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Traffic as the Test of Christian Character


The shortest route to work from my home takes me along Arkansas Highway 5—which carries a lot of traffic. The traffic moves well until the highway approaches an overpass. At that point the right lane goes to a freeway entrance that leads away from town and the left lane goes over the freeway to the entrance that leads toward town. Most of the morning traffic goes over the overpass.

Every morning most of us dutiful citizens wait in line in the slow-moving left lane waiting for our turn to go over the overpass. Every morning many marauders take the relatively empty right lane and shoot past the blocks of patient drivers and cut into line at the front of the left lane.

This behavior energizes the natural man in my soul. I fume. Is their time more precious than anyone else’s? Are they more important than the rest of us? I often wish the thoughtless drivers could be given an extended timeout—maybe one minute for each person who was slowed by their thoughtlessness. I would like them to be punished for not playing well with others.

Stages of spiritual development

Driving is a magnificent test of our Christian character. We are generally quite anonymous, we have lots of power, and we are fully goal-directed. If anything will demonstrate our spiritual maturity, I suppose that driving will.

The scriptures do not provide a full theory of driving as a test of Christian character. Despite that fact, let’s see if we can identify three stages.

The barbarians

Barbarians have the nasty habit of taking what they want. They do not care about rules or courtesy; they are focused on themselves and their needs. It seems that many of us become barbaric when we drive.

Stop signs and traffic lights are treated like weak suggestions from babbling parents. Speed limits are only suggestions for people less capable than we.

For years I used to allow myself nine miles per hour over the speed limit. My logic was that you weren’t likely to get a ticket unless you were driving at least 10 miles per hour over the limit. Such logic does not speak well of my moral development. With time I cut back my allowance to five miles per hour. Now, after decades of driving, I finally asked myself why it was all right to break the speed limit at all. I finally go the speed limit.  I make a complete stop at stop signs. And I try not to run red lights. (Maybe I will fully conquer this one in the spirit world.)

Having largely conquered simple obedience, I now struggle with a different challenge.

The Pharisees

The Pharisees were miserable in their slavish obedience and they wanted everyone to be as miserable as they. So they pounded people with the law. They judged, condemned, and belittled those who did not follow the laws with exactitude—or anyone who didn’t follow the law the way they understood it. As a result, they exemplified self-righteousness. They became poster boys for artificial righteousness.

I suppose that’s where I have been with my personal obedience and steady annoyance with other drivers. I am a driving Pharisee. I obey the law and I am condescending toward those who do not.

I have tried giving end-runners and bad drivers the benefit of the doubt. My aging Grandpa didn’t realize he was substantially exceeding the speed limit. Maybe that young woman was late to a critical appointment. I remember when I was a frisky driver. Despite these efforts at compassion, I still find myself irritated with those who take traffic privilege while disregarding laws and other drivers.

I do not have scientific data to support my observations about state contrasts, I only have our experience. When we lived in Alabama, we were surprised at the way drivers let other cars into lines. They exemplified sharing and taking turns. We experienced the same wonderful phenomenon in many communities of Alabama during the six years we lived there. Yet, every time we returned to Utah, it seemed that a Utahn would rather die in a fiery crash than give way in a line of traffic. The gospel may change hearts—but only until we get behind the wheel of a car. Then we become ruthless Pharisees.

Have you ever deliberately block a speeder who was trying to pass you? Have you ever gloated when someone else got a ticket? Have you ever refused to let a car into traffic?

Charity faileth in traffic.

Charitable driving: Saintly and sensible

The Lord’s counsel to His disciples may apply to driving: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Our challenge is to drive sensibly while carrying our Christian goodness to the task.

Even if others around us are viewing the speed limits as mere suggestions, we can follow the laws of the land and drive safely. We can be considerate and helpful to other drivers along the way. If someone is trying to merge into traffic, we can be the ones who allow them to pull in ahead of us. We can govern our thoughts and remain charitable and peaceful even while others are less considerate in their driving habits.

Jesus was probably not thinking of the modern freeway when He gave His challenging command; yet it certainly applies to our driving: ”Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Traffic provides regular opportunities to apply this counsel.

When the Lord counsels against anger, He warns that, “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:22). Yikes! Hell may be packed with a lot of angry drivers!

Why does this matter? 

So how does driving relate to our spiritual maturity?

We are asked the challenging question in Alma 5:14: “And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your heart?”

I suspect that if we have truly experienced a mighty change in our hearts, we would not compartmentalize our commitment to following the Savior’s example. We understand that our simple, hour-to-hour acts reveal our character as much as our big decisions. Perhaps the way we treat fellow drivers is more revealing of our spiritual development than the earnestness with which we bear our testimonies. Our driving is not as important as our service and faithfulness but it is a measure of our spiritual development.

