The most prominent landmark in Cape Town, South Africa, is our beautiful Table Mountain. The clouds roll over the top and gracefully settle like a tablecloth while the city rests at its feet. A long mountain range continues behind it, forests and wine lands spread to one side and on the other side brilliant blue waves wash up against the seashore. Having grown up in this city, I am very familiar with the mountain and have often had the pleasure of hiking or climbing its rocky surface. The most popular route to the top of the mountain is by cable car. Many locals and tourists travel this way every year to observe the breathtaking views. The flat surface at the top has been well commercialised with restaurants and shops for the tourists and climbers to rest and purchase a souvenir after their tiring hike. I remember on New Years Eve at the turn of the Millennium an estimated ten thousand visitors had ascended to the top of the mountain. I was among the many who took the opportunity to secure a birds’ eye view of the fireworks and festivities taking place in the city below.
An interested climber can purchase a map of Table Mountain that details all the paths and routes one can take to reach the summit. Each path on the map has a key that informs the readers of the difficulty rating of that trail as well as giving a recommended fitness and experience level the climber should reach before embarking on the journey. These trails vary from easy walks where the conservationists have cut out a set of steps leading from the bottom to the top, to difficult climbs where the climber needs specialised skills and equipment to scale sheer cliff faces and walk along narrow ledges. There are also warnings all over the map that it is dangerous to hike alone and you should preferably be in a group of three or more so that, in the case of an accident or emergency, there will be someone who can go for help while another stays behind to comfort the injured person.
Once you have studied the map and selected the path you wish to follow, the start of the trail is quite easy to find. Signposts mark the route and directional signs can be found all along the way. Usually the start of the journey is filled with excitement and anticipation and the group sets off at an energetic pace. Backpacks filled with food and water bounce up and down as the climbers begin their ascent. Conversation is light hearted and everyone is feeling confident that they will be able to make it to the summit. Initially the map is consulted at every twist and turn in the path to make sure that the group does not stray from their route but, once the novelty wears off and confidence increases, the map is folded and packed away. Although not nearly as large as Mount Everest or Kilimanjaro, hikers have become lost on Table Mountain for many days before the rescue team eventually found them. Some have even died from exposure to the cold or from their injuries.
After a few hours, the chatter dies down as the pace slows. The backpacks gradually become heavier. Faces flushed with exertion still contain an expression of determination as the climbers refuse to admit that they are feeling tired. The map is consulted again but this time the team leader is looking for a resting place. A shady grove of trees or patch of grass is the perfect place for the group to settle down for a while to enjoy their surroundings and catch their breath.
Not all paths lead directly upward. Each trail goes up at times, down at others and there are long flat stretches where the path leads along the side of the mountain. This meandering route often disheartens the climbers because they soon realise that the trail is much longer than they thought it would be and that they have a long way to go before they reach the top. It is never as easy as it appeared from below. Lines that seemed straight on the map depict paths that are crooked and difficult in reality. Trails criss-cross each other and a leader needs to remain alert to avoid mistakenly following the wrong path after one of these intersections. Sometimes unexpected twists in the road or dangerous obstacles cause wary members of the team to doubt their ability to continue. Stronger members encourage their weaker teammates and more experienced climbers offer advice and assistance to the amateurs. The leader of the group stays confident and ensures the others that they are on the right path and that they simply need to keep going. The leader promises them that the wonderful feeling of accomplishment is worth every step and the beautiful views and communion with nature will soon cause them to forget their blisters. His enthusiasm is contagious and the team continues.
Hours later and still no closer to their destination, the group starts to grumble. They begin to question their path. Some voice their concern. “Perhaps we were so busy looking at the scenery that we missed a signpost and incorrectly followed the wrong path?” they wonder. “Perhaps we should turn back. But how far will we have to backtrack before we meet up with our original path?” Doubts fill their minds. As the hike continues, they grow more and more discontent. The difficulties of the journey and the tiredness and pain soon take over and even the beauty around them can’t distract their thoughts. They stop to eat or drink some water and it gives them a brief reprieve. However, this does not last for long and an hour or so after setting off again they start to grumble. Some of the members suggest turning back and going home. This is met with much anger and soon an argument erupts between the people. The leader does his best to calm the situation. The weather has turned and the afternoon sun disappears behind a curtain of thick cloud and fog. Visibility is reduced to almost nothing. Mist swirling around them obscures their vision of the top and the leader cannot determine how far – or near, they are to reaching their destination. He wonders how long it has been since he last checked the map. His own shadow of doubt crosses his face and that brief glimpse of uncertainty is enough to send the others into a panic. If the leader is not sure that this is the right path and if the leader is lost then they are doomed! They criticise his leadership abilities and mutiny erupts as each one jostles for his position. The peaceful excursion turns to harsh words and tears.
Many groups of hikers have stopped and turned back moments before reaching the top. Little did they know that just around the next bend the fog would clear and a beautiful vision would lift their spirits. They would see the end of the path a few steps away! Their prize would be within their grasp. Those last steps are the greatest ever taken and the victory of that climb will remain with them forever. If our group continues they will not regret the journey. The reward is worth the effort and strain it took to get them to the top. Once they reach the summit their spirits soar and laughter erupts as cheers of joy echo into the distance. The anger from before is quickly forgotten and the friends reunite in forgiveness and the intimacy of a shared adventure. They have made it! Their journey has ended and they have conquered the mountain. But they may be celebrating too soon. The climb to the top is only half of the total journey – they still have to make their way down again.
