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Trusting the Instruments
August 15, 2007
Trusting our instruments rather than our sight or instincts.
A few months ago I was watching a program called “Mayday,” which I believe is actually several other shows all rolled into one and branded for a Canadian audience. It is a show about disasters, and most notably, plane crashes. It sounds morbid, I admit, but I find it interesting (though I’ll admit that it has made my children inordinately afraid of flying. They are now convinced that every plane crashes). This particular episode was playing in the middle of the night at a time when I was awake with some variation of the stomach flu. So I sat and watched and let it take my mind of my illness.
On this night the show followed the story of a plane that had nearly crashed years before. The plane had been flying along just as it should and all appeared normal when suddenly it began to experience all kinds of strange problems. It gyrated across the sky, plummeting thousands of feet at a time and turning violently to one side. One and then two of the four engines stalled and failed, leaving the plane without the power it needed to maintain level flight. The pilot and copilot responded instinctually, doing their best to right the course of the aircraft. Meanwhile hundreds of passengers waited in abject terror, not knowing if they would live or die. The pilots fought valiantly and eventually found they were able to control the plane. Mysteriously, the engines started again and they were able again to provide sufficient power. The pilots directed the plane to a nearby airport and landed safely. Only a handful of passengers experienced serious injury though the plane sustained heavy damage from the immense loads placed on it during flight.
In the aftermath, investigators found that almost everything that had occurred had been the fault of the pilots. When the plane encountered some turbulence the plane’s flight manual told the pilots how to react. But they relied on instinct rather than the book. And then, when the plane began to experience further complications, they ignored the instruments that should have directed them to the source and solution of their problem. They swung the plane violently from side to side attempting to right it because they ignored the aircraft’s instrument that told them where the horizon was and how to keep the plane level. They ignored the instruments that told them that their engine problem was not as serious as they thought. Blinded by the stress of the situation, they ignored the manual and did things their own way. But for the hand of providence it could have cost them their lives and the lives of hundreds of passengers.
I often jot down little phrases or sentences, things I want to ponder and consider at another time. Not too long ago I wrote down the words “trusting the instruments (flying blind).” As I thought about those words I was reminded of this story from “Mayday.” Those pilots refused to trust their instruments, relying instead on their flawed understanding of the situation. Even though they thought they could see clearly out the front of the plane, they were in fact flying blind because they refused to heed the information conveyed to them by their instruments. In Polishing God’s Monuments Jim Andrews makes a similar connection, talking about a similar incident, but one that led to the plane crashing to earth.
What made this even a double calamity was the lethal convergence of two factors: bad weather and pilot error. The investigative report of the incident indicated the unfortunate pilot was flying in heavy fog. It went on to explain that when a pilot is flying in those conditions, it is vital that he rely solely on his instruments as opposed to flying “by the seat of his pants.” This is because without a visual point of reference, one’s senses can be easily fooled into thinking the plane is doing the exact opposite.
Though the pilot in this story was apparently quite experienced, he was notorious among his peers for having one fatal flaw: he tended to rely predominantly on the feel of the plane and his visual reference, rather than to trust the guidance of his instruments. In the report, his colleagues remarked that they could never understand why such a well-trained pilot was so disposed to this grievous error, though they warned that for new pilots, it’s not an easy skill to master.
Neither is it an easy spiritual lesson to learn.
We are prone to this same foolishness in our spiritual lives. Rather than trusting in our “instruments,” in the revealed Word of God, we so often trust in our instincts and our internal guidance. Rather than relying on what is given to guide us and what is far more trustworthy, we rely on things that are always changing, always imperfect. As Andrews says, there is a difference “between walking by faith and walking by feelings—trusting our instruments rather than our sight or instincts. In the fog of life our feelings will mock our faith and fairly scream at us that God has walked out on us, but our instruments will always reassure us that he is still there, walking right beside us.”
This is not to say that our feelings are useless or that we should never heed them. God gave us feeling and emotion for a reason and they often serve as useful guides to what is happening in our hearts. It often seems that those who place the greatest emphasis on revealed truth are those who place the least emphasis on feelings. This should not be so. But we must always realize that only one of these is a standard; only one is firm and unchanging; only one is perfect.
It is good to have the revealed Word available to us. It is this Word that provides the unchanging standard, the instruments that can reassure us, even when the fog is heavy, when the engines have stopped and when we don’t know whether we’re going up or down.