Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Standing Outside the Fire

Question: Does God really prompt to inaction?

By this I don’t mean those warning voices that stop eight-year olds from hopping onto wild stallions, or a mother of nine from driving her minivan onto a canyon road where an avalanche will overtake her the minute she turns up the south fork. By inaction, I the state I find myself in when I fail to act, even though I had been fully meaning to until filled by a cloud of negative energy that I interpret to mean God does not want me to go that particular way. Mostly, it is the inaction that follows the uneasy, unsettling feeling that seems to come over me (sometimes accompanied by a desire to repeatedly throw up if the activity contemplated is my first, unassisted jury trial) when the moment of reckoning draws nigh, that moment when I have to walk through the airport doors, or step out onto the college field and play third base, or say “yes.”

When I was seventeen, I spent a year in Australia as an exchange student with Rotary International. Ever since I was in eighth grade, and had seen my first exchange student (an American boy named Tim with wavy, golden hair just a little longer than the regulation South African school cut) at my high school, I had wanted to participate in the program. After a series of interviews, weekend selection camps, and waiting, waiting, waiting, I found out I was selected for the year long program. I was to leave in January 1984, about five weeks after writing my final state exams to matriculate from Westerford High School. The night before I left, I couldn’t sleep. Fear and anxiety filled the bedroom, pushing against my years of dreaming and hoping. The photos at the airport show me smiling, but my eyes are as round as half-dollars. I spent the first three nights in Dubbo, Australia, sobbing myself very quietly to sleep (I shared a room with my host sister). It was my first time away from home and I was realizing I wouldn’t see my family for a year. I experienced aching, aching night time loneliness, a deep ache that I had never felt before. But, it didn’t kill me. And when the sun came up, things were better and continued to improve, until, upon leaving a year later, I cried for three days solid on my return to South Africa. In between those book-ended six days of sobbing . . . so much more than I had ever imagined.

A few mornings ago, I pulled into my sister’s driveway a few mornings ago to pick up Adam’s backpack before school. She lives on a street I used to live on, before I traded a jacuzzi tub, easy glide kitchen drawers, and water pressure for fifty-year old maple trees, irrigation canals, and deer that eat my roses to twigs. In the driveway of another home, I see him. He’s cleaning the ice off the windshield. I do a double-take. I thought he was in Hawaii, starting his first year of university. I shout out the window, “I thought you were in Hawaii . . . Are you home for fall break?” After all, he was in shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops. Perhaps he was just refusing to temperature adjust in honor of the islands. “No,” he replies, “I never went.” “Why?” I ask. “Well, I already graduated with my associates when I graduated from high school.” “So, what are you doing now?” I ask. “Nothing,” he replies. I drove away.

A young man lies in his childhood bed in his parent’s basement. He’s about 22, recently returned from his missionary service. He still lives at home. His friends, who are going to Vegas, about six hours away, invite him along for the ride. They suggest they can drop him off in St. George so that he can meet up with one of his missionary companions. His mother does not want him to go. She cannot explain her rationale other than to say she doesn’t feel good about him going down all that way, driving on those dangerous roads. He’s a naturally obedient, compliant soul but he wants to go. At the same time, he’s afraid of his mother’s words. He lies in bed thinking. He imagines the worst that can happen to him if he goes. Perhaps he will die a fiery death on I-15 between Parowan and Paragonah. What’s the worst that will happen to him if he stays? He would never go anywhere. He would stay right where he was–in the bed he grew up in, his parents’ basement. Safe.

She speaks over the pulpit about the Spirit and how it works. She mentions the regulars. It’s a still, small voice. It’s a feeling. It’s a flood of impressions. It’s a thought that doesn’t leave. Then she gets to, it’s a warning voice. “For example,” she says, “I remember driving a road with my friends. We were going to take a certain route, but when we got to the turn off, we felt we shouldn’t. So, we went a different way. I don’t know what would have happened if we went that way. But we just felt like that was a way we shouldn’t go.” I read another account of a warning voice that seems similar: two people walking a country road with which they were familiar at night. Suddenly, they both had an impression that they should go no farther in that direction. They retraced their steps and took another way home. The next day, they wondered why they had felt constrained to stop. They went back, this time in daylight, and found that, within a few feet of where they had stopped, a bridge had washed out.

