Psalm 121:1 “I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth”
I think we have all read these words, probably even sung them before. Take a moment to ask yourself a question that may seem quite obvious. If I’m lifting my eyes up to the mountains, where am I? Well, not on the mountain top, of course. If you’re looking up to the mountain top, you’re in the valley, in the vale, in the holler. You’re not on the mountain top.
The Christian life isn’t lived on the mountain tops. That may be disconcerting, but the truth is, the Christian life is lived down in the valley where sorrow and sickness, slings and arrows, misfortune and even death are all around. It isn’t a charmed life…though it leads to a charmed end.
This understanding used to be standard Christian issue. Before the comforts of the modern era, especially the last century, life was viewed largely as a vale of tears. The early 19th-century hymn “How Vain is All Beneath the Skies” expresses the common sentiment, “If God be ours, we’re traveling home, Though passing through this vale of tears.”
Some may call the hymn and the sentiment behind it pessimistic. We ought to be focused on living victoriously, overcoming, being joyful, etc. But, realistically, biblically, we are in the valley. We don’t stay here forever, but we walk through it. Ignoring that truth or acting like it’s unchristian is detrimental to our health and faith.
I remember reading a while ago a conversation with Medal of Honor recipient and former POW, Commander James Stockdale. Stockdale was interviewed about his experience as a POW for the book Good the Great. Collins asked, “Who didn’t make it out?” and was surprised by Stockdale’s answer, “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”. Confused, Jim Collins asked for an explanation. “The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say,’ We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
Too often I think Christians have confused faith and hope with the kind of cheery optimism James Stockdale speaks of. It works in the relative health and wealth of the west. It’s not necessarily helpful in times of mourning, sorrow, crisis, and uncertainty. But the hope of Christ isn’t that we’ll somehow bypass the vale of tears, but that, having walked through it with Christ as our companion, we are ultimately delivered by the power of Christ.
I can’t say I know the hymn quoted above well, but I do like it. Let me end by quoting the full text:
How vain is all beneath the skies!
How transient every earthly bliss!
How slender all the fondest ties
That bind us to a world like this!
The evening cloud, the morning dew
The withering grass, the fading flower,
Of earthly hopes are emblems true,
The glory of a passing hour.
But though earth’s fairest blossoms die,
And all beneath the skies is vain,
There is a brighter world on high,
Beyond the reach of care and pain.
Then let the hope of joys to come
Dispel our cares and chase our fears;
If God be ours, we’re traveling home,
Though passing through a vale of tears.
– David E. Ford