On December 21, 2003, post-graduate physics students Marni Sheppeard and Sonja Rendell set out for a three-day hike through Arthur’s Pass National Park in southern New Zealand. Sonja had recently split up with her boyfriend and was looking forward to getting away to think about the direction of her life. Her older friend, Marni, was an experienced climber and had encouraged Sonja to join her on the 60 KM journey. Sonja had never hiked with Marni before and had relatively little experience, but she trusted Marni’s expertise. As they set out, the sky was blue & sunny, and they enjoyed the beautiful scenery surrounding them.
However, on the morning of the second day they encountered something totally unexpected while hiking through a canyon pass – a massive wall of winter ice & snow 4- to 5-stories high standing in front of them. It completely blocked their way. Shocked, but not wanting to turn back, Marni evaluated the scene and suggested they could climb up the bluffs on one side of the ice to get past it. Following her friend’s advice, Sonja followed Marni as they began the ascent, even though Sonja had no climbing experience. Marni was confident that the climb would not be too difficult.
As they finally reached the ridge, they stared over it towards a very steep, uncrossable avalanche gully before them. Undaunted, Marni believed they could continue climbing higher to the next ridge and hopefully find a way around that too. Putting her faith in her friend once more, Sonja followed on despite the climb being much steeper and more challenging.
However, as they ascended higher Sonja became more concerned. There were few proper handholds, and the rocks were proving unstable. She looked down and saw that it was a near-vertical drop below her. She panicked and wanted to turn back, but Marni informed her that it was too dangerous to turn around now. They must keep going up. Sonja pressed on, and after hours of climbing they found themselves 200 meters up the cliff face.
Suddenly, Sonja lost her grip and her body started sliding downwards rapidly. She let out a scream as her body fell over a cliff edge. Amazingly, her hands managed to grasp onto part of the rock face as she fell, bringing her to a stop.
Marni carefully manoeuvred down to her from above. She reached out her hand and pulled Sonja upwards until she could regain her footing. From there they slowly made their way onto a small, exposed ledge.
At this point, Sonja was terrified to go on. Despite Marni’s coaxing, she wouldn’t budge. Fear of falling again paralyzed her. Reluctantly, Marni agreed to stay the night on the ledge, but she planned for them to attempt another climb in the morning.
However, that night a storm front moved in. Heavy rain constantly poured down on them, making any further climbing attempt nearly impossible. The ledge they were on barely fit the two of them and they huddled together under their sleeping bags to keep warm, but the rain soon soaked through everything. The weather did not clear but only worsened over the next few days – turning to sleet and snow. Their food supplies soon ran out, leaving them only with a small amount of dehydrated mashed potatoes and snow to eat & drink. Trench foot set in causing their feet to painfully swell. Fearing death by hypothermia, they forced themselves to stay awake day and night, even slapping & yelling at each other to prevent themselves from sleeping. Sonja and Marni would remain on this ledge for 8 days – with seemingly no way of escape.
A Fear of Heights
I first heard about this true story several years ago, and for some reason it has stuck with me. Perhaps because if I look back over my own life, I can recall several experiences that helped to foster a certain level of fear in me when it comes to precarious heights. As a child, I once fell out of a tall tree and landed on, of all things, a large sink. I know, who puts a sink under a tree, right? Let’s just say the back of my head didn’t appreciate meeting the sink’s faucet handles. In university, I was assigned to accompany a saxophonist on the piano for the year. However, the following summer while camping with friends he decided to head out alone one evening and play his saxophone at the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley. He didn’t come back. After a search, they found his body and saxophone at the bottom of the cliff. In my 20’s, while hiking along the seashore I decided to climb up the side of a small cliff to meet up with some friends who were on the ridge above. I didn’t think the cliff was that high or steep, but halfway up I realized I had greatly misjudged things. I had to fight the feelings of panic. I knew I was in over my head and at any moment I could fall and seriously injure myself. I don’t know how I managed to get to the top without slipping off, but I’m sure my angel was helping me.
So, I can certainly relate to the fear of heights that Sonja succumbed to. I have no problem climbing ladders, but you won’t find me dangling my feet off any tall buildings, or skydiving, or bungee jumping. The idea of doing those things sends a wave of panic over me. Fear – we’re all familiar with it. Everyone’s afraid of something it seems, especially the last few years.
Faith Needs Roots
For many, the Christian journey of faith often starts off well – blue, sunny skies all around. We’re basking in God’s love, and everything seems so bright & beautiful. But then something unexpected happens – we’re confronted by a challenge that seems almost impossible to overcome; a wall of ice, if you will. Maybe it’s a particular sin that we find hard to give up, or an attack on our spiritual understanding, or some other difficult life event that takes us by surprise. Our journey grinds to a halt and we look around, bewildered. However, not all hope is lost! We recall the promise in Philippians 4:13: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. We look up and God reveals the way to victory, and off we go, putting our faith into action.
