What I Learned by Crashing a 737

Several years ago, I had the amazing experience of flying a simulator at Southwest’s pilot training facility. The cockpit is suspended by hydraulics, so participants can feel everything as if they were in the air. When we took off I was fully in control, navigating the plane through various conditions all while trying to keep the silhouette within the box on the screen so I could get a good score when it was over. It was much more difficult than I imagined. But if I do say so, I was pretty good at it.

They didn’t want us practicing landings, because they were too difficult. But I was feeling cocky, so I wore down my instructor and convinced him to let me try.

I brought that big 737 bird in to a simulated Detroit airport and I stuck the landing. I was so proud of myself. Hitting that little runway was no easy task, but I had done it. Now all I needed to do was stop the plane. So I pressed the brakes, but we kept hurtling down the runway. I pressed the brakes harder. Still, we were moving way too fast. I put everything I had into those brakes, pushing both feet down and arching my back to put my entire weight on it. But the plane wouldn’t slow down.

And so, going several hundred miles an hour, I brought that 737 straight into the side of Terminal E. The simulator flashed red a couple times, then went dark. The instructor turned to me and flatly said, “Well, we’re all dead.”

I said, “I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t the plane slow down? I was pressing the brakes as hard as I could.” To which he pointed to the throttle and said, “You gotta pull that back, too.”

When it comes to sin, most of us are like me in that simulator cockpit: We think we’re doing pretty well, thank you very much. But before God, we’re all the pilot in that situation—flying far outside the box as we crash and burn. The big difference is that I could, with time and attention, become a better pilot. But our hearts are like that throttle, turned all the way up and preventing us from ever getting a handle on the sin in our lives. If we could see a live simulation of our hearts, we’d find that our emotions, our desires, our actions were all going haywire, preventing us from truly steering the “plane” that is our lives.

At times, like in that cockpit, we are able to manage things better than others. But the Bible reminds us that the target we’re aiming for—the safe runway—is giving God the glory he deserves. And that’s a target we all horrendously miss.

A lot of us think of sin primarily as heinous acts like adultery, murder, or racism. Others of us think “sin” is an outdated word that communicates failure to conform to some archaic standard of morality. But sin, in its essence, is simply rebellion against God. It’s missing the runway God has laid out for us.

When my kids were young, I’d tell them to define “sin” by the middle letter, “I.” Sin is the great “I” problem. Sin is when I think I know better than God. Sin is when I choose to do what I want. Sin is when I make myself the focus of my life. I, I, I, I. It’s that throttle, blasted all the way up.

This self-focused rebellion is in all of us, no matter how good we look in comparison to others. The reality is that God doesn’t grade on a curve. Why? Because he is our standard, and we can never live up to that. When our lives are evaluated against the standard of God’s law, we see how outside the bounds we really are. As my pilot instructor put it, “Well, we’re all dead.”


That may sound like pretty terrible news. By itself, it really is. But there’s good news, too. Paul says in Romans 3 that we are justified by God’s grace as a gift, “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (vv. 24–25 ESV).

The sin in our hearts may throttle our lives up to dangerous levels, sending us hurtling into metaphorical airport terminals. But there is a way to change our hearts: When we put all our trust in, all our weight on Christ, we receive by faith the gift of his redemption. We no longer stand on our own, believing we’re self-sufficient; we sit, trusting God’s grace alone to save us. We let him be the pilot of our lives and rest in what he has done for us.

And you don’t even have to crash into Detroit to learn that lesson.