This might be a bit dated, but do you remember the bumper sticker, “If God is your co-pilot, switch seats?” I understand the intention, but I have to admit that nearly every pilot I know eventually wants to fly from the left seat. Although the two seats are physically only a couple of feet apart, there is a big difference between them in terms of responsibility and decision making. This is especially true in smaller aircraft. On the larger passenger jets, the destination and route of flight are routinely predetermined and fairly consistent. But in smaller aircraft, the pilot has a bit more freedom. As the PIC (pilot-in-command), if you want to fly to a remote, uncontrolled airport for lunch (commonly called the $100 hamburger by aviators), you can. As long as you follow the FAA rules and the weather cooperates, you get to choose your destination and how to get there. Neil Armstrong once said, “Pilots take no special joy in walking. Pilots like flying.” He was right.
Consider this: if God offers us the opportunity to sit in the left seat, does He really want us to comfortably park ourselves in the right seat and stay there? After all, if God didn’t want us to make important decisions, then He never should have put the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. If that one tree didn’t get planted, then Adam and Eve would never have been tempted to eat its fruit. A problem never created is a problem solved, right? If Adam and Eve never had to choose, maybe life would be a lot simpler.
Be honest though, would you really want to live in that world?
Perhaps there is a balance we need to find between sitting in the left or the right seat; between deciding where we want to go and asking God to point the way; and between asking for God’s will to be done, or ours.
In our discussion of the Lord’s Prayer, the third petition seems to lean toward life in the right seat. “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) Quite simply, we are praying that God’s will is accomplished on the earth and in our lives. However, this prayer does not specify our role in the decision-making process. Are we simply praying that our will is in line with God’s will or that God’s will is done in spite of our will? Either way, the good news is that at least we are participating in a conversation with God.
The greatest danger comes when we stop participating altogether. In the midst of a difficult decision or personal crisis, we may be tempted throw up our hands and remove ourselves entirely from the process. Or, and this might be an even more perilous scenario, we are so afraid of God saying, “No,” that we don’t bother asking. Instead, we simply stow “our will” deep in the cargo hold of our soul and tell ourselves that what we want never mattered anyway.
Praying for God’s will to be done should never be an excuse for our lack of involvement in process. Sometimes, we discover the greatest insights into our truest identity when we realize that “our will” does not harmonize with God’s. And sometimes, a “no” is what we desperately need to turn our lives around and start moving forward in the right direction.
In fact, God expects to tell us “no” more than a few times throughout our lifetime. But, God also expects us to keep asking. If you have been around children for more than ten minutes, you know that simply telling them “no” will not end the conversation. Relationships are not built on one word answers. So, when we receive a “no” from God, asking “why” is not only appropriate, but also necessary for our growth. To help with this very process, there are several places in the Bible where we are given some common reasons why our will might not be aligning with God’s. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
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You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
In high school, our coach always gathered us together for a pre-game prayer. The entire team would take a knee before God while Coach made three requests:
1.) No injuries on either team (so far, so good…)
2.) Both teams would play their best (makes sense…)
3.) And, that our team would win (oh, so close…)
That last request turned a corner. If we are asking something of God, regardless of how it affects others, then maybe we are forgetting one of the foundational principles we learned from the Lord’s Prayer. The entire Lord’s Prayer, each of the seven requests, are written in the plural; spoken for a community. What is best for “us” (our need) should shape what “I” need. That foundational shift may better align us with God’s will.
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But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. Just as, when I called, they would not hear, so, when they called, I would not hear, says the LORD of hosts.
(Zechariah 7:11, 13)
When the time came to deliver the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God sent Moses to Pharaoh with a simple command, “Let my people go.” Repeatedly, Pharaoh either said, “No” or quickly changed his mind after initially agreeing. To describe Pharaoh’s obstinance, the author used some form of the phrase “Pharaoh hardened his heart.” Physiologically, we know that this is not an accurate diagnosis. Pharaoh’s heart was still ka-thumping just as it had before Moses arrived. Pharaoh’s “hard heart” was an idiomatic way of describing his stubbornness.
When I was in seminary, I took a theory of translation class with a professor who had been a translator all over the world. In one of our classes, he mentioned that he ran into a problem with how to translate “hard heartedness” into some African dialects. In these languages, the idiom “hard hearted” was used to describe someone who was strong, courageous, or brave. So, he sought for other local idioms for a person who was stubborn or obstinate. The suggestion of local speakers was to describe Pharaoh as someone who has “no holes in his ears.” I think we could really use this idiom today…
Listening is not a passive process. When we listen, we do not put our consciousness in neutral and wait for information to be uploaded through our auditory ports. Listening to God and others is an active, thoughtful process, and one which deserves our best effort.
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If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.
Right after the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6, Jesus warns us that if we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven. (Matthew 6:14-15) The math is simple. If we hold onto grudges, clench our fists around past wrongs, or decide to cling to what we know is wrong, then we have, by default, stopped listening to God. If we continue to ignore or selectively follow God’s instructions, we have stopped listening. Anger, hatred, stubbornness, and sin all harden our heart and clog our ears. And, when our ears close, God appears to close His. We reap what we sow.
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If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.
In the 16th century, Theresa of Avila was asked, “How do we know if we love God?” After all, according to Jesus, loving God is the first and greatest commandment. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37) But, how do you know you are really doing this? Is there a loving-God meter? How do we get feedback?
Theresa says that we can’t really know. Even if we think we love an unseen God, are we loving Him with all of our heart, all of our soul, and all of our mind? Theresa goes on to say, that while we cannot be certain that we are loving God with all of our heart, we can be certain that we are loving those around us. They can give us feedback. We can objectively know if we are loving our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:38). Again, the math is very simple. The more we love our neighbors, family, and friends, the more certain we can be that we are really loving God. And, that is exactly what He asked us to do.
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There are times, however, when we all are at a loss for words. We simply don’t know what to say or what to ask. When something shakes us to our core, or when a diagnosis that we did not want to hear echoes through the room, words may fail us.
A couple of years ago, about 3:00 in the morning, we were roused from our bed by a firm knock on the front door. At the time, only one of our three kids lived at home. The other two were living in apartments near their college campuses. Instantly awake, I went to the door and peered through the peep hole. On the other side stood a police officer. I took a step back from the door as my heart began to race. My vision narrowed and the world fell silent. My words failed and my mind raced through every possibility that might cause a police officer to be standing at my door at 3:00 in the morning.
I prayed one word before reaching for the door handle. “Help.” That is all I could muster. I did not specify how. Just, “Help.” I needed God to fill in the blanks.
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul wrote:
…the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)
When all we have are tears, a word, or a deep silence, it is the Spirit of God, who knows us and knows God, who steps in. We are never alone in our conversation with God. Even when all we can say is “Help,” God is listening.
I opened the door, waiting for my life to radically change in that moment. The officer then pointed to my truck and politely said, “Sorry to bother you, but I was driving by and noticed that the dome light in your truck was on. Thought you would like to know. Have a good night.” He turned and walked away.
On the one hand, I was grateful to this observant officer because my truck started in the morning. On the other hand, going back to sleep was no longer an option. Had God answered my prayer? Oddly, yes. I was now fully awake. I had an opportunity in those early morning hours to talk to God about somethings I had been taking for granted in the busyness of daily life. I had an opportunity to thank God - really thank God -
that my family was sleeping comfortably,
that a new day was breaking and filled with opportunity,
that I had an opportunity to really listen to God,
and that even though God lets us occupy the left seat,
He never leaves the plane.