I do not like roller coasters or most amusement park rides.
Never have, never will. This is, of course, barely relevant to my adult life. But when I was in high school, it mattered a lot. Our “fun” school field trips were almost all to amusement parks, and all of my friends always wanted to do nothing more than ride everything they saw.
Most of the time, I finagled my way out of it. “Well,” I would say reluctantly as we stood at the entrance to Death Coaster of Doom, “somebody’s got to hold our stuff. I might as well do it.” My friends pitied my dutiful nature and sometimes even offered to take my place so I could have “fun” with them – an offer I had to go to sometimes great lengths to object – but I mostly managed and, for the rest of the time, played games and had fun.
But on one trip, something snapped.
To this day, I don’t know precisely what possessed me. At a water park, we saw a ride that was basically one giant, towering hill. Riders were loaded, twenty at a time, into enormous rafts that slowly ascended the hill, paused at the top–and then dropped at breakneck speed almost straight down into a giant pool of water. It looked like the epitome of everything I hated about amusement park rides: height and speed and terror.
And I decided I was going to ride it.
I still don’t understand why. Did I talk myself into believing it wouldn’t be so bad? Did I peer pressure myself into doing it, convinced my friends would notice how lame I was otherwise? Did I envy them their fun? I’m not sure. Either way, when I piped up that I wanted to ride it we were immediately off to the line.
It wasn’t until the staff was strapping me into the raft beside my friends that I had a distinct, resonant moment of clarity, the first thought that sliced like a razor through my general curiosity and blind stubbornness:
I don’t want to do this, but I already said yes.
The raft lurched into gear and began to ascend the hill, and the thought remained. I did not want to do this. Yes, I had consented to it and yes, I knew what I was doing when I got on, and yet, somehow, I also did not want it. I wanted to get off. I fantasized about unleashing myself from the harness and crawling, spider-like, back to the safety of the platform before I realized I would probably die doing it. And when we got to the top and I looked down at the enormous hill and the pool of water and all the people standing around that looked like specks below, I think my spirit left my body–though it came back in time to start screaming incoherently as we plunged down.
Does it unnerve you for me to tell you that, from time to time, my Christian life resembles precisely this experience?
I’ll go wherever you go, I say to God. I submit to wherever you choose to lead me! When I say these things, I do mean them. And I mean them even when I visualize that submitting to God or going where He wants me to go might not always be fun or exciting. I expect there will be trials. I expect there will be frustrations.
And yet. Every now and then I look up, much as I did back then, and I find myself in a metaphorical raft lurching up the side of an enormous hill, and I think, I don’t want to do this, but I already said yes. When the reality of my situation presses in on me, I realize sometimes that this is what it means to follow: to say yes to God, to strap in, and then to hold on while the raft goes exactly where I don’t want.
I have to imagine Jonah felt something like this when, spat up from the giant fish, he had to grit his teeth and go on to Nineveh. I imagine Nathan felt something like this when God insisted he had to go rebuke a sinning king to his face. I imagine Moses felt like this in those first intimidating moments before Pharaoh. Sometimes, faith means saying, “I’ll obey and I will do what you want.”
But what He wants is not always going to be what we want. And while a lot of us are okay with this in theory, it’s something entirely different to confront in practice.
I worry sometimes that we have moved away from a theology of suffering and of pain in the church. The ramification of the prosperity gospel and some of its watered-down versions is a pervasive belief that the Christian walk will never have anything inherently difficult about it. We don’t like to think that God might ask us to do something we dislike, or find unpleasant. We want to believe that God wants for us what we want for us, a path we’ve planned out and chosen, options that we approve of and as little difficulty as possible. But that’s not the way it works.
God is good. And God will take care of us. God will keep His promises. But “good” and “protection” and “safety” can look a lot different from a limited, human perspective than they do from a divine one. The life we signed up for in Christ is not always the life that we are going to expect, nor quite what we would design for ourselves. That’s a hard reality to grasp, sometimes.
Nothing has struck me so much lately as the realization that a happy and contented life that wants for nothing requires little in the way of faith. It’s easy to believe God’s promises and in His goodness and His plan when you’re standing at the altar with your beloved, or getting a raise, or enjoying your new house, or smelling that indescribable new-baby smell. It is a lot harder to keep that exact same faith – yes, this is the plan, yes, God is good – when something happens that you don’t expect or plan for, that you didn’t ask, for that you didn’t know would be required.
Which is precisely why those moments are so valuable.
Brother or sister in Christ: I’m here to tell you that a not-fun time is coming for almost all of us. It may be a mild inconvenience, or a major trauma. It may be a transition, a life shift, or an unexpected obstacle. But just because it’s unpleasant or unwanted – just because you very much do not want to be in that raft heading up the side of a giant hill – doesn’t mean that it exists outside of God’s plan. His promises and His character remain consistent even in the times we wish things were easier.
So keep your grip and grit your teeth, and yell a little on the way down if you have to. The ride will end, eventually. But the faith you continue to exercise through it in spite of your own human heart is going to be even stronger and more valuable than it was before. And that’s worth a lot.