Our family recently watched a documentary about the DARPA challenge, in which robot vehicles attempt to be the first to complete a rugged race course of more than 7 miles. The catch is that once the race begins, the robots cannot be controlled or given input commands from humans. Furthermore, the teams are given a detailed map of the course only hours before the race begins.
(No, these are not two of the cars in the race; these are my son’s remote control cars!)
In 2004, the first year of the race, no car successfully completed the course, so the competitors went all out in preparation for 2005. There were two teams that were pegged as favorites in the competition. One team, from Carnegie Mellon, relied on a strategy of extensive and detailed data entry for its two cars. Once the large team obtained maps for the race, team members quickly entered as much data as they could about each turn, bump, and bend in the course so that their cars would be programmed to make the correct turns at each point of the course.
The other favorite, a small team from Stanford, chose a markedly different strategy. Instead of giving specific instructions to help the car navigate each part of the course, the team programmed the car (nicknamed “Stanley”) to be able to improvise by using advanced sensors that sized up the terrain on the fly. The information from the sensors then directed the car to make the required adjustments. In a hard fought race, Stanley emerged as the victor.
Christians run the race similarly to Stanley. The course is marked out for us in a clear way, in line with the revealed character and will of God. We know the overall contours of the terrain, shaped by values such as love, holiness, unity, and service. God also gives us a number of general commands for our lives: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44); “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor 6:18); “Don’t show favoritism” (James 2:1). And the ultimate goal for our lives is certain: conformity to the image of God in Christ (Col 3:10; Rom 8:29).
But the way that we run the race stands out. As Christians we are not given detailed instructions in the Bible about what to do in every specific situation we confront in life. Instead, God gives us the tools we need to make the right, biblical decisions about how to live in any circumstance we encounter. He gives us his Spirit to direct us and empower us for obedience (Gal 5:16; 5:25; Rom 8:26-27). He gives us wisdom to know how to apply God’s truth (James 1:5; Col 1:9). He gives us the believers around us to provide encouragement and input (Heb 10:24-25). Christians are not governed by an exhaustive list of do’s and don’t’s for every circumstance. In the daily experience of our lives, in decisions big and small, we improvise, walking in dependence, wisdom, and community.