I recently had the chance to travel to Seattle with a group of friends to climb Mt. Rainer. Ascending to 14,410 feet above sea level, it’s one of the highest peaks in the United States that can be climbed without the technical expertise of repelling. I was anticipating that this climb was all about strength and endurance training. We spent three days on the mountain, climbing into the snow fields of this glacier covered mountain to learn all the basics. As we prepared, they kept repeating a phrase that was unfamiliar to me, “high consequence terrain.”
I had a moment of pause as I kept hearing that phrase because I was expecting a non-technical climb. But I soon learned that climbing a glacier was more than taking a long hike with my friends. We faced three types of high consequence terrain: a crevasse in the ice that requires you to walk across a snow bridge or ladder, steep terrain with a danger of falling, and loose rock or ice which could cause an avalanche. If you get it wrong when navigating high consequence terrain, the result could be devastating. The experience reminded me that we sometimes feel comfortable about faith and think we know what to expect but, in reality, we can face some high consequence terrain. If we get it wrong, the consequences are substantial.
In our country today, very few people believe there is high consequence terrain when it comes to faith. Most people think it’s okay to let everyone believe whatever they want about God. There isn’t one truth. Everyone can establish their own truth. But God does give us a definition of high consequence terrain in Matthew 7:13-14:
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only a few find it.
The Bible is clear that there is a wide gate and broad road that leads to destruction. The gate that leads to life is a narrow one. There are two ways we can easily miss the narrow path:
We Miss the Narrow Path through Unbelief
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves…
Grace through faith just seems too easy to many people. It seems like God wouldn’t work that way. But that’s exactly how He works by extending undeserved favor to His people. Faith is trusting in what God does and not what you do to achieve eternal life. Putting grace and faith together is the essence of the Gospel. God will save you through Jesus Christ. There is nothing you can do to earn it.
But we can miss this grace by an unwillingness to believe in God. Unbelief is sometimes rooted in thinking we don’t need God’s grace. Still others think that they are good enough and only a few diabolical people won’t make it to heaven. People want to feel everyone is basically good. But Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 tell us that the path is wide and many will enter into destruction.
Unbelief isn’t just intellectual. It’s not just rejecting the information. Even in the Bible, we see there is something else behind the questions. In Matthew 11:2121-23, we read as Jesus chastises cities where He had taught, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.” These people had seen great works but still didn’t believe.
Jesus shows us what’s at the root of their unbelief earlier in the same chapter in verses 16-19: “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘’We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
Jesus took a common occurrence that the people would understand to make a point. For entertainment in that day, children would sit out and mock the city events which were primarily weddings and funerals and taking it further in the comparison of Jesus and John. No matter what was done, whether abstaining or enjoying food and drink, the people didn’t accept it. It didn’t matter which song was chosen, like the city children, the people weren’t going to like it. Jesus was saying that unbelief isn’t just an intellectual issue; it’s an unwillingness to give up control to God. Romans 1 20 echoes this unwillingness to yield to God:
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.
In Romans we see that they didn’t worship God because they just didn’t want to. Even those who grow up in faith often reach a time when they want to establish their own control. They don’t want anyone to tell them what to do with their time, their body, their money, or anything else that is part of their life. A convenient agnosticism sets in, basically leaving them not knowing what to believe or if they can believe. This type of convenient agnosticism reflects an unwillingness to bend a knee to who God is – to choose not to believe.
We can navigate this stage of life by seeing something about Christian faith that is striking. Christianity has a message that is different from every other religion. It is simultaneously the most pessimistic and most optimist of worldviews. It is pessimistic because it admits that all people are sinful and deserve eternity in hell because our sin is so offensive to God. Yet it is a highly optimistic view that we are created in the image of God and can be renewed because of what Jesus Christ has done for us. We are loved in spite of our own sinfulness.
We Miss the Narrow Path through Self-Reliance
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.
In your own self-reliance, you may feel you are good enough when God grades on a curve. He will look at you compared to others and deem you as being good enough. It’s a way of saying your works are enough to make you acceptable to God. An indication that you’re relying on works is when you divide people into good and bad columns. This is easily seen in political discourse as each side points to the other side as being the source of the problem. This same finger-pointing translates spiritually. We tend to classify good people as those who think and do the same way we think and do. People who think and do differently than ourselves become the problem in the world.
Another indication that we’re relying on works appears when we believe that if we do the right things, then God will accept and reward us. If we follow this concept, then when things go wrong in our lives, we feel God has let us down because He owes us. We will either redefine what it means to be good or we live with a sense of ongoing guilt. In our faith journey, we often get it right at first, knowing that it is by God’s grace alone that we are saved. But it is easy to return to living by our own works. Paul made this same observation in Galatians 3:2-3:
I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?
Paul saw the tendency to start down the path correctly but then revert to works. We get the theology right and start down the path correctly, but then we revert to works because it feels better to us. We know we are saved by grace but we feel God will like us better if we do certain things. Instead of living by grace, instead of experiencing joy, instead of living with confidence that Christ righteousness is credited to us, we end up living life believing that God will accept us if….
We often evaluate the quality of our faith rather than the object of our faith. If you stand on a sturdy crate, it really doesn’t matter how much faith you have that the crate will hold your weight. Even if you have only 5% faith, the crate will hold your weight without collapsing. In the same way, if you try to stand on a paper cup, it doesn’t matter how much faith you have that the paper cup will withstand your weight. Even if you have 100% faith in the paper cup, it will be crushed as soon as you step on it. The object of the paper cup is not strong enough.
Spiritually, we confuse the quality of our faith with the object of our faith. Instead of maintaining a faith based solely in the strength of God alone, we but our faith into the weakness of our works. This focus on works takes our entire experience and turns it into religion. We try to garner God’s favor based on what we do rather than basking in what He has done. If we don’t live in the reality of grace alone, we live with a constant voice of accusation. This internal voice calls us back to every mistake we’ve ever made and every wrong word we have ever spoken. We start to give in to that voice and feel a need to perform to be accepted.
Understanding grace in all its fullness means you will approach life differently. You will no longer strive to earn God’s favor. You will approach life knowing that through Jesus Christ, God has lavished on you what you do not deserve. This is only available by grace, never by works. Once you run to the cross of Jesus Christ, there is nothing you can do or say that can make God like or accept you any more than He does today. And there is nothing you can say or do that will cause God to say you are unacceptable. When you move past self-reliance, you’ll begin to live with the joy and freedom that God intended.