The elation of having accomplished a challenging task often fills the hikers with too much confidence and they set off on their journey down the mountain with less caution and planning than they had at the beginning of the hike. Backpacks are lighter because the food has been consumed and the newly qualified mountaineers confidently stroll down the mountain. More accidents and deaths are caused by carelessness on the way down than are due to the difficulty of the climb upward.
However, in spite of all the potential dangers many people continue to follow the path up the famous mountain because the gain far outweighs the pain. The experience of God’s awesome creation in the open air gives a small taste of His grandeur. No oil painting by any master could adequately depict the beauty and detail God placed in every scene he painted. The colours of nature and the sky at sunset have been admired since the beginning of time. Seeing the city sprawled out with miniature buildings, chequered farmlands and network of roads lends a new perception to life. We suddenly realise how small we are in the grand scheme of things and what a tiny stitch we are in the tapestry of life. The fact that Christ died for each one of us is hard to understand as we see how insignificant we are when we look at the world from the heavens.
Our path to paradise is very much like these trails through nature. God the Father has given us a detailed map filled with advice and warnings. It is called the Word of God, the Bible. He sent his son to walk the path before us to make sure that there are no dangers along the way.
Some paths are popular, like the cable car, offering a glamorous view, comfortable travel and little effort on the part of the participant. “Narrow is the path that leads to Heaven and broad is the path that leads to destruction.” These are not always the paths to paradise. The person reaching the top of the mountain after travelling in the cable car does not have that same feeling of accomplishment and victory experienced by the climber. The memory may not linger as long because the cost was not as high. Other paths are less popular because they demand more of the climber but these paths offer the greatest reward.
The path to paradise is not always straight, it twists and turns as life hands us many unanticipated obstacles along the way. It crosses with other paths, each leading to a different destination. Some lead to material success, others wonder in an endless maze of dead ends and pursuits of glory. Satan crouches like a wild animal ready to ambush us at vulnerable moments to take our eye off of out ultimate goal. He does not need to harm or kill us, he simply needs to cause us to give up and turn back. Sometimes he uses friends, family members, work colleagues or other hikers to discourage us and bring us down.
After starting our Christian lives filled with zeal and enthusiasm running up the slopes, we tire and find that it grows ever more difficult to maintain our faith and acts of worship. Circumstances, responsibilities, ambition and the general hustle and bustle of life obscure our vision and we may feel as though we are not making much progress in our spiritual journey. Sometimes we are even distracted by “good things” that cause us to wonder off in the wrong direction.
Often the journey to paradise grows longer and more difficult than we thought it would be. The baggage of guilt and regret that we carry becomes too heavy to bear and we start to doubt our ability to persevere. We wonder whether we would be better off if we turned back to our previous way of life. We start to grumble and grow more and more discontented. We complain to our leaders. We fight among ourselves. We jostle for leadership for all the wrong reasons.
Usually it is only during the times when we are wondering around aimlessly, feeling hopeless and lost that we open up our Bibles, our spiritual maps, to see where we should be. We may have to backtrack for quite a way before we reach the right path again. Many times we wait until we are reduced to despair before we cry out to our father for help. We shout at him and our religious leaders accusing them of letting us down and not doing the jobs we entrusted them to do. We feel scorned and demand compensation.
I wonder whether at times like these God doesn’t shake his head and sigh. He never said the journey would be easy, yet he promised it would be worth it in the end. He never said we were to pack our heavy baggage and carry it with us, he offered to carry it for us or to remove it from us completely. He even offers to carry us when we need to rest. We do not have to worry about having enough food or water for the journey because he promised to provide all we need. We do not even need to wait for more members before setting off on our path because God promised he would never leave us. We will never be alone.
When the time comes that we are standing on the ledge and staring in fear at the cliff face plummeting down many meters below us. We see the menacing rocks waiting underneath that would cause immediate death to anyone who falls off of the ledge and we are filled with fear. We break out in a cold sweat and hope that we could be anywhere else but standing where we are right now. We look to the left and see no one at our side. We look to the right but there is also no one. We feel completely alone. Immobilised by panic we freeze in terror and shut our eyes to shield our minds from the obvious danger before us. The fog of worry clouds our vision and we lose sight of the cross before us. The confidence we felt is gone. After having travelled for so far we are losing hope at the end. We had been so sure that this was the right path but now we are filled with doubt. We do not know that a few small steps will bring us to paradise. If we take but a brief moment to consult our map we will see that salvation is nearer than we think it is. We might give up a few meters before the prize. The experienced Christian quitting right toward the end is like the climber losing his footing on the way down. We need to stay alert and dedicated, persisting to the end. All God asks is that we reach up our arms and clasp his outstretched hands in ours. Then forsaking all fear, we take the last step and he will lift us safely home to paradise.
Trust the path God has given you. Trust his map. Believe in his promises and don’t give up. The view from heaven is breathtaking!