At nine p.m. on a beautiful night two summers ago, I found myself paralyzed against a cliff that was a good 130 feet above a winding canyon road. A head lamp bounced sporadically around my neck, and bats swarmed around me, nicking my helmet with their wings and feet. My hands were soaked in sweat, making it difficult to grip, and my legs rattled, making it just as difficult to keep climbing.
Under normal conditions, climbing that wall would be a dream. A beautiful view of the canyon, challenging cracks, and a whole lot of self-congratulations would be the reward of pushing through it. That night, however, it was dark. The holds were impossible to see without a lamp, and sometimes, I had to blindly feel around for them. Bats and birds flapped around the cliffs, my friends seemed miles below me, and to top it all off, that cliff was on top of an even steeper cliff that made you dizzy to look down. The weird thing was that I’d climbed walls of equal height before. I’d bouldered in the dark without much pause and climbed up off-trail sites that were extremely sketchy. For the first time in a long time, however, stuck on that wall, I completely choked. I made it up and I made it back down in one piece, but not without serious trepidation and anxiety.
“Isn’t clinging a good thing?” Dwelling on that experience has given me good insight about life and the challenges we often face in life. Unexpectedly, it’s also given me valuable insight into my scripture study, particularly a few scriptures in Lehi’s account of the Tree of Life that I have never been able to fully understand. They read as follows:
“And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward, and they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree. And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed…and after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost” (1 Nephi 8: 24-25, 28).
I don’t know about you, but for most of my life, I’ve been so confused as to why those who clung to the rod fell away. Isn’t clinging a good thing? I’d asked myself. Isn’t desperately relying on the strength of the iron rod okay?
After spending a harrowing night on that rock wall, I realized why it might not be okay. In the context of rock climbing, “clinging” is very obviously a bad thing, and I think it applies in these scriptures the same way.
In spite of how many times I have climbed high walls, that climb two years ago completely derailed me. Hanging in the darkness of the canyon, I lost trust in both my tether and my harness. I found myself clinging to the rock face and even (needlessly) my rope, terrified that if I wasn’t clinging, I would fall. I somehow managed to convince myself that the rope wasn’t strong enough for me and that my harness wouldn’t hold me, and instead of having faith in my gear, I relied on my own strength.
I imagine that those who clung to the iron rod did so because they, like me, were terrified, not because they had faith in it. Lost in the mist of darkness at the edge of a precipice with nothing to direct them except the roar of the water, the uproarious mocking of those in the great and spacious building, and the iron rod, they chose what was most reliable, but they still remained “…instead of having faith in my gear, I relied on my own strength.” unconvinced that it was reliable. They weren’t there to reach the top triumphantly; they were there because the rod was there, and, consumed with their surroundings instead of their destination, they were propelled by fear. They weren’t actually relying on the strength of the rod when they clung to it, but on their own grip, their own understanding.
Relying on your own grip, I can attest, makes the climb harder. Instead of moving forward with faith and peace, you’re driven slowly and haltingly, your body unbending and weak. On most rock walls, having faith in the rope allows you to be flexible, to focus on where you’re going and how you’re going to get there instead of whether or not you’ll fall. With faith, falling does not seem like much of an obstacle. With fear, it’s major.
Because I let fear direct my climb that night, I didn’t enjoy my journey much, neither did I appreciate reaching the end of it like I would have if I’d just been confident. Like the clingers, I was a bit ashamed of myself. I was embarrassed because I lost faith in my equipment mid-climb. Those who clung may have been embarrassed because they never had faith in the rod to begin with. I’d imagine the sweetness of the fruit was overwhelmed by the bitterness of realizing that they were never really in it for the fruit to begin with.
The basic truth is that the Iron Rod (the Word of God) only helps us when we consistently and faithfully seek it. If we only read the scriptures and watch Conference because we’ve been told to or because everybody else is, we miss true progression. We don’t rely on truth and doctrine so much as we cling to routine and others’ opinions. We miss the Lord’s limitless love, because instead of focusing on how His words can direct us, we focus on getting our reading over with and we maybe focus on how dire and directionless our present situation seems. We care too much about what misdirected sources tell us and care too little about what the Savior promises us. He doesn’t want us to cling. He wants us to have faith. He wants us to hold onto that rod because we trust him, not because we’re blinded by fear or doubt.
The Savior is the rock of our salvation, the stumbling block to those who don’t seek or trust him, but also the glorious way to the top of the mountains and a divine view we can get in no other way. We must only have faith in our capacity to climb and in the equipment he’s given us to help get us there. The way might be steep and narrow, our environment dark and confusing, but with the scriptures, with the prophets, and with our faith, we will always reach the top. And let me tell you, the moon and the streets and the hills and the trees are stunningly beautiful up there.