pray for vigor rather than ease.

  9. Christal

    Sarah, Thank you for such a good reminder of God’s faithfulness. What story would be exalted without rising actions.? We all love prose with adventure and mysterious twists and turns….it is simply harder to grasp when we are living it. But, “Praise God”…the author loves us and has design a hopeful and spectacular finish. If we could all face each day fully geared up with His word and simply let go….and lean into Him. This adventurous life is truly a never ending storyline…literally a line. The line spikes and nose dives….but, we are simply expected to hold on and lean into Him! So……climb every mountain, but like a “little pilgrim”….remember we are not to carry our loads….drop off the dead weight…and soar…what a spectacular adventure awaits!

  10. Amanda Brindley

    Beautiful! Thanks, Sarah, for the encouraging perspective. I find myself praying for relief and ease so often in my weariness. This is just the reminder I needed to be praying instead for strength, hope, and courage to embrace the mountain path.

  11. Amy Marie

    Wow!!! Thanks for sharing…I think we trick ourselves into thinking that we are alone in these struggles, but the truth is, all pilgrims of the Lord are struggling with some of the same things. It’s so beautiful to really know we aren’t alone.

  12. Bethany

    Sarah, thank you for writing this. I have been feeling the strain of living this way more heavily of late, and it seems like God is continually stretching my faith to my utter limits, calling out more endurance and faith in me. It is breathtakingly heard at times to keep following, but the immense joy that I find at the end of each peak I climb is made more wonderful because of the struggle it took to get there. Thank you for sharing your heart! It encourages me to hear that I’m not alone on the road.

  13. Diane

    lord, high and holy, meek and lowly, Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
    where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.
    Let me learn by paradox
    that the way down is the way up,
    that to be low is to be high,
    that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all,
    that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive,
    that the valley is the place of vision.
    Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells, and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
    Let me find thy light in my darkness, thy life in my death,
    thy joy in my sorrow, thy grace in my sin,
    thy riches in my poverty thy glory in my valley.

  14. Stacy

    I live in the mountains, so the title of this piece piqued my curiosity. Thanks for the helpful yet unpleasant reminder that he has not offered us ease, but struggle. I find it frustrating and comforting; I don’t want to struggle so much, but I’m comforted to know that it’s part of this life not a mistake I’m always making.

  15. Catherine Gruben

    This was so encouraging to read. Thank you for taking the time to write it, and being willing to share. And you did it so beautifully.

    You don’t see many posts on sanctification, on the steady, narrow uphill climb that every Christian is called to run. And the lonely road becomes so much lonelier when people talk so much about the ease and delight of a Christian’s life and avoid talking about the difficult part of climbing steadily out of lazy valley and on up towards godliness, chasing down the standard God has placed so high – but has made possible for us to reach through His strength.

    Keep climbing! In the end, even on this side of the veil I believe, it leads to peace: a profound peace of an easy conscience with our God.

  16. Lisa

    Thank you, Sarah. This is encouragement I needed today. Sometimes it all just seems so hard, but that, I suppose, is the point. Too often we expect a life of ease when Christ has clearly told us the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life. Lacing on my boots and shouldering my pack today in gratitude for your words, which are a cup of cool water along the way.

  17. Ashley J

    Thank you Sarah for the beautiful and encouraging reminder of God’s faithfulness. I really needed this. It spoke directly to my heart.

  18. JamesDWitmer

    Sarah, this is good stuff.

    I relate the the exhausted rage. And to the strange calm that comes with

    the truth that every lover of God must journey uphill and into the wilds.

    Thanks for this beautiful reminder.

  19. Paul

    It’s hard to find a place of rest that doesn’t tempt us with surrender. And it’s hard to find a fire in the belly that doesn’t shame us for needing a rest. Lately it’s been surrender nudging me the most. Thank you for this encouragement.

  20. Claire

    Sarah, How lovely. I am speechless and want to read more. Have you read Hinds Feet in High Places? It was a little book with a big punch, so too is your writing. I am praying for you today, and stand with you in knowing God has called you to write about love and His mighty universe.

  21. Rob Williams

    Thank you so much for the encouragement. Feeling very fatigued from the writing and marketing climb, I’ve been desiring to hide in the shadows of the valley. Your insights, however, reminded me of the much better response.

  22. MISSMERRYRED

    Thank you for sharing this, Sarah.

    Every time I read one of your posts it’s something I need to hear. Reading this reminded me of a quote by Thomas Szasz that Eugene Peterson cites in his book “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” It says “in [Szasz’s] therapy and writing,” he has “attempted to revive respect for what he calls the ‘simplest and most ancient of human truths: namely, that life is an arduous and tragic struggle; that what we call ‘sanity,’ what we mean by ‘not being schizophrenic,’ has a great deal to do with competence, earned by struggling for excellence; with compassion, hard won by confronting conflict; and with modesty and patience, acquired through silence and suffering” (21).

    I feel like you’ve articulated one of the things that I’ve been learning over and over again throughout my life, that the pursuit of God, holiness, and the creation of anything good and beautiful, will always be difficult, an uphill climb asking for all of our energies. And even just thinking about this wearies me greatly, sometimes. But I’m also learning that there is daily bread along the way, showing up in many forms, that helps to sustain and encourage. Music is often one of the forms . . . do you know the songs “On the Mountain” by Christa Wells, and “Up To The Mountain” by Patty Griffin? Another quote about life being difficult and that we must sing to help us make it through is hovering on the fringes of my brain but I can’t quite bring it into focus . . .

  23. Kim

    Oh Lord thank you for Sarah’s post. I will use this literary prayer to help me with motivation as we homeschool this year. Blessings!

  24. Christine

    Sarah, what beautiful writing! I love reading your thoughts, and I too seek the solace of nature when needing/wanting more of God. The temptation to pray for an easy path is great, but the joy of overcoming and planting victorious foot on the craggy peaks is greater. May the Lord continue to bless you with the zeal and faithfulness to persist in the climb.
    Blessings,
    Christine

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