On Trying to be Taller

The truth of the matter is that, despite my best efforts with good posture and steely glares, I am shorter than the average American woman. Going after things that are out of my reach is so much a part of my life that I hardly think about it. During a recent painting project I nearly wiped out standing with one foot on the top rung of a none-too-steady ladder and the other on top of the water heater, while stretching with all my might and main to fit my paintbrush into the farthest, backest corner of the 10-foot ceiling. I regularly plot my trajectory from points A through D: plant knee on counter, hork self to kneeling position, carefully stand upright on slick granite, reach high above head to top of cabinet. Often I stand on one foot and reach with the opposite arm, straining hard in an effort to elongate my spine.

“Why don’t you ask me to get that for you?” my husband asks if he happens to be around. Well, why don’t I? Habit, I guess, or impatience. Greg doesn’t go through what I go through to reach things. He puts up his hand without even stretching his arm to full length, both feet on the floor—no strain, no problem, almost no conscious effort. Then he grabs the thing and hands it to me without any apparent understanding of what a remarkable thing he has done.

“Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?” Jesus asks in Matthew 6:27. A cubit is roughly the length of a human forearm. This would be a significant increase in height—enough to get me to the top shelf of the cabinet with no trouble at all.

The verse is part of a beautiful passage, Matthew 6:25-34, on worry. I am a worrier by nature and have come back again and again to this passage since first reading it in my teens. Lately, it’s verse 27 in particular that keeps recurring to me. The question is rhetorical. None of us can add a cubit to his stature by worry (“taking thought” in the language of the 1611 King James), any more than I can increase my height by straining for something out of reach. Both are exercises in futility, a waste of energy and time.

And yet worry snares me again and again. Often it’s little things that get me started. A young friend’s Facebook post hints at depression, a spoken word has something amiss with the tone, a shadow passes over a face, and my mind is off and running on some wild extrapolation. This is the gift and curse of being a writer: I imagine huge sprawling networks of What Might Happen. My vocation had given me lots of practice at ferreting out the nuances of human emotion and motivation, and I flatter myself that most of my guesses are pretty close to the mark. But sometimes I’m way off. The uncertainty, when applied to someone I care about, drives me crazy.

I want to draw a circle of protection around all those I consider mine and keep them safe from physical harm, foolish choices, darkness of spirit. I know I can’t do it. And yet the compulsion persists. I have this sort of primal belief—shared, I think, by one of my children—that my worry actually accomplishes something, that it holds things together and keeps disaster at bay, like the hypothetical Higgs boson which, if I understand it correctly, keeps atoms together so the universe doesn’t fly to pieces.

Fear, in and of itself, is not irrational. Disaster is not some rare anomaly outside the norm of the fallen world; it’s ever-present in possibility and actuality. Security is an illusion. Sudden violence can maim or destroy life in an instant, and foolish, reckless actions can shipwreck a promising future. I’ve seen it happen over and over.

So fear has its place. The Bible admonishes us to fear legitimate authority, the natural consequences of sin, and God himself. But it also admonishes us not to make fear a crippling mental habit. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). For the Christian, life is more than a bewildering maelstrom of folly and violence. Life has meaning and order, even the tragic parts. God has good plans for his children. And prayer changes things.

I know some people say prayer doesn’t really change anything except the one doing the praying. The future is fixed, immutable; an answered prayer is only one which happens to coincide with the outcome God has predetermined. In other words, it has no effect whatsoever on actual events; but it does in some way draw the intercessor closer to God. If that’s true, then frankly, I don’t have time for it. I’ll spend my energy trying to change things on my own steam, and I’ll never know a moment’s peace of mind.

But the Bible doesn’t bear out the idea of prayer as an exercise in self-improvement rather than a means to change things. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16); it doesn’t just make the man himself a better Christian. Exodus 32:7-14 records a mind-boggling incident (discussed at length in this thought-provoking article) in which the prayer of Moses actually causes God to turn away from a stated purpose and do something else.

I’m not dismissing God’s sovereignty. I just believe that it’s broad enough to incorporate man’s choice in a meaningful way, so that our actions, including prayer, make a genuine difference in the outcome of events—that God actually designed the system to work in such a way that in some instances he waits on our prayers.

I should make it clear that prayer is something I have not been as faithful about as I’d like. Unbelief whispers in my ear the oldest lie in recorded history, that God doesn’t really have my best interests at heart, that he’ll give me a stone when I ask for bread. Another voice sighs that prayer doesn’t change things anyway, other than some vague internal change to me personally.

