I don’t like airplanes. Call me crazy, but there’s something about 400 tons of steel, suitcases, and human flesh that leads me to believe that it doesn’t belong in the sky. Even though I’m growing gradually more willing to fly (thanks in large part to this book) it’s still difficult for me to feel comfortable on an airplane. The door swings shut, my ears pop, and scenes from countless films involving air disasters flood my mind. Remember that Uruguayan rugby team that had to eat each other to survive after their plane crashed? That’s the kind of stuff I think about when I get in an airplane.
I just returned from an 11 day trip to Chile with the high school students from our church, and I somehow survived the twelve-hour flights (each way, plus an hour layover in Lima, Peru. It was a long freaking time to be in an airplane.) But as is my ritual, I spent some time with God the day before our flight left. I asked Him humbly to protect our flight and to bless our trip, and to get us to and from our destination safely. As I was wrapping up my time of prayer, I snuck in a request, hoping to receive a quick response to put my uneasy spirit at rest. “God,” I asked, “Can you please give me the assurance that the flights will be safe, and that I will return home in one piece?” I shuffled from my seat, ready to wrap up my prayer time, when suddenly the voice in my head that I frequently attribute to God came back to me clear as day.
“No,” it said.
Wait. What? Why not?
Lately I’ve been asking God this question a lot: “God, if you’re so big and powerful, then why won’t you just _______?” It sounds like a childish question for a pastor to ask, but it’s a question that rings in my head every time something doesn’t happen the way I want it to. So, if God is so big and powerful, then why wouldn’t He just tell me things would be ok? Looking at this situation retrospectively, I see now that I am indeed alive and well, and that my plane did not go down in a horrifying ball of flames like I had feared.
So why wouldn’t God just let me in on that? All I needed was a little, “You’ll be fine,” and I would have been content.
But I got no such thing.
I thought about this for a while that night, and I pondered the possibility that I might die on tomorrow’s flight (statistically laughable, I know. But a lingering fear for many nonetheless). Why does it seem like God rarely gives me the assurance that I am looking for?
If you’ve been following me blog (or talking with me face-to-face) lately, you’ll know that I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the idea of suffering. It’s an infuriating mystery to me. Why must we suffer and, perhaps more importantly, why are followers of Christ called to suffer? If we are called to suffer, you’d hope that God would at least give us a heads-up when we’re not going to suffer so that we can have peace of mind.
But maybe there’s something to learn about God here.
It came to my attention, in asking God for assurance, that He was unwilling to give me any. I don’t mean this to say that God was arbitrarily opposed to giving me information or comfort. I mean that my having this specific information and comfort was counter to His will. He did not desire that I should have it. His desire was that I face uncertainty head-on.
One of my favorite songs of all time is The Self-Employed Chemist by Norma Jean. Towards the end of the song, there is a haunting refrain in which vocalist Cory Putman asks, “What if I have to lose? What if I have to suffer?” This is a question I return to often, and the very question God forces us to ask when He refuses to give us the assurance we so desire.
Anxiety is a longing to avoid uncertainty. Perhaps herein lies our love affair with logically repeatable experiments and predictable outcomes. While certainly not altogether bad, such desires for the repeatable are perhaps symptomatic of a deeper fear of the unknown. We want to see the same sort of predictable outcomes in our lives. But it doesn’t always work that way. And apparently God doesn’t want it to.
We face uncertainty everyday, provided we chose to go on living for one more day. Will I slip and fall in the shower? Will I experience something embarrassing today? Will I lose my job? Will a loved one die unexpectedly? Will I die unexpectedly? Will I go to heaven when I die? Is there a heaven at all? Is there a God at all? Do I really exist?
What do we chose to do in the face of the necessary uncertainty of life? This is the question that defines the type of people we are; the type of Christians we are. God’s desire, it seems, is not that we be certain about anything, but that we be faithful in everything.
I was forced to answer whether or not I would heed the call to lead students to serve God in Chile even if it meant that I may die en route. I asked God, “Will I die in a plane crash on the way to Chile?” God responded, “What if you do?”
What if I have to lose?
What if I have to suffer?
Every day is an agonizing opportunity to answer these questions. Do we continue to progress, to move, to wake up, to love, and to hope in the face of potential loss? If we truly want to live, we must. And, perhaps, the more uncertainty we face, the more we truly live.