Someone who’s done a study about mountain climbing made an interesting discovery. As risk-filled as the ascent may be, more than half of all climbing fatalities occur on the way down. For example, of the fatalities that had occurred on Mount Everest—the world’s tallest mountain—about 60 percent of them happened while the climbers were descending back to base camp.
Different reasons for this phenomenon have been suggested, but there is often a natural letdown that comes after any great goal has been accomplished. With adrenaline pumping and a summit in sight, climbers may master an ascent. But what’s left to handle coming down?
Perhaps that’s why Jesus was cautious following every “mountaintop” experience in his life. After almost every “peak” moment, you find him driven to pray.
At his baptism, Jesus heard God’s affirmation, straight from Heaven: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). The Jordan River may have actually wound through a desert valley, but in that moment, it coursed through a spiritual mountaintop. And the descent was going to be dangerous for Jesus. Forty days of prayerful fasting were a necessary protection to keep him from falling into Satan’s snares.
During the final week of his life, Jesus’ triumphal entry into the streets of Jerusalem was surely a mountaintop experience as well, punctuated with adrenaline-filled hosannas and hallelujahs! But Jesus knew the journey down would pose the greater risk, both for himself and his disciples.
Still intoxicated by sharing this “high-altitude” week with Jesus, Peter boasted that he could climb any “mountain,” no matter how great the personal challenge or risk. But Jesus warned that before the night would end, his overconfident disciple would suffer a near-fatal fall. He would become a casualty of the descent.
In the Garden, on the night before the crucifixion, Jesus begged his disciples, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall” (Matthew 26:41). After the upper room celebration of Passover and the Lord’s Supper, they would be at great risk during their descent into Gethsemane. That’s what drove Jesus to pray, and why he begged them to pray with him.
The landscape of life is riddled with casualties of the descent. Jesus survived by never letting a mountaintop become his consuming focus. Remember, getting up doesn’t always pose the greater risk. More than half who die, do so on the way down.
David Ray is dean of the graduate seminary at Cincinnati Christian University and professor of practical ministries at Cincinnati Christian University.