Every once in a while, I hear a song that just sticks with me. I can’t shake it. I listen to it over and over again trying to get it out of my system, but just when I think I’m over it, the song pops right back into my head, and all I can do is put on my headphones and press play. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, I can listen to a song dozens or even hundreds of times before it passes.
“24 Frames” by Jason Isbell was one of those songs for me.
This song stuck with me for a while when I first heard it. It’s not the style of music I typically listen to, but when I first heard my music pastor in Waco playing it a couple of years ago, I instantly knew it was a song I was going to have to spend some time with.
I thought the metaphor of 24 frames was clever. (For those who may not know, a frame is just a still image, and 24 of them are combined to make one second of film. So, one second in movie time is 24 frames, or pictures.) And I thought Jason Isbell’s reflections on his relationships during the verses were certainly relatable. But that wasn’t what really hooked me. What got me was the line in the chorus that refers to God as a pipe bomb.
When I first heard that line, I had two reactions almost simultaneously: shock and agreement. I thought, “I’ve never heard God spoken about that way before, but yeah, I guess it’s kind of true.” But I wasn’t content to stop there. I needed to dive deeper. I wanted to understand what it was about that line that both surprised and informed me in ways that I wasn’t yet able to put into words.
So I spent a lot of time with this song. I listened to it over and over and over. I learned every line. Sang it out. Sometimes I would turn the music off and just sing it to myself. I kept repeating this song for weeks, and even when I finally stopped listening to it so intensely, I still thought about it often.
When we started doing a study on portrayals of God in culture for my Bible study, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to take all of my ruminations about this song and finally put them into something comprehensible. I wrote a rough outline and used it as the basis for a great discussion with my class, and after all this time, I think I’m ready to share what this song has helped me realize—or at least understand more clearly—about God.
God is unpredictable.
“You thought God was an architect; now you know he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.”
You know what would be nice? It would be nice if God wrote us a book that detailed his plan for our lives from beginning to end and all we had to do was follow the steps sequentially. That would be so very convenient, wouldn’t it? So simple. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.
But it is a common misconception. I thinks it’s natural for us to believe that God’s plan for our lives is clear, straightforward, and, well, easy. To us, God is like a master architect who’s slowly and meticulously constructing our lives using a blueprint that we have access to if we can just crack the code. Sometimes, we go so far as to believe that we know every facet of God’s will for our lives. And when we do that, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment, or worse.
God does speak to us through a book, but that book doesn’t tell us that God’s will is easy. It gives us some hints about seeking God’s will, but mostly, it tells about God himself. And at one point pretty early on, God reveals his nature in the truest way that human words can express. He tells us, “I am what I am” (Exodus 3.14).
You see, we don’t get to tell God who he is. Only God can define that. And anytime we allow ourselves to develop a static, limited image of God in our minds, he swoops in and complicates it. Because he’s always so much more than what we understand about him. That’s what we call his transcendence: He is more than we imagine him to be.
And one result of transcendence is that, to us at least, God is unpredictable. We never know exactly what he’s going to do next. We may feel like he’s preparing us for one thing only to find out that he has something completely different in mind for us. And in order to do that, he has to get rid of anything that’s in the way. Which means sometimes, he has to blow some stuff up. And now the pipe bomb analogy is starting to make sense.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that God is out to get you and to destroy everything you love. There are actually some people out there who see God as the antagonist of their story, the one who is trying to tear them down. And that simply is not true. God is loving, and everything he does, he does for our own good. It may feel like the end of the world when God tears down something we’ve spent so much time and energy building up, but through it all, we must remember who God is. He may be hard to predict, but he is always good.
As hard as it may be to accept, we serve a God who does new things. He is creative and innovative, and he’s been creating and innovating from day one. The universe itself is a result of his creativity, but he doesn’t stop there. God is always doing something new in the lives of his people, and it may be scary, but when it feels like God’s unpredictability is destroying all that we’ve built, we have to believe that he’s doing something new, and we have to have faith in who he is.
God isn’t constrained by our plans.
“Everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames in 24 frames.”
I’ve always been a planner. For as long as I can remember, I’ve constantly wanted to know what’s next. This has certain benefits. It helps me prepare for the future, and it eases the anxiety that comes with uncertainty. It also sets me up for success. These positive side effects of planning are real, but there’s a dark side to my obsession with making plans, too.
When I’m at my worst, I become dogmatic about my plans. I get so focused on my idea how things should go that any slight deviation from the agenda becomes a catastrophe. I get nervous and frustrated. I shut down. I sometimes feel like I want to call the whole thing off because if it doesn’t go my way, then it’s never going to be right. This approach to planning is unhealthy, destructive, and ultimately self-defeating.
