The first time I flew in an airplane, I was a junior in high school. (I’m not that old—just not a travel-focused family.)
Dad took the family along on a rare trip to a conference in Atlanta. I don’t remember much about the days we were there (other than seeing the word “peach” on every other street sign and building front), but I do remember vividly my brave, resilient dad leaning over, ducking his head, and grabbing his knees when the plane took off. This scientist father explained later that there was “no rational reason a plane should be able to fly.”
I still carry his informed angst with me.
Since my first grandchild was born 750 miles from my front door in 2022, I’ve had to continually put myself at the mercy of a pilot I’d never met. In a flimsy-feeling vessel. At an unsurvivable altitude. With little margin for error.
It usually works out fine.
But several months ago, I wasn’t so sure.
On our return flight from Denver, we had “an event.”
Just before touching down in Northwest Arkansas (like I-can-see-the-tarmac close to landing), the airplane suddenly pointed its nose up and began a steep and accelerated ascent. On this clear day, most of the passengers gasped in shock. (I instinctively leaned forward and grabbed my knees.) We then continued flying for about fifteen minutes in the wrong direction, before my relieved fellow passengers and I finally sensed a turnaround. On the second try, we landed safely.
All that time in detour mode, nothing was shared from the pilot or crew. We were going where we were going, and we had no explanation for it.
For someone with heart failure, a big imagination, and a lifelong fear of flying, it was a chest-pounding event.
THE QUESTION OF WHY
As you might suspect, I’ve done quite a lot of thinking over the past few years about detours. In fact, since starting to write my book, it has been on my radar pretty much every day. So it’s not surprising that memories of this interrupted landing followed me around for the better part of a year.
Once safely on the landing strip, the passengers learned there was “wind shear” the pilot was trying to avoid on her first landing attempt. Turns out, a major cause of airplane crashes is this invisible, powerful gust that suddenly forces a plane downward with such pressure it cannot recover.
Wind shears can cause catastrophes in most aspects of life. We can be flying along, handling the turbulence as best we can, when an unexpected, undetectable burst threatens to bring us crashing down unless we take a different route.Wind shears can cause catastrophes in most aspects of life. We can be flying along, handling the turbulence as best we can, when an unexpected, undetectable burst threatens to bring us crashing down unless we take a different route. Click To Tweet
When that happens to me—when an unforeseen squall of suffering causes a change in flight plans—my first question is, “Why?”
Turns out, that’s a tricky question. Because there’s a difference between the reason for suffering, and the purpose of suffering. Almost interchangeable, there is an important distinction. Reason looks back, while purpose looks forward. Purpose refers to the intended aim or goal, while reason refers to the explanation or justification.
Both answer Why? But in subtly different ways:
Why the aborted landing? Wind shears (Reason)
Why the aborted landing? Safe Landing (Purpose)
We think knowing the reason—the full justification—for suffering will make it easier. It won’t.
But understanding the purpose might:
These little troubles are getting us ready for an eternal glory that will make all our troubles seem like nothing.
(2 Cor 4:17, CEV)
For this flying-averse, determined new grandma, it was a comfort to know the purpose of the detour was to protect us. Even if I hadn’t fully understood the wind shear itself.
On any detour, our brains want a rational reason.
But our souls really only need a promising purpose.
Wind shears seem to pop up out of nowhere. Even for seasoned pilots, they are difficult to detect.
Aviation experts developed Doppler radar to spot shears. Long considered a meteorological marvel, Doppler has the ability to see the unseeable, and inform pilots of a dangerous threat. Pilots trust that Doppler sees what they cannot.
Our farsighted God has the same ability, and more. He is the Alpha and the Omega, not confined to the linear, sequential unfolding of events as we are. Like our pilot that clear, ordinary day, believers strive to trust God’s better vision rather than our own fallible instinct. His understanding is beyond anything we can measure:
Great is our Lord and abundant in power; His discernment is infinite.
(Psalm 147:5, LSB)
Humans, though, have innately incomplete perspective. Our sight is only what’s in front of us, often with limited peripheral vision and no ability to see past today. Our understanding is shaped by our experience and knowledge, our emotions and needs.
No one experienced a bewildering detour like Abraham, leading his long-awaited Isaac up a mountain to be sacrificed.
Our God understands when we mutter, God, today Your vision, Your plan, feels insufficient, even flawed. He knows it comes from pain, fear, and a limited view. He uses those times to pull us closer to Him.
This is where faith begins—in the wilderness, when you are alone and afraid, when things don’t make sense.
By relying on His infinite vision, we are acknowledging our limitations and surrendering our desire for complete understanding. We are resting in His guidance. This is, after all, what faith is. Faith isn’t an iron-clad knowing or access to a crystal ball or a guaranteed perfect journey. Faith is nervously giving the controls to Someone who can see further.Faith isn’t an iron-clad knowing or access to a crystal ball or a guaranteed perfect journey. Faith is nervously giving the controls to Someone who can see further.Click To Tweet
Like the Doppler our pilot depended on, faith says,
God, You see what’s out there. All the way to the end. All the way to a safe landing.
Even when I cannot.
A WAY WHEN THERE IS NO WAY
And that extraordinary vision is always looking to our good. God promises to “make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19, ESV)
There was no way to land our flight that day with the wind shear. But the pilot made a way when there was no way. And it took a detour to do it. The detour wasn’t something any of us passengers had scheduled into our itinerary. It wasn’t the most convenient or the most enjoyable 30 minutes of flying we’d ever experienced. But it made a way for a safe landing.
Our God makes a way when there is no way, and often that includes an unexpected path. A detour is—quite literally—a road that makes a way when there is no way. When the main, planned highway (or flight plan) becomes impassable and impossible, the detour makes a way, even if it’s not the way we’d have chosen to go on our own.Our God makes a way when there is no way, and often that includes an unexpected path.Click To Tweet
For Abraham, God made a way, too. When there seemed to be no way, in place of Isaac, God provided a ram (Gen 22:14). And trust rooted even deeper.
God provided a ram for me eight years ago, though at first I didn’t recognize it.
From my journal:
I will be a lifelong cardiac patient. I have fought against this for so long and now I am just laying it down. If I’m being honest, that’s mostly out of exhaustion rather than trust. My way forward in this chronic, progressive disease includes lots of high-powered, side-effect-riddled medication, a device I swore I’d never get, and an abridged/culled life I don’t want.
If you’d asked my doctors the year of my diagnosis if I’d be alive in 2023, they’d have said, “No way.” But God made a way. I blew past my five-year life expectancy. And when I did, God spared my parents from burying a child. He allowed me to empty my nest, hold my granddaughter, and launch my book.
Sometimes I focus so much on where I want God to take me, to land me, that I overlook where He’s brought me.Sometimes I focus so much on where I want God to take me, to land me, that I overlook where He’s brought me.Click To Tweet
And what’s worse, I often forget about the people traveling next to me when I am detoured.
Chances are, they’re on a detour, too.
That day with the wind shears, I noticed a fellow passenger across the aisle leaning forward and praying. I didn’t say anything to her then, but I wondered later if she had always feared flying, too. I wondered what detour her life had taken. I wondered what journey she still had ahead of her. I think about this unknown woman often when I feel a new detour coming on, or the old one continuing. When it feels like that bumpy, unchosen road goes on forever, I hope she knows it’s okay to grab her knees when she needs to.
I hope, like me, she found trust enough to hang on when life got hard again. I hope she found the purpose we all need to envision more than just a smooth trip. More than anything, I hope she found the God who is committed to traveling every mile of the detour with us until we’re all safely Home.
Listen to this post read by the author HERE.