The Devil is in the Details
You know that old saying, “the Devil is in the details”? Well, I don’t like that saying, but I think it’s true, knowing what I do about Army personnel policies, credit card contracts, and personal liability lawyers. But what does “the Devil is in the details” mean? And, more importantly, what does this old figure of speech have to do with mountain biking, Roman roads, German towns, wheat mills, frazzled commuters, and the music of The Police and Pink Floyd? Keep reading. You’ll see how they’re all connected, but only if you pay attention to the details.
To begin with, here’s how that old saying is connected to mountain biking. When I lived in Germany, my friend Yassir and I would ride a couple of times a week, and we rarely took the same course twice in a row. That was easy, because where we lived in Germany, the terrain was incredibly varied. To the south of us lay flat, dark pine forests that gave way to hardwood farther south. To the southeast, there were a few square kilometers of moist, boggy ground interrupted by the occasional hayfield. Farther southeast lay a fern-carpeted, mosquito-infested moor that was crosses by a gravel-topped causeway. To the the southwest were more lowland forests and a couple of beautiful ponds. The lowlands ended abruptly at the base of a steep ridge that ran westward from Kaiserslautern all the way to Homburg. To the north, the ground rose gently and the main road passed through closely-stacked houses and apartments before ending at the edge of a belt of golden wheat fields that lay along the Glan River valley. But north of the Glan River is where the real hills began. Interestingly, the Germans called those big round-topped monsters “hills,” but several of them were half the size of Paris Mountain. On one hill, near the village of Eulenbis, there was an old German observation tower from which you could see all the way into France on a clear day. I don’t know who decided to build an observation tower there, but it seems like a good decision. To the east and northeast there was an area of low, wooded hills traversed by logging roads. The logging roads linked the whole area in an intricate network of asphalt roads, tractor paths, and designated bike trails. Of course, when I chose our route, I never stuck to the designated bike trails. That just ain’t my thing.
Anyway, because there were so many trails to choose from, Yassir and I could cross a lot of different terrain on a single bike ride. It all depended on the choices we made. For example, we could start out heading southeast, to the moor, and then, loop back and head north through the heart of the city, through the wheat fields, and across the Glan River. Then, we could struggle up one of those big round-topped monsters and do a crazy-fast downhill run along a logging road. And we could combine all sorts of routes, so we rarely had to cover the same route twice.
Changing our route was not a problem, as long as we obeyed two principles: (1) we had to turn consistently in the direction we wished to go at each little trail junction and (2) we had to keep our ultimate objective foremost in our minds. Keep both of these principles in mind as you read the rest of this essay.
Anyway, this network of trails presented an interesting situation: because there were so many roads, paths, and trails, the sum of our small decisions was actually more important than any one big decision. Strange, isn’t it? Then again, I wrote at the beginning that the Devil is in the details.
No matter what our objective, however, our rides ended back in our home village of Ramstein-Miesenbach. We lived in opposite sides of a duplex house, which sat along a busy street in this typical German town of 10,000 people. Yes, a typical town. Now, we tend to think of cities and homes as places, but for the rest of this essay, I’d like to invite you to think of cities and homes not so much as places, but as processes.
You see, like any human city, the town of Ramstein-Miesenbach is actually the result of hundreds of thousands of decisions, most of them not very significant in themselves. Every aspect of this city, like any city, is the result of decisions made over 22 centuries by thousands of different people. And every home in this city is the result of groups of people choosing to live together and, for the most part, trying to do so with peace and compassion.
The old city center of Ramstein-Miesenbach sprang up because an old Roman road ran through the hills from the Rhein-Neckar valley to the Saar Basin. I don’t know what Roman engineer approached what Roman Governor to propose that route for a road, but, apparently, it was good one. To this day, Autobahn 6 travels almost parallel to the old Roman road.
Centuries later, peasants planted wheat along what was left of that Roman road. Before long, right where the Glan River leaves the moors, someone decided to build a mill. The mill took advantage of the firm ground and the flowing water. Over the centuries of its existence, that mill fed thousands of people. Shops and markets sprang up nearby, as people brought their wheat in to be milled. I assume they did some shopping while they waited. Over time, families grew, and farm paths were widened and paved. A town government was established to keep records and settle disputes.