Because the truth is that plans change. And my plans are rarely—if ever—flawless. And so, when I’m planning an event with other people or thinking through my long-term goals or even just deciding what I want to do on my day off, I have to practice a certain amount of flexibility and even humility. When it comes to God and following his plans for my life, these practices are all the more critical.
Proverbs 19.21 tells us, “The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.” Basically, what this means is that we can do all the planning in the world, but in the end, God’s plan is the one that will be carried out. Our agendas may seem solid, even perfect. But if they aren’t in line with what God wants, they will crumble in his wake.
This is a hard truth to accept, especially when what we want doesn’t align with what God wants. Of course, we think that we know what’s best for us. We believe that no one could possibly come up with a better plan for our lives than we could. After all, who knows us better than ourselves? Who understands our hopes, our dreams, and our needs more than we do?
The answer to those questions is that God does. Because we are fallen people living in a fallen world, our very minds—our cognitive abilities themselves—have been corrupted. And that includes our knowledge of ourselves. A plan that may seem perfectly logical to us could be a path to destruction from God’s point of view. But he sees the long-term that we can’t even fathom, and he knows what each of us ultimately needs.
When we prioritize our own plans above the will of God, we’re basically saying, “God, I’ve got this. I know what’s best for me. My plan for my life is better than your plan for my life.” We strive for control, and in the process, we dishonor God and elevate our own reasoning above his. This should not be so.
Sure, we can ignore God’s will and do our own thing. We can try as hard as we like to make our plans work. But we’re just extending that 24 frames into 48, 96, or more moments of heartache and failure until we finally decide to follow the only right path for our lives: the one he has for us.
God is the only one who truly knows what is best for us. Yes, it’s good for us to make plans, to set goals, to try to achieve the things that we feel led to pursue. But all of that planning must be done within the context of God’s will and with the acknowledgement that if he decides that he has something better for us, we’d best go along with it.
There is a Yiddish proverb that goes something like this: “Man plans, and God laughs.” I don’t think this image is portraying God as cruel. Rather, like a loving father, God looks down on us scrambling and stressing, trying to come up with some coherent plan for our lives and stick to it, and he chuckles to himself, saying, “If only they realized that I’ve got this covered.” And when we stop focusing on our own agendas long enough to really think about it, we realize that he does.
God has plans for us that are far more wonderful, fulfilling, and impactful than we could ever imagine. He knows each of us intimately, and he knows exactly what is best for us. God is not limited by our imperfect plans, and we should be thankful for it. Like the song says, we build and we build, and sometimes we even do it for the wrong reasons. In those times, God has a different plan for us, and that can be scary. But once we humble ourselves and recognize that he has the best possible plans in mind for us, we can let go of the burden of directing our lives and allow God to do his thing.
God has the best in mind for us.
“You thought God was an architect; now you know he’s sitting in a black car ready to go.”
Because the truth is that he’s not going to leave us in a place of destruction. Sure, he might have to blow up some bad ideas and tear down some flawed plans in order to get us where we need to be, but he never stops there. He always has something ahead of us, something for us to look forward to, some new plan for us to pursue.
I spent a lot of time struggling with the last chorus of this song. In it, the singer no longer compares God to a pipe bomb, but to a car driver. Who could this be? A chauffeur? The singer’s manager? I’m still not completely certain the exact image the singer is trying to convey, but I’m also not sure that it matters. Because I’ve come to understand the truth behind it.
Yes, sometimes God is disruptive and unsettling like a pipe bomb, but then, he’s encouraging and soothing. He waits for us to catch up to him on his path for our lives, and he stands ready to bring us along for the ride. He’s patient. He’s kind. He’s ready to give us just the little push that we need to take the next step on the wonderful journey he has in store for us.
After the explosion has rocked our lives and the smoke has cleared, God remains. He doesn’t abandon us. Rather, he stays with us and helps us move on. It’s hard when something we thought was going to be good suddenly falls apart, and God understands that. He sympathizes with us and comforts us in those moments. And when we’re ready, he helps us move past those moments so that we can begin to build something new.
When he was on earth, Jesus told his followers, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6.33). “These things” could mean any number of different things depending who you are and what you need. I think that Jesus used an all-encompassing term to let us know that it doesn’t matter what we feel like we’re missing out on or what needs we have that won’t be met. As long as we’re following after him in humble, obedient faith, he will take care of the rest. And he will give us a life that’s better than anything we could have come up with on our own.
The image of God as a pipe bomb is unsettling. It’s not one we like to think about, but we cannot deny that it’s true. And if we want to truly understand and relate to God, then we have to recognize him in all of his facets. One of the ways that God works in our lives is through tearing down our misguided plans in order to make room for his perfect will. This can feel like the hardest thing we’ve ever endured, but when we feel our lives being shaken by God’s corrective power, we can rest in the fact that he is still with us in the wreckage, and he’s always ready to show us what’s next.