Is Holding onto the Cliff Face Success?

We understandably ask, “Who won the Super Bowl?” if we didn’t watch the final dramatic minutes, but we seldom ask “Who persevered?” It is the same question with possibly a more savory answer. How so?

Let’s begin by acknowledging that perseverance is not something most of us enjoy, especially in our age. Here is a clue as to why. Every age of mankind has its blindspots; in our age, it is the instantaneity of many things. Be it drone strikes or trucker strikes, the download hits a million phones within seven minutes of the event through the bystanders’ posting thereof. There is seldom an adequate context given for what has happened, seldom a balanced backstory. Just flash, bang, and smoke.

It takes work to clear the air and know the backstory. It takes work to understand. It takes time. 

This is why it is our blindspot. We, who live in the mid-21st century, do not see that the full truth of all things can only unfold over time. For example, you might look at my LinkedIn profile. There you see an author and his odd assortment of credentials. This might give you a clue as to whether or not you are interested in reading what I write, but it cannot — indeed can never — reveal to you who I fully am. This is because it is an instant in time. It is a moment, however carefully crafted a moment I may have made it for you. Therefore, it is only the surface of things. 

The only way — the only way — you will truly get to know me is by abiding with me over time. And it is the only way you will get to know anyone, including God Himself. 

What are creeds? What are the core value statements of any organization, including the Rams and the Bengals? They are invitations to perseverance; information for the head that makes its way to the heart as it is lived out in the body over the course of time. The one who believes them subordinates his life and preferences to those truths. (The old fashioned words for these things are “discipline” and even “asceticism,” which, contrary to our culture’s caricature  thereof, simply means “practice” or “habit.”)

Anyone who perseveres in anything understands that there is hard work before the high fives or hallelujahs.  

What are the commands of Christ? Seeds for bearing fruit, experiencing abundant life, and knowing fullness of joy. But there is a reason they are called “seeds.” There is a reason the Lord fills his teachings with parables about farming, about searching, about waiting, about time passing, and about people taking things into their own hands when the time gap becomes intolerably long. It is because, like natural seeds, the promises only come to pass when you cultivate “a noble and good heart, hear the word, cling to it, and by persevering produce a crop.” (Luke 8:15)

To cling to one thing and endure it is counter-cultural, for our world values agility. It values the one who can outfox fate and overcome limits — with a concession that force and cleverness are at times necessary. Yet we see that even here, in the world, it is still taken for granted that one cannot get something for nothing if one is to achieve a victory one can genuinely call their own. Just ask both teams who reached the Super Bowl. 

As for the one whose hope is in God, he has signed up for a perilous journey. For that story is not as sequential as the scheduled, seasonal march to the climactic liturgy of American football. It is not clear cut, because you are holding onto an intelligent, perceptive Person, not a set of impersonal principles, however powerful they are. You are holding onto a vast and variegated Rock, a mountain you are adapting your life to rather than blasting a tunnel through. 

Now in God, practical pivots are necessary just as it is necessary for a rock climber to choose his next move. If one handhold crumbles, another must be found. And yet there is one overarching act of obedience ruling all the choices. What is this overarching decision? What does perseverance on the barren mountain look like? 

Holding onto the cliff face. Not letting go. Remaining there. Perseverance says, “If you hold onto the cliff face, you are successful.”

In 1953, public speaking coach David Guy Powers quipped, “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”* The same can be said for perseverance in the things of God. But, unlike public speaking, no notoriety is promised, no YouTube-able moment. No story-board sequence of events that could make an Oscar-winning film adaptation one day. No, what Christ promises is Himself. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18) And if we accept this, then the narrow door is opened to all other things, not because we grasped at those other things, but because we let go of them to cling to One Thing Only. That way, when we inherit those things, they do not become the hard-won possessions that increase our loneliness, but bonds of joy with the One who never leaves us or forsakes us. 

