Eighteen feet in the air, the boy peeked over his shoulder. He looked down, just like we told him not to do. His long arms and legs were splayed as he flattened himself to the rock wall. He was a bear cub stuck halfway up a tree trunk.
The boy’s 5th-grade classmates below shouted for him to keep going. But the boy ignored his classmates and looked at me, the stranger holding his rope. He didn’t know I had just learned to belay that morning. He only knew my camp name (Swing) and that somehow I was his lifeline to the ground.
“What happens if I fall?” he asked quietly.
Most of the kids had never tried rock climbing. Many were nervous and doubted whether they could make it to the top. They didn’t realize that it was more important to believe in my ability than their own, since I was the one who would catch them when they slipped.
Each child who approached the wall needed me to be more confident than they felt. So I automatically put on a positive attitude and bolstered them with encouragement as I clipped the rope to their harnesses.
“You won’t fall,” I told the boy-cub clinging to the wall. “I won’t let you.”
He seemed to consider it and looked around for his next step up. Then he peeked again.
“But what happens if I fall?”
I anchored myself with a wider stance and bent knees so I wouldn’t lose balance. Braking the rope, I offered, “Put your hands on the rope, and I’ll show you.” I wanted to prove he couldn’t come down as long as the rope held him up.
He took the rope in one shaking hand and then changed his mind. The spectators cheered louder as he found a new handhold and pulled a foot closer to the top. The next time he looked down, he said he was done. The fear of falling kept him from going any further.
Down on the ground, it was easy for me to think he should have trusted me more. I knew he was safe. But if real life is like rock climbing, I wonder if my faith in God is any stronger than that boy’s in me. If God told me to let go of the wall and dangle from my harness, would I? Or do I try to make it one foot higher on my own strength before giving up, afraid to fall?
Isn’t it interesting how close the word “fall” is to “fail”? How many times has fear of failing stopped me from reaching my goals? Like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet when fear glues me to the wall, God tells me I won’t fall, not because of my own ability, but because he holds my rope. My mistakes won’t mean my death because he won’t let me go. He points out the footholds I can’t see and encourages me to keep climbing. With confidence in him, not myself, I can go on. It’s still hard work, of course, and my body will be sore from the effort. But I’m not on my own.
Later in the day, a girl told me she was worried about her injured back but she wanted to ring the bell at the top. I reassured her she could come down whenever she was ready. She started off well and then slowed about a third of the way. She had trouble finding her next steps. She squatted down instead of extending up. Her arms got tired.
The girl said she needed to rest, so I told her to let go of the wall and I would hold her up. She hung from the rope until she felt ready to continue. She took longer than any of the other kids that day, but she went to the top and finally rang that bell. When she came down, she breathed hard and said her arms hurt but her expression revealed something else.
The boy came down in shaking fear. She returned to earth in blooming awe and joy.
“Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.
I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.”