Up on the Highwire: Overcoming Fear with Faith—and Discipline

Nik Wallenda
Nik Wallenda training to walk across the Grand Canyon on a steel cable in Sarasota, Florida, last year. (Facebook)

Daily headlines about ISIS, Ebola, recession, school shootings and conflict reminiscent of the Cold War have cast a general pall over the news flow, creating a heightened sense of fear of the unknown.  Some look to next week's election to usher in change; others prone to listening to their fears are being driven to despair.

Amidst all of the bad news there is the silver lining of stories of selfless service and sacrifice for others, such as the brave medical workers who continue to care for patients stricken with a new virus that wasn't even in our lexicon three months ago. Some of these individuals are driven by their sense of medical mission and duty; others by their personal faith.

This week, I encountered an example of extreme faith: Nik Wallenda, the self-proclaimed "King of the Highwire" is a member of the Flying Wallenda family who have worked as circus performers for seven generations.  Earlier this month he announced plans to walk a tightrope more than 50 stories up over the Chicago skyline this Sunday evening, broadcast live on Discovery Channel in 220 countries.

Of course this is not Mr. Wallenda's first attempt to perform a death-defying feat.  Last year he balanced atop a 2-inch cable stretched across a quarter mile span over the Little Colorado River Gorge near the Grand Canyon.  The year before, he became the first person in history to complete a high-wire walk across the brink of Niagara Falls.

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Nik Wallenda is also no stranger to tragedy. His great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, fell to his death at the age of 73 during a performance in Puerto Rico. Several other family members, including a cousin and an uncle, have also died while walking high wires.

But his stunt this weekend will be the highest skyscraper walk in the history of the Wallenda family and his first attempt at a steep 15-degree angle for more than two city blocks. If that isn't enough, he plans to complete the second leg of the tightrope walk blindfolded.

Being somewhat acrophobic, when I first read about this event I immediately asked, "Why?" What would compel someone to walk on a wire between two skyscrapers 50 stories above the Windy City of Chicago—blindfolded?

"The source of my determination and inspiration starts with Jesus," the 35-year-old Nik Wallenda has said. "I was raised to look to God to take me through any big challenge in my life—and this is going to be a big one. My parents taught me how to walk on a wire and that all good things come from God. From that time, my faith has played an important role in my life."

Indeed a Google search of Nik Wallenda's previous attempts confirmed a consistent dependence on God for safety and strength. Without any harness, he constantly murmured prayers to Jesus as he crossed the canyon in northern Arizona. When he encountered a strong gust of wind halfway across, he cried out, "Thank you, Lord. Thank you for calming that cable, God."

During preparations for his walk on November 2, Nik Wallenda has asked for prayers – not only for himself, but also for all people facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles. He hopes that those who watch his walk will be similarly motivated to face their struggles, challenges and dreams and ask for the courage and strength to face them head-on

"I am in a constant state of seeking balance in my life, accepting my limitations and seeking improvement," Nik Wallenda added. "Some have questioned if I am testing God, but I do not see it that way. God has given me a unique talent, and I train hard to use it, and in doing so to bring Him glory. When I walk on a wire I feel connected to Him, and I feel centered in myself. He keeps me strong, cool and calm, and without Him, there is no journey, no lesson, no dream."

Pastor Rick Warren has said, "God is watching over you, so don't listen to your fears. This is a choice. Trust God, and don't give in to your fears." He recently tweeted, "You can't talk yourself out of a fear. You must move against it. Do it, and the fear will fall."

What if that confidence results in an actual fall for Mr. Wallenda on Sunday?  In his book, Balance, Wallenda invokes his Christian faith as being the source of his inner peace.  "I have confidence that if something were to happen to me, I know where I'm going," he wrote.

But what about in this life? What does the Bible say about faith vs. fear? In 2 Timothy 1:7, the Apostle Paul admonishes, "For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline."

God gives us courage and resolution to meet the challenges and dangers that come our way and the strength to bear them. And for Nik Wallenda, the difference between being reckless and responsible is the dedication and discipline to train and prepare, morphing his seemingly impossible challenge into a calculated risk.

The Apostle Paul confirms this in 2 Corinthians 1:10, "And he did rescue us from mortal danger, and he will rescue us again. We have placed our confidence in him, and he will continue to rescue us" (NLT).

In Psalm 56:3, King David confessed to God, "When I am afraid, I will put my trust in you." He understood to Whom he should turn when he was afraid. And often, it is through times of fear and testing that our faith is strengthened most. God uses challenge and adversity to develop a strong faith within us.

In Psalm 23:4, David expanded on that dependence in facing his own mortality. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me."

Perhaps Nik Wallenda's greatest comfort comes from the assurance found in Habakkuk 3:19, "The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights" (NIV). And in Psalm 18:36, "You provide a broad path for my feet, so that my ankles do not give way."

While I hope Nik Wallenda is not a role model for my three boys in terms of attempting dangerous physical feats, he does provide inspiration to us all in his determination to follow one's dreams and trust in the Lord to bring them to pass.

A. Larry Ross is founder and president of A. Larry Ross Communications, one of the nation's most respected public relations firms specializing in crossover communications at the intersection of faith and culture. Follow him on Twitter at @alarryross.

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