The camera pans over the summit of a massive granite ledge to the green valley 3,000 feet below. But your eyes are immediately drawn away from the green to something not natural: the red shirt of a man climbing hand over hand up the wall… with no rope.
The opening scene of “Free Solo” continues as Alex Honnold pulls himself to the top of El Capitan, stands up, and looks down a what he just accomplished. As the audience, you can safely assume he did not fall – otherwise the film would never have been produced. But, just to be sure, the filmmakers give you the gift of knowing what happens in the end before you start freaking out!
As much as this documentary is about Honnold’s record-breaking climb, it’s almost as much about the filming of the climb. A “free solo” of this magnitude required 100% perfection – one mistake meant death. Should anyone else even be watching this climb? Would the presence of cameras affect Honnold’s ability to focus, causing him to make a mistake and die?
As you watch the final 20 minutes of the film – the climb itself – you can’t help but stare at the screen and at the same time turn your head because you just can’t look! Even though you know the end (you know he’s going to make it!) you’re holding your breath and grabbing your stomach in the suspense of the moment.
The scene switches back and forth from Honnold to the camera crew and producers themselves, where the suspense is thick. Even though you know what happens, they don’t. They’re not just watching it on a screen, they’re experiencing it live. They know they’re about to witness something either astonishingly epic or gravely tragic – and for three hours and 56 minutes they had no way of knowing which it would be.
Over the past several months, I’ve been walking with a friend through a hard situation. I’m not even the one going through it, but this crisis has tested my faith and caused me to ask some hard questions about what I believe. Because even though I believe in a God who has given His children many promises, there is no guarantee that those promises equal a happy ending, as I define it, in the here and now or even in the foreseeable future.
When you’re in a crisis – whether it’s financial, relational, medical, or spiritual – it can feel like you’re dangling from a ledge, just trying to hold on to any small crevice of hope. There are no easy answers and most of the cliche pieces of advice people offer only make you feel worse. Sometimes things happen that are just plain hard, just plain scary, and just plain suck.
In her book, “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved,” Kate Bowler recounts her story of being diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer at age 35. In the months after her diagnosis, Kate found herself navigating what it looked like to have “faith” during a time of intense suffering and a prognosis of only months to live.
One of the things that struck me was Kate’s realization that, after criticizing others for having an entitlement-based faith in which healing was demanded from God, she found that she herself was holding onto subconscious expectations of what she believed He should do for her. She had visions of what it might look like to make it to the ‘top’ of this climb and expected a loving, faithful, and powerful God to get her there.
The words of Psalm 13 give us a poetic picture of what it looks like to have faith in the middle of a crisis. David begins by being honest and crying out in the unfairness of his suffering:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me? (v. 1-2)
After getting that off his chest, David asks the Lord to show Himself and give him hope:
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall. (v. 3-4)
Then, after making his request, David declares his trust, even if the Lord doesn’t come through on his request:
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me. (v. 5-6)
We all have subconscious expectations of what it looks like for us or someone we care about to make it to the top of a climb. If we’re willing to do some honest soul-searching, we’ll find we have lots of:
“If God loves us then _____________________ will happen.”
“If God is faithful then _____________________ will happen.”
“If God is powerful then _____________________ will happen.”
“Faith” lives in the suspense of trusting a God who doesn’t have to come through in the way I expect Him to. “Faith” submits to a God who has a much bigger picture in mind than my day, my week, my season, or even my lifetime. “Faith” understands that I may not have any answers about the “reason” for my pain. Ever. “Faith” keeps walking in the direction of a God who could do nothing I have planned for Him to do and accepts that it wouldn’t mean He loves me any less.
The difference between us and Alex Honnold is that we have a rope. We may not be gripped to the wall, in full control of our destiny, but we’re securely attached to the God whose purpose will stand. Trusting God will always leave me feeling suspended and in suspense – and when I sing “You’re never gonna let me down”* I can trust that He won’t! 😳
*“King of My Heart” by John Mark & Sarah McMillan