While traveling with friends on business, we took an afternoon off to visit one of those massive arcades complete with 3D games, a ropes course, go-karts, and the like. It was great fun, a needed distraction, and I’m pleased to say that I crushed my competition on the racetrack. But my thrill of victory was curbed by the agony of defeat when I faced this funhouse’s four story climbing wall.
You know the behemoth: A slick, black wall with colorful rubberized grips peppered across its face. The climber gets fitted with a harness and hard hat, and off he or she goes to the top to ring the bell of conquest. I tried – with my friends mostly jeering rather than cheering – but I couldn’t do it.
Climbing wasn’t the problem. I’ve got mad monkey skills and a gorilla grip. It was the height. I have a morbid case of acrophobia, and nothing makes me pop out in hives or go looking for a toilet bowl to hug like being faced with traversing an unstable structure that is more than ten feet high. It’s a full blown panic attack with hyperventilation and vertigo included.
What made this incident all the more challenging were the last words of the attendant as I mounted the wall: “When you get to the top, you have to let go.” There was no climbing down (because of the tension on the safety rope), and there was no backing out. When you reached the terminus, wherever that was on the wall, the only way down was to free-fall.
The first fifteen to twenty feet were easy, but at the three story mark those words started blaring like train whistles in my head: “When you get to the top, you have to let go.” That’s where I froze like a bug stuck to a windshield, and try as I might, I could go no further. The thought of letting go and falling, of trusting a 1/2 inch rope to save me, was too much for my anxious mind to overcome.
I learned a few things about faith while clutching to that wall. Like, how much faith did it take to climb that wall? None. It took strength, balance, and a plan of attack; but not faith. And as long as I could climb and had the will to move; as long as I could reach that next outcropping, I was fine. But faced with the prospect of letting go, that was almost impossible. It took faith to fall, and I didn’t have very much to give.
As long as we can keep conquering, going, achieving, or getting better, stronger, and higher we feel like everything is okay. But what happens when our strength runs out; when all our plans for climbing higher fail? What happens when we can no longer focus? What happens when control is taken from us or when we are forced to let go? That’s when faith is required.
This is the same conclusion of philosopher Blaise Pascal who described faith as “a wager.” Human reason can take us only so far, he said, but then it will leave us “suspended” (Pascal’s word), stuck as it were on a wall. Then we have to bet on God, believing that happiness is found by falling into the grace and infinity of what cannot be proven or explained.
When I was hanging there, frozen on that wall, the only thing separating me from the floor below was that thin sliver of rope. Here was the wager: Do I believe this piece of polyester is strong enough to keep me from reaching terminal velocity? So, I placed my bet and let go, terrified the whole time, but knowing I had no other real choice. That is something that resembles faith.
What most of us call faith is actually nothing more than human determination. It is confidence in our own ability, and that is nothing that resembles trust in God whatsoever. It’s only when we are ready to let go that we are ready to believe.