Coming down from a “spiritual high”: A Scriptural investigation

When I was in high school, every so often (usually after a retreat, a conference, or some such event) in Sunday School we would have a lesson on “coming down from a spiritual high.” The text, if it was connected to the topic at all, was (if memory serves) usually something from one of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation or an exhortation to perseverance in general, and the lessons were more grounded in practical experience than in finding what the Bible said about the topic.

Recently, I had a thought: While the Bible says little if anything explicitly about this precise topic, there are a few examples of people coming down from “mountaintop experiences,” and we can look at those to at least tentatively extract some spiritual principles. I’ve come up with four such examples, and I’ll talk about them in chronological order.

One: Moses. He went up on Mount Sinai to talk with God, and when he came down his face was “radiant.” Since Exodus 34:29 explicitly specifies that “the skin of his face shone” (KJV, emphasis mine), the otherwise-acceptable (cf. Psalm 34:5, for instance) metaphorical interpretation (that he was so obviously happy that the people couldn’t bear to look at him) is inferior to the understanding that his face was literally too bright to look at. But (as 2 Corinthians 3:7 mentions while making a different point) this glory faded. What did Moses do? He veiled his face so the people could bear to look at him, but continued on in his appointed tasks just as if it were not fading. We are supposed to persevere in obedience even when it gets hard, even when we stop feeling like it.

Two: Elijah. Immediately after the great victory at Mount Carmel, he heard of Jezebel’s intention to kill him, and he ran away to Mount Horeb. Aside from the obvious truth that tests tend to come immediately following these spiritual peaks, which we already knew from our own experience, there are a few things we can learn, mostly from his encounter on Mount Horeb. First, giving up and running away is not the optimal action. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asked. In fact, Elijah was in no less danger than three and a half years before, and his statement that “I am the only one left” is patently false in light of Obadiah’s claim to have hidden and fed one hundred prophets. Elijah should have trusted God to protect him. Second, again, we’re supposed to persevere in obedience regardless of how we feel. God doesn’t directly address Elijah’s complaint (which sounds to me rather like a whining child the first time he says it), but rather gives him his orders and sends him away. But third, one of the few things in this story for which I think Elijah is to be commended, if you do run away, run to God. Contrast this with Jonah.

Three: Jesus. Immediately after his baptism, Jesus followed the Spirit out into the wilderness, where he was fasted and was tempted for forty days. Yet he did not sin. He is the perfect Example whom we should be imitating. And we need to remember that if we are in Christ, then he is in us. “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” It is Christ, who underwent the same trials we do, yet without sin, who makes it possible for us to do the same.

Four: Peter. As he saw the Transfiguration, Peter (“not knowing what he said”) suggests making houses for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, then falls asleep. His error was trying to make the encounter with God’s glory permanent. We are given “mountaintop experiences” for a reason, but we’re not supposed to stay there. There were three purposes for this particular “experience” that I can see: first, to help prepare Jesus for his suffering; second, to help the disciples understand the coming events later; and third, to give weight to their testimony later, as Peter says in his second letter, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories … but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty …” Similarly, to a lesser extent, we are given occasional reminders of the glory of Him whose servants we are to prepare us for the tasks set before us and to strengthen our testimony.

Five: Paul. Saul of Tarsus started down the road to Damascus a dedicated persecutor of the Church. By the time he left the house in Damascus, he was a committed Christian. Most of us don’t need to be struck blind and to hear a voice from heaven to bring us into God’s service, but in a sense Paul never really “came down” all that much from this “spiritual high.” Everything he did thereafter was explicitly in light of that experience; Saul of Tarsus died on the road to Damascus, and was replaced by a new man, the apostle Paul. And his vision there on the road is what gave credence to Paul’s claim to be an apostle.

So, in summary, we are occasionally given these “mountaintop experiences,” potentially life-changing encounters with God’s glory, to prepare us for the work that he has prepared for us to do. But we shouldn’t try to prolong them indefinitely or keep coming back; instead, we should go out and do what he has commanded us. Our duty is the same whether or not we encounter God beforehand.

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2 thoughts on “Coming down from a “spiritual high”: A Scriptural investigation

  1. A well written piece from someone who sounds committed to following in The Savior’s footsteps. The only thing I wonder is why, if we are to follow Christ’s example, we wouldn’t want to have more frequent and prolonged highs? If they’re described as potentially life altering experiences, is it wrong to want those as often as we could have them?

    • Thank you for reading and commenting.

      No, I don’t think it’s wrong to want to have a heightened awareness of God’s presence and glory as often and as long as possible. What we shouldn’t do is try to trigger or prolong such experiences, except by trying to please God. He is what’s important, not the experience, and he isn’t like the “gods” of the nations that can supposedly be tricked or forced to do what we want. And further, we are promised a better and eternally-lasting communion with him if we persevere.

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