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In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story about two men who go up to the temple to pray. The first steps boldly in, positions himself for the congregation to catch the best view of his profile, and addresses God. “I thank you,” he says, “that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11).1 It just so happened that the other man praying is a tax collector, if not also an extortioner. He entered the Temple bowed low, covered in shame, beating his breast in despair over himself and his unconquerable sin. His prayer is short and to the point: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). Summing up for the assembled throng, Jesus explains, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
I often think of this parable when I am reading self-help books. Pride isn’t the first thing you might think of when you want to dig yourself out of a self-made hole, but all the tools offered by the many experts selling happiness and tips for financial security lead back to that same, terrible place — the sufficiency of human effort. Brianna Wiest is less known than many I have come across, but her voice is one to be reckoned with. Her unique, breezy, even comforting blend of psychological tips and spiritual advice is both nuanced and potent. Following her path will lead you to the front of the Temple, your face turned up to heaven, explaining how good you are. For, indeed, Wiest is more right than she knows — you are a mountain. But if God is merciful, not one to be summited, conquered by your own efforts, but rather laid low, cast to the earth while there is still time to get mercy from the very God who made you and knows you best.
WRETCHED PERSON THAT I AM
From “Things More Worth Thinking about Than Whatever’s Consuming You” to listicles about rearranging your furniture and cleaning your room, the kind of personhood Wiest develops is not the warrior cheetah of Glennon Doyle, nor the ethical consumer of Jen Hatmaker, but a healthy, well-integrated woman who wants, finally, to heal from the last broken relationship and get into better shape. The Wiest woman is unabashedly spiritual, willing to offer up good thoughts to the Universe as occasion demands, and happy to KonMari her drawers because that works too. She acknowledges trauma and personal fault, takes responsibility and doesn’t ignore problems and pain. Rather, she steps over her past to a higher and better self, conquering, however slowly, the mountain of self-doubt and self-sabotage.
Imagine yourself waking up one day with that miserable feeling — the toxic cocktail of anxiety, disappointment, and “overwhelm.” You don’t know how you got here. You had so many ambitions and desires when you were young. You’ve accomplished some things, but none of them have made you very happy. You determine, again, to make something of yourself, but no matter how hard you try, you always seem stuck in the same spot, eating the same bowl of ramen, discontent and anxious. Is it your own fault? Or someone else’s? “Self-sabotage,” writes Wiest,
is when you have two conflicting desires. One is conscious, one is unconscious. You know how you want to move your life forward, and yet you are still, for some reason, stuck. When you have big, ongoing, insurmountable issues in your life — especially when the solutions seem so simple, so easy, and yet so impossible to stick with — what you have are not big problems but big attachments. People are pretty incredible in the fact that they basically do whatever they want to do.2
This gets to the heart of what it means to be human. We want to do one thing, but we always do another. The strange tangle of desire and purpose is too elusive for any of us to grasp. The metaphor of the mountain, then, is a poignant way to think about human effort and longing. Wiest explains her use of the mountain metaphor this way: “Your mountain is the block between you and the life you want to live.”3 You, in other words, are in your own way. There is something hidden in yourself that you need to dig up and resolve in order to be able to move down “the only path to your freedom and becoming.”4 The thing that you discover about yourself will be the key to climbing your mountain. No one particular way of fixing your life is necessary, but Wiest offers a lot of different tools, not only in The Mountain Is You but in her other best-seller, 101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think,5 a set of short essays meant both to shock you out of your complacency and empower you to get out of your rut.
