What are the three most significant moments you’ve had in your journey of following Christ? Would you use the term “mountaintop experience” to describe any of them? I have a few moments where experientially I felt a certain nearness to God that alluded my existing vocabulary.
One example of this would be the day that I stopped calling myself an atheist and began calling myself a Christian. My girlfriend at the time—now my wife—led me in a prayer in which I asked God for forgiveness of my sin and accepted Christ’s sacrifice in my place. Internally, a lot of emotions and feelings accompanied this moment but when I’ve tried to articulate these I’ve found my vocabulary limited. Probably the most accurate way I could describe this event in an experiential manner would be passing from death to life. While it took many years for my lexicon to catch up to my experience, all of the accompanying sensations of believing upon the Lord Jesus that day in 2005 loosely fit into the category of coming alive. This is the same language the biblical writers use to describe the initiatory act of becoming a disciple (Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13).
The next month or so of my life I was “on fire” and nothing could rob me of the joy I had being a brand-new Christian. I was living every day on top of the mountain. Then I committed some sins and became a little discouraged—reality set in. I still lived in a world affected by the fall. Being a new Christian and not having a very good connection to a church or support system, Jesus took a backseat to my other (sinful) desires for the next three years until I’d put him so far out of my mind that I actually considered myself an agnostic. So, what happened?
To shorten an incredibly long and complicated story, almost all of my problems were a result of the fact that I wasn’t grounded in the Word of God.
I’m thankful for God’s grace that my days as an agnostic were limited. God quickly found me when I was a lost and wandering sheep and brought me into deeper communion with him. But that is not everyone’s story. Some have shared in these sorts of “mountaintop experiences” and then left the Christian faith for good. What are we to think?
The Highest Mountaintop
When it comes to mountaintop experiences, the peak of them all (pun intended) is found in Mark 9. There we read an account of the apostles Peter, James, and John accompanying Jesus up a high mountain. At the top they saw something amazing: Jesus with clothes so white they’d put Clorox out of business. Moses and Elijah—long since dead—joined the four of them on the mountain and had a conversation with Jesus. As if this wasn’t amazing enough, the Father spoke from heaven: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
What do you think went through the minds of the three apostles that day? Could they put words to the feelings they experienced? If it were me, I don’t think I’d want to come down from that mountain. I resonate with the quick fire comment of Peter, “It is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Mk. 9:5) We should all long to campout in the glory of Christ the way Peter did in this moment.
Regardless of what your best “mountaintop experience” was, Peter’s trumps it. Which is why it’s so jarring that when he reflects back on this experience he writes:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. (2 Pt. 1:16-20)
Peter subordinates his personal experience on the mountaintop to the Word of God. He was an eyewitness to the earthly life of Christ and the Father’s divine favor for the Son. Yet, he says the prophetic Word of God is “more sure” than his experience as an eyewitness into the unfolding redemptive plan of God revealed in Christ. How amazing!
It’s common that in our pursuit of Christ we will have some experiences in which we commune with God in a way that transcends the limits of our human language. Where we, like the Psalmist, “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). They are good markers and indicators of our faith, but they make poor foundations for our faith.
The Foundation of Faith
The first three years of my Christian walk (stumble might be a more accurate depiction) were founded on a basic and experiential understanding of the gospel. The gospel was explained to me in biblically accurate, yet contextualized, language and I trusted in Christ. But I invested minimal time or energy into Bible reading and study. After three years of this half-hearted commitment to Christ the foundation was challenged, someone asked me, “What do you think about Jesus?” The truth was that I didn’t think much about him. It was near impossible for me to have a knowledgeable (2 Pet. 1:3) faith in Jesus as I knew very little about him. My faith was less in the person of Christ than it was in an experience I’d had some three years earlier. The more time that has passed since that experience the more I doubt and question my own understanding and interpretation of those events. My foundation was not the objective Word of God, but my subjective experience
Herein lies the catch twenty-two of the mountaintop experience. It makes a great supplement to a vibrant relationship with God where he speaks to us through the Bible and we speak to him through prayer. But when it becomes our sole purpose for living it can easily slip through our hands like sand. Our minds and hearts are too fickle to hold onto our experiential points of contact with God. Peter had learned this as an older and wiser disciple and takes pains to mention he is writing his second epistle to “remind” his readers of things they already know (2 Pet. 1:12, 13, 15; 3:1, 2). The aged eye-witness to the risen Christ encourages his readers by building their confidence in the Word of God. He knows first-hand every prophecy of Christ to be true, but rests his case not on his memories of mountaintop experiences but on the Word of God which he believes to be superior in surety.
Our subjective experiences of God are good, but his revelation of himself in his Word is better. Peter was with Christ when he said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mk. 13:31). Our minds are not as reliable as we think they are and as the hymn-writer said our hearts are “prone to wander.” But God’s Word is bond—a sure foundation.
Mountaintops can be perilous, there’s less oxygen, winds threaten to hurl us violently down the slope. But the sight at the top is the payoff people seek in exchange for the risk. This is good. It’s tempting to want to build our tent there and never come down, but it’s not practical. There’s scarcely any food up there and an avalanche could bury us. It’s better to build our tent on the solid rock (Lk. 6:48) and eat its food (Lk. 4:4; Jer. 15:16).
It is true that we can experience and commune with him in different ways and varying heights, but none are as trustworthy as time tested fellowship with God through the Bible. God’s Word provides us a feast that can’t be exhausted and a foundation that can’t be shaken and we would be foolish to elevate experience above that. When we’re tempted to setup our tent in the clouds remember that the “Word became flesh and dwelt [literally “tented”] among us” (Jn. 1:14). All of Scripture exists to reveal Christ to us—the Word that became flesh. It may not sound as exciting and appealing as some of the stories of modern miracles and sensationalism, but the saint who has spent eighty faithful years in seemingly mundane Bible reading has a better foundation than he who spent it chasing the next mountaintop experience.
Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Summit University) is the Family Life Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Fallston, Maryland. Prior to that, he served at a church plant in Troy, New York for seven years and taught Hermeneutics to ninth and tenth graders. He is married to Hannah and is father to Knox and Hazel. He blogs at Family Life Pastor.