As we grow up, we learn that life continues even when things aren’t going “right”. But the reality is, some days are just terrible—and I don’t think they’re an exception to but rather a necessary part of life’s rhythm. Certain trials derive from an immediate situation while some stay forever unexplainable. Yet all of us have days in which we feel like we’ve been completely deflated.
When this happens our relationship with God can suffer. Maybe I’m speaking only for myself, but my worst days are ones in which I realize I’ve been ignoring what I claim to have dedicated my life to. It’s discouraging to the point of making me want to run and forget what seems like an unending metaphysical quest. The thing about our lives, though, is that we aren’t meant to be stationary, nor are we made to live without turbulence. We’re made to survive and even grow through trials as they guide us toward recognizing our incompetence. The life of a Jesus follower means years of relationship with Him. It’s the seemingly trivial days—and the events that take place within them—that give these years with an elaborate complexion of growth.
Last year a friend and I biked from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara—300 miles along the California coast—to raise money for Charity: Water. This excursion was rooted in minimal planning and maximum ambition (a perspective I hope to keep). The journey took me through the ravishing and grueling hills of Big Sur on my rickety, rust-spattered, five-speed road bike from the 1980’s. Before the end of the first day, I realized it was a trek much more romanticized from afar.
My legs were weaker than I hoped and the hills much less forgiving than I planned. On multiple occasions—and I mean at least ten—the only thing that kept me from getting off my bike and giving up was the fact that I had no way to get anywhere else. My efforts resulted in a mere five miles of progress every hour through rain and sun, and the work became both physically and emotionally taxing. I was pushing and pushing with little hope in sight. Rarely finding rest and pleasure in my circumstances, I had no choice but to keep pushing. I put one pedal over the other in what felt like an endless cycle.
There was one uphill battle I vividly remember. Early in the second morning of my trip, probably three or four miles into the day’s ride, I came around a turn to see a massive hill. As tall as it was wide, the mountain was not what I would call friendly. The incline itself must have been two miles long, and I had no choice but to stare through the Pacific haze at the mountainous mess before starting my ascent. I felt like I was being heckled—first by the mountain and then by my own thoughts. After promising myself I would not get off my bike, I persisted and eventually summited. I’m not sure if it was exactly this hill that changed me, but I now attribute this vivid memory to an aphorism that has guided to me since: “My direction is not dictated by my circumstances.” The saying is ingrained into my mind and I often find myself repeating it. Any great journey requires challenge, and my forward movement isn’t stalled by daily ups and downs. This is a simple idea, but it’s nearly impossible for me to absorb.
Despite finally accomplishing my goal, there was rarely a time when I felt close to finishing. For most of the trip, I felt far from where I believed I should be. Each day I encountered another unfamiliar road with the same discouraging thoughts, only one goal on my mind: to continue moving toward what I had promised.
I was well aware that no individual push of a pedal would lead me to success.”
Instead it was the continuous movement that pushed me toward my destination with integrity and dedication. My inability made the journey feel dark; prayer and desperation provided a still stronger hope. After a week of biking eleven hours a day through sun and fog, eating pounds and pounds of oatmeal, and feeling my knee give out less than a mile from my destination, I jumped in the ocean in Santa Barbara.
Months of hindsight have shown this bicycle trip to be a marvelous analogy for what we experience in relationship with God. For much of our lives, we are simply cycling: pushing one pedal down after the other. Intimacy with God, as with other people, is not sustained by mountain-high exhilaration. I believe misery, anxiety, discouragement, and whatever other things we wish we could live without are crucial to following Jesus. They weed out what we value from what we don’t. Without the necessity of pushing through pain and apathy, we would never be challenged to choose what we really hold dear—and then fight to reach it.
Trivial days define our faith, because they require us to check our souls’ orientations.
We are going to experience days that feel futile, as if we’ve physically moved further away from God than the day before. These are the days that matter. Take note of them, for they expose the direction of our minds and hearts. More importantly, they offer the opportunity to reciprocate the faithfulness that Jesus shows us, the enduring essence of love.