By Joel Bates
I have a confession to make. I’m a practical atheist. . .sometimes. I’m rather certain you also are a practical atheist. . .sometimes. This concept hit home to me the other day as I was standing on the precipice of a 70’ cliff face, secured to it by nothing more than a length of 1” webbing and my white knuckle grip on the nearest “chicken head.” My climbing partner and I had wanted to set up a top-roped situation, but there were no good, natural anchors nearby. So, I grabbed a few trusty, mechanical protection pieces called “cams.” The idea was to lower myself over the edge on tether and place the cams as three temporary anchors in a 2-inch horizontal crack so that we could attach webbing and rope to them and climb.
While using such anchors is a very common practice in rock climbing, it does challenge the mind. I constructed the temporary belay with shaking hands as I masked my fear with cheerful, lighthearted conversation with my friends, who were watching from above. One friend had never seen this set up and questioned its safety and soundness. “Can that little thing really hold my weight?” I shot an incredulous glance toward him, “Of course it will!” I couldn’t admit I had that same nagging question silently scrolling through my head and manifesting incessant doubt. But, I had trusted the cams before. I believed they were tried and true. And I could wax eloquently about the myriad of merits to be found in this anchor setup. “Of course it will hold.”
I thought I believed my own assurances, but after I yelled, “Rope!” and threw it over the face, I casually suggested that we take the easy down-climb lying just a few hundred yards away. It was a familiar, safe route, and though a bit inconvenient, it would allow us to be in control of our measured descent, scrambling down over some large boulders. It seemed like a reasonable idea to me, and I wouldn’t have to test my setup with so much at stake. One of my friends leaned over the edge and asked, “Why can’t we just rappel down on your anchor?” (Did I mention that this friend is really annoying?) I examined my set up, exhaled, and looked up at my friends who would be climbing on these anchors soon. In that moment, I could expound technical jargon and relate my depth of climbing experience to convince them that this would work, but their faith was fine. I was the one that needed to trust.
“Hand me a figure eight,” I said, rolling my eyes. I nimbly threaded the eight on the rope and hooked myself into it. Until now, all my weight had been on my own two feet as I stood precariously on the small ledge just a few feet from the top. Until now, I was a lot of bluster. Until now, I really hadn’t had to convert my belief to faith. “Faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see…” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith takes the step, releases the control, falls into the hands of God. Until now, I had been a believer, but if I backed out, I would join the masses of practical atheists. These are people who speak of faith and belief and the good life in Christ and how you should just “let go and let God.” These words are well and good, but they are powerless to our witness unless put to the test. . .unless tried to make true.
My practical atheism plagues me daily. I know that I believe scripture, but I’m sometimes like the man in the book of James who “looks at his face in a mirror but then goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” I write blog articles encouraging you to trust God, and then later in the day, I have a momentary loss of faith when my wife tells me the mini-van broke down again or one of the kids needs new shoes or we can’t afford that trip next weekend. Where is my belief when my neighbor needs my help, but I’m too busy taking care of my own project or guarding my own leisure time? Where is my obedience when I read in scripture that I should think about what’s true, noble, praiseworthy and admirable, but then the first thing out of my mouth when I see a friend on the street is how bad the government is and how the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. . .negativities galore amid the glories of God? God is seated on the throne and presides over the comings and goings of man, and all I can find the time to do sometimes is worry, be lazy, get angry, or be selfish. I cannot continue to live this way—the way of the practical atheist.
The outcome? I leaned back, the anchor held, and I rappelled with exhilaration down the cliff!