“If you get me through this, I swear I’ll dedicate my whole life to you.” It was World War II and Louie Zamperini’s search plane had just gone down in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles south of the Hawaiian Islands. Only three men of the crew of eleven survived the crash: Louie, Phil, and Mac. Mac died after 33 days in the life boat, possibly from dehydration, while the other two held on for another two weeks before landing aground on the Japanese-occupied Marshall Islands where they were imprisoned until the war ended.
While adrift in the Pacific the men were scorched by the sun, dehydrated by the lack of fresh water, forced to eat raw sea birds and fish, shot at by a Japanese fighter plane, and constantly harassed by hungry sharks. One night, barely holding onto their wits, a ferocious storm blew up bringing torrential rains and monumental swells. At the end of his rope and clinging to the raft for life, Louie cried out to a God he wasn’t completely sure was listening. Stripped of all his self-sufficiency, his training, strength, and will power no longer of any use, he struck a bargain with the Creator: Get me out of this and I’m all yours. In the end, they both upheld their ends of the deal.
Have you ever tried to make a deal with the Lord? If you… then I’ll… It’s probably not the best approach to talking to the God of the Universe, but we do crazy things when we come to the end of ourselves. And I think God understands us well enough to know where we are coming from.
You see, sometimes the deepest valleys reveal to us our deepest needs.
When I was confined to bed for nearly two months with a debilitating illness, I talked to God a lot. He showed me areas of my life that needed reform, and I committed to changing them. Although my commitments were sincere, life back on the plains, when we’re no longer in the deep valley, has a way of making us forget. Now that I am healthy again, I find that I am needing regular reminders of the changes I committed to making. Otherwise, I just slip back into my mindless routine of both healthy and unhealthy habits.
And it’s not just the valley experiences God uses to reveal deep truths to us. He also uses the mountaintops to show us some of His beautiful plans for our lives. My summer working outside Yosemite National Park was one of those mountaintops where the Lord revealed Himself in entirely new ways to me, ways that continue to impact and shape who I am 20 years later.
It’s tempting to think that our responses to God in the midst of trials and loss or, conversely, when we’re on the highest mountaintop are only emotionally driven due to the intense circumstances. Mere sentimentalism, we say. It will pass.
And all too often it does pass. How many times have you been moved by the life stories of a compelling speaker, by the call to abandon ourselves to God’s work, to turn our lives over to Him truly, once and for all? How many times have the struggles of our friends and family, or even ourselves, prompted us to sincerely commit to turning over a new leaf? And how many times, when the trials have passed, or the emotional high recedes, have we settled for life as it was before?
We even forget the lessons the Lord shows us in our regular weekend church service or mid-week Bible study or support group. We raise our hands in submission to the God who created us and loves us unconditionally. We listen intently to the preacher’s message – it’s as if he’s speaking directly to me! We hug the friends we haven’t seen for a week or a month or a year. We feel the stirrings of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. This is the turning point for me. It’s all going to be different from here on out.
Then we wake up Monday morning, the routine begins, and we quickly move on from the spiritual awakening God began in our hearts the day before.
We think people who are at one end or the other of the emotional spectrum, deep in a valley or high on a mountaintop, are not seeing the world clearly. That their vision is clouded by their circumstances. But the opposite can actually be true. You see, when God has met with us in our joy, or when pain and loss have taken away everything “normal” in our lives, we have the opportunity to see more clearly than ever before. Like Neo discovers in The Matrix, it’s the day-to-day world that is false. It’s life on the plain, life in the absence of either great joy or great sorrow, that is foggy, blurred by a lukewarm existence.
Sadly, we’re often easily satisfied with that lukewarm existence, an existence that neither celebrates God nor clings desperately to his robes. Comedian Jim Gaffigan hits the nail on the head in his stand up routine called Mr. Universe.
“Some people think it’s a religious thing [having a big family]. ‘You must be religious.’ That’s not how it works. If anything, you have four or five kids and then you become religious. Because once you lose a kid at the mall, atheist or not, you start talking to God right away. ‘Hey God, I know I haven’t talked to you in a while. Probably since finals in high school. Anyway, if you can help me find my son I promise I’ll change my life. I’ll stop going to Wendy’s… Oh, there he is. Never mind, God. Well, we’re off to Wendy’s. I’ll talk to you when I get cancer.’”
Moses saw this tendency in mankind to forget what the Lord has taught us:
You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth. Deuteronomy 8:17-18
How quickly we forget.
Take-home point: Mountaintops and valleys can both provide exceptional clarity, if we can only manage to remember what we learn.
Take-home verse: But remember the Lord your God… Deuteronomy 18
Questions for thought
What lessons has the Lord taught you, or what commitments have you made, during times of trial or times of triumph?
Have you kept those commitments or clung to those life-changing lessons after life has returned to “normal”?
Why do we forget so quickly and so easily?
My Father and my God, let me learn from you in the highs and lows of life. May I never forget in the darkness, in the fog, what you have clearly shown me in the light. Praise the Lord, Oh my soul. With all that I have, praise His holy name. Never forget all He has done. (from Psalm 103) Amen