I’ve known many pastors in a variety of churches over my half-century in the ministry. Some are very gifted speakers, some are dedicated Bible expositors, some are very competent administrators, some are especially sensitive to the sick and hurting and others have a charismatic leadership style that brings about impressive church growth. A small minority seem to have all these qualities to some degree.

I’ve asked myself which of these clergy I would want as my pastor if I weren’t in the active ministry. I’ve found my mind focusing on one pastor I’ve known and admired for many years, and I asked myself what it was that impressed me so about him. It suddenly struck me that I saw him as having a gift for believing uphill. I’d never thought of that phrase before, but it seemed perfect for what I noticed in him. His church has never grown the way he hoped and dreamed it would. His children have not followed the Christian path he earnestly taught them about, and their lives have brought him considerable worry and pain. In her later years, his faithful and loving wife has fallen into dementia, and he has become her primary caregiver.

He’s burdened by these realities, but somehow his core commitment to God’s good news in Jesus Christ and his sense of calling to share this gospel with the real, struggling people around him never seem to waver. I see him as constantly believing uphill. When I’m with him in a group of other Christian leaders, or even in a secular gathering in the community, his uphill believing seems to be contagious, and we all feel encouraged and more hopeful.

Now, a lot of other spiritual leaders I see seem to be sharing a message that presupposes people want to believe downhill. They present the Christian life as all joy and victory. They sing only happy, hand-clapping worship songs. They promote a fellowship in which everyone agrees to wear a mask that gives the impression everything’s 100% OK. They never share their own personal struggles, because who will follow a leader who has mud on his shoes (or in his life)? They preach a prosperity gospel that explicitly promises you will be financially successful if you just follow the rules they lay down. Yes, they teach, believing downhill is what Christianity’s all about.

But life on this earth is not downhill; it’s a constant struggle uphill. The only thing that gives it meaning and satisfaction is believing uphill. The Apostle Paul experienced this in his life, and he passed it on to the Christian congregation in the city of Philippi:

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.  Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you.  Only let us hold fast to what we have attained. (Philippians 3:12-14)

No, I cannot see myself following a spiritual leader who teaches that believing downhill is the norm, when everything in my life and my ministry seems to require believing uphill. That’s why I admire my pastor friend. He shows me in his own life what believing uphill is like in the real challenges people around us face every day.

— Pastor George Van Alstine