This is why I recommend learning from people with gray hair and who are of a certain disposition. Their gray hair means they have the perspective that only time can give. (It is why I also recommend reading time-tested books rather than only the trending ones.) The gray-haired have seen things come and go. They have seen rising stars turn out to be flaming meteors. They have seen the runt of the litter become top dog and many a gambler lose their shirt because of it. They know good and well that life is a marathon. Some folks turn out to be something they did not appear in the beginning stages of the race; at times horrifying us with who they finally reveal themselves to be, and at times delighting us with their faithfulness, their love, their courage, and their tender care in completely unpretentious routines that outrun everyone else. 

But most of all, if they have the Faith inherited from the apostles and the prophets, they have seen the unchanging,reliable mercies of God, what some call the Kingdom of Heaven or even the Gospel.

That perspective which only time can grant a person is seasoned with heaven’s blend of spices. Almost always, the perspective is a blend of two or three things, and the ones worth listening to know it. They model a blend of truth spoken in love; a life of gentleness made robust by integrity to the truth; communication that pairs candid comments with compassion; and a humility that bonds the fixed points of facts with the fellowship of God’s Spirit working all things together for good. 

They understand that any good answer will have its foundational assumptions in “both / and,” or perhaps “both / and / but.” Why? Because this acknowledges our utter dependency on the only One who can apportion the percentages correctly. “You are in error,” Christ tells the Sadducees, “because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” The Scriptures set the running lanes for reality. The power of God energizes that reality. Both are necessary.

But they also understand another necessary pairing that can make perseverance grievous at times: for every sheave of wheat in the field there will be a pernicious shaft of weeds. The mature know it will always be this way in this life. Always. They know that this reality follows us through every season and circumstance. They know that only the Lord can pull out the weeds. When we take that task into our own hands, we destroy the wheat as well. Only He can disentangle those roots from one another, not us.

Living at such a level of mystery while holding onto the cliff face is difficult. It is agonizing because we are not in control, and control is the very thing we crave. The idea of being certain, of being sure, of being successful, calls to us like a siren song. We are tempted to flatten out the mystery of what lies ahead and abandon the courage we will need for it. “Better a terrible ending than a never ending terrible,” someone exhorts. “Rip the bandaid off,” another urges. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the same results,” another proclaims.

These modern proverbs have their place, but it is not the place of giving us permission to lose heart. It is not the place that beckons us to fall away from what our conscience tells us we must do, though it means living at a level of mystery and uncertainty that gives us solidarity with Job. We have to remind ourselves of Job’s outcome and take comfort while we, too, like the overlong book that bears his name, meander through many meaningless chapters until we reach the crystal clear climax of the tale. 

There is an ancient baptismal hymn new believers in Jesus sang on the day they went under the water. It was a public proclamation to the spectators and an admonition to themselves that the only way — the only way — to inherit the promises of Christ is to persevere. 

“If we endure with Him, we will also reign with Him.” (2 Tim 2:12) To have faith in God and to obey the commands of Christ are a “blessed, victorious struggle,” one Orthodox Christian writer puts it. 

Struggles take time. Struggles involve effort, including the effort to rest. Struggles involve pain, and that is one reason it is good to remind ourselves that the Latin root of the word “patience” is the word pati: pain. This is why some translators employ the synonym “long suffering” for the word “patient” in the Greek. (cf. I Cor 13:4, “Love suffers long.”) The Hebrew Scriptures, with their terse and picturesque Eastern worldview, employ the phrase “long of nostrils” as one of the words for perseverance, an apt description of what it means to be all-too-human while we hold on, taking in a deep breath and letting it out in a slow, melancholy way. Yet it is in that very place of suffering-saturated breath that the person is fully trusting the One who will keep His promises as time unfolds. His spirit and God’s Spirit meet one another there.

But English, Greek, and Hebrew are not the only languages split forth at Babel, and each one contains within it morsels of revelation that together make a banquet. Take the Armenian word for patience and perseverance, for example. It is the word hamperutyun, or, in the Armenian script, համբերություն . What does this word literally mean? 

It means “to bring taste,” or, “it gives taste.”

