Driving the Numbers

How Driving the Speed Limit Can Save the World

I remember the first time I noticed the bumper sticker: I’m not perfect, just forgiven. It was on the back end of a car that blew by me on the freeway doing what must have been 90 mph. As it rocketed out of sight, I thought, “What’s wrong with that picture?”

That was a long time ago. Yet even back then (in my pre-prude period) I sensed that the speed limit and the God thing were somehow linked. When I finally got Jesus, one of my few cardinal convictions was a careful observance of the speed laws. To me, it seemed an obvious inference of the faith.

Much Ado About Nothing?

I quickly discovered that my conviction was not shared by many of my new Christian comrades. They seemed to have little problem driving to a Bible study or church at 15 mph over the limit. One of my best friends of those early days was an ardent evangelist who loved burning his tires through the gears and slamming 3-G turns. I remember cruising around at night with him, listening to the latest Christian band on his car’s high-powered sound system and watching the speedometer needle climb into hyperspace. Twenty years later I met him at a church conference. One evening, after the day’s sessions on effective leadership, I hitched a ride with him to supper. We squealed out of the church parking lot and onto the highway, the engine revved to the red line. I was quietly grateful that his car was clear of bumper stickers.

It amazes me how little regard we Jesus-folk have for speed limits. Around town, many routinely drive 5-10 mph faster than the signs permit. On the highway, some of us even set our cruise controls at precisely six mph over the posted limit, reasoning, with near-perfect absolution, that the cops pull over only those drivers who exceed the margin. As for those of us whose speed lust regularly shatters the boundaries of grace, the radar detector is comforter and friend, delivering us from evil.

When I mention these apparent incongruities, reactions waver from chagrin to shrug to shock. Some seem embarrassed, sheepishly lowering their eyes, and with a weak smile mumbling something like, “Yeah . . . well.” A few argue that it’s actually safer to go with the flow of traffic, regardless of the speed limit. Others dismiss the whole thing as a non-issue, no doubt taking note of my unfortunate bondage to legalism. Then there are the handful who, incredulous, bark back: “Do you obey the speed limit?”

And what does it matter? Against the global backdrop of famine, poverty, disease, war, and nuclear terrorism, the question of obeying traffic laws seems trifling at best. What real significance can it have compared to the grand moral implications of abortion, stem cell research, Darwinism, or homosexual rights? And what about justice and mercy and faithfulness? Isn’t that what it’s really all about? How could a few extra mph’s possibly disturb the universe?

Ethics Schmethics

Maybe I should explain right up front what I’m not talking about.

First, I’m not talking about obeying the speed limit because we’re supposed to. We are indeed supposed to; but let’s face it, oughtness rarely convinces us anymore. Even love, which once implied obligation, has been redefined to mean freedom from pesky responsibility. We’re enlightened now and have cheerfully shrugged off the tiresome yoke of duty. Grace means we don’t have to do anything. Oughtness is so medieval.

I’m also not talking about observing speed limits to be an example. For sure, we are expected to model God’s righteousness among the pagans (read: pre-churched). According to the Biblical theory, our lives will lead them to glorify God. Nice thought. Yet within the comforting anonymity of our shiny, fuel-injected universes, it’s hard to believe anybody’s watching. Besides, without a fish on the back end, who’s going to make the connection anyhow?

Moreover, I’m not talking about following speed limits for the sake of reward. Yes, good stuff follows good stuff; and, if we believe the Book, there are bonus prizes to win. However, beyond simply feeling good about ourselves, those benefits are often abstract and distant from the minutia of daily life. (When was the last time you were stopped and congratulated for obeying the speed limit?) Best keep your supermarket rewards card.

Lastly, I’m not talking about driving the speed limit in order to avoid a ticket. Granted, fear of punishment is an effective incentive for the stupid, the stunted, and the stubborn. (You can spot the sudden flare of their brake lights when a police cruiser comes into view.) For argument’s sake, let’s pretend you’re not one of them.

But if we jettison these time-honored prods, what’s left? Without them, what could possibly coax us to live by the limits? Is there something we’re overlooking about the value of complying with the numbers on that lowly street sign?

Butterflies are Freaky

In 1963 mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz analyzed the theory that small variations in the initial conditions of a system produce large variations in the long term behavior of that system. Another meteorologist remarked that, if the theory were correct, a single flap of a seagull’s wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever. According to the Butterfly Effect (as the theory came to be known), a tiny “insignificant” action can start a chain of events that affects the whole shebang. An old adage goes like this:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For want of a horse the rider was lost,
For want of the rider the battle was lost
For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost.

