The passenger seat

Growing up, we took a lot of road trips, and because this was pre-smartphone/iPad/TV-that-drops-down-from-the-roof-of-the-car, I spent a lot of time staring out the window. The other day, as I was crossing one of Portland’s many bridges, I took my eyes off the road for a split second to glance at the trees in the West Hills, growing rosy and auburn with autumn, and I realized I can’t remember the last time I was a passenger and not a driver in this city. I’m single, I live alone, I own a car, and I don’t understand Uber. I am always behind the wheel.

It is admittedly a heavy-handed metaphor, but I have spent most of my life behind the proverbial wheel, too, trying to steer myself to satisfying destinations. There have been a lot of detours, a lot of flat tires, a lot of stops for coffee. I have picked up hitchhikers, slammed on the brakes for stray dogs, and been lured in by tourist traps that, as they so often are, turned out to be colossal disappointments. I have kept Jesus in the passenger seat, in part from sheer habit, but mostly from lack of trust. In both the literal and proverbial cars, I feel more assured when I’m driving.

It never ceases to amaze me how different people can be as drivers than they are in everyday life. I have gotten into vehicles with peaceful humans who’ve turned out to treat the streets of Portland like their own real-life arena for playing Grand Theft Auto. I’ve entrusted my life to intelligent people who, come to find, have less sense of direction than a blind rat. And I have, against my better judgment, climbed inside what I assumed would be a death mobile with my more high-strung acquaintances, only to be scooted along in the right lane at ten miles per hour below the speed limit.

People are not always predictable. God isn’t either, though not in the same way. But because we are humans and most of our interactions are with other humans, we tend to apply human characteristics (including faults) to God. Sometimes, I wake up crabby for no reason. I am made in God’s image, so my tendency is to assume He does the same. That sometimes, He just doesn’t feel like dealing with me today because, I don’t know, St. Peter had the angels repaving the streets of gold all night, and it kept Him awake. My point is this: without always realizing it, we can start to believe God is as variable as we are.

Recently, I’ve tried to shift my Bible reading away from “how does this apply to my life?” to “what does this reveal about God’s character?” Of course, the second question will inherently influence the first one, but I (and many others, I’m guessing) am more inclined to put myself in the place of the humans in Scripture, to see how they approach God in times of both joy and lament, to learn how they grow as He carries them through trials. I am less inclined to consider the other perspective: how God responds when His children cry out to Him, how He receives us in happiness and in sorrow, how He leads us through the difficulties of existence.

Funny thing—when you start to read the Bible from God’s perspective, you can’t help but notice an obvious pattern: we are the ones who are inconsistent. We’re the ones who are constantly tripping up, hurtling ourselves into places we ought not to be, forgetting the One to whom we belong. God, on the other hand, is as steady as steady can be. To an extent, He shifts when we shift, but this is more the way an attentive parent opens his arms to catch a falling child than the way a negligent one turns his back and walks away. We’re the ones nosediving off monkey bars and flinging ourselves from the swings, while God remains present, consistent, and unwavering.

Last week, one of my pastors gave a sermon on idolatry, and something hit me: my chief idol is my need for control. It’s not my writing, my pride, my desire for a relationship. It’s not my health, my running, my meticulous schedule. These are the symptoms. My need for control is the disease. It’s the thing that makes me believe I’m capable of strangling my life to match up with some predetermined timeline, even while knowing I actually have very little control over anything, which only makes me hold on that much tighter.

In 2 Timothy 1:12, Paul writes, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” Oh, to have such faith. I’m more like, “I know whom I have believed, but I remain unconvinced as to whether or not he is capable of guarding my life better than I am.” I have no logical grounds for my distrust. From both personal experience and from reading Scripture, I can intellectually agree that God makes a better guardian than I do. But this, for me, is not an intellectual problem. It’s a heart problem. I have never been particularly good at trusting anyone, and I’ve suffered enough losses to know, guarded though we may be, we are not always spared from pain.

It’s interesting, that word “guarded.” It can mean “protected.” It can also mean “a posture of defensiveness.” Being a word nerd, I go for the origin, which is late Middle English, and referred to a sense of “care” or “custody.” If you are a Christian, you believe you’re in God’s care, while also knowing you live in a fallen world full of sinful humans and a spiritual reality that permits (though it does not necessarily condone) terrible things to occur. So given all of this, what, exactly, are we trusting God to do for us? I do not always know.

I’ve been working on the book I wrote during the year following my father’s death. In one of the vignettes, I talk about my fear of letting my guard down, “certain the slap of a sudden shock” would ambush me the moment I did. It concludes, “These are the aftereffects, the way you become convinced the world is held together by a single string, and you alone are responsible to keep it from fraying.” I can tell you from experience that this is a horrible way to live. But given the state of things, what choice do we have? God may be unchanging—He may be for us and not against us—but this does not change the fact that we live in an unpredictable world.

One of my good friends recently read my book. She was also with me during the week of my father’s death. When she sent me her notes, she told me she still couldn’t believe he died in such a tragic way. She said, “I also can’t help but think that this book wouldn’t have been able to come about, or maybe not as well as it did, if things would have happened differently. Nothing too significant to say about that, except that nothing is wasted when you are a child of God.”

I used to bristle at statements like this, as though suffering was part of a play written by a Divine Sadist, and yeah, okay, maybe He brought some good out of our pain, but wasn’t He perfectly capable of bringing that good without the suffering? But I no longer believe it’s that simple. Another one of my pastors has been saying over and over lately that there is no adequate theodicy that explains how a good God and a relentless evil can coexist. I had never heard that word before, so of course, I looked it up. Theodicy is “the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.” There is a word just for this. Apparently, I’m not the only one with these questions.

So we can’t, in our human understanding, reconcile God and evil. Be that as it may, we can be assured of something else: that evil does not have the last word, and that every painful experience handed over to God has the potential to have goodness birthed out of it. I believe this with every fiber of my being because I cannot, apart from or outside of Jesus, account for the healing I have experienced, when by all logic I should, by now, be an embittered shell of a sub-human, holed up in the dark and quickening my own demise. I am not full of star shine and glitter. I still have a lot of pain and a lot of questions. But I know whom I have believed, and if He is capable of redeeming even the worst of my earthly suffering, I think He might also be a God worth handing the steering wheel to. He might even be a God worth trusting.

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