When Jesus requested that we “love one another, for by this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another,” He did not provide an exception for those who cut in front of us in traffic or otherwise irritate us throughout our day.

I look forward to the day when I can gladly help other drivers along the way while obeying the law consistently myself. In the mean time, I am taking a different route to work so I don’t “get tempted above what I am able to resist.”

———————————————————————————-
Many thanks to Barbara for her insightful additions to this article.

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16 Comments

  • Reply Charmaine May 13, 2008 at 10:45 pm

    Now this much goodness is going a little far. Are you wanting us all to get translated?

    • Reply admin May 16, 2008 at 9:41 am

      For you this may be a risk. My traffic-chafing should eliminate any
      translation risk for me.

      Best wishes,
      Wally

  • Reply Candleman May 15, 2008 at 7:27 am

    This is counsel that is given as often and consistently as any other in General Conference. I think it never turns up in a Conference Report because the counsel is generally not part of someones talk. Still I think it can be quoted almost verbatim. “We urge you to be courteous in driving and obey the traffic laws.” I’m confident I’ve heard it from the likes of Gordon B. Hinckley, James E. Faust, Thomas S. Monsen, Ezra Taft Benson, and many others and of course, now Wally.

    • Reply admin May 16, 2008 at 9:33 am

      I am delighted to be in such esteemed company–including Candleman.

      -Wally

  • Reply Jim May 15, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    Wally,
    I enjoyed this post. I think that how we react in various trying situations, including traffic, is a good indicator of our character, but I also think we have to be careful to not judge ourselves too harshly based on our lowest moments.

    Your comments also remind me of a quote regarding “rats in the cellar” from C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity. Here’s a link to the quote for anyone that cares to read it: http://yourdailycslewis.blogspot.com/2005/06/rats-in-cellar.html.

    I would be interested to have you or others list similar real-life examples that are difficult but that may reflect our “real” self. I think such an exercise may be eye opening and help us realize areas that we can work on.

    For example, how do we respond after a long, tiring day at work and a spouse or child wants to do something? What do we do when we have looked forward to eating a certain treat that is waiting in the fridge, and we excitedly go to eat it and find that someone else has eaten it for us. Or how do we react when a child (or spouse) that we love dearly makes what we feel is a poor choice- drops out of school or chooses to not go on a mission or otherwise disappoints us?

    I think every day, whether in traffic, at work, at home, etc. we have many opportunities to choose whether we will be charitable, loving, forgiving, tolerant, etc. or if we will be critical, judgmental, harsh, or even apathetic, which might be just as destructive. For me, it is *usually* easy to say or do the right thing, but my heart and mind are often less than perfect. It is interesting that we are commanded not to just act nice towards one another, but to love with all of our heart, might, mind, and strength.

    • Reply admin May 19, 2008 at 10:47 am

      Jim, I liked your examples of things that often catch us off-guard and push us toward anger. It ties well with the C.S. Lewis observation.

      Thank you.

      -Wally

  • Reply Charmaine May 15, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    Hey, I was just kidding about us being translated. The fact is we are usually in the car by ourself and no one hears our frustration… maybe that is why we let ourselves get irritated…it is an opportunity to vent and let off a little steam. In the end it only hurts us because “we are who we are when no one is looking”. Traffic is not my anger trigger but I do have some others. I do believe the ability to have self control and patience in one area carries over in all aspects of our frustrations. I heard this quote once: “all frustration is built on unmet expectations” So, maybe we just need to control our expectations from the beginning. We know traffic is going to be irritating and kids and spouses at times. We just need to not take irritation personal. That is hard. That’s why we are here…to do the hard things and to learn we have help.

    • Reply admin May 19, 2008 at 10:46 am

      Yes. We each have different triggers. And, whatever the source, each is an opportunity to grow. I like your suggestion that we can do hard things.

      This is not the world’s approach which still tends to be ventilationist.

      -Wally

  • Reply Lynn May 16, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    Loved this column when I read it on Meridian [yesterday?]. Embedded a link to it in my blog post earlier today, and got a great comment from my firstborn.

    I found an end-run around the speeding dilemma; this month I started riding the train to work. There are new challenges [also referenced in today’s blog post], and I begin to see why so many people have iPods and MP3 players. With what I am now saving on gas and other expenses, I might be able to justify the purchase of one, particularly if I can get it on eBay for half price or less.

    Listening to Dr. Woodbury’s soothing voice on my Book of Mormon CD’s has done wonders for my attitude when I am behind the wheel.

    Lynn-the-work-in-progress

    • Reply admin May 19, 2008 at 10:46 am

      Enjoyed your blog. By the way, do you like to knit?

      One nice thing about riding the train is that other trains don’t try to pass you.

      I listen to NPR on the way to work. Do you think that makes a person sedated or hostile?

