I grew up in Denver, Colorado, where I heard a great deal of cowboy music on the radio. In my boyhood, I never visited a cattle ranch. I never even knew a real cowboy. Nevertheless, being constantly surrounded by the common Western culture, I regarded cowboys as my heroes. The beat of those songs (now it’s called Country and Western) bounced along like the clippety-clop of a cowboy’s horse as he slowly cantered into the sunset after a day of adventure.

When I accepted Jesus as my Savior and began to attend church, many of the hymns reminded me of cowboy music. Of course they were not, but neither were they what I was accustomed to hearing in synagogue. Our Jewish liturgy was chanted in long, drawn out syllables in plaintive, melodic prayers that sounded like wailing.

In contrast, the music at my first church in Denver was very rhythmic. Ann Grounds, our very proficient pianist, used to fill the rafters of that old building with melodious sound. Her sparkling arpeggio accompaniments surged through the sanctuary, melding us into one corporate voice of praise. In a sense, the hymns were happy music, but it was also music with a message.

One of the songs that made a deep impression on me was Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” It was sung like a cowboy ballad, often as a solo. Two lines of that song got stuck in my soul: “Just a closer walk with thee, grant it Jesus is my plea.” That thought has been the theme of my personal prayers throughout the many years of my Christian life. It reminded me of my need for continuing spiritual progress. Progress is a vital component of life because the absence of it means stagnation.

Some reckon progress in terms of a more prestigious job, a larger bank account or the purchase of a home. Others see it as fewer required courses left to take at school, fewer pounds on the scale, fewer inches around the middle, or added minutes or an extra mile in their daily exercise routine.

All progress is good, but with time most such accomplishments will not matter as much as we once hoped they would. Then something deep within, a voice trying to be heard, whispers to us about what is really important to consider—the sameness in our spiritual walk. It urges us to grow, lest we stagnate. It tells us that we should be farther along our path with God. We should know more about Him. We should be more for Him. But if we ignore it, that voice eventually becomes less bothersome, and we begin to tolerate in ourselves what it warned us we should not tolerate.

That voice is our conscience. It is the realm in which the Holy Spirit speaks to us and tells us of our best selves and what we could be. The Holy Spirit prompts kindness, goodness, gentleness, meekness, diligence and patience in us. He asks us to move ahead. He is grieved when we “dig in our heels” and refuse to move forward.

The more willing we are to grow and to glow with the light of the Lord, the more clearly we hear the prompting of His Spirit. “My child, get closer,” He calls. “Do not fear the uncertainty. Step out. Claim new ground. Try that which is right.”

The more willing we are to act on those promptings of the Holy Spirit, the more we hear His voice. Then, in the dim recesses of our minds, we begin to see a way, as it were, an illumined path. It is a way of pleasantness and goodness. Yet it is an upward way, and the Lord shows us that many obstacles still await us. Nevertheless, somehow as we are propelled and lifted by the Spirit, we see those obstacles transformed into opportunities. The stumbling blocks become stepping stones to higher ground.

We see opportunities to overcome and victories we can gain, and we move upward and onward with and for the Lord. Sometimes we still stumble and fall face down in the path. Our vision grows dim. The burden seems heavy. The way seems long and tedious. Then we wonder if it’s worth it. Still the Spirit beckons, “Reach up. Put your hand in mine. Reach a little farther. I’ll lift you. I’ll bring you to your feet again. I know you are weary, but let me renew your strength. Let me be your strength.”

The Christian life seems to be a series of such attempts at crawling, standing, bounding and occasionally stumbling. A few give up and make no progress. After stumbling once, they decide they cannot continue on that onward and upward path with God. Though they have just gotten started, it seems to them a never-ending marathon that they are ill-equipped to run. Having stumbled, they stay down and live defeated lives. But praise God, most of us, having seen that He will lift us when we fall, get up again and continue to run the race of life.

It’s amazing. Those who run the most stumble the most. Yet they are also lifted the most, helped the most and given the most realization that they are not running the race alone. Though it may seem like a marathon, they know that the end is in sight. It is the glorious glowing end—not merely the shimmering gates of heaven, but the glory of God Himself.

Nevertheless, to our shriveled human minds, heaven seems so far away. Though it gleams as a distant, future hope, we feel the need for more measurable, more immediate progress. We need a goal for each day. Our immediate goal is the closer walk with God that the old song describes.

When we commit our lives to Jesus, we long for Him to walk close beside us along the way of life. But if we want Him to walk close to us, we cannot choose the path. In following Him, we must walk the path He chooses. When we go off on our own, we deviate from the direct path, and it invariably gets us into trouble.

The more closely we walk with Jesus, the more quickly we progress toward our goal of being more like Him. He is our strength. And in His strength, we can advance. No matter how often we stumble, we can take courage in the knowledge that with Him as our guide, we can improve. With Him, we can actually go all the way. As day by day, we take one step at a time, that is measurable progress. To our finite minds it may seem an infinite goal. Yet we know that if we are faithful to take that one step at a time, one day we shall be so close to Him that we shall be like Him. That is because our every single step toward the Lord brings Him an infinite distance toward us.