Here is an important insight for us as we hold onto the cliff face. Here is a key revelation as we remain there, wondering if it is the right thing to do when others seem to be making swift progress, leaping from crag to crag, and we feel we have nothing but chalk dust on our aching hands to show for our efforts. Here is an encouragement that holding onto the cliff face is not static, but dynamic, though everything in our perception rages against such a hope. 

It is the revelation that we have changed. It is the discovery that our emotional chemistry, our wisdom, and our friendship with God have deepened. What we knew in our head is now in our hearts. We have flavor now. We bring a taste of the Kingdom and the Gospel to those around us, both saints and sinners. The gift of good-hearted hunger begins to multiply among those whose lives we touch.

When you hear Christ’s words, “You are the salt of the earth,” now, perhaps, you understand them a bit more. If we persevere, we give taste. We bring taste. For those we influence, life is no longer a mere, predictable plate of rations for the laborer. It is a banquet they can stop to savor. 

But there is another profound discovery that takes place; perhaps simultaneously, perhaps decades later, perhaps at some point in between when you least expect it. You discover the cliff face is in bloom with growth as hardy as rock roses and as refreshing as remote alpine meadows. You discover a rare and precious beauty. And it dawns on you that you would not have known these things if you had not held on. 

And as you take it in, lifting your head to survey the totality of the cliff, the deepest dawning takes place. The cliff itself has moved. The cliff itself has grown up into the side of a richly resourced mountain not made by human hands. (Isaiah 2:2, Micah 4:1, Daniel 4:25) 

And you are right in the middle of it. 

Here is where human comprehension ends and the victory of God begins. For though what you experienced seemed to be the pain of going nowhere, what you actually experienced was an acceleration into the center of His abundance. It turns out that all the emptiness you knew while persevering was the vast cavern of the storehouse He has now filled. 

Let that truth bring a good taste to you. 

© Kurt Mähler

Common rock-rose flowers (Helianthemum nummularium)


* Although Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln are both models of perseverance who are often credited with this statement, neither of them said it. It exists nowhere in the canon of their speeches and memoirs. However, in a speech at Harrow School in 1941, Churchill did say, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” (cf. quote The earliest known reference to this exact quote is in Powers’ book How to Say a Few Words (1953) Powers did not claim credit for the saying.

I am indebted to Father George, an Armenian priest the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem, for teaching me the Armenian word for perseverance.

I am indebted to theologian Ray Mayhew for teaching me that “holding onto the cliff face” is being successful.

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  • Yvonne R. says:

    How timely is this reminder in the middle of persevering which seems to get more constant the older I get! Glory be to God Who is our Rock, the One we cling to, the One who already had us harnessed in by His loving arms! Praying for you both and your beautiful family! Thank you for the encouragement I always receive from God through your Spirit-filled words.

  • Simeon says:

    “ For though what you experienced seemed to be the pain of going nowhere, what you actually experienced was an acceleration into the center of His abundance. It turns out that all the emptiness you knew while persevering was the vast cavern of the storehouse He has now filled.”

    Wow! I’ll be meditating on this for a while. Thankful for your constant encouragement in my life to cling to the rock. Experiencing a season of filling the storehouse, though I know his bounty of goodness will require another expansion.

    • Kurt Mahler says:

      You are welcome, Simeon! It’s so life-giving to hear from you and so encouraging that this reflection is helpful! You spur me on to “hold fast” in the avalanches rolling down on either side of my particular spot on the cliff face : ) ~ km

  • Jeannine Hodge says:

    You did it again Kurt. Jesus is worth it all. Thank you,

    • Kurt Mahler says:

      Bless you, Jeannine. You may not have run the literal Boston marathon, but you are one of Boston’s best marathoners in the deepest sense of the word. ~ km

  • Austin Morrow says:

    Oh wow….
    Thank you for this.

    Please keep writing. Your written work is like the rising sun that brings light to the one hanging off the cliff face. (To include this lonely climber as well ❤️)

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