The essential thing in heaven and earth is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; thereby results, have always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living. - Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil
Since we rang in the new year, I've been reading Eugene Peterson's A Long Obedience. If you're new to Eugene Peterson's work, he is brilliant. Not only did he translate the Bible into contemporary language in The Message translation, he's written over 30 books including one of my favorites, Leap Over A Wall on the life of King David. The most intriguing characteristic of Peterson's writing is his ability to show us how our individual journeys are mirrored in the stories of the Bible.
In A Long Obedience, he takes The Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134) and charters the journey of spiritual growth, starting with the most basic truth: life is a hard, there are no easy journeys.
The simplest and most ancient of human truths: Life is an arduous and tragic struggle that 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. - Thomas Szasz
This is a largely undisputed truth among spiritual teachers and psychologists. The first of the "Four Noble Truths" which Buddha taught was "life is suffering" and Scott Peck put it plainly yet eloquently in The Road Less Traveled:
Life is a series of problems. Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult - once we truly understand and accept it - then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.
But why is life so difficult? It forces us to persevere, seek to know God and ourselves, and ultimately, to grow.
In January, I met Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. Gretchen shared that her research showed that the greatest determinants of happiness are novelty, challenge, and self-knowledge.
If we want to be happy we must challenge ourselves, seek to know ourselves, and change.
This truth is especially interesting in the context of spiritual journey and the odyssey of the twenty-something years. The spiritual journey is a quest for knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of God. When we embark on the path of growth we become students of our own human experience as predicated by our experiences with God.
As we climb up towards heaven we are challenged, and the by-products of that challenge is self-knowledge, and ultimately change.
Let's climb the mountain of God. He'll show us the way he works so we can live the way we're made. - Isaiah 2:3, The Message
The mountain climb allegorizes the spiritual journey, just as the quest for the Holy Grail allegorized an inner spiritual search.
There is only one journey. Going inside yourself. - Rainer Maria Rilke
Imagine you are on a hike in the woods and you kept passing what appeared to be the same tree, over and over again. You would start to wonder if you were making any progress right? Inwardly, you know you're growing stronger and maturing, but outwardly, you're at the same place on the trail, stuck like we're waiting to catch a bus down the mountain, wondering if the bus is coming, and if it is coming, where is it taking you next?
This is the "long obedience."
How do we persevere on this mountain climb of life full of potholes, steep inclines, and winding roads?
I only know one way to cope: trust God when He says, "I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" (Jeremiah 29:11).
The other thing we can remember in these times of treading water in life, is that God knows it's easy for us to lose our perspective and our compassion when all is going swimmingly. Without periods of perseverance, we can't "learn to be content in whatever state we find ourselves" (Philippians 4:11) and trust that "whatever happens, we know God has permitted it to take place to teach us and to perfect us for His service" (Billy Graham).
God didn't promise that obedience will be easy, or glamorous, or romantic, but He promised a hope and a future.
My encouragement today if you're in a trying season, or a slow season, or a long winter in life is to keep pressing on in the same direction. It's March, light the candles, Spring is coming.