But as we continue climbing up the narrow way, we soon discover that the higher we go, the more challenging things become. Our faith is tested repeatedly, sometimes severely. As I thought about this, I wondered what causes some Christians to lose their faith and fall away, while others manage to keep it intact (and even strengthen it by the adversity they face). I found the answer in the Parable of the Sower:
Luke 8:13 - But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away.
Faith needs roots. If you can recall, what was one of the things Sonja encountered that began to strike fear in her heart as she climbed up the rock face? Loose rocks. When most people think of a rock, they typically think of something firm, solid, reliable. Spiritually speaking, I see these solid “rocks” as representing the promises of God in His Word. We reach out our hands in faith and grasp hold of them, believing that if we put our weight on them, we can continue climbing upwards. But what if you grabbed onto a rock and it shifted, and then you grabbed onto another, but it crumbled in your hand? How would that make you feel? Well, if like Sonja you were a couple hundred meters up a steep climb – concern, doubt, and a bit of fear & panic would likely start to set in. But these loose rocks don’t represent God’s promises. Instead, they represent Satan’s lies (which he so cleverly makes to look like something worth grabbing onto). A lie of the devil, mistaken for a promise of God, can be a very damaging thing to faith.
This is why we need to study God’s Word for ourselves, and not just do it occasionally when we tire of scrolling through Facebook and Instagram. According to Jesus, we need it more than we need food. Plants that don’t take root in the soil typically die. Christians that don’t root themselves in God’s Word won’t last long either.
Romans 10:17 says “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
But if you never (or rarely) read the Bible yourself, how will you know for sure that what you are hearing is the word of God when some apparent “truth” is presented to you? And without that kind of personal experience in His Word, your faith will not take root.
You’ll have shaky faith – the kind that gets “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting” as the Apostle Paul so eloquently put it in Ephesians 4:15. Satan is a cunning deceiver. He can present darkness as light, and if you don’t know God’s Word then how will you be able to tell the difference? Instead, you’ll start to think that it was a really bad idea to climb up this way. Maybe you made a mistake. Maybe this isn’t the right path to be on after all. And then, what too often happens is – you look down.
King David struggled with this, as have many of God’s followers throughout history.
In Psalm 40:12, he wrote: “For innumerable evils have surrounded me; My iniquities have overtaken me, so that I am not able to look up; They are more than the hairs of my head; Therefore my heart fails me.”
Sounds like a spiritual panic attack, doesn’t it? David is feeling overwhelmed. The last part of the verse: “my heart fails me”, is almost identical to Jesus’ own words in Luke 21:26 where He describes “men’s hearts failing them from fear” during the last days. When you’re high up on a cliff surrounded by loose rocks, looking down will make you afraid.
And what is David focussing on in this verse? Innumerable evils, his iniquities, his dark sins. When we as Christians encounter trials, temptations, doubts, and even personal failures in life, the natural tendency is to not look up at Christ, but to look down at ourselves – our past mistakes, our many flaws & faults. It’s an overwhelming sight to behold. “How can someone like me ever be saved?” we tell ourselves. “I’m not good enough. I’ll never make it. The climb is too hard.” Discouragement and fear set in.
In a study conducted in 2019, the Barna Group discovered that 64% of Christian young adults aged 18 to 29 were leaving the church – this is known as the “church drop-out rate”. And the trend is not good. That’s a 5% increase from the same study done 8 years prior. Compare that to the high school dropout rate in the USA for the same year which was only 5.1%. That’s a big difference. 64% of young adults are leaving church, but only about 5% are leaving high school. This is despite an increase in pizza parties, video game nights, and trendy music hosted by church youth groups. But after reviewing the statistics, it seems to me that when a young person’s faith is challenged – when they grab onto a loose rock – and when they get overwhelmed by sin – when they look down – the thing that will keep them from falling away isn’t the next church social event – it’s having a personal relationship with Jesus that is grounded in the Word of God.
I remember when I was younger, there was a period of a few years where almost all my friends left the church I was attending – most went off to college or moved away, but others just dropped out. Occasionally, one or two in my age range might show up for part of the service, but for quite a while I would get to church and it was just me, a bunch of old people, adults, and little kids. I have to ask myself, why did I keep going? Growing up in this world and being bombarded with all the secular influences & temptations, I had every reason to walk away from a church that had nothing going on for someone my age – we didn’t even have pizza or trendy music! But I kept going because I wanted to. No one was forcing me. I went to church every week because I genuinely loved Jesus, I wanted to serve Him, and I was reading the Bible & praying – my faith was grounded.
