Peak Experiences

Peak Experiences

The Bible assures us in Psalm 34:18, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted.”

This makes me think of my final year at Princeton Theological Seminary. In order to graduate, I had certain required courses. “Educational Psychology,” not the most exciting course in the catalog, was one. The first day of class, Dr. James Loder, the professor, cheerfully introduced himself and shared his personal story of faith. Four minutes into his passionate story, he started to cry and I thought, “This guy’s a Presbyterian? I didn’t think Presbyterians cried!” I was instantly drawn to him.

Dr. Loder shared the story of how he, his wife, and their two daughters were driving near Kingston, New York, when he pulled over to help an elderly woman fix a flat tire. Without warning, another car whose driver had fallen asleep at the wheel crashed into the car Dr. Loder was fixing and shoved it on top of his chest. In spite of his injuries, he never lost consciousness. He watched as his wife, barely five feet tall, placed her hands underneath the bumper and miraculously lifted the car off his chest, breaking a vertebra in the process. Dr. Loder later recalled in his book The Transforming Moment:

“As I roused myself from under the car, a steady surge of life was rushing through me, carrying with it two solid assurances. First, I knew how deeply I felt love for those around me, especially my family. My two daughters sat crying on the embankment, and a deep love reached out of me toward them. The second assurance was that this disaster had a purpose.”

With that conviction he was quickly rushed to the hospital where, as he was being wheeled into surgery, he invited the surgical staff to join him as he sang a few lines of the hymn “Fairest Lord Jesus.” With medical treatment and lots of prayer, he fully recovered, losing only part of a thumb.

Dr. Loder described to our class how that incident marked him as a follower of Jesus. Rather than assuming God had left him, it became a moment that enabled him to sense God’s presence in a way he had not experienced up to that point.

Peak (vs Rock Bottom) Experiences

Perhaps you recall from your days in high school or college the teachings of psychologist Abraham Maslow and his “hierarchy of needs.” Maslow was obsessed with discovering which situations in life enable someone to become fully alive as a human being. He called such situations “peak experiences.”

Essentially, what Maslow argued is that a person cannot reach a state of “self-actualization” until certain basic needs have been met. He illustrates this with a diagram in the shape of a triangle with food, water, and oxygen on the bottom and self-actualization at the top. Maslow argued that a person can’t really think about personal fulfillment if they don’t have food for the day. However, give that same person a good job and a roof over their head, and they will have the personal energy and ability to think about things such as purpose in life. In order to experience a spiritual or emotional revelation of sorts, Maslow argued, you must address the basic struggles of life first.

The problem is that a three thousand pound Oldsmobile falling on a man’s chest doesn’t fit real well into Maslow’s neat triangle. Nor do tumors, bankruptcy, or other painful scenarios Christians tell me have drawn them closer to God.

Jesus would say that Maslow has everything backwards.

It’s not when you are at the peak that you feel God’s presence; it’s when you are at the bottom.

At what points in your life has God’s presence been the most evident to you?

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