I love hiking in the mountains. I love getting as far away from civilization and as high up as the trail will take me. I’ve discovered that hiking isn’t just a great way to blow off some steam or get into shape, it’s also a great way to grow in my relationship with God. I’ve found that the whole hiking process can be a powerful source for spiritual insights.
LESSONS BEFORE THE TRAIL
Training is essential to good hiking and climbing. If you want to enjoy your climb and not be turned back by a failing body, then you’ve got to get into shape—good shape. The higher you intend to go and the more rigorous a climb you intend to make, the greater the need you have for excellent training.
A few years ago, I was given an eight week sabbatical by my church. My wife was kind enough to allow my son and me to spend five of those weeks hiking in the Colorado Rockies. Our plan was to climb as many 14,000 foot peaks as we could in the time we had. I knew that if I wanted to repeatedly climb to the challenging altitude of 14,000 feet, then I had to be in top physical condition.
The trip was set for late May, and I started training in January. I had two main workouts that I used to get ready for the mountains. The first was stair-running. There’s a high bluff in my hometown of Austin that overlooks much of the city. It’s famous for its great views and the challenging, 100-step, extremely steep climb to the top. In January, I started running those stairs twice a week. My goal was to get to the top, running or walking, ten times in one workout. At first, I could only run to the top once or twice. I had to walk the rest. But by early Spring, I was running all ten sets with only a little difficulty.
My other workout was hill riding. Austin is blessed with beautiful hills, and I live just a few minutes from several long and steep roads. A couple of times a week I’d hop on my mountain bike and ride one hill over and over again. It was an ugly, grueling climb that takes about 8 minutes. The hill riding got my lungs and legs in great shape and offered a good, low impact alternative to my knee-jarring stairs workout. When I climbed my first 14’er in late May, without feeling too many effects from the altitude, I knew that my hard work and training had paid off.
Spiritual training is the same. There are just some places you can’t go in your relationship with Christ without training. But the training required to get to the high places with Jesus isn’t physical, it’s spiritual. It requires the exercise and stretching of your soul. I’m talking, of course, about regular spiritual disciplines like prayer, reading the Bible, meditation, fasting, accountability, serving, giving and worship. If you want God to take you to the mountain and show you his glory, (see Exodus 33:18-23) then you’ve got to prepare your soul for the rigors of true spiritual exercise. The writer of Hebrews declared that “solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil,” (Hebrews 5:14). The “practice” to which the writer refers includes those disciplines that prepare your soul for the spiritual high country.
Start your training today. Read your Bible daily. Pray throughout the day. Faithfully attend worship services and make sure you’re receiving solid biblical teaching. Join a small group and invite some relational accountability. Learn to fast and sit quietly before God. As you do these things, you’ll find that your soul is better equipped to respond to the leadings of the Holy Spirit and follow him to new spiritual heights.
LESSONS FROM THE TRAIL
I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to grow up hiking. I’ve spent literally hundreds of hours on mountain trails, and I have the experiences to show for it. I’ve been chased down to timberline by fast-moving thunderstorms, and I’ve spent way too many scary hours under rocks or boulders while lightening struck all around me. I’ve helped lost hikers find their way home, sick hikers make their way down to safety, and weary hikers still make it to the summit. I even once helped my dad carry an unconscious diabetic through a dangerous mountain canyon.
In all my hiking adventures, I am amazed at how many spiritual lessons can be gleaned from the trails. It’s just inevitable: When I hike, I learn about God and what it means to follow him. For instance, there are no shortcuts or quick routes to a mountain summit. You can’t get around the rugged reality that if you’re going to climb to the high places, then you’ve got to pay your hiking dues to get there.
I’ve spent many arduous hours hiking through forests and up steep canyons, wishing that there was a faster, easier way to the top. But there never is. Getting to the high ground requires patience and tenacity. If you’re looking for a fast path to a summit, then hiking will frustrate you.
The same is true in following God. There are no shortcuts in the spiritual life. Much like the daily disciplines required in becoming a godly person, growing into a meaningful relationship with God takes time, patience and faithfulness. If you’re going to see the high vistas in your spiritual life that God desires for you, then you’re going to have to be patient. Growth takes time. The ultimate summit in life is found in intimacy with God. That summit, although worth the effort, requires a steadfast tenacity to be attained. It comes neither quickly nor easily.
