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.
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.