In the spring of 2001, Tim and I were faced with a very important decision – where to go on our honeymoon.
If you know us now, you knew us back then – there was absolutely no question that we were “mountain-bound”. We are outdoors people and whenever we’re not on some sort of outdoor adventure, we are wishing that we were on some sort of outdoor adventure. When we see a mountain, our immediate reaction is to look at each other and say, “How do we get up there?! Let’s go!”
So, when it came to our honeymoon, we were thinking Colorado, Grand Canyon, Canadian Rockies, or some other set of peaks we’d always wanted to climb.
But our plans changed when we were offered, by Tim’s extremely generous grandfather and step-grandmother, an all-expenses-paid two-week tour of Italy! To be completely honest, we were a little disappointed – but seriously, you don’t turn down Italy! Surely we’d find some mountains and outdoor adventure there, right?
Well, not so much. We had a blast and got some ‘cultural education’ as we rode around on our tour bus full of retired senior citizens (because who else has the time to take a TWO WEEK tour of Italy?) It was a wonderful experience, but the ‘adventure’ was very much lacking.
When we got to one of our last stops, the island of Capri in the southern part of Italy, there were two optional excursions. One of them was something called the “Grotta Azzurra” where you ride on a boat into a seaside cave where the water glows blue. The other option was a chairlift ride to the top of “Monte Solaro”, the highest peak on the island. Can you guess which one we chose?
We got off the bus that morning and within minutes, we were at the top, ready to experience a breathtaking view of the island and surrounding sea! However, all we saw was this:
We were disappointed, but decided it was surely just a passing cloud and if we waited a few minutes it would clear.
But… it didn’t. We waited for almost an hour and there was no change at all. No view. We were on top of this epic mountain overlooking the island and surrounding sea and all we could see were each other’s NOT smiling faces.
If you read through the history of God’s people in the Old Testament, you’ll learn about the many different kings who led them. In the books of 1 and 2 Kings, each king is remembered for his accomplishments (or lack thereof), and most importantly, whether or not they “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD”. (1 Kings 15:11) Each king either led the people to worship the Lord – or led them to worship the gods of the peoples around them (a great temptation, especially as the worship of these gods was more exciting, personally rewarding, and physically pleasurable.)
For example, in 1 Kings 15:11-14 we read about Asa, who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, as his father David had done. He expelled the male shrine prostitutes from the land and got rid of all the idols his ancestors had made. He even deposed his grandmother Maakah from her position as queen mother, because she had made a repulsive image for the worship of Asherah. Asa cut it down and burned it in the Kidron Valley. Although he did not remove the high places, Asa’s heart was fully committed to the Lord all his life.”
So at first, you’re like “Go Asa!”, right? But wait – what’s this about the “high places”?
The land God’s people lived in at that time had previously been inhabited by other nations who worshipped other gods. Many times, their places of worship were located high up in the mountains – because maybe if they could get up closer to the gods and closer to the forces of nature, their worship would be more ‘productive’.
When Israel came in and began living in this “Promised Land” they also began worshiping in these “high places”. In some instances they may have been worshiping the God there (or at least it started out that way), but regardless, He was not pleased with this.
Why not? Because He had already given them a place to worship – the tabernacle or temple, which is where His presence rested: “There I will meet you and speak to you; there also I will meet with the Israelites… I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God.” (Exodus 29:42-43, 45) God had already come down to them – they didn’t need to get up “high” to be close to Him or to get something from Him!
As you read through the lists of kings, you find many who, like Asa, did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, BUT… they did not remove the high places.
I think if there was a list of some of us who are followers of Jesus today, our biographies might say something similar. Our “high places” may not be physical locations, but they show up in our dependence on feeling certain emotions in order to experience the presence of God.
So many of us have what we call “mountaintop” experiences with God – times where you knew for sure He was with you. Maybe you were singing a worship song and you suddenly couldn’t hold back the tears. Maybe you were listening to a message and your heart was racing because it was like the speaker was speaking directly to you. Maybe you were with a group of people and as you shared your lives and prayed together, you felt a bond with them like you’ve never felt before.
But over time, the emotion has faded. You try to worship – but it’s just not the same. You search for something equally powerful in the sermons you hear, but nothing’s really doing it for you. And that perfect chemistry you had with that group seems to not exist anywhere else.
And you wonder if God is even with you anymore.
Feelings are powerful, but they’re not everything. Emotions are our brains’ reactions to what is going on in and around us. They very often cause physical sensations – and if those sensations are good, we naturally desire to repeat those circumstances so we can experience those sensations again.
But the presence of God in our lives is not dependent on a chemical sensations. Can God can use feelings to show us His presence? Of course – He created emotion and often makes use of it to show us His power! But they can easily become “high places” for us when we think we need them in order to be sure that He’s with us.
The Israelites didn’t need the “high places” because God’s presence already dwelled among them – and it’s the same for us. God Himself came down as a human being to make the ultimate sacrifice – so that we ourselves could become the temple of His Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16). We don’t have to climb the ladder of doing the all the right things to be accepted by God and we certainly don’t have to depend on certain “high” feelings to know He’s with us. If you’ve placed your faith in Jesus, His Presence is with you in ALL places!
When we finally gave up on waiting for a view from the top of “Monte Solaro”, we begrudingly headed down the mountain. Since we had missed out on the view, we decided we might as well do that ‘Blue Grotto’ thing, so we went to buy our tickets – but it was too late. We had missed the cutoff time and there were no more boats going out.
When we got on the bus that evening, we talked to all of our senior citizen bus tour friends and they were like, “You didn’t do the Blue Grotto? How did you not do the Blue Grotto? It was AMAZING!”
And we were like “You actually saw a view from the top of the mountain?”
And they were like, “Of course! It was AMAZING!”
Because by the time they got back from the boat trip and went up the mountain, the fog had completely cleared. It turns out we were in such a rush going to a high place we thought would amaze us that we missed out on something in a low place that would have really amazed us.
When you worship, are you looking to feel something – or are you simply singing a song to God, praising Him for how great He is? I think sometimes we mentally switch “Bless the Lord, oh my soul” to “Bless my soul, Oh the Lord”.
When you listen to a message are you waiting for a #truthbomb that will make you say “Wow!” – or are you simply sitting under the teaching of your pastor, ready to take in and apply all of the truth?
When you’re in a group experience, are you looking to ‘feel the love’ – or are you ready to pour out the love on whoever God has placed around that table or in that living room?
It’s not about dismissing our emotions or trying not to have them – it’s just about not depending on them. Faith is so much less about making a “high” feeling last than it is about continually and intentionally remembering that God is with you always – no matter what you feel.