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By 
David Goodman
 on March 21, 2023

God Gives Us Strength for the Climb

Moments of deconstruction can feel like staring up a 3,000 foot wall, but David Goodman reminds us that no one is called to climb alone or without a rope.

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“Honnolding” in rock climbing lingo can simply mean to face one’s fears. It evokes the image of Alex Honnold standing on a precarious ledge with his back against a granite wall, resting at a height that would paralyze nearly every other human on earth. Alex burst into popular culture in 2018 when he appeared in the Academy Award-winning documentary Free Solo that culminates with his death-defying climb up El Capitan, a 3,000 foot granite monolith with no ropes! That is what it means to free solo, to climb up into what climbers call the ‘death zone’ above 50 feet where a fall would almost assuredly result in death.

Anyone, novice or expert climber, watching Honnold ascend over half a mile into the air, spending nearly 4 hours in the death zone is left asking, “How does he do it?” It is likely that Alex had some genetic, anatomical, ‘natural’ predisposition to thrill seeking and a diminished response to threats. However, Alex doesn’t remember his first free solo as a casual jaunt up a rock.

In roughly 2004, at 19 years of age, he was terrified over gripping the wall the way most of us would at a local climbing gym. It was only when he crossed the threshold of fear again and again that he learned to trust his training and mitigate his biological response to the threat of falling. For every sensational climb he’s attempted, he’s developed himself with a hundred easy climbs thus being formed into the type of person who can withstand and move forward when others would turn away.

For some, deconstruction may feel like a 3,000 foot monolith, but no one is called to scale these walls alone or without a rope.

I find the whole story of Alex Honnold, a professed anti-religion atheist, to be a compelling metaphor for the process of spiritual formation. The reverse exodus of young people away from the church in America has been well documented. Many of them cite some sort of deconstructive experience prompted by a perceived competition between science and faith as a prime motivator. For some, deconstruction may feel like a 3,000 foot monolith, but no one is called to scale these walls  alone or without a rope. We, as mentors and pilgrims along the way, must learn to help our friends and mentees see that a life of mature flourishing is found on the other side of such experiences.

We, as mentors and pilgrims along the way, must learn to help our friends and mentees see that a life of mature flourishing is found on the other side [of the Wall].

David Goodman

The wall and spiritual formation

The Wall is an observable phenomena known for centuries by masters of spiritual formation that has been mostly rejected by our culture transfixed on self-actualization. There are a number of different paradigms for mapping the process of spiritual maturity that fall under the heading of stage theory. Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich modernized this approach in their book “The Critical Journey.” They describe the stages of faith beginning with the Stage 1, basic recognition of God. This is the illumination moment that may come for a small child or mature adult who finally concedes there must be something animating an otherwise brutal materialism devoid of meaning. In the Christian tradition, this will be followed by Stage 2, a life of discipleship characterized by learning and belonging. For many deconstructionists, this involved youth groups, summer camps and Christian t-shirts. Whatever generation you come from, this is typically a sweet time when faith felt exciting and your community was vibrant.

Stage 3 is termed the productive life, where I anticipate most of us will find ourselves. You are likely well into your career and may have taken on the roles of spouse, parent, mentor, teacher and professional. This is the quintessential American stage. As a society, we love the feeling of completing tasks and earning a sense of accomplishment. Authors and teachers have observed that most Christians tend to stay in this stage, but the danger related to any sort of stagnation is that unhealthy tendencies can fester. Stage 4 involves a journey inward. This stage may come as an abrupt change marked by questioning, exploring, or doubt. Rather than calling this stage our deconstruction and running away, this is particularly the stage in which we must ‘honnold’ the best we can. It is in this stage that we must ask the deeper questions about who we are and who God has truly revealed himself to be.

Hapberg and Guelich highlight that churches in America are most comfortable with Stages 1 through 3, often presenting involvement in church activities as the end goal of the faith journey. There is a type of spiritual success that comes along with what we perceive as accomplishment and advancement in Stage 3 of life. Continued growth into the image of Christ necessitates that we let go of our accomplishments and take the journey inward often through times of crisis where God wants to do some of his deepest work.

[Deconstruction] may come as an abrupt change marked by questioning, exploring, or doubt…[it is] the stage in which we must ‘honnold’ the best we can [and] ask the deeper questions about who we are and who God has truly revealed himself to be.

Stage 4 is not a time of self-actualization or self-aggrandizement. It is a time when we learn to take up our cross and die to our false self. Most people would just rather not go here. Instead we find new tribes that let us experience Stages 1-3 over again around a new cause, all the while living with a nagging suspicion that a deeper life awaits. Stage 4, which includes The Wall at some point, is an experience almost no one would choose, but also almost never regret. Passing through Stage 4 is a time when we learn to yield to a deeper awareness of God.

There is a healing God desires to do in us, that often can’t happen in the highly productive, outward phase characteristic of American Christianity. It is in this time that we, in the words of Hagberg and Guelich “become more aware of our creatureliness and faults, but are less vulnerable to being crippled by those faults.” Facing The Wall and the inward journey of Stage 4 is not meant to be a therapeutic process that collapses in on itself. It precedes emergence into Stage 5 when we are able to once again turn our gaze outward, but now from a surrendered stance with a wiser approach and the capacity to be motivated by genuine love. Stage 5 involves a sense of wholeness which eludes many of us in the contemporary West. We are capable of living with the mystery of God and loving those around us from a full heart. 

Person looking upwards as they are climbing a steep rock

Photo by Fionn Claydon on Unsplash

For many of us, to stare into the complex past of human origins and meaning in the universe is like staring up a 3,000 foot slab of granite. Rather than shy away from the experience, we must learn to press into it, perhaps building our strength with smaller successive climbs.

David Goodman

Beyond the wall

I am convinced that as a subculture we don’t long for the Stage 5 experience deeply enough.  We often provide Stage 3 answers to people with Stage 4 questions. Many of the questions BioLogos seeks to help people navigate can’t be addressed with typical Christian tasks we can perform such as prayer, Bible reading, and church attendance. For many of us, to stare into the complex past of human origins and meaning in the universe is like staring up a 3,000 foot slab of granite. Rather than shy away from the experience, we must learn to press into it, perhaps building our strength with smaller successive climbs.

Every day that we choose to stay in the mess with God and not run away is a day that we move closer to a time when our amygdalas won’t be so stimulated, and we can climb with greater dexterity. If you found BioLogos because you are at a critical point in your journey, and you aren’t sure if it is worth pushing through your doubts, let me encourage you to continue the journey. There is no truth that God is afraid of, but we should be alarmed by the lies we tell ourselves. God is likely using your  experience with The Wall of fear, doubt, and disillusionment to form you into someone you could not be without it. May you learn to ‘honnold’ in this moment and find strength for the rest of the climb.

God is likely using your  experience with The Wall of fear, doubt, and disillusionment to form you into someone you could not be without it. May you learn to ‘honnold’ in this moment and find strength for the rest of the climb.

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About the author

David Goodman

David Goodman

David Goodman is a follower of Christ practicing Obstetrics and Gynecology in Orlando, FL. He and his wife have a family mission to nurture the spiritual, emotional, and physical health of all those in their sphere of influence. David was trained as an engineer at Clemson University and studied medicine and public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He served the women of North Carolina while he was a resident at Wake Forest University and lived in Tanzania as a Fulbright scholar and Fogarty research fellow with Duke University's Hubert Yeargan Center for Global Health. These days, he works with residents and leads a global health track focused on inspiring and training physicians to engage in improving the lives of women and babies throughout their career.