I’ll admit to having violated copyright law a few times in my life, but never before by scanning artwork off an old T-shirt. This is OK since the point I want to make is theological, and this article of clothing was an unexpected source of inspiration.
The scene that’s printed on my T-shirt shows a free climber suspended over space accompanied by the phrase: Test your faith. I bought the shirt on a trip to Moab, Utah, several years ago, and while my friend Keith and I had some fun adventures out there in red rock country, they did not include rock climbing. I liked the shirt because the artwork was vaguely inspirational, and it was a souvenir I could wear home.
I’ve read that serious rock climbers are often mystical in their religious beliefs, and experience an intensity of concentration they describe as a Zen-like trance. I’m not sure what all that means, but if I was hanging by my fingertips a couple thousand feet up El Capitan, I’d want to make sure the Deity (whoever she may be) was dialed into my frequency too. I deeply admire climbers who succeed on routes that appear impossible. Their combination of physical and mental prowess is breath-taking. They are athletes of Olympics caliber, yet some live out of their cars. They don't get rich doing this.
I did some technical climbing when I lived in the U.K. in the early ‘80s, and going rope-less was not an option. It was still exhilarating to the extreme, but not what I would describe as a religious experience. I didn’t see angels hovering around me. There was a day, however, when two military jets came screaming down the remote Welsh valley from which we’d begun our ascent, and they were flying lower than we were. We looked down to see them pass in the blink of an eye. They were the proverbial bats out of hell.
As a Christian, testing my faith has a different connotation than it does to a rock climber. I don’t put a lot of faith in myself to make the right decisions and to say the right things that would assure a successful and prosperous life. I am not bold and brave. Like most people, I am often coldly calculating in how I live my life. Fortunately, my ability to accomplish good things does not depend on psyching myself into believing I can do them on my own power.
The faith I do have is not in myself but in God. This faith doesn’t require the technical skill or physical stamina that rock climbing does, but is no less demanding and consuming. We can’t really own anything that isn’t first tested—and that includes religious faith. Otherwise, our faith is little more than wishful thinking. The times I’ve tested my faith in my life have never failed to deliver spiritual growth. I may not be especially bold, but I’ve learned that the slightest attempt on my part to trust God in some new way never returns empty. My effort is always rewarded.
And then there are the occasions when faith is tested by circumstances outside our control. These tests can arrive in endless variety; for me, it was cancer. The trials I have been through this year have tested my faith, but not destroyed it. It wouldn’t be accurate to say my illness has made my faith in God stronger, but I’ve gained confidence from the knowledge that His promises to me—which I’ve known in a theoretical sense for a long time—are indeed true and trustworthy. I did not set out to test my faith. I did not wake up one morning and think, “I’m going to go out today and free-climb a mountain.” The mountain, instead, came to me, and I’m still climbing it.
Our faith is tested by God because he wants it to be vigorous and vital, and this is one way he accomplishes his will. What might appear to be a disaster can end up being a gift. I don’t intend to rock climb again, but I love the idea that there are people with a singleness of purpose who will. They provide us with real-world inspiration of what those who believe in God should be doing in their own lives.