It would be nice to think that I never looked down, but there were times that I did. As a young person, I struggled with sin and temptation, as we all do, and at times fear would set in. I wondered if I would just slide down and fall away. Sin can be a pretty big monster to tackle, especially when you’re young.
But then my hand found a solid rock to grasp onto, and that gave me the courage to look up – to see beyond the fear and look into the face of the One who gave everything for me.
Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near. Luke 21:28
Thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; You are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, Nor shall the flame scorch you. For I am the Lord your God, The Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” Isaiah 43:1-3
Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool. Isaiah 1:18
I will never leave you nor forsake you. Hebrews 13:5
I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Matthew 28:20
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to recall verses like these to help me overcome my spiritual fears. God’s promises are exactly what’s needed when you find yourself looking down the cliff.
But not everyone manages to cling to God’s promises when faced with intense fear. What happens when a Christian is overwhelmed by the attacks of the enemy, and their faith sinks and their spiritual fears become so paralyzing that they just can’t seem to go on? This type of fear can lead to panic, and panic leads to irrational thoughts and actions. You look for the nearest ledge to escape to – anything to get off this terrifying cliff. Climbing any further is out of the question. And so, you huddle down on the ledge, trying to tune out the reality around you – that you’re literally hundreds of meters up a mountain with no easy way to get off. It’s a deadly drop below you and a seemingly impossible climb above you. But the ledge doesn’t offer any real safety – it’s a trap, an illusion of escape, a sort of spiritual prison.
Are you stuck on a ledge today? Perhaps there’s a hidden sin in your past and the thought of confessing it paralyzes you with fear. Think of what you might lose if you reveal the truth – your job, maybe a close relationship, or the respect of others. The ledge doesn’t look so bad in comparison, or so you think. Or maybe you’re angry at God. How could He allow this to happen to you? You’ve suffered a terrible loss, and He seems silent. Doesn’t He care? You’re crying and feel so alone. Where is He? Or perhaps you have been struggling for years to overcome some weak points in your character, but you feel like you’ve made almost no progress. In fact, you seem worse than before! It’s been an exhausting journey. Why won’t God give you the righteousness and perfection He promised? It just seems like a never-ending climb. The doubts & fears creep in and keep you in bondage on the supposed safety of the ledge.
However, life isn’t easy on the ledge. The guilt, bitterness, doubts, and anger eat away at your faith and slowly chip away at your interest in spiritual things. You don’t read the Bible quite like you used to, and your prayer life dries up. It’s like running out of food. Since you’re no longer exercising your faith, your spiritual muscles cramp up and your feet swell. Then the rains come, and they keep coming – the warmth of God’s peace is swept away, and a cold emptiness settles in. You’re at risk of spiritual hypothermia.
So, if life on the ledge is so bad, why do so many people choose to stay there? Why don’t they call out to God for help? I believe the real reason is because our perspective of God has changed.
In Ezekiel 18:20, God gave us a warning: “the soul that sins shall die”. Hebrews 2:15 then goes on to describe “those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” Now the answer is becoming clearer: fear of death keeps us in bondage on the ledge. And because we’ve sinned against God, we now associate Him with that fear of death. And what do you do when you’re afraid of someone? You hide. No wonder – our first parents set the example for us:
Genesis 3:8-10 - And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?” So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
When God asked, “Where are you?” notice that Adam did not respond with, “Hey! I’m over here in the bushes.” That’s because God wasn’t asking for the GPS coordinates of Adam & Eve. He knew where they were. Instead, it seems to me that God was asking them, “Why has your perspective of Me changed? Where are you looking from now, that you see me as a threat instead of Someone to love & trust?” Remember, God doesn’t change. The Bible is clear on that – Hebrews 13:8 says: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
This really got me thinking. When Marni & Sonja first encountered the massive ice wall in the valley they were hiking through, they realized it would be impossible for them to climb over it. Another way must be found. They looked up to the rock running along the side of the ice and realized that this was their path to salvation. So, they put their faith into action and began climbing it.
Don’t miss this: they were not afraid of the rock when they first started out – in fact, they viewed it in a positive way; as their only hope. But something changed as they climbed higher. They began to encounter challenges and difficulties that they didn’t expect, and this led to doubt. Then, the same rock appeared not as a path to safety, but – in Sonja’s eyes – it was now something against them; something to fear.
