“The Climb” Guest Post by Asahel Adams
*This is a sermon heard at a Christian wedding in 2015. The preacher is an elder at an independent Christian church. I thought it was worth sharing with my readers. (Note to would-be commenters: Do not even attempt to expose anything about the author-preacher; he will not be here to respond. I do not know him personally. There were about one thousand people at this wedding ceremony. I asked a friend of the preacher if I could post his sermon here and he agreed. I have removed the names of the couple being married. If you respond, please keep your response to ideas expressed. If you agree with something, say why. If you disagree, say why. I will not post not-picking corrections or hostile responses. My reason for posting this here is to stimulate thought and discussion. It is not to start a conversation about a particular church or personalities.)
Sadly, most people’s high hopes for love are eventually dashed to pieces, for we know that more marriages fail in this country than succeed. The wreckage of vanquished love—its devastation and sorrow— is felt far and wide. Children are made to absorb the whiplash of emotional insecurity, confusion and instability. In the U.S., the rate of depression among young adults has doubled just since the 1980’s. Americans are said to be the loneliest people on earth. The number of people taking their own lives continues to climb. Today, more die of suicide than in car accidents. And researchers link these cultural tragedies to the breakdown of social orders, such as marriage, family, churches and communities.
And yet, we should not suppose that the reason for all the broken hearts, the source of all the pain and despair, is true love. No, the culprit is the myth of love. It’s a delusional fantasy for the self-centered, a counterfeit that masquerades under the banner of love, that is to blame. This myth of love says, “I know I’ll have to give something to this relationship, but I’m going to make sure it’s the absolute bare minimum. And I can only find the greatest love after my every wandering desire has been satisfied.” But true, unfailing love says, “I have found the greatest love and life’s very meaning when I have found that which impels me to give my all and lay down my life for my friends.” These two kinds of “love” are not close relatives but implacable enemies. And so we must recognize, and put to death within ourselves, love’s counterfeit before true, unfailing love can ever possess our minds, our hearts, our very lives.
We can avoid succumbing to this cultural epidemic of failing love only by understanding the precise nature of the disease and exactly how it works to undermine and weaken marriages and other relationships that support life. I’m speaking of the disease of conceit, of pathological selfishness. From kindergarten to old age we are told that we are special and that we deserve the world. Through popular songs, novels, films, advertisements, we are trained to perceive everything and everyone in terms of how they can satisfy our temporal wants. This pathology of selfishness begins with the notion that I am intrinsically good, and so my only task is to find another compatible “good” to add to my deserving self. Even in marriage, the central question becomes, “How compatible is this person with me?” But marriages arranged on the basis of 49 so-called “points of compatibility” are not more immune to the cultural disease of covenant breaking. This is so because selfishness is the most basic dynamic informing and motivating all the other peripheral, particular wants and desires. Selfishness, by nature, is incompatible with other selfishness.
The only pristine example of love is found in the God who is love. He limited Himself to the frailty of our human flesh so that from the confines of our weakness He might exemplify for us the power of love and life. When love said our debt to justice could only be paid by the unblemished sacrifice of a sinless life, He said, “Here am I.” He stretched out His arms and gave to the world His perfect love, His sinless life, His all.
So, Biblical love stands in stark contrast to the modern fantasy of love and marriage that is so overwhelmingly failing. Biblical marriage recognizes that people are not perfect but fallen and in need of transformation. Biblical marriage does not seek to unite people on the basis of the common, so-called “compatible” desires of their fallen natures. No, it unites them because the two come together as one in obedience to the call of love which asks them to give up instant gratification for lasting fulfillment, self-serving for the care of others, temporal pleasures for eternal joy. In this sense, Biblical marriage participates in the process of our redemption. It says to us, “I know you’re not perfect and there’s much that you see in yourself that you want to change. And yet, you have the capacity to hear the call of love and answer and follow it. This love asks you to tie down your wandering selfish nature in a covenant of enduring commitment. And if you accept that this commitment is unchangeable, then it must be you that does the changing to conform to the commitment’s demands. Over time, in keeping the demands of the commitment, you will be faced with all the imperfections within yourself that are incompatible with love. And it is all these little bits of selfishness that you will have to give up in order to keep and maintain the commitment. But in the end, you will have become a better, less selfish, more loving person than you began.”
When people think they’re beginning a relationship of real love but mistakenly invest all their hopes and dreams into love’s counterfeit—the myth of love—then their hopes fade, and their love grows colder with time. Their wedding represents the high point in their journey of love, from which things begin to level out and then slide downward. They fail to recognize that in order for love to ultimately triumph, they must continually journey up the mountain, up the narrow path where love just barely outruns the forces of death as they hound its heels.
If this sounds too strong or too negative, just consider all the forces arrayed against love: Our present-day cultural norms and morals threaten love. The weakness of our own human flesh, its lack of perseverance and its selfishness threaten love. The orders of lasting love, such as marriage and church, are berated and diminished by the larger culture’s music, its literature, its films, its schools and education— everywhere and on every front, is a unified assault against the Biblical orders that sustain life. Will love be lost, its flame extinguished altogether? Will all marriages someday be merely “cohabitations”? Will the age-old relationships of husband and wife be lost and replaced by modern partnerships and “connections”? Will children any longer grow up in homes with a real mother and father?