I wanted that woman who spoke to us that Sunday to finish her story: “So, we went back to that intersection the next morning, and saw that . . . there was police crime tape stretched across the road; there was a sinkhole that had just opened up; there was a tree that had fallen across the path; there was an ax murderer at the door with the three Nephites/guardian angels standing behind him (oh, wait, that’s a different story).” I didn’t want her to finish that story with a witness of the unknown and the unknowable, “I don’t know what danger we missed by not going that way but I’m sure we did miss something bad and I’m sure we were blessed for listening to that feeling.”

This conundrum, of witnessing about the unknowable, reminds me of a logical fallacy: Arguing from Ignorance. The proof goes something like this: It cannot be proven that God does not exist. Therefore he does exist. Arguments from ignorance infer that a proposition is true from the fact that it is not known to be false. In other words, “I don’t know what danger we missed by not going that way but I’m sure we did miss something and I’m sure we were blessed for listening to that feeling.” Or, “Please don’t go. I don’t feel good about you driving that road. So many things could happen.” Because it cannot be proven that harm will fall, it feels as if by not moving, harm is averted.

I know there are times when a warning voice operates to constrain certain actions. But there are more times, more often than not, when in our desire to live unruffled, peaceful, even sedate lives, we run from the anxiety that growth and experience and agency require. When we feel the upswelling of anxiety and distress that accompanies a step into the unknown, whether it’s college or a road trip or a new paint color, we choose to interpret that mix of emotions as a sign that we should not be pursuing that course of action. Of course, when the anxiety-producing choice is gone because we’ve taken it out of the picture, then we feel just fine. All our emotions are under control; the hormones levels are back to normal; the adrenalin rush has subsided. This relatively peaceful, stable state, we interpret then as a sign that we made the right choice and that God approves of our inaction. It could also be just the cessation of the flow of adrenalin and the feelings of anxiety about facing the unknown and the new. But that would make our decision so much more mundane, not as blessed. Far better to think that God’s in play and calling the shots.

This thought process brings to mind another logical fallacy I learned about in Philosophy 305–Affirming the Consequent. This logical fallacy is set up like this: The first two premises are 1) If A then B; 2) B; and the conclusion drawn is 3) Therefore A. In words, it looks something like this: If Kevin wanted to really bug me, he would wear his sandals with his Sunday socks. Kevin’s wearing his sandals with his Sunday socks. Therefore, Kevin really wanted to bug me. So, I see Kevin walk out of the bedroom with those sexy, black Costco gold toe socks on and his brown sandals. Because of my logical errors firing in my brain, I think, “I know he’s just doing that to bug me.”Realistically, there could be a myriad of reasons why he’s wearing that particularly unappealing combination: He was too tired to take off his socks. It’s comfortable. He couldn’t find a pair of clean white socks. The sandals were the closest shoes to hand when he took off his wingtips. He didn’t even think about it. All of those are good candidates to explain his behavior. Any one of these reasons is probably more accurate than my inference of him wanting to bug me royally judging by the puzzled expression on his face when he hears me fire off, “You are so not getting some tonight.” (Churching until early evening and black Sunday socks and sandals on the same day is more than any woman should have to bear.)

About twenty years ago on a warm July morning, I sat next to my mother. I was dressed in white, the white hastily chosen between graduate seminars on a hot June day. It was about fifteen minutes before I married Kevin. After the rush of the morning (I was late arriving), it was the first time I had sat to contemplate. In the quiet, I was filled with the overwhelming sense of what I was doing. Feelings of uncertainty, of the unknown, of the horror of making a mistake filled me. To be honest, you could say I was filled with dread. I looked over at this man I was to bind myself to and wondered, “How on earth can I possibly be doing this? What am I thinking?” I leaned over to my mother and said, “Oh, Mom, I don’t know. Should I do this?” I suppose I was looking for some steadfast, immoveable reassurance that getting married to this man in this place was absolutely, without doubt the right thing to do. But I didn’t get that from my mother. She whispered back, “Oh, it’s not so bad. Give it try.” I took a deep breathe . . . and did just that.

Because I said “yes” in the face of fear and anxiety, I am utterly changed in ways I could not have imagined. Imagine if I had felt that dread, and, interpreting it as God’s sign that I should not get married, had done the Julia Roberts and run down Temple Hill, past the cemetery, onto Highway 89, and headed for Ephraim. Sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it. How could a theology that proposes agency as its ultimate mode support a God that prompts to inactivity and approves of the static? It cannot. When we assign the blame to God for our own inability to act and to push through the anxiety attached to the unknown, it's akin to taking God's name in vain.

