Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.
-1 Corinthians 7:17 (NIV)
I always suspected this. Now I know my suspicions are correct. The traffic where I live is worse than anywhere else in America.
According to a study released last week, the worst traffic bottleneck in the nation is on the Kennedy Expressway (Interstate 90/94) from Nagle Avenue to the Jane Byrne Interchange.
That’s, like, a mile from where I live.
So, if you’re wondering why I haven’t solved the problems of the world by now, or invented something revolutionary, you have your answer. I’ve been sitting in traffic.
Greg Cohen, the CEO of the group that did the study, visited Chicago recently. He tried going from O’Hare Airport to downtown Chicago via the Chicago Transit Authority Blue Line train, but said that it “took forever,” so he decided to go back to the airport when it was time by taxi. “That was a nightmare too,“ he says. “I don’t know how Chicagoans deal with it.”
How do we deal with it, Greg? I’m glad you asked. How do we deal with any of the inconveniences and struggles that life brings us? How do we deal with canceled flights? Impending deadlines? Misunderstood intentions? How do we deal with the fact that, nearly every day, some of the details of life don’t go exactly as we’d like them to?
There’s the problem, those last five words: as we’d like them to. No one wants, for instance, to sit in traffic. We all feel like our time is too important to waste that way, that we’re too in demand, too necessary to the people around us, too indispensable to the events of our lives. We have to much on our to-do-lists and schedules, and more to the point we have too many ideas about the way our lives should go to tolerate realities like backed-up traffic. And so we build little worlds for ourselves in our own heads, worlds in which such indignities and inconveniences are not supposed to exist. And so we publish traffic studies that purport to equate sitting in bottlenecks with lost money — money being the best way in our world to assign value to anything.
As it turns out, I’m just far too valuable to the world to be reduced to sitting in traffic. I mean, I’ve been saying…
So when things don’t go for us as we’d like them to, does that mean nothing of consequence is happening? I’m thinking of sitting in traffic or waiting in line at the DMV or waiting to check out at the supermarket, but also I’m thinking of waiting for a better job, or any job, to come along. I’m thinking of the sometimes long journey between diagnosis and cure. I’m thinking of times when we’re struggling through family conflict, or when we’re waiting and hoping for the right person to come along at all. I’m thinking of lean economic times, and I’m thinking of cities stewing in racial tension, and I’m thinking of terrorism, and I’m asking: can it be that something good or productive or even holy might be possibly be happening in our lives while we wait for our preferred outcome? And is it possible that we might miss it if we don’t keep our hearts and minds open to that possibility?
One of the issues that Christians throughout the ages have wished the Bible spoke more directly to is the issue of slavery. Most of us feel a sense of repugnance at the notion that a human being could ever be treated as the property of another human being. History says that there’s an ethic taught in the Gospel and in the Bible that dismantles the institution of slavery. And yet, when the Bible speaks directly to the idea of slavery, it doesn’t dismantle it. It says that Christian slave owners should treat their slaves well, as family in Christ, and it says that Christian slaves should work hard, as though they’re working for the Lord and not their human masters. You’d like the Bible to read more like The Emancipation Proclamation, and instead you get Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There’s transformation, to be sure, but not revolution.
The root of that, though, is the belief that God is still God and that his work is going on in our lives, even when our lives don’t match our ideals. Put another way, we don’t have to wait until everything works out in our lives as we’d like them to for God to act for us and in us and through us. That’s how traffic jams are like slavery is like a dead-end job: in all of them, God is at work and we’re called to be a part of his work.
“If you’re a slave and freedom is a possibility, then by all means, get free,” says Paul. But his bigger point is that God has chosen us, whatever our circumstances are, and that it’s a waste of time to miss what he’s doing right now where we are while we wait for things to get better or brighter. The lives we have right now are the lives we’ve been given, and God will transform and use these lives, the ones we have right now, for his glory in the world.
So you can fret and worry and stew and smolder and complain about traffic. Or you can be in prayer (eyes open, please), or you can be on the phone (hands-free, please) with someone the Lord might bless through you right there. You can dwell on how much you hate your job, and how much you’ll do for the Lord when you finally get the decent job you deserve, but if you do you’ll miss what God wants to be doing through you and in you right now, in that dead-end job you have. You can spend your whole life dwelling on how you could have mattered if only this or that — and you will have completely missed how, in the Lord, you could have mattered exactly where you were, doing exactly what you were doing.
Live as a believer where you are, doing what you do, and God will do wonderful things. To waste your life wishing for something else is to doubt him. To trust him is to believe that he has invited you right where you are to be a part of his work in the world, and to learn to expect him to work in unusual ways and unexpected places.
Maybe even in a car stuck on the Kennedy at 5:30 in the afternoon.