In 2004, a great tsunami crashed over the shores of the Indian Ocean in Southeast Asia, and killed more than 230,000 people. Yet, a small tribe of people called the Mokens, who lived right on the shore and directly in the path of the hundred-foot wave, survived without losing a single member of their village. This was so because, for centuries, the older generations of the tribe had taught and passed on “the signs of the sea” to their children. So, on that fateful, December day when the crabs raced toward the forest where the birds had become silent and the ocean receded far from its shoreline, becoming as calm as “water in a tank”— on that day the elders of the tribe gathered the people and warned them that these were surely the signs that a great laboon (a massive, killer wave) was coming soon. The entire tribe evacuated and fled to higher ground with only minutes to spare. Their town, their livelihoods and their homes were completely destroyed, but not a single life was lost.
Can we recognize in our day “the signs of the sea,” or what Jesus called, “the signs of the times”? Can we tell when it’s time to climb to higher ground? For if love will win against the overwhelming odds, it will not be by accident. It will not be because “we’re just the lucky ones.” It will survive in the lives of those who have separated from the crowd of cultural conformity, with all its tactics of intimidation. Yes, relationships of enduring love can and will succeed for those who have come to see covenant as the only means by which we are freed from all the cumbersome selfishness and sin that would weigh us down and hold us back from advancing up the mountain path and rising to the greatest— even eternal—peaks of joyous life and enduring love.
Two years ago, I was invited to go on a hike in the South Island of New Zealand. The country and area were new to me. Consequently, it kept happening that we would climb some distance, reach a plateau with a great view and I would assume that we had reached our final destination, only to be told about a half a dozen times that this was but a waypoint along the journey.
Love and relationship are the same way. It’s easy to think we’ve arrived when we reach the first plateau with a view. But when we assume we’ve seen it all, we lose our sense of expectancy, our sense of wonder. When there’s nothing more to anticipate, we lose our respect. And thus do we began to view the circumstances of our life, and even once-vital relationships, as the empty wrappings of gifts we’ve already opened.
When we recall that we have not finished the course, nor yet won the prize, then we press on with great expectation. And that expectation revives our sense of wonder and respect. We search in every face and listen to every word to discover when that eternal Voice might lead us another step closer, another mile further toward the purpose of our journey—the prize of finding complete unity, not only with each other, but with the great Giver of all true love.
And the impetus to climb higher is not merely the invitation to a better view. No, for Jesus said, “Walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you.” If we do not continue to walk, to climb, to press onward and upward, then love will be overtaken and swallowed up by the forces of darkness that are constantly advancing in this world. For even if we Christians may choose to stand still, the enemies of truth and love will not.
Do we really believe that we can sustain our relationship with God and our relationships with each other by merely trying to hold our ground on the crumbling plateau where the church has been for the last five hundred years or more? Do we really believe that we can stand still while the enemies of truth and love advance? If we’ve stopped climbing, stopped reaching for more light, more truth, more love, more life in God, then it is only because we are no longer walking by faith. And did not even Jesus challenge: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find any faith on the earth?”
To stop walking and settle for what we already have, no matter how wonderful and genuine that may be, no matter how hard we may have worked to get to this point, is to succumb to the alluring myth of love, that counterfeit that I just spoke of. It is to yield to the conceit that says, “My love, my attainments, my sincerity, my present understanding, whatever sacrifice I’ve already made—all of this is surely all that will be needed for love to succeed. So, I can now just bask in what I’ve already attained and go on to live my dreams, which will just unfold more or less automatically out of the love I’ve already known.” Even this, your wedding day, as wonderful as it is, cannot be enshrined in your hearts as some confirmation that you have “arrived”—this is but the beginning of the path into a future known only to God, and He alone will be able to supply the unfolding grace, the growing wisdom and the ever- expanding love that will surely be necessary to finish the journey you now begin.
Toward the end of his life the apostle Paul said, “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of [the prize] yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12-14).
We must remember that the quest for love inevitably calls us to traverse more than just high points with grand vistas. It winds through shadowy valleys where the path is hard to decipher, where doubts can assail and faith is tested. It leads across troubled waters of uncertain depth, where fears can rise and our footing can slip. But at such times, if we are wholly committed to the upward climb, we will hear a sometimes-distant voice calling from beyond the “valley’s” depths, and above the “river’s” roar. And we will grip the hand of the one next to us and see in their eyes the recognition that says, “This is what it’s all about, and this is why we journey together. So on we go.”
Faith, expectation and respect will keep our love alive and our feet moving out of reach of the advancing darkness behind us. And oh, that love might still blaze in hearts of a people, even in an age when the love of most is growing cold and frostbitten in the chilling winds of selfishness and betrayal.
And so, for all of us committed to the advance of love, may these simple words inspire and spur us on:
I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day; Still praying as I’m onward bound, “Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”
My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay; Though some may dwell where those abound, My prayer, my aim, is higher ground.
I want to live above the world,
Though Satan’s darts at me are hurled; For faith has caught the joyful sound, The song of saints on higher ground.
I want to scale the utmost height
And catch a gleam of glory bright;
But still I’ll pray till heav’n I’ve found, “Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”
I pray this special season of your lives will not mark the peak of your love but only the crest of the first foothill on your way to the top of a great mountain that will take a lifetime to climb. I pray the journey will be marked with many great and glorious vistas in the deepening experience of love. I pray that at every one of these waypoints you will hear a voice further down the path calling you onward in the upward call of God and His unfolding, unfailing, forever love.