When it comes to fear and faith, perspective is everything. This is why Romans 14:23 says that “whatever is not from faith is sin”. Because sin indicates a change in how you view God – you found some reason to start doubting that He really loves you. The prophet Isaiah describes how this change of perspective toward God took place among the Israelites:
Isaiah 8:13-15 - The Lord of hosts, Him you shall hallow; Let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread. He will be as a sanctuary, But a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel, as a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken, be snared and taken.
The original Hebrew definition for the words translated as “fear” and “dread” in these verses is not what we typically associate with these words today. Instead, they mean that we should view God with awe-inspiring reverence and have confidence in His majesty and power. And, if you think about it, this makes perfect sense when you read the next sentence: “He will be as a sanctuary”. A sanctuary is somewhere people go when they are seeking safety and refuge. God is our Protector. He is the ultimate sanctuary for us – and if He is with us, who (or what) can be against us?
But what if you stopped believing that He is for you? That’s where the second half of these verses kick in: God – the same God – is now viewed as a trap, a snare; something that will cause stumbling and falling. A rock of offense. An enemy. Someone to be afraid of.
The apostle Peter fleshes this out a bit more when he refers to these same verses:
1 Peter 2:7, 8 - Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient… “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.” They stumble, being disobedient to the word.
Did you catch that? The reason some people view God as Someone precious (rather than Someone to run away from in absolute terror) is because they believe that God loves them. And this faith in God’s love manifests itself in obedience to what God says.
My final conclusion is this: If someone truly believes that God loves them, they will obey Him no matter what the cost is to themselves. Conversely, if someone doesn’t believe that God loves them, they will disobey Him no matter what the cost is to themselves.
The Bible is chalk full of examples from history demonstrating both cases: Abraham offering his only son Isaac, Gideon attacking the vast Midianite army with only 300 men, three Hebrews being hurled into a fiery furnace – all of them overcame fear by their faith. But then there’s also Pharaoh, who was willing to have his whole kingdom destroyed and even the life of his son rather than obey God’s voice. And what about all the wicked in the last days, who continue disobeying God even after suffering through 7 horrific plagues. Imagine that! Having a fear that God hates you so much, that you’d endure that much agony rather than consider the possibility that He actually loves you and wants to save you?
The patriarch Job declared, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him”Job 13:15.
Job had lost all fear of death. The ledge had no power over him. His perspective was that God loved him, and this knowledge was greater than anything – even greater than comfort & health, family, wealth, and even his own life. He could suffer through the loss of all these things, and his faith in God’s love for him would still be enough. That’s what real faith looks like. It has no limits because God’s love for us is eternal.
1 John 4:18 sums it up for us: There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.
After 8 days on the ledge, an amazing thing happened – the sun came out, and the rain stopped. Marni & Sonja, though exhausted, hungry and in pain, decided that they had had enough of life on the ledge. They stood up, gathered their things, and prepared to climb. Their will to find a better existence overcame their fear of the mountain.
Suddenly, a miracle happened. A helicopter appeared in the distance. It seemed small and far away, but it kept getting closer. “Come higher, come higher!” they yelled into the air, and then it finally did just that. Incredibly, inside the chopper were Sonja’s sisters and Marni’s sister, Gina. After searching for days for the lost hikers, and hope fading, one of the search & rescue pilots had offered to take the three sisters into the air to let them see the terrain that Marni & Sonja had vanished into, perhaps to say a final goodbye.
But there would be no goodbyes today! Sonja and Marni hugged each other as their sisters in the helicopter erupted with surprise and joy.
A short while later, the rescue helicopter landed at the search base and the two lost & found hikers were surrounded by crowds of family and friends rejoicing over them.
Marni looked over at her sister Gina, and said with regret, “It’s all my fault. I was the cause of all this trouble”.
But Gina replied, “It doesn’t matter. You’re safe. That’s all.”
Today, if you find yourself stuck on a ledge, I want you to know that there is a God who loves you, and He left the 99 sheep behind to go searching for you. All of Heaven is part of the great rescue mission to help find you and bring you back home safely again. You don’t need to be afraid anymore. God’s love is greater than your fears. So, lift your head up, look into His face, and believe that He really is for you and not against you. Believe that He is even with you on that ledge, just like He has been with you as you climb. He’s trying with all His grace and love to help you see Him in the darkness – to know that He is your Friend, and He hasn’t given up on you.
Hosea 11:8 - How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I set you like Zeboiim? My heart churns within Me; My sympathy is stirred.
He has done, and will continue to do, whatever it takes to help you see His great love for you. And when He finally gets to hold you in His arms, and you weep before Him for all the suffering you’ve caused His heart, He’ll wipe away your tears and say, “It doesn’t matter. You’re safe. That’s all.”