On The Road

“Broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”(Matthew 7:13-14)

In July, 2017, an Episcopal priest was charged with two counts of aggressive assault with a deadly weapon when he pulled alongside a pickup truck near Palm City, Florida and waved his Glock 22 handgun at the occupants.  There are differing accounts as to what led up to this incident – the priest claims that someone in the pickup threw a soda bottle at his sports car; those in the pickup claim the priest cut them off in traffic and slammed on his brakes before pulling his gun.  Either way, it is yet one more unfortunate example of how road rage has infused the souls of so many people.  Indeed, it is believed that at least 8 million drivers in the United States engage in some form of road rage each year, with a scary 66% of traffic deaths being caused by aggressive driving.

When I hit my early 50’s I hated to drive.  The morning commute was particularly nerve-racking with heavy traffic, seasonal darkness, and crazy drivers (like myself).  I came to dread this daily ritual.  It seemed that someone would always cut me off or delay me or otherwise irritate me on the road.  There were many mornings when I arrived at the office fuming over one encounter or another and literally sweating from the commute.  The frustrations grew until I was on the road to an emotional crisis.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this would turn out to be an inflection point in my spiritual journey.

I had developed a number of bad driving habits over the years.  Sometimes I was aggressive behind the wheel, and often passive aggressive. I never pulled a gun on anyone, but there were times when I fanaticized about what I might do if I had one. Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised at what was happening to me.  My impatience had been unchecked for so long that my soul was fracturing.  I was reaping the consequences in the form of daily distress and anxiety on the road.  NT Wright succinctly explains my situation, “Anybody can learn a vice – all you have to do is to go into neutral, slide along the way life is going and before long the habits of life will have you in their grip or vice.” (Interview)  He goes on to write, That’s the point of the word ‘vice’: once the habits settle down, they will have you in a grip which you won’t be able to loosen.” (After You Believe – Why Christian Character Matters)

Wright is correct, bad habits are hard to break, very hard.  In my case, the road back has been difficult and slow.  Indeed, I still struggle at times when I am driving, but I have made substantial progress – enough so that I am able to reflect on the process, and how it relates to change and spiritual growth.  That said, I do not offer my experience as the definitive way in which one changes or grows spiritually, or even that it is necessarily normative. The inner workings of the human soul are known only to God, and it is only by his grace that growth is possible. God’s ways are inscrutable so caution is forever the byword in universalizing personal experiences.  Still, I went through several distinct movements as I sought to overcome my road rage: Resolve; Revelation; and Reformation.

Despite my emotional state (and possibly because of it), I was unable to admit responsibility for my road rage.  I could only blame other drivers.  My mind told me that they were the ones at fault, and I was suffering as a result of their selfishness and carelessness.  But since driving was a necessity, and quitting was not an option, I knew that I would have to make some changes.  Although unaware of it at the time, my resolve to change is a fundamental principle of spiritual growth.  Waiting for circumstances or other people to change is generally futile.  And while internal change is not easy, with the help of the Lord all things are possible.

My first steps were tentative, if not somewhat effective.  Before heading out each morning, I would visualize what might happen during the commute and rehearse my response – a response that involved staying mostly in the slow lane.  My belief that other drivers were at fault did not change, I simply resolved to assume a defensive posture.  I did not do this with a forgiving heart.  To the contrary, I prepared myself by thinking that everyone is out to get me, and I needed to expect the unexpected.  This way when someone cut me off, I would simply say to myself, “Oh yes, there goes another fool.”  This is hardly the stuff of spiritual maturity, and yet it served a useful function in that I started to have far fewer “incidents” on the road.  I had long believed that if I was aggressive when other drivers annoyed me, I would somehow teach them a lesson. Fortunately, the Lord showed me that this was a stupid belief because there were too many other drivers on the road to expect that my actions could achieve anything.

Even as I experienced some initial success, the Lord was removing scales from my eyes that had prevented me from seeing that I had a spiritual problem.  Although there were other drivers who did crazy things on the road, their actions were just a trigger for deeper things going on inside my heart.  And when I began to understand that the problem was me, the Lord started to peal back the layers of my sin.  I became increasingly aware of the depth of my impatience.  I had allowed fear and worry about driving to feed a deep anger in my soul.  And this led to a revelation that at the root of my distress was my pride.  All of my impatience and anger towards other drivers was as a result of my ego being hurt. In effect, my self-importance was leading to self-destruction.

CS Lewis wrote, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride.  Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”  (Mere Christianity)  Because pride is the antithesis of virtue, this is no doubt why pride is so difficult to overcome.  Jesus went so far as to say that overcoming one’s self is a death-like experience.  “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?  Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26)

I don’t believe pride can be overcome in the abstract.  Although study, reflection and prayer are helpful, if not essential, progress must occur in the rough and tumble of everyday commerce. And for me, driving became the perfect classroom to experiment, which led to the third significant movement – reformation of the soul.

I use the term reformation advisedly, because attacking pride involves a significant re-forming of the will.  It is a re-forming of how I view the world, and, critically, of how I think about myself vis-à-vis others.  It is nothing less than a re-forming of the soul.  Paul put it this way, Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)

It is a daunting task, valuing others above myself.  I have invested a lifetime in selfish ambition and vain conceit.  This road called Pride is a very wide road indeed. I swerve to the left and blame other people, I swerve to the right and blame my circumstances, I gesticulate out of anger, I speedup out of impatience, I slow down out of defensiveness, and I careen out of fear.  Is it any wonder that my soul was fractured?  The road to recovery has been difficult, as many reformed addicts can attest to.  The reordering of my soul has involved yielding to others; when I am cut off, thanking God that no one was hurt; and sometimes praying for the other driver.  The goal of practicing appropriate responses is that they will become more or less automatic.  And as I reorder my practices, God reforms my soul.

Jesus spoke about two roads – one broad and the other narrow,“Broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But … narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)  I think many of us Christians think we are on the narrow road, yet Jesus says only a few find it.  I thought I was on the narrow road but I was blind.  I had become so habituated to anger when driving that I could only blame other drivers.  The broad road winds its way through the actions of other people and external events. The narrow road, in contrast, drives straight through the human heart, through my heart.  The narrow road is the way of the cross – the death of my ego, my pride.  The narrow road is forever the straight road for those who are humble.  For on this road God is our guide.

O fair and gracious is the Lord, His righteousness is great;
He teaches sinners how to go along a road that’s straight.
He guides the humble in His way, He offers them His hand;
He leads them into what is true so they will understand. 
(Psalm 25:8-9)