Off By One Degree

There’s an old sermon illustration about an airplane leaving New York for some island destination hundreds or thousands of miles away. Only there’s something wrong with the aircraft’s navigation system and it winds up being off by one degree.

Needless to say, when the pilot has logged the planned flight (or thinks he has), he looks all around and cannot see his destination anywhere because he has missed the mark by a considerable number of miles. It’s all open sea, and the pilot is in trouble.

I thought I might do a little simple math here to flesh this story out, but it turns out the math is anything but simple. Apparently, to figure out how far off one would be from the intended destination, you must divide the original angle by two, take the sine of the result, multiply that by the distance traveled, then multiply the result by two.

So, yeah, I’m not going to do that. I had calculus in 1995, but I don’t remember what a sine is. Let’s just agree that if your course was off by one degree, you wouldn’t get where you were trying to go. And the further away your destination, the greater the error.

And so, if you were trying to arrive somewhere a thousand miles away, you’d be further off than if you were only traveling a hundred miles. And if you were hoping to land somewhere infinity miles away . . .

“Welcome to Jamaica! Er…wait.”

Yet, despite this common sense/advanced math, this is exactly how we tend to arrive at an understanding of God. We point ourselves in his general direction (usually, like, up), nuance our flight path based on where we expect him to be, and put the petal to the metal.

This continues to be the most popular way for people to try and encounter their Creator. And it’s even popular in the Church. This is what we call natural theology—starting with man and extrapolating our way up to God. It’s enduring and popular, partially because it assumes that God is basically like us. I often hear people say things like, “I just can’t believe in a God who would ___” or “If I were God, I would never ___.”

The world especially loves this approach. Problem is, it’s ridiculous on every level. I mean, in an attempt to discover the mind and character of an infinite, eternal, omnipresent God, I start with me and my values and preferences, which are largely determined by the rather arbitrary variables of where and when I happen to live?

Think about how many sins of fifty years ago are now considered okay, or even worthy of celebration. Or how many criminal acts in one country are vanguards of freedom and free-thought in another, even today. When we set our divine-navigation systems from the ground up, they are calibrated largely based on what little speck we happen to inhabit in the vastness of space and time. And then, based on that set of circumstances and my own personal proclivities, I make my way up infinity miles and there I find “God,” who just happens to be the best version of me I can imagine (again, based on the shifting sand of my particular mind in my particular time and place).

This is foolishness to the Nth degree. You and I would never board a plane if the pilot were using this approach, even for a flight of a couple hundred miles. And yet, not only in the world, but in the Church, this is standard practice.

The result is a god who changes with our own whims and our society’s values (rather than a God who is unchanging, who can help us establish our own desires and our communal values), and looks increasingly like a hype-man and enabler for humankind.

…and a good hype man is hard to find.

Sounds kind of hopeless, doesn’t it? I mean, how could we ever hope to know God if we can’t start with what we find in our own sinful hearts and work our way up to him? Well, that’s the good news! Instead of us lamely trying to grope our way up to him in the dark (which is impossible, Rom 10:6), he came down to us, shining as light in the darkness. He came to reveal God to us directly.

This is the only way we can truly know him, his character, his will, or his plan. And yet our culture continues at every turn to insist that we dictate upward to God what he should be, what he should command, what he should value, what he should think—and continues to mock those who cling to God’s self-revelation, rooted in his coming down.

They don’t even mind that this would make God the most fickle, indecisive, unprincipled, spineless follower to ever exist. They’re just happy that it comforts them with false assurance that God is indeed most concerned with affirming fallen men and women—not saving them, and certainly not demanding that they deny themselves and take up a cross..

Yes, God is an ever-changing being by this way of thinking (which even bleeds into the church visible). Sure, we acknowledge that God has revealed himself, but then we accept the parts of his revelation that we like and bounce back up the stuff that doesn’t work for us, along with orders on how he needs to adjust to meet our felt needs and conform to our sophisticated sensibilities.

We have a tendency to re-make God in our image instead of pleading with him to remake us in his. Click to Tweet

As we waffle back and forth, condemning A and affirming B (or vice versa), we think we can upload these preferences back to God, sort of updating his firmware.

We all have this tendency within us, to re-make God in our image, instead of pleading with him to remake us in his. When we find this in ourselves—when we find ourselves thinking, “God wouldn’t do that or say that or command that because I wouldn’t,” where we tend to subconsciously think of God as growing and evolving with us—repent and abandon those thoughts.

Such a god would not be worth knowing and certainly not worth following, as he would himself be a follower. In fact, he would be our creation, not the other way around.

Let us recommit to knowing God on his terms, listening and obeying, and trusting an infinite God’s navigation system to be infinitely more accurate than ours.

Zach is pastor at Judson Baptist Church in Lansing, MI and the author of Playing Saint, The Last Con, and a few other books. He's husband to Erin, father to Calvin, and lover of gourmet coffee and fine cigars. He's the author of Playing Saint, The Last Con, and The Christian Gentleman's Smoking Companion