The wheelbarrow across Niagara Falls is a favorite illustration among preachers.
A guy calling himself the Great Blondin crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope a number of times during the tourist seasons of 1859 and 1860. One of his stunts was to cross the falls pushing a wheelbarrow ahead of him, and another was carry his manager, Harry Colcord, across on his back (http://www.niagarafrontier.com/devil_frame.html#BLONDIN, accessed 5/2/2010). If you combine these stunts, you come up with a great illustration of faith: The Great Blondin crosses the falls on a tightrope, steps ashore, and asks the cheering crowd, “Do you believe I can walk the tightrope back to the other side?” “Yes! Yes!” they all yell. “Do you believe I can do it pushing this wheelbarrow ahead of me?” “Yes! Yes!” “Who believes it enough to get into the wheelbarrow?” Silence. Thus, the preacher defines the difference between theoretical faith and what he calls saving faith. The faith that God is after doesn’t just believe in the truth, but stakes its life on it.
This illustration hit me last week when I went rappelling in southern Utah with my two sons and my old friend Ed. Rappelling is one of the techniques employed to explore steep, slick rock canyons. After scrambling down a rock chimney on all fours, and wading through a chest-deep pool of standing water, you reach a sheer 90-foot drop that seems to end your journey of exploration. But you have the equipment (and in our case a professional guide) to get past this obstacle and continue the journey. Anchors have already been bolted into the rock face and you check to make sure they’re sound. If they are, they have a test strength of thousands of pounds, as do your ropes and harness. The equipment that will lower your trim physique down the cliff could actually do the job for a small pickup truck. Besides, hundreds of hikers have negotiated this same descent, and your guide has handled hundred of different cliffs and multitudes of hikers, all without incident. So you believe it is safe, and you know that you were probably at higher risk driving the Interstate on your way to this location than you are right now peering down the cliff.
But this faith in the system seems all too theoretical when the moment comes to strap yourself in, check your fittings, unclip the safety line, and go over the edge. No matter how confident you are in the theory, your body protests that first step, the shift from upright posture gladly cooperating with gravity, to leaning all your weight into the harness and heading down. But if you don’t take the step, all the theory in the world does you no good. I like this illustration better than the wheelbarrow over Niagara, because it entails more active participation than just getting in the wheelbarrow, squeezing your eyes shut, and white knuckling it until you reach the other shore. In rappelling, you are active the whole way down, even as you depend entirely on the rope and harness.
Furthermore, the wheelbarrow is usually employed to point out the contrast between living and theoretical faith, but an even better point is the contrast between faith and faithfulness. The original language of the Bible can be translated either way, but Yeshua makes it clear that God is not as concerned about our technical definitions of faith as his is about our faithfulness. Faith can stand on solid ground, assess the situation, and size up what is true. Faithfulness emerges as we hang everything we have on that truth. You could even argue that faithfulness only emerges at that point. You really don’t know what you have with God until you step into the situation that is hopeless without him.
The Reformation focused on faith alone as the way to salvation, but Yeshua’s ethical pathway doesn’t seem to give faith such prominence. Instead, he says, “By their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:13-14). Indeed, the word “faith” appears only once in Yeshua’s Torah from the Mount (aka the Sermon on the Mount), and there it is to rebuke those who have too little of it (Matt 6:30). But faithfulness, one could argue, underlies the whole message—God’s faithfulness and how those who are faithful to him will respond.
Faith can become merely theoretical, or worse, an excuse for all kinds of bad behavior—“I may be a scoundrel, but at least I’m in the wheelbarrow!” Faithfulness, on the other hand, cannot be divided into theory and practice. Rather it’s what shows up when the theory is tested. That’s why Scripture so often commends endurance through trials. Our financial pressures, job frustrations, needs for healing, restored relationships, understanding, are all opportunities to move beyond theory, lean into the harness of faithfulness, and step out.