Throughout recorded history, mountains have always engendered a sense of awe, honor, and even mystery in humankind. For believers from every religion (and for the most ardent atheist, too) mountains are places of revelation—whether from God, the gods, Mother Earth, or one’s inner self. The power of these formations jutting from the face of earth is so universal that we reserve a special phrase for moments that are particularly full of import and impact: the “mountaintop experience.”
This sort of experience isn’t limited to modern-day life, of course. In fact, many of the most significant events in Israel’s history happened on the heights of literal mountains: Think of Mount Ararat, where Noah’s ark landed; or Moriah, where Abraham offered Isaac; or Sinai, where God revealed Himself to Moses. Or consider the life of Jesus—the Son of God and many times the creator of powerful, ecstatic, even mystical experiences. It’s no accident that at the beginning, middle, and end of His ministry, mountains play a crucial role. And every time, they reveal more about who He is.
The first great teaching of the New Testament takes place on one and is appropriately called the Sermon on the Mount (see Matt. 5-7), where Jesus shows Himself to be the truest and fullest revelation of God. As His enemies’ opposition increases and He heads toward Jerusalem to die, we read the story about the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-8). Jesus takes His closest friends to a high place, and there they see Him in radiant glory, talking with none other than Moses and Elijah. And finally, Jesus’ last teaching before His arrest and crucifixion—an explanation of the future of the world—happens on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem (Matt. 24-25).
My family spent several summers in Colorado, and we’d often drive from Fort Collins, following the snaking path of the Big Thompson River until we reached Estes Park. Ears popped as we arrived in this little town 7,522 feet above sea level. But that was only the beginning, as Estes Park is the entry point into the glorious Rocky Mountain National Park. We drove our van, filled with two adults and six kids, far up into the Rockies, winding along near the edge of narrow mountain roads, pulling off to play in the snow still there in June. No matter how many times we made this drive, we were all in absolute awe of the vistas on every side.
Whether in Palestine or in Colorado, in the ancient world or today, mountain views take our breath away, wake us up, and give us something unique. Vistas give us vision. From physical heights, we can see farther and clearer. The same is true of spiritual heights. God gives us these mountaintop experiences in the Bible and in life so we have direction, a lodestar by which to navigate and shape our course. We need a panoramic view in order to know how to direct the desires and decisions of our lives toward God and His goodness. But we also need valleys.
Valleys, not just vistas, are places where we see God. Herein lies a paradox at the heart of Christianity. Mountaintop experiences help us chart our course, but deep valley experiences help us know God and ourselves most profoundly. When we are broken, helpless, in dark and low places, we come to see in a different way. The Puritans called this startling experience “the valley of vision.” The Scriptures are filled with examples of this puzzling truth.
In the Old Testament, we can point to many people who knew this valley of vision. One example comes from the prayer that Jonah uttered when he was in the belly of the great fish—a place far lower even than an earthly valley (Jonah 2:1-9). Topside, Jonah was rebellious and running his own way. When he found himself at “the roots of the mountains” (Jonah 2:6), with seaweed wrapped about his head, he saw God and His kindness clearly. Or consider Job, a man who knew God well but, after his deep valley of physical and emotional pain, came to see God unlike ever before. Referring to the time before his valley, Job told God, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear,” but afterwards he said, “My eye sees You” (Job 42:5).
Jesus teaches the same profound and paradoxical truth. In His first message, He gives us a mountaintop vision for orienting our lives. It begins with the well-known Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12)—His descriptions of genuine happiness in God. (The Latin beatus means “deep happiness or flourishing.”) The Beatitudes invite us to embrace certain habits and postures with the promise of true life resulting. We are called to humility and gentleness and peace. So far, so good. But when we read the Beatitudes closely, it becomes clear that this vision of real happiness, the place where we see God, is not all rainbows and butterflies. Quite the opposite, in fact. Jesus’ Beatitudes are paradoxes of happiness through suffering, of gaining vision through darkness. He speaks of being poor in spirit, of mourning, of hungering and thirsting, of being insulted, slandered, and persecuted—and all of this as the path to genuine happiness. How can this be?
The key lies in the sixth beatitude (Matt. 5:8)—“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Being “pure in heart” means being wholeheartedly singular in our devotion to God. It is the opposite of trying to serve two masters (Matt. 6:24) or being “double-minded” (James 1:8; James 4:8). The logic of Jesus’ Beatitudes is this: Trials and suffering promise true happiness because they wean us off of other, shallow forms of happiness. This purification (or unification) of our hearts then gives us the authentic happiness we really long for—namely, seeing God.
Mountaintop experiences are not for us to seek, but rather they’re gifts of mercy—and so too are the valleys of difficulty we walk. In both landscapes, we can catch a fuller glimpse of our God. And when we see Him as He is, we find our true selves. We open our eyes and find life.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft