A Climbing Wall Makes a Great Metaphor for Faith
“Faith is stepping out onto a staircase you can’t see,” she said.
I scowled at her. “I am not good at that. I hate it, actually.”
She grinned back and shrugged.
The 9 and 10-year-olds clambered up the wall, occasionally hanging from a handhold while their legs kicked around for a foothold. At the top, they’d smack the metal case holding the safety line a few times, then pushed off with their legs and ride the harness down to the cushioned floor.
It looked fun. It looked simple.
When my youngest turned five, he could finally try the wall. He told everyone that he was five years old and he had been waiting his entire life to be five. He asked me to climb with him. It didn’t take much convincing.
The climbing wall staff tightened our harnesses and hooked us up to the safety lines. “When you decide to come down, push off the wall with your legs as you ride down,” she said.
My son didn’t know certain parts of the wall were tougher than others. He picked a middle course. I took the easy path. We grabbed handholds and stepped up. It was a little tougher to maneuver than it looked. I discovered that I didn’t like to move one limb without all three of the others firmly in place. Stepping up while stretching for a grip was scary.
“Mom, look at me!” he called.
I looked down at him, and all my confidence dropped to the floor. “Good job!” I said, hoping my chirpy tone hid the trembling. My head was spinning, and I couldn’t move. All I could do was lean tight against the wall, which suddenly felt like it was reverse-inclined. I glued my gaze to the top and tried to rationalize with myself. “I have a safety line. I am a grown woman. I am not even halfway up yet. I can do this.”
My 9-year-old son noticed I was stuck, but he didn’t know why and began offering suggestions. “Mom, you can move your right foot up to the spot your knee is touching.”
I tried to look for the spot he was describing without looking at the floor below. My wrists and forearms began to ache with fatigue. I managed to drag myself up a couple more feet, but I had totally psyched myself out. Every foot higher was a foot farther from the floor.
“I don’t think I can climb any higher, son. My arms are tired.”
“That’s ok. Just let go, mom!”
I tried to push myself off the wall, but the line didn’t catch me. I wanted to feel it slow my descent before I let go. It didn’t.
The staff person looked up at me. “It’s ok. Just let go. It will catch you.”
I couldn’t stop my legs from trembling. My arms were screaming. It felt like my lungs were being squeezed. I tried counting.
“One, two, three. Let go.” I tried lowering myself fast, but again. The line didn’t catch. I wanted to feel it before I let go.
“Come on mom! You can do it! Just let go!” All three of my kids were urging me. The staff person joined in. “I promise it will catch you.”
“This is so much harder than I thought it would be!” My voice was apologetic.
I looked at the kids waiting for their turn. I ordered myself to let go. I counted again. My arms and legs shook but wouldn’t release their grip. Until finally, they couldn’t hold any longer. I lost my grip and dropped. Half a second after I let go, the line caught and slowed my descent, just as it did for every other climber. I landed on my rear end, a sweaty shaky mess. But it worked!
The staff person unhooked my line, and I staggered to a chair, rubbing my achy arms. As I watched kids climb and ride the line down, over and over, I wondered at their easy confidence. Would this be easier if I were younger?
A few weeks later, I tried the wall again. My goal: reach the very top of the easy course. My son clambered up to the top like a monkey. If he stopped for long, that seemed to mark the end of that particular ascent. I determined that momentum was key.
My turn came. A different staff person hooked the safety line to my harness and I grabbed a handhold. I climbed steadily, not looking down, until the tip of my index finger just brushed the metal case around the safety line. And then it happened again. I thought too much about what I was doing. How high up I was. How I was going to have to let go again.
I tried counting. I tried ordering myself to let go. I tried lowering myself really fast, trying to feel the line catch before I let go. I held on for fifteen minutes, while people stacked up in line at the bottom.
My 9-year-old son observed, “Look. Mom is shivering up there. Mom! You have to let go! Come on mom!”
An 11-year-old girl climbing next to me tried too. “I had a hard time letting go at first. It will catch you. You can do it!”
I couldn’t do it. I knew in my head that the line would catch me, it had caught me before. But I couldn’t let myself fall until it did, and it wouldn’t catch me until I let myself fall.
I climbed all the way back down.
At dinner with friends the next night, my arms, legs, and abdomen still aching, I told the story. I laughed as I concluded, “Clearly I have control and trust issues.”
Everyone laughed with me. But then Beverly looked me in the eye and said, “A friend of mine once told me, ‘Faith is stepping out onto a staircase you can’t see.’”
It knocked me back into my chair. Faith, every kind of faith, is hard for me. I want to see the stairs and feel the safety line catch before I step out or let go. But that, I suppose, isn’t really faith, is it?
I’ve climbed that wall three times. I’ve let go and trusted the line twice. The time I climbed down? It was the last time I climbed, not the first. Trusting the line got tougher, not easier. But the kids around me overcame their initial distrust so quickly. They tried it once, it worked, and they didn’t give it another thought.
I want to be childlike again. I want to trust without skepticism and over-thinking everything. If I can learn to trust the safety line, maybe I can learn to trust God, too. God is, after all, far more trustworthy than a man-made mechanical device that could fail. The only way to learn is to try it again, and again. But I’d be lying if I said even thinking about trying again doesn’t scare me.