Incidentally, that young man who lay in his childhood bedroom went to St. George. He didn’t die in a crash on I-15. He’s still alive. In fact, today is his 45th birthday. He’s traveled I-15 hundreds of times since then (he’s even left the country) and has learned that the first time, for anything, is always, as it should be, tinged with fear and colored by faith.

Title: Garth Brooks, "Outside the Fire."


  1. I have felt that anxiety before a choice. I have definitely experienced the sudden feeling of foreboding right before taking an action I thought was right. And, at various times, I've both listened and disregarded. But because I know that, like you said, sometimes God really does warn us to inaction, I now immediately pray whenever that feeling comes. I ask Heavenly Father to, if the feeling is merely my own anxiety, take it away for a moment, and confirm to me the correctness of my decision. If it really is just my own fears, I always feel peace. He doesn't leave me to wallow in my anxiety, wondering if it is a heavenly omen or an upset stomach.

  2. Sorry, not finished. There have been times when it's taken a long time for me to get that answer/confirmation, but it has always been given. One particular time, I was about to leave for an interview for a job I had wanted for a long time. The interview was in a different city, and the morning I was to leave I felt an awful feeling that I shouldn't go. I didn't know what to do-- I felt that I couldn't cancel my trip at that short of notice. (My dad had agreed to go with me, and we were driving.) When I knelt and prayed, I didn't feel that it was an issue of safety. I just felt like I shouldn't go through with it. Well, I went. I was offered the job. And immediately after receiving the offer, Heavenly Father prompted me in no uncertain way to turn it down. I knew I could not accept. Rejecting that offer was one of the hardest things I had had to do up to that point in my life. This was a job I had dreamed about since childhood. Something I knew I would most likely never have the opportunity to do again. I cried many tears over that rejection.

    And now I wonder . . . did Heavenly Father prompt me to stay home so as to avoid that heartbreak? Perhaps. I feel that I grew from the experience, but I don't know if it was *necessary* for me. Perhaps it was one sorrow He wanted to save me from, if I would listen. Perhaps.

  3. Heavenly Father expects us to make many decisions for ourselves; to expect His counsel in all things(therefore, calming our fears and discomfort) is contrary to free agency, in fact, making that most precious gift null and void. Given that, we need to trust our best judgement and accept any discomfort (anxiety) that comes with "owning" our decisions.

    If we are constantly deferring to and consulting "the boss" and never taking any initiative, we will never learn, grow, gain the strength, confidence and knowledge to become a boss ourselves someday.

  4. Years ago Elder Glenn Pace gave a devotional at BYU in which he addressed the issue you write about here. He said, (paraphrasing) that to make a decision based only on the idea of "it just feels right/doesn't feel right" (ascribing divine inspiration to our own fears or ideas) without doing our homework and taking some risks, is "nothing more than a hunch." We're taught that the Lord teaches us through our mind and our heart. I wonder if we sometimes check out of the "mind" part of decision-making and default to "it just feels/doesn't feel right" to avoid accountability (and growth). To be fair, I do think that most of us are genuinely trying to do the right things, make the "right" decisions, and that perhaps we sometimes default to the above-type of thinking out of fear of going off course. But being a parent has taught me that I have a special love for that child who is willing to step out and "try," even if they mess up a bit. I honor their willingness to take the risk, to learn from the consequences of their choice, and come back for more.
    Last thought: for me, marrying my husband (a widower with 2 teens and a 10-year-old) was THE scariest thing I've ever chosen to do. Three and a half years into it I am so thankful I made that choice. In order to grow, sometimes we have to leave the Garden.
    P.S. A beautiful book (one of my favorites) that your post brings to mind is "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden."

  5. I found the talk given by Elder Pace,who was then in the Presiding Bishopric (March 1986).
    He goes into what you so beautifully illustrate--this has long been one of my favorite talks from my BYU days.

  6. My sister is in your ward and told me about your blog and your essay "Take, Eat." Thank you for that essay. I cried. I really needed to read that. Thank you for this post too. Especially for sharing the moment before you got married. Throughout my own life I've often wondered about what is "the voice of warning" vs. anxiety. The post also reminded me of Elder Holland's BYU devotional talk, "Cast Not Away Therefore Your Confidence."

    I really appreciate your honest writing.