Ironically — for the Scriptures speak of a similar kind of transformation, though one accomplished by God — Wiest is describing self-conversion. It will require your whole attention and effort to become the person you want to be. “The task in front of you,” she writes, “is silent, simple, and monumental. It is a feat most do not ever get to the point of attempting. You must now learn agility, resilience, and self-understanding. You must change completely, never to be the same again.”6 Why would you want to undergo such tumult? The tumult of two tectonic plates rubbing against each other, producing some, as yet unknown, entity? For two reasons. The first is the creation of something new. “Without breaks and gaps,” she writes, “there would be no growth. Nature depends on imperfection. Fault lines make mountains, star implosions become supernovas, and the death of one season creates the rebirth of the next.”7 And second, because the mountain is you: “The mountain that stands in front of you is the calling of your life, your purpose for being here, and your path finally made clear. One day, this mountain will be behind you, but who you become in the process of getting over it will stay with you always. In the end, it is not the mountain that you must master, but yourself.8
Wiest’s keen observations of human character several times caught me up short. “Believing,” she writes in 101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think, “that you’re less responsible for your misgivings and that you’re more exceptionally skilled at your strengths is the mindset to which many people default, but it ultimately keeps you small.”9 Back off, Brianna, I wanted to say. I’ll take the log out of my own eye when I feel like it. Then I landed on this near-perfect description of my own life: “You’re always busy, yet never productive enough. Your work never seems to be done, you lose hours and don’t know where they’ve gone, you’re always stressed and frizzling-out your brain, as though you’re perpetually in the middle of a high-intensity task that never sees completion.”10 To employ a colloquialism — ouch. If I am poor and out of shape and sad, it may be because of the actions of others, but I daily contribute to my own misery and, ultimately, I am responsible for myself.
WHO WILL SAVE ME FROM THIS BODY OF DEATH?
Belief in the power of a person to ‘manifest’ or attract something to oneself by use of vision boards and daily affirmations is growing every day. How can you explain the strange happenstance that sometimes what we very much want to happen does happen? Absent a belief in the God of the Bible, it makes sense that what we think and feel would bring about the circumstances we desire.11 But what about suffering? No one wants to suffer. The spiritual practice of manifestation answers that conundrum by assigning no moral value to the Universe. The Universe does not have the ability to read your desires. Your thoughts are important because they are the frequency that attracts good and bad things into your own life. Gaining control of your mind means getting control of your emotional life and training yourself to have the right feelings about the things you actually want.
Wiest basically adopts this paradigm, but with more nuance and depth. In the essay called, “The Difference Between How You Feel and How You Think You Feel,” Wiest writes that “when we ask one another: ‘How do you feel about that?’” it’s essentially interchangeable with, “What do you think about that?”12 She employs the term “mental emotions” and describes them this way:
We are taught how we should feel about roughly everything in life. Our cultural, religious, familial upbringings dictate a set of things that are “good” and “bad.” Our egos, our desires for survival, superiority, love, acceptance, etc., fill in the rest. We end up with a mental ecosystem of actions and reactions. These “mental emotions,” as I call them, are by and large the reason we suffer, despite being more evolved than ever before. It is no longer our fleeting sense of hunger, or desire to mate, that controls us: It’s our thoughts about what it means when someone doesn’t love us, and how our subconscious minds seek confirmation that this is true, and how this repetitiveness creates a belief, and how that belief creates our lives.13
Here, then, is the key to changing your thinking — assign new and better meanings to your feelings. Focus on your body and feel where the suffering is and let go of it. Reframe your troubles so that they are not so insurmountable. Accept that suffering isn’t a bad thing — ultimately, it will lead you somewhere good.14
THANKS BE TO GOD THROUGH JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD!
Much of what Wiest says is true. A good deal of my work-a-day anxiety is “in my head.” If I stopped and “thought” about it, I would see that I’m wasting my time on useless worries or tasks. As the tide of social cohesion ebbs away, ordinary people are having to find ways to “make” meaning for themselves. No one will do it for them. They have to make sense of suffering, to find ways of understanding their desires, to forge pathways between the body and the brain in a world of technology. Wiest’s way of sorting through life is intuitive and, for most people, assumed. There are no real consequences to focusing more on yourself and trying to change your own life for the better — at least not that most people can see.