      -Wally

      • Reply Lynn May 28, 2008 at 9:58 pm

        I am crazy about knitting. [Some folks, my teenager in particular, might think “about knitting” is redundant.] I don’t listen to NPR, so I can’t answer your other question.

        Good point about the other trains not passing you [at least not in the same direction, but that may change within a year or so; rumor hath it that we are getting a bullet train that will go from FW to Dallas in about 20 minutes, obviously not on the same track as the one I’m currently taking].

  • Reply Candleman May 21, 2008 at 12:05 am

    Wally,

    I’m interested in your comment about frustration resulting from unmet expectations. The root cause of my addictive behavior was unmet expectations. In my case expections implied a deserved outcome. If I did X then Y should be the outcome. If Z is what transpired I went insane. The discovery that I was less than the dust of the earth and in actuality, deserve nothing (as pertains to the blessings side of the spectrum) was the most liberating discovery of my life.

    Clearly I deserve lots of things on the punishment side of the scale. The interesting thing is that the Atonement takes care of both. The foundation of Christ’s sacrifice is love. Beneath the wings of charity He selters and sustains us. Not for our merit, but for His. Meanwhile, I can be considered guiltless and deserving of no punishment because of His merits and mercy, which resulted from that love.

    I now hope for things, but never expect anything. It’s lots more fun, and always an adventure.

    Do you find that there are appropriate situations for expectation?

  • Reply Jim May 21, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    Wally,
    I, too, would be interested on your ideas regarding managing expectations. I think this ties in also with your recent post on regret.

    At times, I feel like I’m a dreamer and am too idealistic. When my dreams fail to materialize, the natural reaction is to become discouraged and to give up.

    In the end, my discouragement reflects ingratitude and a lack of faith as you mentioned in your Regret post. To me, there is a fine line between doggedly pursuing “our own” righteous goals and humbly submitting to and seeking God’s will.

    Candleman, would you mind elaborating on your perspective of the difference between hope and expectation? I’m sure it is just semantics, but I see the two words as essentially the same in meaning. I would like to better understand this concept in hopes of better managing my expectations!

    Thank you…

  • Reply Kristen May 21, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    I’d like that too. I’m not sure I understand the difference. When the Book of Mormon teaches so often that if we keep the commandments we will “prosper in the land,” how do you not have some expectations? And what does it mean to go to the Lord in prayer with faith, “believing that ye will receive?” I understand the explanation of receiving what is expedient for us, or trusting that God knows what is best for us, but to have no expectations seems difficult to do.

  • Reply admin May 22, 2008 at 9:28 am

    What an interesting discussion! The concensus seems to be that expectations can get us in trouble.

    I think that hope is expectation tempered with faith. It is the willingness to “receive all things with thankfulness”–which results in us being made glorious (See D&C 78:17-19).

    For example, Nancy and I expected to have a large family. Instead we had 20-plus miscarriages and just three (glorious and blessed) children.
    Because of my expectations, my early reaction was anger and demand. “We’re good kids who try to keep the commandments and we want You to fix
    this!” That is expectation without the faith. It is not hope. Over time I learned to trust God. I learned to say: “I am so grateful for this miscarriage!” It sounded crazy. But miscarriages taught me to trust God. What a blessing! God does not have to explain His doings to me. He will do what is best and I will be grateful. His promise and covenant is to bless us. My duty is to be grateful. This ties to my definition of faith as the relentless determination to see God’s goodness in everything that happens. That is soul-stretching.

    To be specific, God says that, if we keep the commandments, we will prosper in the land. What “prosper” means to God is certainly different from what it means to most of us–especially Americans. Sometimes we EXPECT (There’s that word!) truckloads of money to start showing up because we go to Church. Candleman nailed that one. When we recognize that we are always hopelessly in debt, then we can be grateful for what we have. (PLEASE expand this for Meridian.) The way God has prospered me is very different from what I expected. He grew my faith. He challenged me to be unselfish and other-oriented (a continuing work!). Then He occasionally gave me a few hundred dollars of royalties that He told me to use for those who are much poorer than I. I was thinking of a home in Alpine and spare cash. He was thinking of building my character so that I could help Him in His work. He trusts me with resources ONLY as I show that I will use them to build His kingdom and bless His children. That is clearly why He hasn’t made me rich. I am a slow learner–but maybe a determined one.

    So prospering in the land is very different from what I expected as a free-enterprise American.

    Blessings to all of you. Thank you for sharing from your full hearts.

  • Reply “Traffic as the Test of Christian Character” | A Soft Answer June 4, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    […] “Traffic as the Test of Christian Character.” It may sound silly but it’s those small things that can be hardest to conquer. Driving is a magnificent test of our Christian character. We are generally quite anonymous, we have lots of power, and we are fully goal-directed. If anything will demonstrate our spiritual maturity, I suppose that driving will. […]

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