Car trouble–chastening, or a thorn?

When I am driving down the street and I smell gasoline, I immediately assume that something is wrong with my car. So long as no warning lights are shining on the dashboard and nothing else seems abnormal about the car’s handling, I try to assure myself that someone else’s car is to blame, or perhaps I am smelling a gas station nearby.

Yesterday as I drove to work, I noticed a strong odor of gasoline. Nothing lit on the dashboard, and the car handled normally, so I worked to assure myself that someone else’s car was to blame. My first candidate was the car in front of me, the one with the “WHF” license plate—certainly that car was to blame for the whiff of gasoline in the air. But when that car went through a yellow light and I stopped at the red light, the odor did not dissipate.

I got downtown, turned a corner, and stalled on the tracks. That was a frightening moment. I turned on the hazard flashers, waited a moment, and turned the key. The car started again. Then I noticed that the fuel gage needle was visibly dropping. I had left home with about five-eights of a tank of gas; a dozen miles later, I was approaching a quarter tank. With the car running, I circled around and headed back the other direction, to the mechanic’s shop where I usually take my car.

Ten to fifteen minutes of solid prayer later, I arrived at the shop, about two minutes before they were due to open. When they opened I was first in line—actually, I was the entire line—and so my car was examined right away. The mechanic found that a bolt had broken, allowing the gasoline to leak. An hour later the car was fixed (although the odor remained, filling the garage after I went home yesterday evening and seeping into the house during the night). All I had lost was an hour at work, fifty dollars for the repair, and about ten dollars of gasoline.

My counselor says that I have an over-developed sense of guilt. When things go wrong, I ask what I have done to deserve it. Somehow this sense is particularly strong when it comes to motor vehicles. Some people would say, “Well, it could have been much worse,” which is of course true. But why does trouble have to happen at all?

Some Christians might call my attention to Hebrews 12, the verses about chastening coming from the Lord because he loves us. That approach reinforces my over-developed sense of guilt. I can easily locate things I am doing that are wrong, and I can persuade myself that God is chastening me for my sins. But that approach does not match what I write and teach about the problems we all face. We live in a world polluted by sin. Sin is unfair. We do not suffer for our own sins: the wicked prosper, while the righteous suffer. If such injustice were not allowed, then Jesus could never have borne the burden for our sins, and we could not be forgiven.

Last Sunday I was teaching about Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Three times Paul prayed to God, asking God to remove the thorn, but God responded, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Paul concluded that when he was weak, then he was strong, because his strength came from the Lord and not from himself. I added that our spiritual enemies want to use our problems to make us doubt God—his love for us, or his ability to protect us, or his willingness to take care of us even though we are sinners. When our problems remind us of the suffering of Christ, the price he paid to redeem us, then our enemies lose and we share in Christ’s victory.

My problem was relatively small and relatively easy to fix. All the same, it served to reinforce my anxiety and stir up again the impression that I deserve to suffer for my sins. I had to remind myself to practice what I preach—to permit the small inconvenience and expense of a car repair to remind me of the cross of Christ and his victory over the greatest of evil, as well as the smallest expressions of evil. J.

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