Today, the ruins of that mill lie at the center of the city. But, again, I ask you to think of cities and homes as processes. The people who built that mill probably didn’t think of themselves as urban planners. Chances are that they just wanted a place where they could mill their wheat without having to cart it somewhere else. Ramstein-Miesenbach developed, not as the result of a momentous decision by a single man, or the brilliant plans of a committee of experts, but by a series of small decisions, each one made by ordinary people like us. Today, when you look at this city, or any city for that matter, you are really seeing only a quick snapshot of one phase in the process of the city’s life. In the case of Ramstein-Miesenbach, this process was set in motion because someone built a mill near a Roman road several centuries ago. The same principle applies to homes: when you see a home, you are really just catching a brief glimpse of a process. And, as every homeowner knows, from the moment that last nail is driven into place, a house begins the long process of falling apart.
So, what do all of these small decisions have to do you and me? Well, please bear with me and read through the following scenario, which describes some of the small decisions one man might have to make on any given day. Then, answer a few questions based on what you’ve just read. Ready? Pay attention to the details.
Imagine you’re a husband with one rather plain-looking wife and 2.3 non-exceptional children. You would like to become a more Godly man, someday, but that’s a big decision. For a couple of years now, you’ve been stuck in a miserable job, but on this particular day, your main objective is simply going home. And you’re going home, but only after spending twelve never-to-be recovered hours of your life doing this miserable job. You know that this job is wearing you down physically and emotionally. Your boss is an unappreciative jerk. Your co-workers are annoying and gossipy. Your commute is a daily exercise in frustration, because you sit isolated in your car, avoiding the glances of the other disgruntled commuters. You inch toward home, one unnecessarily long traffic light at a time, listening to some classic rock to cheer you, or maybe some classical piano to calm you. Ah, yes, home. In your mind’s eye, you can see it looming in your headlights, but it’s just around the bend yet. Suddenly, your home number appears on your cell phone display. You grab your phone, which is a cheap flip phone because you can’t afford an iPhone on what you’re making. It’s your wife. She asks — no, she demands — that you stop to get diapers, butter, and Elmer’s glue on the way home. The diapers need no explanation. The butter is because your wife misread the amount of butter she needed for that wonderful Paula Dean recipe. The glue? Well, the oldest of your 2.3 children just broke that tacky wooden wall-hanging, the one your mother-in-law gave you. You say you’re sorry about that, but you’re sorry only in the sense that you didn’t get to break the damned thing yourself. But you need glue so you can fix it when you get home. “Daddy, fix,” seems to be one of your children’s favorite phrases. You buy stuff, they break it, you fix it. It’s a process. So, you stop by the store and get the three items your wife demanded.
At the cash register, you have to wait in line behind a morbidly obese man whose breath smells like last week’s broccoli casserole. As you wait, you see that he’s paying for four cans of tuna with a stack of quarters. The fat man is slow. The cashier is slower. And that cashier, she’s a real piece of work. She’s a glum, tattooed little waif who sports twenty pieces of metal in her face: her eyebrows, nose, lower lip, and ears all have metal hanging from them. She looks like she lost a fight with staple gun. Anyway, you get the items your wife demanded and you head home. Finally! You grimly acknowledge that you must repeat this torture day after day, enduring assaults on your mind, your body, and your dignity because your family depends on you. In a way, it’s your family’s fault. And in a way, it’s God’s fault. He put you in this situation. But at least you get to go home, eat some ham and some very buttery biscuits, have a cold one. Yes, home; home at last. However, when you walk through the front door, instead of greeting you with a hug, your wife starts complaining because you bought the wrong kind of diapers. The wrong kind! Don’t you ever listen?
How do you react? Guess what? You get to choose.
Actually, it’s a trick question. You see, you have already chosen. That’s because I laced the whole paragraph with devilish little details. These devilish details either (1) influenced your choices or (2) concealed the fact that you have choices at all.