So I turn to worry instead. Worry is like the strain of trying to make myself taller than I am, to exert power I don’t have. By sheer effort and will, I expect to extend my reach past the stature God has granted me. Prayer is the appeal to the hand that reaches with effortless grace and takes hold of what is beyond my grasp.

It isn’t worry, mine or anyone else’s, that holds the universe together. It’s God himself. “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist” (Colossians 1:16-17).

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by a burden to pray for certain individuals. At such times I feel an almost physical heaviness, a prompting I dare not disobey. It pushed me out the door yesterday with a leashed dog at my side, into the cool April freshness, where I asked God’s providence for the people on my heart—for clarity, truth, light, wisdom, protection, guidance, everything I could think of.

Over my forty-one years, I’ve wasted more time and energy in worry than I care to recount—all for nothing. I didn’t accomplish anything other than sleep-deprivation. All that effort didn’t make me omnipotent, any more than my dangerous stunt on the ladder made me taller. I don’t want to waste any more of whatever years I have left. God waits on me to say the word; he wants to lavish grace and wisdom and comfort on the people he’s placed on my heart, people he loves with a far greater love than mine.

The Eye In The Sky

You can tell a lot about someone by the superpowers he’d like to have. My primary powers of choice are two. First, supersmartness consisting of flawless memory coupled with the ability to instantly assimilate new data in a meaningful way. Second, superspeed that amounts to virtually stopping time while I get stuff done—like assimilating all that data. Put those abilities together, and you have what might be called practical omniscience.

So what does this say about me? That I am a nerd. That I feel a need to control the people and events around me. That I value information and see it as a means to security and power.

Most folks scoff too readily at control freaks. They seem to assume that a wholesale relinquishment of control would be a good time. Truth is, loss of control often leads to loss of life and resources, occasioning the lament, If only I had done this or that at the critical moment, all this destruction and waste could have been prevented.

Of course I’m so simpleminded as to rationally believe that I can or ought to exercise this level of control. Things just aren’t as simple as they appear to me. If I really did have the power to go back and change the thing that appeared to be the catalyst for all that went wrong, a multitude of dependencies besides the ones I’m concerned with would also be altered, leading to outcomes I couldn’t possibly have predicted. For it to work at all, you’d have to be truly omniscient, not just comparatively so; and anyone who is truly omniscient is God and not yours truly. End of story.

Yet the mindset persists. It haunts the present, making me think, What juncture am I at right now that will become the crucial past choice of the future? Will it be a choice I’ll have just cause to regret?

Smallville’s Chloe Sullivan: “It’s easy to think that having all the information is the same as having all the answers.”

“Your biggest problem, Mom,” my eighteen-year-old son told me once, “is that you second-guess yourself.” Boy, did he nail that one.

Various Scriptures, such as Romans 16:27, Jude 1:25, and 1 Timothy 1:17, refer to God as the “only wise.” Of course this doesn’t mean that wisdom never appears outside of the person of God; the Bible makes it clear that God grants wisdom to people. But this wisdom is always partial, limited by our own limits. God alone sees the whole picture. The best course of action for me as a Christian is to pray for wisdom and trust that God will give me as much as I need in any given situation.

A serious impediment to my prayer life is the feeling I often get that I shouldn’t be praying for X; I should have already taken care of X myself. Self-castigation keeps a running commentary in my head, nagging me with the feeling that no matter what I do, it’s not enough. The accusation I fear most is that of laziness. And there is a peculiarly Christian laziness that boils down to using grace as an excuse for sloth.

James 1:5 is a life-saver and sanity-restorer for people like me.

If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

Those three words, “and upbraideth not,” make all the difference in the world. God doesn’t give grudgingly, blaming us for the frailty that compels us to ask, but graciously, liberally, gladly.

I will make missteps. I will continue to have just cause for regret. Even in the retrospect of lucid old age (a blessing I pray God will grant me), some things will remain mysteries to me until the life to come. But my portion of wisdom is enough—not because it feels like enough, but because it’s what God grants me. And I can safely trust his character, even when I cannot comprehend his means.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
Thy justice like mountains high soaring above
Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.

To all life thou givest—to both great and small;
In all life thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish—but naught changeth thee.

Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
But of all Thy rich graces this grace, Lord, impart
Take the veil from our faces, the vile from our heart.

All laud we would render; O help us to see
’Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee,
And so let Thy glory, Almighty, impart,
Through Christ in His story, Thy Christ to the heart.

~Walter Chalmers Smith, hymnist, poet, minister of the Free Church of Scotland

Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

~1 Timothy 1:17