Two spiritual clichés come closest to the point, but miss it still. The first, “we are all on a spiritual journey,” correctly indicates that the spiritual life is gradual, ever-progressing, and long. But it fails to indicate the fact that the journey is hard. Not just sometimes. It is always hard, and when it is hardest is when it is also most beneficial. It’s better to speak of a spiritual ascent than a journey, though I confess I’m nitpicking.

The second cliché is also journey-oriented: “you are always either moving closer to God or away from him; you are never spiritually stagnant.” This thought correctly indicates the fact that there is no such thing as dead-in-the-water faith. At best, we’re pursuing God; at worst, we’ve lost interest and are pursuing something else. There is no middle ground. And yet this catchphrase neglects an equally important consideration. It’s difficult to abandon God entirely after a lifetime of seeking him actively. It’s far more common, and far more probable, that long-term God-seekers only drift so far when their attention wanes. They rarely, if ever, turn right around and neglect God completely. They simply have too much practice attending to him to forget about him. Even in the worst case scenario—a fallen pastor, a fraud, an embittered missionary, an apologist who is no longer persuaded by her best arguments—those who have devoted themselves to God for a long, long time find it almost impossible to leave him in their wake.

God is a hard habit to break.

After considering these clichés (the spiritual journey and the myth of stagnation) for some time, I ran across an illustration by John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard church. In speaking of spiritual development, Wimber says there are times when we attain certain understanding, or reach a certain level (for lack of a better term) from which we cannot slide backwards. To extend our mountain-ascent metaphor, these understandings are like pitons—the metal spikes mountain climbers rely on for safety while scaling incredible heights. Pitons are planted firmly in the rock as the climbers ascend. Ropes are threaded through the pitons from the lead climber to the climber below. As a result, the climbers can never fall too far past their last piton. This is called belaying, and it has saved many lives.

Knowing God puts us on a path of spiritual transformation. But that path is tough and requires real effort on our part to cooperate with the Spirit and ascend in the faith. As we grow, we’re constantly planting pitons—little markers that keep us from slipping too far. Some of these are theological (Jesus was both God and man, come to save the world), and some are experiential (because of the presence of the Spirit in my life, I know I’ll get through these present difficulties), but the good news is that if we slip, the last piton is always there, with Christ as the climber below holding our rope.

When you consider your spirituality, you might do well to catalogue your pitons. Think of them. Name them. Describe them. These are your past victories, and as you strive for your next victories, you may take some strength from understanding just how far you’ve come.