I described your wife as plain-looking, but perhaps you should be thankful to have a wife. I described your 2.3 children as “non-exceptional,” but maybe you should choose to thank God for blessing you with children. I described your job as miserable, but perhaps you should choose to be grateful you’re able to work. I described your boss as “unappreciative,” but did it occur to you that perhaps you should be working for something more significant than a pat on the back? Did you even realize you had these choices as you read the paragraph? Did you realize that you were not obligated to accept my cynical, misanthropic descriptions at face value?
You see, you get to choose how to interpret your circumstances.
I described the man in line at the register as “morbidly obese” and having bad breath. As you read the scenario, did it occur to you that you should pray for his health? Did you think that perhaps his obesity was a result of diabetes? I wrote very plainly that he had to pay for his food with a stack of quarters. Did it occur to you that he might be destitute and that all he could afford was canned tuna because he has no insurance and spends most of his money on medication? Would you have offered to pay for his food? Did you even realize that paying for his food was a choice that was open to you?
I described the cashier as “a glum, tattooed little waif who sports twenty pieces of metal … ” Did it occur to you that she struggles with depression and addiction, and that all those tattoos and piercings are just rehearsals for the supreme act of self-destruction she may someday commit? Or that her piercings serve to take her mind off of a deep, unspeakable pain that she lives with every day?
You see, you get to choose how you think about others, too.
I wrote in the second sentence of the scenario that you would like to become a more Godly man, but, hey, that’s a big decision. Did it occur to you that becoming a Godly man means consistently turn in the direction you wish to go in each little situation? Did it occur to you that becoming a more Godly man might involve many small decisions instead of one big one? Did you even realize that you had a choice to turn toward God with every devilish little detail? Or did you just accept the path the Devil laid before you because you anticipated the big choice waiting at the end of the scenario?
Earlier in the essay, I pointed out, in italicized text, no less, “we had to keep our ultimate objective foremost in our minds.” As you read through the scenario, did you keep “going home” foremost in your mind, or did you focus on the people and circumstances that stood between you and “going home”? In other words, did you see the other people in the scenario as obstacles to be overcome, or as reflections of the image of a living God?
Earlier in the essay, I also asked you to think of cities and homes as processes rather than as physical places. When you read the scenario, did you think of “home” as a physical place, or did you think of “home” as the process by which your family learns to live together with mutual support and compassion?
Do you think yourself intellectually superior because you foresaw the domestic confrontation at the end of the scenario? Do you think yourself morally superior to other people who read the scenario because you think you have enough self-control not to get angry with your wife in this situation? In either case, if you do, you chose to feel proud, and pride is the sin that led to the Devil’s fall. But hey, you guessed it, you get to choose how to think about yourself as well.
I wrote all these little details into the scenario because the Devil is in the details. And I believe that is how the Devil works: he tricks us into thinking that we don’t have choices or that our choices are too small to matter. He will tell you how to think about your circumstances, about others, and about yourself unless you choose, hundreds of times each day, to think differently. In the scenario above, most of us have made so many small choices by the time we confront the wife in the doorway that we have already chosen.
Christians usually remember to talk to God about the big decisions in life: What will I study in college or tech school? Whom will I marry? Where will we live? Should we rent or buy? Can we afford to have a baby? And of course, the really big one: Clemson or USC for the kids?
These big decisions are indeed important, but, could it be that our lives are more the products of thousands of little decisions? Each little decision, by itself, might not seem terribly important but the combined weight of all those little choices may be greater than the weight of our big choices. Could it be that we need God in our small choices just as much as we need Him in the big ones? Could it be that God is watching us every single day, and if we’d only seek His will in every little decision, every step we take, every move we make, He would help us make better choices?
Now, it is certainly true that the Devil is in the details. He’s in there, and I’ve met him. He’s a charming, clever guy with a club tie and firm handshake. However, I suggest that by consistently turning in God’s direction and by keeping our ultimate destination in mind, we just might find God in the details instead.