It has often been said that, “To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail.” Regardless of the source of this modern-day proverb, it communicates a truth that all of us recognize instinctively. We also understand, at least in theory, that adequate preparation must always take into account the nature of the challenge being prepared for. It does not matter how much your preparation plan makes sense in your own mind if it doesn’t correspond to the realities of what you are up against.
An event this past summer burned this formerly theoretical knowledge into my mind in a way that I certainly hope will be permanent. I had a plan, or so I thought, for climbing the mountain at the base of which our family camp was located. I had, or so I thought, everything that I needed to accomplish the climb. I had three bottles of water, a snack, and even a climbing partner. Confident in my ability to swiftly climb and return I set out to conquer the mountain.
It didn’t take me too long to realize that the task would prove more difficult than I had anticipated. I had overestimated how in shape I really was and underestimated the affect that the altitude would have on the conditioning that I did have. I began to move considerably slower than I had planned and drank more of my water than I should have.
My climbing partner had to go back down the mountain on account of a prior commitment. I should have returned with him. Yet I was still determined to make it to the top, regardless of how difficult it proved. Even though I was moving a bit slower than I had planned, I had been getting text messages only half way up the mountain so I was confident I would be able to make phone calls when I made it to the top. Continuing to guzzle my limited supply of water, I pressed on.
I was not as far up the mountain as I had thought I was and it took longer than I had planned to reach the top—yet I still was more frustrated than worried. Though I had planned on being back at 4:30 to go on a walk with my family, I didn’t think that anyone would really get worried unless I missed my dinner set up slot at 5:30. It was not until about 4:15 that I finally made it to the top and started back down the mountain. I had finished all three of my water bottles, I had long since burned up all of my energy, yet I was counting on a quick descent, confident in my ability to go back down the way I came.
I was wrong. I took a bit of a turn, only a small one at first—but it was enough to take me down by a route that was over four times as long as the one I had come up. Time began to pass rapidly as I struggled, increasingly dehydrated, down the mountain. I pushed harder and harder, hoping to be back by 5:30, wondering how I was ever going to be able to help set up a dinner hall in my increasingly filthy state but hoping to be able to be back before anyone got too worried.
I ended up in seemingly endless thicket in which I could see nothing at all. Barely able to move through the thicket, I slowed down still further. It was at this point that I began to realize just how badly I had both underestimated the challenge I had tackled and overestimated my preparedness for it. By the time I finally got to the base of the mountain, still a considerable distance away from the camp, it was well after 6:00. Fortunately for me, I was picked up by some of those who had long since been looking for me and returned safely to camp.
As I returned, I was informed that a full on search and rescue operation had already been underway for some time, long before I had even thought anyone would be worried about me. I had inconvenienced almost everyone in the camp. I was mortified. I had thought that I was prepared—but my preparations had not reflected the realities of the challenge that I faced. I didn’t know what I was up against until it was too late. My sincere belief in the adequacy of my preparations proved to be sincerely and utterly wrong. I had prepared to fail without even realizing it.
This sort of failure is not limited to poorly planned hikes. We live in a broken world, a world that is at war against our souls. Following Christ faithfully demands a constant struggle against the world, the flesh, and the forces of evil. As frightening as it may be to consider, the reality is that, even as you read this sentence, there are forces at work to take you out of the race for good. Before this week is over, you will face challenges in your walk with Christ that will make climbing a mountain look like child’s play.
I don’t know what these challenges will look like—and neither do you. What I do know is that without preparation, the right kind of preparation, you are even now preparing to fail. While there are many good things you can do to prepare to fight temptation, there is only one thing that you must do. You must, as our Lord taught His disciples on the eve of His crucifixion, learn to watch and pray. To rely on your own strength, your own ability to estimate the preparation you need, is to demonstrate that you have completely misjudged what you are really up against.
In the end, my problem with the mountain had little to do with my miscalculations, though they were many. The real problem was that I trusted myself to make those calculations in the first place. The same holds true for you in the spiritual battle that all of us face. Many of you know far more about mountains than I do—more than enough to effectively prepare for a hike. None of us know enough about temptation to approach it with the confidence that our preparations have been adequate. The only hope that any of us have is to cling ever more closely to the only One who really knows what we are up against. If we will abandon our self-reliance for dependence on Him, we will find that He has already prepared the way of escape that we need.