Most days, I walk. But on some days, I hike.
There is a ridge line a small drive from our house and, when the mood strikes (or I need the cardio), I park at the bottom, throw on my hiking boots, and set out. The inclines are pretty steep, and as I motor over them I can hear my heartbeat stepping up. The ridge is forested and pretty; there are lots of birds and squirrels about. It’s a pretty place to be, which is one of the reasons I’m drawn there – I’m not sure I’d find the motivation otherwise.
It’s an enjoyable journey, as far as it goes. It is also difficult and sweaty, and inevitably I trundle back to my car with my hair sticking to the back of my neck and my feet aching in my hiking boots. I collapse in my car seat and fumble for my keys. My legs itch. My shirt is now dirty and needs to be washed. I’m on the last half-inch of water in my bottle. I feel warm all over and relaxed for sure, but also kind of hot and uncomfortable and tired. Those endorphins people say you get from good exercise? I don’t get those. Nothing about me feels transcendent or super-charged or motivated.
Hours and hours later, after I’ve gone home and showered, done some chores and some writing, taken care of a few things, I inevitably notice something: a lift in my step. Heightened energy. Greater clarity. The result is stronger the more intense the exercise. After a short-but-intense morning hike in Ireland (my first ever hike classed as “difficult”), hours later in the afternoon I looked at my husband and told him I felt like I could punch the sun.
Maybe my endorphins just kick in late. Maybe it takes time for my body to process the reward of the rigors of exercise. I’m not really sure. Either way, I suspect that the process is somehow spiritual to spiritual growth, and what I mean by that is this: a lot of work doesn’t always result in instant gratification. Our spiritual “exercise” – our study, our prayers, our time with God – yields results in unexpected ways, at unexpected times, and not always on our schedule.
I think that’s what makes it so difficult. You involve yourself in an intense Bible study, you do all the work and really dig into the material, and…everything’s fine, but you don’t feel particularly enlightened, or moved, or transformed. You really commit to overhauling your prayer life, but somehow you don’t feel all that much closer to God. It’s easy in moments like that to give up, to assume you’ve done something wrong, or to wonder why it’s not “working.” We’re so attuned to instant gratification in our daily life that we want it in our spiritual life too: instant wisdom, instant growth, instant clarity, instant intimacy.
But when I look back over my own life, I see that’s not how it happens. A period of intense Bible study seemingly bears no fruit in the moment – and yet, months later, becomes a life raft for me during a difficult time. An overhaul of my prayer life seems to produce no immediate new intimacy with God – and yet I find, long after I’ve established the pattern, that it’s altered my relationship with Him in wonderful and surprising ways.
Hebrews 11:6 tells us that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” We must believe God will reward our seeking Him, and yet we all too often have a tendency to throw our hands up in the air and quit when the reward is not immediate. Our faith is brittle; in the absence of instant results we decide that maybe we’re not doing it right or He doesn’t care or there’s no point.
But my hikes have taught me differently. I put the work in and, in the moment, it’s not life-altering. It’s fun, sometimes, but it is also sweaty and uncomfortable. It isn’t until later, until hours after the fact, that the results start to show. And after weeks of that, the results build on each other until something has transformed – just not instantaneously.
So if you’re trying to grow spiritually or you’re seeking God and it seems like nothing is happening or you’re going nowhere, don’t stop. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that spiritual growth results in instant gratification. At times it might, but often, it doesn’t – and that’s okay. God rewards those who seek Him, if we have the faith to see the process through and to wait for what will be revealed in our lives slowly and over time.