photo of woman searching through purse (for keys)
“Lost the Keys”

Thinking about “being lost” and being “looked for” (as in, car keys):

Dallas Willard, in Renovation of the Heart, specifically uses the example of keys in talking about what it means for something or someone to be “lost.” As in, ultimately, the concept of “lost souls.” So, in his discussion, when something is “lost” it means “to be out of place, to be omitted” or “not where it is supposed to be, and therefore it is not integrated into the life of the one to whom it belongs and to whom it is lost.”1 And he uses the example of car keys, or house keys. Lost things are useless; if I lose my keys, they are useless to me, even though I may need them and want them and want to find them and want to use them, all that, they’re still lost, and as such, useless.

Which I get, but as usual, examples matter, and theological examples run into limitations, and comparing God to people definitely runs into limitations – because in the car keys example, or say in the case of a lost receipt or a claim check for one’s coat at the theatre or something, something could be lost for good to a person – “irretrievably useless.” If I lose something, I may in fact eventually give up trying to find it, because I really can’t locate it, and I’m out of options.

But would a situation like this ever really apply to God? The car keys situation, this is, with its intrinsic properties that hinge on human limitations. This seems like it runs up against the premise of God’s qualities of being without limitations – qualities like omniscience and omnipresence. It seems like people’s, or souls’, whereabouts could not be a mystery to God. Presumably people’s thoughts cannot even be a mystery to God.

So the type of circumstance of uselessness Willard has us think about – something useless, because lost, because we really can’t find it – is a limited analogy for the problem of lostness as it obtains between people and God. Which raises the question of what would be a better one … because of what is lost, exactly. Willard really means the human heart – the will to turn towards God, to desire what God desires and do what God directs or instructs; you could say, the disposition “to obey God,” if it that would give the right impression – it might not, because obedience language is tricky for us. This would require us to think of keys that can hide, maybe? Keys that will only operate the car if they love us?

I raise this, because ultimately Willard wants to talk about lostness as irretrievable uselessness, and I wonder whether it’s possible to accept the possibility of people’s or souls’ irretrievable uselessness theologically. It seems to me it bumps up against notions of God’s sovereignty (how could we ultimately thwart God?) and God’s love (which presumably involves the will not to lose people irretrievably). That wondering turns down the road of speculative theology, a road I don’t really like to go down too far, because it feels like it leads into a dark wood where it would be easy to … get lost.

Still … I just have a doubt about whether God really loses people. At least not the way I lose my keys.

1 Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, Colorado Springs, CO: Nav Press, 55.