What Love Does: Reflections on Alex Honnold’s ‘Alone on the Wall’

Alone on the WallI am currently reading Alone on the Wall by Alex Honnold. Honnold is considered by many to be the best solo free-climber in the world. Even very early into his career he had already tallied a ledger of climbs that caused some of the most seasoned stone masters to sit up and take notice. But to appreciate Honnald’s well-deserved reputation, we need a little background on rock climbing.

Solving intricate climbing routes is often accomplished through the use of gear: ropes, waist harnesses, carabiners, belay devices, quick-draws, and protection (what practitioners call “pro”; metal devices pre-fitted to the rock onto which you can anchor your rope or daisy chain). But free-climbing is the practice of climbing without any pro; and the only gear utilized on a given route are rock shoes and a chalk bag. Solo free-climbing is doing all of this–by yourself.

So far Alone on the Wall has been a good read, but several descriptions of Honnold’s adventures have sent fear-induced tingles down my spine and into my toes. Finding yourself on rock face several hundred feet above the ground with minimal purchase with no pro and no recourse to a downclimb? You’ve got to be kidding me.

To supplement my reading, I watched a video of one of Honnold’s climbs (El Sendero Luminoso in El Potrero Chico, Nuevo León, Mexico) and a brief interview. In the interview I learned that despite the fact that Honnold makes around $200,000 a year, he lives frugally, gives a third of his income to charity, buys only what he needs, and sees sponsorship as a means to an end: climbing.

Honnold is not a Christian. He is an atheist. So, one observation about his lifestyle is that simplicity, frugality, and generosity to charitable causes are not necessarily marks of a Spirit-led Christian, for these qualities can be found in those who don’t even believe in God. This is a good reminder for evangelicals. We need to regularly revisit our theology of conversion because many professing believers, I fear, are resting their assurance of salvation on certain “marks” like these that prove neither one way or the other that the Spirit is at work in their lives. Simplicity and generosity are good, but they are not necessarily a fruit of the Spirit.

Another observation is that while not a Christian, Honnold provides an illustration to Christians of how one’s love will determine the direction of one’s life. Honnold is devoted to climbing and therefore builds his life around climbing. He has stripped his life down to the bare essentials so that he can focus his time and energy on what he loves. He is not storing up treasures on earth (in terms of material goods) because he is storing up treasures of experiences on large rock faces and a personal diary of successful climbs. Honnald counts all things as loss for the sake of sending complex climbing routes.

This is what love does. Everything else in life is brought into submission to that one defining passion. For Honnold, it’s rock climbing. For the Christian, it’s Christ and the kingdom of God. Yet, how many Christians have leveraged their life in such a way so that they see everything as a means to glorify the living Christ?

We’ve been granted insight into reality and relationship with the Creator of the universe, but are we bending our priorities in a way that honors this stewardship and relationship? Do our lives reflect one driving passion under which all other aims in life are brought into submission? Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 7:21).

What we love will dictate how we live our lives and how we spend our money, our time, and our energy. If we love Jesus, we will sacrifice comfort, material goods, even our own lives in order to get what we want, namely, that “Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil 1:20).

What Honnald is doing with his life is not strange. It’s what love does. What’s strange is when those of us who have something infinitely better than rock climbing live as though we’re not really sure where our treasure is.

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