In 2004, Candice Anderson was driving her Saturn when it crashed into a tree. Her airbags didn’t deploy, and she was thrown through the windshield and barely survived. Her fiancé, who was in the passenger seat, died.
In a deal with prosecutors, Anderson pled guilty to criminally negligent homicide, served probation for five years, and paid $10,000 in fines and restitution. Ten years later General Motors (GM) sent a letter to her judge saying that GM, not Anderson, was to blame for the accident. Her car’s ignition switch was defective, causing the power brakes and airbags to disable.
Based on this new evidence, Anderson was cleared of all charges and filled with relief. “My heart is going to be a lot lighter to be able to tell [my daughters], ‘This is what happened, this horrible thing. And it wasn’t Mommy’s fault.’”
What’s Hidden Will Be Revealed
Evidence of the faulty ignition switch may have been “new” to the judge, but it wasn’t new to GM. Company engineers now admit they were aware of a problem even in the test phase. Plus, in 2007, five months before Anderson pled guilty, GM reviewed her case and ruled that it was their fault.
Yet they said nothing. In fact, when federal regulators asked about the cause of the accident, GM said it hadn’t been assessed. (GM also didn’t recall its 12.8 million other cars with the same defect that were still on the road.)
GM’s faulty ignition switches have now been blamed for killing at least 124 people and injuring 275. Last month, when the Department of Justice announced a $900 million settlement with GM, CEO Mary Barra simply said, “I wish I could turn back the clock.”
But to what time?
Walking Down a Path
Like most companies, GM didn’t start out with bad intentions. In fact, at a time when the government was refusing to regulate the “stinky, loud, and dangerous” automobile industry, GM wanted to provide better and safer cars. Today its Heritage Center even boasts “100 years of making the automobile safer” with the first electric self-starting car, the first passenger airbag, and more.
So how did GM end up selling unsafe cars and deceiving its customers? When did the transition from “safety first” to hiding evidence occur?
It’s not hard to imagine how a company can wind up in GM’s position when we remember that companies are made up of people. Most of us have wound up in places we never planned to be. We didn’t intentionally hurt and deceive someone else, but we ended up doing just that. Why?
In Proverbs 4, Solomon says our daily choices are like steps down a path. We take them one by one, but each step sets us further down a path—either the path of dawn’s light or the path of deep darkness (Prov. 4:10–19). In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis describes what walking down the path of deep darkness looks like in our daily lives. When the Narrator asks why a particular old woman is in danger of destruction since “she isn’t wicked; she’s only a silly garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling,” the Teacher explains:
[Hell] begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. [You] can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.
In other words, our character isn’t primarily shaped by our defining moments, but by our daily choices. Every day we make little decisions that set us on a trajectory. Then, when the big one comes, the choice has already been made because our character has already been set.
The Narrative We Tell Ourselves
One reason we’re tempted to make compromising steps along the way is because we have a narrative we want to believe about ourselves. When negative facts come to light that might cause us to question it, we often ignore them or explain them away.
In Hope Has Its Reasons, Becky Pippert tells a story about a conversation she had with a friend. She was telling him about a difficult woman, saying that although she loved the woman, she was deeply troubled by her style and harsh speech. Her friend replied, “Yes, Becky, I know you want to love her.” Pippert recalls:
That was all it took to break through my denial. I saw in a flash that though I wanted to love her, the truth was I didn’t even like her. In fact, I couldn’t stand her. . . . Was I being intentionally dishonest? No, I didn’t recognize my true feelings even though they were right under the surface. I was denying them because to acknowledge to myself such an intense dislike for someone threatened my view of myself as the loving person I longed to be.
And self-deception happens in corporations, too. When GM CEO Barra held a town hall meeting last year, she said the faulty ignition switch issue was “a pattern of management deficiencies and misjudgments often based on incomplete data that were passed off at the time as business as usual.” To acknowledge the unsafe car part would have threatened the “safety first” narrative they wanted to believe about themselves. So they rationalized that failed tests were “business as usual”—until they couldn’t anymore.
The Path of Light’s Dawn
When the rich young ruler meets Jesus, he asks “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and then tells him that he’s kept all the commandments (Mark 10:17, 20). But Jesus pushes beyond the law and into his heart, telling the young man to sell his earthly possessions and store up treasures in heaven.
The young man walks away “disheartened” and “sorrowful” because he realizes that following the law without loving the lawmaker has put him on the path of darkness and self-deception, not the path of dawn’s light. He realizes that he must treasure Christ above all—even his wealth—to inherit eternal life. And he reasons that this costs him too much.
As Jesus increasingly becomes our treasure and our glory, however, we’re able to walk step by step down the path of dawn’s light, which “shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Prov. 14:8). In light of the gospel, we’re less tempted to make compromising steps because the negative facts don’t run counter to our most precious narrative—that we’re more sinful than we ever dared believe and more loved than we ever dared hope.
And this freedom gives us the courage and power to be people who tell the truth—even in complex, thorny work situations—because we know the love of God is better than the approval of man. He’s our hope, our wealth, and our treasure. And our littlest everyday steps down the path of righteousness prepare us for testifying to that truth in defining moments, when it might make the difference between life and death for our customers and our neighbors.