I went climbing last night. It was the first time in about 5 months I had grabbed any rock. For my partner it had been about 6 months. We knew we were in for some disappointment. Rock climbing is a sport that requires pretty specific muscle development. You don't get better at climbing by jogging or lifting weights. The only way to stay in shape is to climb things with your fingers. Still, we talked with a little bit of optimism since we had at one time been fair-average climbers.
For my first climb I chose a route rated near the top of my all-time high skill level (5.10 for you climbers). I figured my best chance was to hit it while I was fresh. I made it maybe 15 feet before falling. My arms quickly told me what I didn't want to believe. I wasn't going to be climbing at my old level that night. My partner gave it a go too with all the optimism that comes from watching someone else fail. When you are watching someone else climb you always feel like you could have done better. Then when you get on the wall everything looks different.
I quickly downgraded myself and tried an easier route. Was it just me or were they making routes harder than they used to? I didn't do much better, and since I had nearly exhausted my arms on my first attempts I was worried I wouldn't be able to complete a single climb. Finally, we made our way over to a climb that was rated just high enough not to be embarrassing for grown men(5.7). I climbed as fast as I could before my grip strength ran out and just barely made it without resting. What a relief! We climbed with frequent long breaks for about an hour and a half. In the past we had climbed continuously without breaks for two hours. It was hard not to feel disappointed. There was no logical reason for us to have expected a better outcome, but I guess there's a pride we all have that overestimates our abilities. Just before packing up to leave I went over to the stretching/workout area and grabbed some gripper balls for doing pull-ups on. I found that I was still able to do multiple pull-ups. The problem hadn't been shoulder or upper arm strength. My failure to climb was completely due to a weak grip.
Here comes the spiritual twist.
In the Christian life we can get strong at a lot of things. We can become theological weight lifters that can expound on Biblical precepts. We can memorize the words to all the latest worship songs. We can become ninjas at encouraging others. We can master every Gospel presentation available. We can attend every event faithfully.
But if we lose our grip on Jesus, none of that strength matters. If we neglect the reality of the cross, if we habitually let our focus drift from our identity in Christ, if we don't push ourselves to keep walking in the Spirit, we will loose our grip. You may not be able to escape his grace, but you certainly can slip into spiritual lethargy that is not easy to bounce out of. Just because you had a vibrant, consistent faith years ago doesn't mean you can automatically get back to it once you're "less busy." A firm grip on Jesus is developed over months and years of spiritual discipline. Doing the daily chores of talking and listening to Jesus, loving your neighbor and humbling yourself is not our means of pleasing God. It is our method of consuming and being consumed by him.
You can't become even an average rock climber over night. You can build muscle strength quickly, but your tendons and joints have to develop over a longer period of time. That comes with practice. It is the same way with knowing and loving God. It takes practice and patience. And the payoff is amazing.