A few years back, a ministry group from the church that I attended went rock climbing together as a team-building exercise. I am blessed to live about an hour’s drive from the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, which is a premier destination for rock climbers throughout the country, and that was our destination that day. I had never been rock climbing before, but I had always thought it would be a lot of fun to try it, so I was excited.
When we got to the intended spot, we were not the only ones there; two other groups of people would be climbing up the same rock face that we were climbing. However, there was plenty of room for the three routes that our group would have the opportunity to climb as well as the routes that other climbers would take on the rock face. After some set-up and lots of instructions from our group leader, Todd, an experienced climber and mountaineer, our group began climbing. I watched while person after person attempted the challenging climb and met with various levels of success. I joined in shouting encouragement to the climbers until it was finally my turn to climb.
In order to climb, we each wore a harness that was tied into a long climbing rope and we wore special shoes for gripping the rock face. Each climber had a belayer whose job it was to apply tension to the rope when the climber was not moving and to release that pressure so that more rope was available to the climber while moving.
As I stood at the bottom of the rock face, it looked awfully big. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it to the top or not. I also was a little nervous; there was just one relatively thin rope holding me to the face of the rock. My belayer, Lindsey, encouraged me to head up about ten feet and then to just let go and hang there. This allowed me to trust the rope and trust that Lindsey could hold me if I were to slip off the face of the rock without plummeting to the ground. That was good to know!
So, up I went. The climbing at first was fairly easy for me. It was easy to see where my next handhold and foothold would be, and I climbed fairly quickly to a good height. Before too long, though, I got to a place where I was stuck; I couldn’t see where to go next. I had to be careful to hear Lindsey’s voice amongst all of the voices that were calling encouragement and suggestions not just to me, but to other climbers as well.
“Will you listen for My voice amongst all the other voices trying to get your attention?” Jesus whispered. “Will you look to Me and Me alone when you don’t know the way?”
From where she stood, watching my every move, Lindsey could see another handhold that was invisible to me. I stretched towards it, not knowing if I would lose my grip altogether. “Trust me to catch you,” Lindsey called. “You can do this!”
“Will you trust Me when the next step is stretching?” Jesus asked. “Will you trust Me to catch you if you fall?”
I am not in top physical shape, and climbing was demanding. My muscles in my arms and legs were tired from all of the exertion and I was breathing somewhat heavily. It was at that point that I came to the lip in the rock. Jutting out away from the rock face just a bit, it would require me to lean slightly backwards in order to navigate it, and this gave me great pause. I trusted Lindsey and I trusted the rope, but this felt like too much for me. I clung to the rock wall just under the lip for a long time as an inward battle raged. “You could just stop right here. Nobody would blame you. You’re tired and you’ve already made it higher than some of the people in your group. Why push yourself?” came the internal voices.
Lindsey and the others shouted encouragement as they could see that I was in quite a dilemma. I began to pray as the fear was continuing to rise in me. “Perfect love casts out all fear. Perfect love casts out all fear,” I repeated out loud to myself. I knew that the fear was irrational. Then I silently prayed, “Lord, I’m scared. I know that fear does not come from You. I know that You will not love me any less if I don’t make it to the top, but I’m so close now, and I want to make it. Will You help me?”
“I am with you,” He said.
Peace settled over me. Gathering all the courage I could muster, I began to reach for my next hold. Lindsey again began calling directions to me, and very soon I had passed over the lip – without falling or losing my grip – and I made my way to the top! The fear was gone; there was just exhilaration. I heard cheers of congratulations from below me, and I grinned from ear to ear.
“Look behind you,” Jesus whispered.
I turned my upper body and head to look away from the rock face, and I gasped in wonder. I had the most amazing view of a beautiful forested valley and the limestone ridge that ran along the opposite horizon of the sky. Incredible!
“If you had stopped climbing below that lip, you would have experienced something good, but you would not have seen the fullness of all that I have for you,” Jesus whispered.
Still smiling, I began to rappel down the rock face until I was safely back on the ground. After everyone had climbed, we went to a nearby restaurant and sat together as a group, and we shared our experiences of climbing and what we had learned. I was amazed that Jesus had been so fully present during my whole climb. He had taught me lessons that applied to my walk as a Christ follower, not just to rock climbing. They are lessons that still serve me well today.