Saturday, November 03, 2007

Probability and Individuals

Were I to select one thousand names at random from a list of U.S. citizens,
I would have a very good chance of telling you how long they will live, on average. In the twenty first century, most of us live until we are in our seventies, eighties, or older. That could change, but for the past few decades, one could have made a decent prediction for a group of one thousand. Insurance companies hire people to do exactly that. They go broke if their numbers are wrong.

Were I to select a single name from a list of U.S. citizens, I could not tell you how long they would live. Even for the group of 1,000, I was depending on trends to continue as they have. For an individual there is no trend. There is no average. There is no distribution.

Anyone of us could die after a few moments, months, years, or decades.

For the most part, it seems wise to operate according to probabilities. I wear a seat belt and have air bags. If millions of us do so, many lives will be saved. However, I may be the guy whose neck is broken by the air bag or who would have been ejected safely through a window before the car caught fire.

Not convinced? Let's say you were pretty good at random coin tosses. Over time you racked up a very even tally of heads and tails. 50/50. Then you got a streak of ten tails in a row. What is the probability of heads or tails for the next toss. It is still 50/50. If you are like me, there is a part of your mind that screams that that could not be true. It has to be more likely that a heads is going to pop up after ten tails in a row. Sorry, it isn't so. The experiment to verify that is simple. Do enough coin tosses and you will verify what I have said. People have actually done that sort of thing.

I write this because as I grow (yes, older, but let's just say grow) I realize that it is very important to distinguish between what I know to be true and what I think to be true simply because of what I have seen in the past or because I operate according to averages and probabilities.

God spoke to Jonah and said: "Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs." If I cling to false ideas, I forfeit the opportunity to partner with God, who actually does know when I will die, whether I will have money or not, and what I will eat for lunch today.

Over the years I have put in an increasing, but still very modest, amount of time trying to hear what God has to say to me. I can say with certainty that I have heard him well at times. I can also say that much of the time, I really don't feel that I hear much of anything. I am far too selfish, distracted, stubborn, prideful (choose any one or all).

For seat belts, mutual funds, and avoiding the wrong parts of town, I generally stick to going with the probabilities simply because I don't have any better ideas. However, I always want to be open to the idea that God may be urging me to sell the mutual funds or go to the wrong parts of town. I still can't bring myself to say that he might urge me to leave my seat belt unbuckled. I know God is listening, so I will say this: "God if you want me to leave my seat belt unbuckled, please make it very, very clear that it is your idea."

One last thing. God is not surprised by our choices. Whether we hear him rightly or not, he has plans in place to handle it. It appears that the thing he desires most is that we want to hear him and obey. When we fail, his plan already accounts for that. But if we don't want to hear or obey, we are free to stumble along blindly and see what happens. We forfeit the grace that could be ours.
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