Tony Edge didn’t expect to die. On a Tuesday afternoon, he was studying on top of Stone Mountain, a popular tourist attraction outside Atlanta, Georgia. His wife Melissa received his text; he wished she could be there with him. But when Tony didn’t show up for a class meeting later that evening, she grew concerned and called the police.
They found his body the next morning. Police reported he apparently fell 600 feet to his death.
Surely you’ve heard this defense of a rule or standard:
It’s better to build a fence at the top of the cliff than to run a hospital at the bottom.
When I hear that statement, I picture a cliff like this:
With the rock in the picture above, the point of no return is obvious. If you step past that edge, it’s pretty clear that’s the last step you’ll ever take.
But where Mr. Edge died, the danger line was far more subtle. Stone Mountain is more of a ragged dome than a sudden cliff. The picture below shows where the fence begins on the walk-up trail to Stone Mountain.
The path just doesn’t look much steeper on the other side of that fence. A reasonable hiker could say that this fence is too restrictive – that there’s nothing wrong with the path just a few feet further. Or just a few feet beyond that. Or a few feet more.
You could almost say that the placement of that fence was arbitrary.
And Stone Mountain Park Police Chief Chuck Kelley told WSB-TV in Atlanta, “We catch people daily going over the fence.”
Most of them never get hurt.
Does that mean the fence is too restrictive? Should they move it – or even remove it? Kelly explained, “The mountain is very deceiving … and that’s why we have that fence.”
The actual danger line is not obvious on Stone Mountain. Wind, wet ground, and even a hiker’s skill or shoes and equipment will move that invisible point of no return.
Life Is More Like Stone Mountain
Very few moral issues are like the cliff in our first picture. Sure, death is one point of no return, and those who pass that point without Christ have clearly crossed the danger line with no hope of escape.
But the rest of life is more like the ragged dome of Stone Mountain. And each potential point of failure in my life is a different mountain. In some areas, I can exercise great liberty. I must choose great restriction in other areas.
For each type of temptation, erecting a fence somewhere is wise. For different activities, I’ll find my fences in different places.
And – here’s the hard one to swallow – the best place for my fence will be different from the best place for yours.
It’s unhelpful for me to mock your fence as too liberating or too restrictive. It’s pointless for me to try to convince you to move your fence. It’s foolish to let you shame me into moving mine.
Most importantly – wherever my fence is… I’ve got to stay inside it.
600 feet is a long way to fall.