In other words, little things can have big consequences.

The Scriptures are filled with notable examples of minor events with major ramifications. Remember the byzantine trail from Joseph the slave to Joseph the Prince of Egypt? Then there’s the inverted sequel starring Prince Moses whose plummet from Egyptian grace led to the Red Sea and the the founding of Israel. The profoundest example of all, however, is found in that sweeping story of all stories: the fall and subsequent redemption of humankind. The Apostle Paul explains it this way:

So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous (Rom. 5:18-19).

Here is the Butterfly Effect on an incalculable scale. Two singular events effected consequences of a magnitude beyond comprehension. Both acts were localized, that is, they each took place at a specific time and place in human history. Neither event was noteworthy in itself. (We don’t exactly know what happened in the Garden, but we do know that crucifixion was common in the Roman Empire at that time.) Yet each event effected cosmic shifts. One, a rebellious act, led to the doom of an entire race. The other, a single act of obedience, resulted in its redemption.

Though his vehicle of choice probably topped out at about seven mph (donkeys aren’t famed for their speed), Jesus grasped the tao of the domino. He often connected the bigness of God to little things like falling sparrows or the number of hairs on a head. Jesus also acknowledged the sometimes mysterious connection between the small act and the big consequence. Consider the following parable:

“The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts up and grows-how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:26-29).

The story has a rather curious lesson. The man in the story does a very mundane thing in order to effect a desired result. Yet, Jesus tells us, the man has no idea how it all happens, only that it does. The man starts the process, but the process itself is beyond his comprehension. Every act effects something else, even if we can’t see it.

Driving Rube Goldberg

So what does all this have to do with the speed limit? Life’s complicated enough; why turn a simple run to the grocery store into a metaphysical adventure? We do lots of things while driving—talk on the phone, listen to music, sip coffee, dream of glory, scream at the kids—but philosophizing is probably not in most people’s top ten.

Well, that’s my point. We may think it was a simple run to the grocery store. The universe thinks differently. In fact, the universe was changed by our little errand. As we casually hiked the needle a few notches over the speed limit, we propagated an influence wave that nudged the universe a bit farther away from glory. We may have saved ourselves a minute or two of travel time, but we triggered a complex web of events that ultimately fueled the ongoing debasement of creation.

On the flip side, each time we submit to the established speed limit, we launch a very real vector of virtue that shifts the whole universe closer to its redemption. The trivial act of observing the speed limit effects a transformation of the cosmos beyond our wildest dreams. Hyperbole? Not even close. The Apostle Paul declared that the future hope of all creation is already revealed in us:

For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:20-21).

If Paul is right, we’re not only the universe’s Alpha variables, we’re also its Omega ideal. As we grow to look more and more like Christ, the cosmos longs to look more and more like us. Our workaday choices, like whether or not we follow the speed limit, either help or hinder the fulfillment of that destiny.

It’s a heady, terrifying privilege. When Jesus handed over to us the keys to the kingdom, it seems he really meant it. That’s a lot of power. Even angels long to look into these things.

Guerrilla Grace

I confess, I’ve taken the long way around. I feel a bit like Glinda, the good witch in The Wizard of Oz, who finally tells Dorothy that she’s always had the power to go home. When a stunned Dorothy asks her why she didn’t reveal this earlier, Glinda replies in her fluttering, irritating vibrato, “You wouldn’t have believed me.”

In the land of superstars, munchkins don’t get much press. They assume that they have little say in the way of the world. This is convenient for the bad guys who know different. “Why do villains have so much influence?” asked 19th century Austrian poet Franz Grillparzer. “Because,” he answers, “the honest people are terribly dense.”

It doesn’t take a grand gesture to shake the earth’s foundations. It’s not the world’s statesmen and power brokers who have the rights of the firstborn. The nations are a drop in the bucket, their epic designs no more than tempests in teapots. We are the true princes of the realm, and at the flick of our ankles, the universe trembles.

Want to shake the system? Drive the numbers on your next run for milk.

Fred Allen heads up Burning Bush Ministries, teaches literature, draws cartoons, and writes a lot. He is the author of Our Daily Fred, an alternative online devotional, found at www.ourdailyfred.wordpress.com. He and his family live in Salem, Ore.


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