The picture is my son, Evan, standing on the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, East Africa, several November's ago. I'd like to tell you a little story about what the earth's tallest freestanding mountain taught me about grace.
Teenage boys don’t typically spout Japanese poetry. So when Evan, my seventeen year-old son, started composing haiku, I looked up and laughed.
Evan dangled his feet off the side of his little bunk that stretched the width of the A-frame cabin. We were at Mandara, the first series of small huts that served as an altitude-acclimatization stop on a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. He smiled as he counted off the syllables one by one on his fingers to show that he’d mastered the Haiku formula.
Mountain of wondrous design,
I will conquer you.”
Our spirits were lighthearted and confident of success as we joked about the poetry that had spontaneously flowed from him.
Three days later, during our nighttime, sub-freezing assault on the summit, my attitude was anything but lighthearted.
Wrapped in five-layers of clothes to protect myself from the fierce cold, we began our fight to Uhuru peak, (the “rooftop of Africa”) at just before midnight, hoping to arrive at the summit to see the sunrise.
High altitude can be cruel. Deadly so if you’re unprepared. While we were climbing, we saw two hikers carried off the mountain after succumbing to the tragedy of altitude sickness.
The problem is as basic as the moment-by-moment need that every one of our one hundred trillion cells share: oxygen!
Without it, cellular machinery unravels into inefficiency, cascading in a spiral towards death.
Run at a fast pace for a few seconds, pushing back the envelope of your physical fitness and you’ll experience something we’ve all shared, but likely haven’t defined: oxygen debt. We breathe faster, panting to deliver more oxygen into our lungs. Our hearts race to deliver the precious cargo to muscles demanding more.
Oxygen Debt: When our Bodies Are Demanding Payment and the Currency is Oxygen
What’s all this talk about oxygen have to do with the Gospel of grace?
Let me explain. What the cross accomplished for my salvation is nothing short of amazing. It completely and efficiently bridged the gap between my sin and God’s holiness. There is no need for excusing away bad behavior, no need for extra effort to perform well in hopes that God will love me more.
So why is it so easy to behave as if God will love me more if I’m succeeding as a Christian, witnessing, praying and being a good family leader? Perhaps I’m projecting my own performance-based approval of myself on God?
Regardless of the reason, many of us give mental assent to the Gospel of Grace, and then walk away and function as if good works will give us the special approval from God that we desire. And in that moment, we’re functioning in “Gospel Debt.”
Gospel Debt: When our Souls Are Demanding Payment and the Currency is Grace
In short, anything I do to make myself more acceptable to God, other than the cross, is operating out of a functional Gospel debt. In reality, we fall in and out of Gospel debt with scary frequency. One minute we’re standing in the confidence of grace; the next, we’re anxious about the future or yelling in anger at the kids.
When our bodies are operating in appropriate oxygen saturation, function can proceed with normalcy and balance. When in oxygen debt, our cells turn inefficient, wasting effort to produce small amounts of energy.
Spiritually, any time I spend in Gospel debt, I’m functioning with inefficiency, depending on my own strength instead of His.
Climbing Kilimanjaro brought this analogy to my mind again. At high altitude, where oxygen was rare, I had to focus on breathing just to take another step. Three breaths, take a step. Three more breaths, another step.
1. Focus on Grace
Hmmm. Maybe God wishes I would focus more on His grace than on my own strength…for every step.
At normal altitudes, I don’t even think about my breathing and certainly not to oxygen, even though I need it every second. So I go about my duties without even acknowledging my need. Perhaps it’s like that with the Gospel of grace. I need it every moment and it’s abundantly available, but I function without even realizing my need.
That’s what was different about Kilimanjaro. At high altitude, there was no ignoring my need. It didn’t matter if I had the muscle strength to take another step, I was going no where unless I could take in enough oxygen. And I think that’s where God wants me: constantly aware of my need of grace and my inability to function without him (even when it looks like I could get by on my own strength, I see that I can’t take a step without grace).
2. Focus only on the Next Step
We made our summit assault in the dark of night to reach the top by sunrise. The peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro is typically shrouded in clouds by afternoon, another good reason to get there early and get down before bad weather. Climbing in the dark had another advantage: it kept me from looking too far ahead and being discouraged by the distance I had yet to travel. Often, I just kept my head down and concentrated on my guide’s feet in front of me.
Again, I saw the spiritual parallel. Concentrate on grace for the next step only. Don’t be anxious about how far you have yet to travel.
3. Beware of Reliance on False Gospels
A few days after arrival back from our trip to the mountain, I saw a Somali man who had a large tumor in his neck pressing on his airway. His breathing was noisy, almost squeaky. Not a happy whistle, mind you, but a terrifying sound we call stridor, an alarm warning that the airway is closing.
My patient was breathing the same air that I was, but I was comfortable and he was dying. I’m stating the obvious for a reason. Oxygen was abundant around my patient, but his airway was closing off, blocking the flow of necessary oxygen into his lungs.
How often is grace abundant around me, but my pride obstructs the flow. And more horrifying, because of pride, I don’t see my need and rely on the grace I so desperately need.
I rushed my patient to surgery and placed a breathing tube (a tracheostomy tube) into his windpipe to allow oxygen to bypass the obstructing cancer and immediately, my patient’s condition improved.
If we find our souls in a breathless situation (striving, anxious, no fruit), perhaps it’s time to look for sinister pride blocking the flow of grace. Am I leaning on my own strength…again?
4. Freedom is the Sweet Reward of the Gospel of Grace
Uhuru Peak, rising 5895 M (19,340 feet!) into the sky is Africa’s highest point and is appropriately named. Uhuru, the final destination of trekkers toughing it out on Mount Kilimanjaro is a Kiswahili word meaning “freedom.”
Galatians 5:13 states, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love, serve one another.” (English Standard Version). Failure, anxiety and strife are the ripe fruit of a life wasted in hot pursuit of false gospels (even “working for God” can be a thinly veiled pride, and many times only God knows). Freedom, on the other hand, is the sweet reward of the Gospel of Grace. I’ve been freed from the law, and the profound result will be a life of loving service of others.
On a freezing morning in November, I reached Uhuru Peak on Mt. Kilimanjaro. I hope I’ll never forget the lessons I learned about breathing and grace along the way.
Maybe I should even try a haiku of my own to celebrate the climb:
The Gospel of Grace.
Freedom is my Sweet Reward.
The Cross Did It All.
Harry Kraus, M.D., bestselling author of Breathing Grace: What You Need More Than Your Next Breath, (Crossway Books, 2007) is a medical missionary serving with Africa Inland Mission.