There is one glaring omission, however, in Wiest’s view of the self. She rarely, if ever, mentions the word “God.” It does not appear once in The Mountain Is You. In 101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think, it appears seven times, capitalized only once when she takes the name in vain. I found this a curious thing to note in what feels, to me, such a spiritual view of the self. Far from an exercise in mere rationalism, Wiest describes a mysterious, suffering person, one who, rather ironically, is weak. Why would you read her work? If you were stuck and needed help.
As I read, I felt a certain despair that I hope most readers will encounter. You can do all she says and you will never ascend to the height of the most crucial mountain — the one where God dwells. “Who,” cries the psalmist, “shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?” (Psalm 24:3). The answer makes the soul shudder: “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully” (v. 4). The “Universe” may not demand perfection, but God does, which excludes everyone of us from standing in His presence. Fortunately for us, He came down the hill, and then, at that fateful hour, ascended that dark rock outside the city to die for all of us who could not reach Him. His cry of dereliction opened the way for us to be healed — the body and soul reintegrated, each person re-joined to human relationships, the helpless caught up in communion with God Himself (Matthew 27:46). We needn’t go anywhere. In the midst of suffering and confusion, the powerless wretch can beat her breast and cry out for help, and God will come and sort out all the complications of life.
A world in which each person is scaling her own personal mountain, trying to get to the top to find something good, is not a world of beauty and goodness. It is a hard world, a world of hubris and cruelty. Sure, it is fine for you to do some “work” on yourself. I finally gave in and adopted a habit tracker. I’m trying to relearn a language I once spoke fluidly. Marking down all the days I practice helps spur me on. And sure, I do carry around some useless insecurity that it would be helpful to unclutter from my emotional landscape. I should be more grateful for my physical body and worry a lot less about what other people think of me. But at the core, if that is the totality of my spiritual life, I am just adding dirt to a mountain that will be cast down, one way or another, at the end of time. I might as well give up and let God order my days while I yet have them.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People, rev. ed. (Square Halo Books, 2020). She blogs about current events and theological trends at Standfirminfaith.com.
- All Scripture references are quoted from the English Standard Version.
- Brianna Wiest, The Mountain Is You: Transforming Self-Sabotage into Self-Mastery (Brooklyn, NY: Thought Catalog Books, 2020), 28–29, Kindle Edition.
- Wiest, The Mountain Is You, 8.
- Wiest, The Mountain Is You, 8.
- Brianna Wiest, 101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think (Brooklyn, NY: Thought Catalog Books, 2018).
- Wiest, The Mountain Is You, 8.
- Wiest, The Mountain Is You, 150.
- Wiest, The Mountain is You, 8–10.
- Wiest, 101 Essays, 77, Kindle Edition. I think the word “misgiving” is not the word she intends.
- Wiest, 101 Essays, 184, Kindle Edition.
- For a brief primer on manifesting, see Anne Kennedy, “Trusting Jesus in a Universe That Doesn’t Have Your Back: A Christian Looks at Manifesting,” Christian Research Journal 45, 01 (2022): 22–27; and Postmodern Realities Podcast, “Episode 286, Trusting Jesus in a Universe That Doesn’t Have Your Back: A Christian Looks at Manifesting,” May 4, 2022, Christian Research Institute, https://www.equip.org/postmodern-realities/episode-286-trusting-jesus-in-a-universe-that-doesnt-have-your-back-a-christian-looks-at-manifesting/. For a secular perspective, see Tatiana Azman, “How Does Manifestation Work: A Guide to Manifest Your Dreams,” October 28, 2022, MindValley.com, https://blog.mindvalley.com/manifestation/.
- Wiest, 101 Essays, 423.
- Wiest, 101 Essays, 423–24.
- The way Wiest talks about suffering aligns very well with the Buddhist view. For a short look at Buddhist thought, a good place to start is Hank Hanegraaff’s “What Are the Basic Beliefs of Buddhism,” Christian Research Journal, February 24, 2023, https://www.equip.org/articles/what-are-the-basic-beliefs-of-buddhism/.