Muscles Have Memory


Alex Honnold is the first person to free-solo climb El Capitan, a 3,000-foot vertical cliff in Yosemite.

National Geographic describes his practice routine: “He is obsessive about his training, which includes hour-long sessions every other day hanging by his fingertips and doing one- and two-armed pullups on a specially-made apparatus that he bolted into the doorway of his van. He also spends hours perfecting, rehearsing, and memorizing exact sequences of hand and foot placements for every key pitch.”

Alex has been climbing since he was ten, gradually taking on higher and more taxing climbs. At age 30, Alex thought El Capitan seemed “very scary” but he practiced for a year in order to climb it free-solo. (Free-solo means climbing alone with no ropes or safety gear.)

Probably none of us aspires to rock climbing, and we likely won’t encourage our children to try it. But in our pursuit of loving God supremely and our neighbor as ourselves, we should cultivate a lifestyle that habitually and intentionally incorporates discipline. We need automatic, habitual responses to the weights and vices around us. This requires often saying no when it would feel easier to say yes.

Children and adults who are accustomed to no live more productive, fulfilled, and vibrant lives than those who avoid denying themselves their whims. Anyone can act on a whim, but mastery requires repeating a million small decisions that eventually become automatic for the cause of one goal. Mastery means saying no to many little things while saying yes to one big thing.

It’s easy to make a list of things to say no to:

  • Junk food
  • Screen time
  • Sports that distract from study
  • Sleeping until noon every day
  • Spending more money than we make

Saying no (incorporating discipline and rigor) is important for flourishing. The human body thrives best when its muscles live with some level of resistance and challenge. Without daily exercise and testing, muscles become flabby and limp.

But discipline is costly, uncomfortable, and unpopular.

It seems that, except for extraordinary athletes like Alex Honnold, people in our society prioritize comfort and convenience over goals or principles. Christians are not exempt from the lure of pleasure and instant gratification. Some of us have imbibed the mentality that we deserve a good life and God wants us to be happy. Others of us have organized, systematic disciplines that we defend passionately, but we focus only on saying no, which becomes wearisome at best and disposable at worst.

Jesus’ greatest commandment does not address what we should avoid, but what we should love. God is far more for good than He is against evil. His people should be known for what they embrace rather than for what they decide against.

It’s easy to hate the vices of the age. It’s easy to decry the evils of video games and smart phones and movies.

But what if technology isn’t the enemy? What if social media isn’t our teen’s greatest foe?

Our brains are maleable, and our use of technology changes our brains. But no change in our brain removes the power of our heart.  What we love always drives us. We always replace lesser loves with our greatest love.

What damages teens most is not an app on a phone but a commitment to lesser loves. We must help each other to clarify the over-arching yes of our lives, the supreme love, the consuming desire that arranges everything else under it. What is the biggest, grandest yes to which we can invite our children?

The rigor of discipline feels purposeful and beneficial when a big yes over-lays every small, bothersome, necessary no. Granted, a child doesn’t always understand why she shouldn’t go barefoot in the snow or eat the third cookie. And is any child ever thrilled to take the garbage out after supper?

A child needs to be accustomed to bowing to a command from outside himself so that he can regulate himself and commit to a yes when he’s older. A lifestyle that frequently says no strengthens the muscles of character that every Christian needs for Kingdom building. My wise, old choir director, Urie Sharp, told his choirs countless times: “Muscles have memory, and practice makes permanent.”

Alex Honnold’s brilliant solo climb is a case in point.  He said, “The idea of setting out up a wall of that size with nothing but shoes and a chalk bag seemed impossible. Three thousand feet of climbing represents thousands of distinct hand and foot movements, which is a lot to remember…  Once I found sequences that felt secure and repeatable, I had to memorize them. I had to make sure that they were so deeply ingrained within me that there was no possibility of error. I didn’t want to be wondering if I was going the right way or using the best holds. I needed everything to feel automatic.”

While conventional climbers plan on three days to climb El Capitan, Alex ascended the wall in 3 hours and 56 minutes. “I was slightly tense, but felt really good.”

Vibrant, active people of all ages love to throw their energy into a project or idea bigger than themselves. It’s what we were created for—to join God in His immense, beautiful work of setting the world to rights.

Individuals and families can choose to say yes to:

  • Prioritizing real-time relationships
  • Creating things with our hands
  • Making and sharing wholesome food
  • Befriending an immigrant family
  • Fostering and adopting, or supporting those who do

Each of those ideas might look like El Capitan looked to Alex Hommold before he started practicing: very scary. Small, minute ways to build muscles to reach those big goals can include these suggestions:

  • Choose a check-out lane with a teller instead of self check-out
  • Make a simple gift instead of buying one
  • Try a new recipe instead of ordering in pizza
  • Smile at a burka-clad lady and say “hi” to her children
  • Give a gift card to a fostering family

Living a life of fruitfulness and vitality doesn’t happen by lounging around. Oswald Chambers offers these strong words to us: “Take yourself by the scruff of the neck and shake off your incarnate laziness.”

In my very ordinary life, I have to say no a million times for a million little reasons, and I usually don’t feel like it. Sometimes I have to say no when I’m walking past a pretty scarf at Salvation Army, or when I see a glazed sour cream donut at the grocery store. One no doesn’t work for me.  Three times is the bare minimum. I have to mutter “Nope, nope, nope” to myself, and usually when I hear myself say it, I can obey my good sense.

Saying no is not about being an ascetic or earning God’s approval. Rigor and discipline is a way to challenge the muscles of character to keep them from being flabby and wasted. It is a way to remind me of what my bigger yes is.

In addition to repeating the audible words, “Nope, nope, nope,” remembering my yes makes the wretched no easier to carry out. I choose to say yes to enjoying all the clothes already in my closet. I (sometimes) choose to say yes to feeling healthy with hummus and carrots without the sugar high of a donut.

What is your yes? We should be asking this question of each other around campfires this summer and at Sunday dinner conversations and in school meetings and on road trips. To verbalize an idea and have other people push around on it strengthens, invigorates, and motivates us to decisions and goals that earlier felt impossible.

Alex had practiced his finger holds and leg thrusts until they felt automatic on El Capitan on June 3, 2017. He had said no to PopTarts and sleeping in, and yes to his breakfast habit of oats, flax, chia seeds, and blueberries and yes to his goal of doing what had earlier felt scary and impossible. At the top, over a half-mile straight up, Alex called it a glorious climb. He had enjoyed hearing the birds swooping around the cliff. “It was the climb I wanted, and it felt like mastery.”

A lifestyle of love and service—saying yes to loving God supremely—takes grit and effort and deliberate choices. Jesus said the Kingdom belongs to those who press into it. Fruitfulness, mastery, and glorious climbs don’t happen on the default setting. If we can develop strong muscles of discipline, we  grow habits that enable God’s people to do what at first looks scary and impossible. In the heat of a crisis, in the demands of normal life, the conditioned, practiced muscles of character do their job and we enter more fully into God’s vast, beautiful design for us.


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