In the Details

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you…” – Genesis 12:1-2a

When I was growing up, my father often told me that I had trouble “seeing the big picture.”

When we would talk about something – my homework or my extracurricular activities or my household chores – I would often fixate on specific details of the subject in question. I would make arguments about the little things, and it was not uncommon to hear my father interrupt me by saying, “Son, you’re not seeing the big picture.” He would tell me that I was focused on one little corner of the picture, his thumb and index finger raised to indicate just how small a detail it was. He said what I needed to do was step back and see the whole thing.

As a teenager, I usually disagreed. I didn’t think I was overly fixated on the details. I just thought my father’s diagnosis was nothing more than his way of asserting his own opinion over mine. However, twenty years later, I realize that maybe the old man was on to something.

When it came to eating vegetables, though, he was totally unreasonable.

When it came to making me eat vegetables, though, he was totally unreasonable.

We are detail-oriented people in many, many ways. Even in an instant-gratification, product-obsessed society, we still place a lot of importance on process. Even the more impulsive of personalities are not immune to the comfort that comes from knowing how something is going to work out – how the product is going to be produced. A movie is praised not merely for its opening and closing sequences, but even more for the quality of its content – its effects, its writing, its characters, and the enduring power of its themes. Video games are judged as much for the intricacy of their graphics as for their overall concepts. Politicians can hardly make an off-the-cuff statement to their constituents without it being analyzed, dissected, and conjectured on 24-hour cable news.

We are detail-oriented people, and therein lies the problem. It is not so much the problem my father identified in me, though. It has more to do with our capacity for trust. It is becoming harder and harder to exhibit trust – to act without full knowledge, to make a decision without first hedging our bets. When it comes to our motivations in this life, the well-known idiom, “The devil is in the details,” is not far from true. We want to know how its going to work out for us before we even agree to the it. In this day and age, faith may sound noble, but there is little actual room made for it.

The devil is also in a lot of 80's metal music, but they play that stuff on Oldies stations now, so...

The devil is also in a lot of 80’s metal music, but they play that stuff on Oldies stations now, so…

Twenty years since my father diagnosed me with detail-obsession, I finally realize how indicative the problem is in my own life. For instance, I recently accepted a staff position at Dunwoody Baptist Church in Dunwoody, Georgia, the offer for which came on the heels of a five-month interview process. And even though I was eager to take the position, I found it terribly difficult to put away the anxiety of how it was all going to work out. Most of all, I was hung up on discerning whether or not God was really “calling” me to serve in this church, and, if so, why would he call me away from my previous church after only two short years? What was God thinking? What could his reasons possibly be?

In short, I got lost in the details. It didn’t occur to me until after I’d devoted a healthy heaping of brain cells to this dilemma that a big part of faith is trusting God’s plan without having to know the ins and outs. There are plenty of examples in both Testaments that remind us of this fact, none so profound as the life of Abram (a.k.a. Abraham). In chapter 12 of Genesis, God’s call completely uproots Abram from what was certainly a comfortable, sensible life. The most unsettling thing about that call, though, is that it didn’t come with a ten-point plan attached. There was no explicit, bullet-pointed directive on how God was going to fulfill his promise and make Abram a “great nation” – how he was going to bless him apart from the very things the people of that time looked upon as blessings: homeland, ancestry, and reputation of family.

"Leave the silly hats, too. 'The land I will show you' has a certain dress code."

“Leave the silly hats, too. ‘The land I will show you’ has a dress code.” – God

If I struggled with accepting that God was calling me from one job in a Baptist church to another job in a different Baptist church, then I can’t fathom the kind of turmoil going on in Abram’s heart and mind as he sought to discern the call of the Creator who, unlike the gods of his father’s house, was active and boundless and interested in an establishing an intimate, interactive relationship with a mortal.

And yet…

Abram went.

We are detail-oriented people because, if we can, we want to exert control over those details. We are detail-oriented people because we cannot shake the self-serving desire to manipulate and control our situations in order to preserve our lives in the best way we know how. It’s hard to trust someone else with the details if I am unwilling to place faith in anyone but myself. The same is true for my relationship with God.

Le bon Dieu est dans le détail,” wrote Gustave Flaubert. The good God is in the detail. The aforementioned idiom is but a cynical adaptation of a life-defining truth.

It turns out, God wants us to trust him with the details. He wants us to see him as trustworthy. It’s why he had a habit of reminding the people of Israel, time and time and time again, of all the ways he had come through for them over the years. “God is our refuge and strength,” proclaims the psalmist, “a well proved help in trouble” (Ps. 46).

It’s no easy thing to respond to the call of God without getting a look at his blueprints. But the faith that makes us able to hear his call is the same faith that should remind us that God is in the details – that he’s always been remarkably careful with them – and we would do well to trust in the goodness of that.

Maybe the old man was right. Maybe seeing the big picture is what’s important. Maybe it’s time to take step back and see the whole thing.

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