The number of things I don’t know is rivaled only by the number of things that exist. I’m not trying to be humble; that’s just the way of things. Usually it doesn’t bother me though, because I never run out of things to learn, and learning is fun. (In fact, it’s downright addicting. Wikipedia should have some sort of warning label.)
But I still have days like today, when I feel overwhelmed by a decision. I feel like I don’t know enough to make it, but more information just makes the decision harder. The whole business spirals out of control, and then I start wandering around in mismatched socks, scratching at my head as though trying to dig wisdom out of my hair. (I’ve found some unexpected things there, but never wisdom.)
Being a person who tends toward emotional extremes–I like to think of my emotions as flamboyant, although they’re probably just feral–you can imagine how pleasant I am to be around when I’m under a cloud of uncertainty.
Some decisions are easy. Do I want Ice Cream? Yes, of course, thank you. (Frankly my circumstances don’t matter. I’ll pretty much always answer that question affirmatively, especially if hot fudge is involved.) Do I want to turn my computer off and go to bed for the night? No; stop pestering me. (Again, that answer is mostly independent of circumstances, even when my computer isn’t working and all I’m doing is staring at it with frustration and anger. The only sleep-related thing I like less than having to go to bed at night is having to wake up in the morning.)
As a thoroughgoing idealist, I even have an easy time making decisions that usually fall under the heading of “troubling” or “gut wrenching.” Do I fight back when people slander me and my job is at stake? I probably want to; idealism doesn’t make me less human. It’s more important to me whether I love my accusers, though–I forgive them and strive to protect their reputations–than whether or not their lies are believed. Frankly, while virtue is as difficult to implement as pragmatism is easy, virtue is as clear a guide as pragmatism is murky. While walking well down a good path is clearly the best situation, I’d rather stumble down a good path than walk well down a bad one.
Unfortunately, sometimes the choices aren’t that obvious. Like today.
The obvious Christian answer is prayer, and I’m certainly not going to criticize it. Prayer is actually a pretty good response to any situation, and often the best response available. However, you can’t spend any amount of time praying without learning that prayer isn’t simple. God doesn’t (usually) dispense answers in fortune cookies and he can’t be invoked as though he were electricity and prayer were a light switch.
It’s not even enough to talk about how prayer is a relationship, although that’s certainly true too and the reason for many of its nuances. When I relate to my wife, it’s never so simple as either the cookie cutter or light switch metaphors; I wouldn’t expect it to be. I’m usually even reasonable enough to understand that that isn’t my wife’s fault. (Sometimes she’s even reasonable enough to say it’s not mine either.) Complexity is a feature of personhood.
A lot of the issue with prayer revolves around what sort of relationship is involved. God isn’t primarily someone like my wife, a person equal but other. He’s also not primarily someone like my friends, who are also equal but other. In fact, the entire notion of equality has to be eliminated. (Otherness is important though, and gets to stay. God isn’t the universe and I am not one with him.) I can’t even hedge a little bit and say that God is primarily someone like my father, a person to whom I am admittedly not equal. Though I adore him, my father isn’t great enough, and in some ways I’m actually a little better than he is. (Mostly by virtue of having a few decade’s less wear on my poor bones.)
The relationship is better approximated by my relationship with my daughter. She’s an adorably pesky bundle of helpless independence, as relentless in pursuing her own will as she is ignorant of its consequences. I am the person determined to love her, nurture her, protect her, and help her, even if she hates me for it.
When she relates to me, she is entirely at my mercy. I may not give her what she wants. I may give her what she desperately doesn’t want. I may or may not try to explain my actions. I may not heed her complaints. She doesn’t get a vote in my decisions; she can’t use leverage to sway me.
To me anyway, when I think about being in my daughter’s position, that all sounds pretty terrifying and uncomfortable. Those are pretty much all of the reasons I don’t enjoy prayer sometimes. I’m sure that’s why my daughter screams and throws tantrums, and why I do the same thing with God more frequently than I care to admit. (Oddly, I don’t find the parent experience to be that much less terrifying and uncomfortable. Better God than I.)
No relationship can be understood from a single perspective, though.
The other morning we dressed my daughter in her adorable swimming suit, slathered her with sunscreen, and made ready for an expedition. She immediately ran to the back door, ready to play outside in her little plastic wading pool. I was less than supportive. I kept telling her to wait, kept trying to get her to play with her toys in the living room so that I could help my wife get ready. I finally took her outside, but I didn’t bring out her wading pool.
I’m pretty sure she was confused and disappointed. It didn’t get any better. We came back inside after a couple of minutes, and I kept telling her to play with her toys in the living room. I even played with her for a while, but she wanted to play in water.
This went on for about an hour. She kept getting more and more upset. She wanted to go outside and play, and when I wouldn’t let her, she started doing the sorts of things she knows she’s not supposed to do. She climbed the baby gate, threw her toys in frustration, and generally tried to make my life as miserable as I was making hers. When I put her in timeout, she just got angrier.
Of course, what she didn’t know was that we were going to go swimming in a neighbor’s pool. My daughter absolutely adores any chance to go into swimming pools, and my wife had arranged an opportunity. One with a bunch of unusual whale shaped floatation devices even. I couldn’t have explained any of that to my daughter if I tried. It would have all been meaningless words about how I wasn’t going to let her play in her wading pool.
You might be wandering: what does all of this have to do with me being grumpy about making a decision?
When I’ve prayed about it, it’s frustrated me that God didn’t give me a clear answer. It’s seemed like he’s pointed one direction, but then nothing came of it. I thought he pointed another, but nothing came of it. I felt confused and disappointed, then impatient and angry.
However, at no point during that morning above were my daughter’s attempts to relate to me left unanswered. She never cried out, but found that no one was listening. I was always there for her, always planning and working for her good and happiness. I wasn’t trying to trick her; I wasn’t toying with her. I didn’t want her to be confused and I tried to keep her from having to be impatient.
Now, I’m not trying to say that the complexities of my current situation are going to be resolved when God introduces whatever the metaphorical equivalent of the neighbor’s pool might be. However, I know that God is at least as faithful and loving as I am. He knows more than me and hasn’t forgotten me. If I follow him, he’ll lead me according to his good will. My confusion will pass; my distress will be resolved.
Prayer is about trying to do what I wish my daughter had done: Trust.