I think about that a lot when I’m on the trail. It gives me good perspective. The hard work required to reach a beautiful mountain summit is a great metaphor for the diligence required to grow with God. It’s challenging, but well worth it.
The most powerful life-lesson, however, that I’ve learned from hiking is how easy it is to get lost or take a tumble on the trial. One experience taught me all I ever wanted to know about how easily one can take a misstep in the mountains.
I was hiking in the Rocky Mountains with my son. We had enjoyed a full day of climbing, having summitted two different 13,000-foot peaks in a matter of just a few hours. We trekked along the Continental Divide for a few miles, and then decided to descend by way of a gentle, sloping snowfield called Andrews Glacier. Andrews is one of the few safely descendible glaciers in Rocky Mountain National Park, and it’s a great payoff after a hard day of hiking.
As my son and I neared the top of the glacier, we met two young men who were also hiking along the Divide. They were from Germany, were in their early twenties, spoke limited English, and had literally hocked everything they owned so they could spend the summer hiking in the Colorado mountains. We invited them to join us on our descent of Andrews, and they happily agreed.
The descent was uneventful—lots of snow and sliding and fun falls--nothing serious. But below the glacier, the terrain changed dramatically. The area directly below Andrews is a treacherous mixture of snow, melting snow, running water, wet rocks and low lying ground cover. It is also very steep. I had hiked this area enough to know that the only way to proceed was very cautiously. I took the lead and began guiding my son and our two new friends down the mountain.
We were traversing between two rather steep areas, kind of crossing from one ledge to another, when we hit a relatively flat section of trail. It was, however, covered with ground-hugging bushes; the kind that grow right at timberline in the mountains. Because of the ground cover, I couldn’t see where the trail was going. I was just about to stop and reconsider my route when I walked right off a sixty-foot ledge.
The ground just disappeared beneath me. One second I was walking on solid terra firma, the next I was airborne. As I fell the first few feet down the sheer face of the ledge, I somehow managed to catch hold of a branch that was jetting out from the wall and stop my fall.
It is amazing what you think about when you’re just hanging there, fifty-five feet above the rocks below. Stuff like, “Boy, is my wife going to be mad at me,” or “This is not going to look good on a resume.” Fortunately, I only had a few seconds for such profound thinking before my son walked up to the ledge. He took one look at me and simply said, “Dad?” Then, one of our new German friends walked up behind him, saw my predicament, and as he offered me a much-needed hand, he asked with a strong German accent, “Wrong way?”
Wrong way indeed. I was reminded that day just how easy it is to get tripped up in the mountains, even when you think you know where you’re going. I’ve also learned that it’s equally easy to lose your way in life; and quite honestly, the terrain is much more hazardous.
In Psalm 37, King David reflected on God’s protection for those who seek him. He wrote, “If the LORD delights in a man's way, he makes his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand (Psalms 37:23-24). David himself was an outdoorsman. He’d chased enough wayward sheep through rocks and crevasses to have more than his share of hard falls. Beyond that, David had fallen hard in sin. His disastrous tryst with Bathsheba caused at least two deaths, and led to years of pain and suffering for David and his family. And yet, looking back over his life, David still felt protected. Like me on the ledge, he’d fallen, but had been spared from smashing on the rocks below.
Are you walking through dangerous terrain? Is temptation calling? Are depression and spiritual oppression nipping at your heals? Is Satan lying to you? Do you feel like you’re one misstep away from a long, hard fall? Here are some helpful suggestions:
- Slow down. Had I been paying better attention, I might have seen the ledge coming. So, stop and get your bearings. Let God’s Word redirect you and set you back on the right path. Remember what David said in Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”
- Seek the counsel and guidance of others Christians. Get very honest with someone about your struggles. If I had been hiking alone, I would have been in serious trouble. You can’t afford to fall alone, so get some other Christ-followers around you.
- Finally, pray! Pray that God will make your steps firm. Pray he will sustain you by his strong right hand. Pray that, when you stumble, God will catch you. Pray Psalm 91:11-12--For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
Will Davis Jr.
is the founding and senior pastor at Austin Christian Fellowship, a nondenominational church in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Pray Big and Why Faith Makes Sense (Revell, October 2008). He is an avid hiker, mountain climber and water skier. He and his wife, Susie, have three children and live in Austin, Texas.