ascent vs. descent

kathyescobar church stuff, down we go, incarnational, spiritual formation, the refuge 16 Comments

ascent vs descentlast wednesday at our house of refuge we kicked off our summer journeying through down we go: living into the wild ways of Jesus.  at first i wasn’t really excited about the reality that it won the vote (the group decided together what to do for the summer), but after the idea settled in i realized it was a great opportunity to practice together.  we also have some new friends joining us for the summer & they bring new life and perspective that will make it extra fun.

the biggest overall theme in down we go is the idea of a life of descent as opposed to a life of ascent.  what does that really mean?

for me, the theology of ascent is where we travel “up” toward God and away from life, pain, and our problems and become more and more “spiritual” in the process.  it is about rising above, working toward success, seeking comfort & security, and working toward “more, better”, whatever that may look like. there’s a high level of certainty in this theology, clear answers & prescriptions for moving forward.  it’s deeply embedded into not only much of church thinking, but also the ethos of the world.  we are subtly & directly taught that life is about upward mobility.

a theology of descent is the journey down into the muck & mire of people’s real experiences, into the places that Jesus seemed to go, trusting in God’s grace and redemption. it’s about entering into pain instead of avoiding it, engaging in the grit of real life instead of trying to escape it.  it’s about letting go of comfort, predictability, and the drive for “success” and instead turning our attention, lives and hearts toward engaging in more meaningful relationships with people in the here and now.

in down we go, this is what i say about downward mobility:  “it is a matter of the heart, not financial resources. it is losing our lives instead of protecting them. giving away our hearts instead of insulating them. intersecting with pain instead of numbing it out. entering into relationship with people different from us instead of staying comfortably separated. learning instead of teaching. practicing instead of theorizing.”

on wednesday night we brainstormed lists of characteristics/reactions/thoughts associated with both of these, from our experiences.  these aren’t all inclusive but just some unedited ideas that we popped out there together.


orthodoxy, not good enough, “once saved always saved”, hypocrisy, victory, we are deserving of hell, hierarchical structure, legalism, banging the Bible/Bible thumping, certainty, never ending ladder, “in Jesus’ name”, if you don’t believe ___, then ___”, defined gender roles, living for the level up, us vs. them, separation, arch of safety or “bubble of protection”, addiction to spiritual high, all about your relationship with God


disillusionment, free to be you, practical, tension, process, journey, time, humility, realizing our humanity, God within us, less shaming, despair and loss in community, de-programming, back to basics, life-giving, transforming, serenity prayer, psalm 46:10-“cease striving and know that i am God”, equality, more about your relationship with God through others

to me, the central difference is in a life of ascent, there is a striving, working harder, trying harder that is somehow built on pride.  at our group a friend described it like a ladder where just when you think you’re almost there, it extends.  in a life of descent, it’s about a letting go, realizing our humanness & limitations, and is centered on an attitude of humility.

i am struck, more than ever, how much easier a life of ascent really is.  it does offer some protection from the grit and grime of real life and centers on our “personal relationship with God”.  oh, that is so much easier!  a life of descent strips away the protection and forces us to be tangled and mixed up with the riff-raff (our own & others!) and through those relationships we are spiritually formed–hopefully more and more into Christ’s likeness, embodied by love & hope.

yeah, it’s a wild paradox that the journey down somehow brings us up, closer to God & others & ourselves in all kinds of beautiful, unexpected ways.

i do not want to dismiss for a moment that an ascent theology works for a lot of people. i don’t want to dishonor the ways that is what people are looking for or sometimes need.  but for me, it outlasted its usefulness, and God beckoned me down.  i am very thankful.

for you, what are some of the differences between ascent vs. descent?