Nick Wallenda’s tightrope walk across Niagara Falls is an important illustration of faith, but not how you’d think. I caught the last few minutes of his historic walk on Friday night, and I wondered what was rolling behind him on the tightrope. Turns out it was a tether. In his post-event interview on ABC, a triumphant Nick declared that his walk should inspire others, especially children, to attempt difficult challenges. He must have been a little embarrassed about hedging his bets, because at one point he said, “I had a tether but I didn’t use it.”
I am relieved that Nick used a tether, and think that he would have been dangerously irresponsible not to. But using a tether raises several issues about his accomplishment.
1. Nothing was at stake. Nick didn’t risk anything, except embarrassment, because even if he had slipped and fallen off the tightrope he wouldn’t have died. I’m glad he used a tether, especially for the sake of his family, but it effectively took death off the table.
I wonder if Nick’s tether is a sign of the times. Is this what passes for heroism today—to attempt great exploits with a safety harness? You can’t expect accolades for your death-defying feat if death was never an option.
2. Nick “cheated” more than he conceded. Nick suggested that he didn’t use his tether because he didn’t slip off the wire. This is clearly wrong. Nick used the tether just as many of us use insurance. Just because we haven’t filed a claim doesn’t mean we didn’t use it. How much peace of mind did the tether give Nick? It must have given him confidence as he walked through the swirling mist. Would he have been so sure-footed if he knew that one false step or gust would sweep him to his death?
3. Faith means having no back-up plan. Nick’s successful stunt is an illustration for faith only because it instructs us what faith is not. We are continually tempted to hedge our bets, to have back-up plans in case Jesus doesn’t come through for us. I doubt God will be impressed if we tell him that although we had a few alternatives in place, we thankfully never had to use them. The fact that we had Plan B, C, and D prevented us from giving ourselves entirely to Christ. These alternate plans are idols, even if we think we’re not actively using them. We are using them, if only for insurance.
My childhood Sunday School teacher used to say that faith is assurance rather than insurance. He wrongly used this logic to argue that Christians should never buy insurance. While this is a fast way to lose your shirt in our litigious world, it does work for our relationship with God. When our faith is sure we won’t need spiritual insurance. True faith is untethered.