I was on a 10-day camping trip in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. It was part of my university’s leadership training. We were divided into teams one day with each group receiving a topographical map and a compass. After being shown a spot on the map we were to go, each team was released every 15 minutes to find their way. We would get our next meal when we arrived, and there was a prize awaiting the team with the best time.
An assertive personality immediately took charge in my group, claiming he had used a compass several times when he was a kid. He led us in a straight line across the terrain, northeast, toward our objective. We used the map to roughly calculate how close we were getting, but the compass kept us going in the right direction. We were making great time and congratulating each other that we were going to get the best food and might be setting a record for this exercise.
Then our leader suddenly stopped. To our shock and dismay, we came out of the woods and found ourselves on the edge of a high cliff, a sheer drop off of several hundred feet. Below, we could see where the teams that had left before us were now gathering. But there was no way to descend to them. Oh, how I wanted to be down there at that moment but couldn’t. We had to back track, go around a mountain, and ended up being the last group to arrive, humbly getting the last scraps of lunch. We were then shown how the topographical map held the clues that the path we were on wasn’t going to work. If only we had paid attention to all those tight lines that indicated a steep drop off straight ahead. But we were trusting in our limited knowledge of maps and compasses, not realizing till it was too late how little we really knew.
My Own Understanding
One of the early scripture passages I memorized as a child was Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.”
What is it that we are looking for when we seek out a path? Typically, we choose trails or roads according to where we believe they will take us. I know of no one who deliberately gets on a highway that goes in the opposite direction of the end goal. How many of us have gotten lost while confident and even certain that we’re taking the right way? We often get lost by reading, researching, or listening to directions wrongly, or following bad directions that we assume are good. That inner compass isn’t always as accurate as we feel it to be.
According to the above verses, it’s trusting in my own understanding that becomes the problem when seeking the best path. Making any kind of life decision requires that I choose what I’m going to put my confidence in. No exceptions. I will trust something, whether it’s expert advice, my own logical conclusions, my own intuition, tradition, cultural trends, the latest scientific theory, the alignment of the stars, or the relationship with God I have been cultivating. Trusting something or someone, or a combination of things, for guidance is the way we humans operate. Our knowledge of what to do is not a purely objective program automatically downloaded into our brains. We receive it from somewhere and then act upon it.
Relationships that Guide Me
Another way of putting it is that direction for life is a relational process. Trust, after all, is a relational quality. The relationships I put the most effort into maintaining will ultimately be where I go for guidance. And again, that may be some inner sensation I nurture or a host of external possibilities presenting themselves as trustworthy direction signs. I choose what or whose advice I take. And in the end, that will determine which path I follow and where I end up.
This brings me to the natural question: how do we know who or what to trust? And particularly, how can we grow to trust in God? It can be a very confusing process. God has made humans so that we are born trusting. Infants assume someone is going to be there to feed and change them. It’s quite natural. But we then learn to not trust as we grow older, experiencing the pain of disappointment and betrayal. Learning to trust again is part of God’s redemptive process for every life that submits to Him. Trust ultimately is the way we express our appreciation for someone’s character. And the same is true as we learn to trust God. Study His character. Ask Him to show you what He’s really like so you can experience the grace that comes from walking with and believing in Him.
“Taste and see that the LORD is good. Oh the joys of those who take refuge in Him!” (Psalm 34: 8 NLT).
Confidence in His goodness is rooted in our experience of Him. And the more we “taste,” the wider the door opens to trust Him more and more. The less we risk experience with Him, the less we will trust.
Which brings me to another part of the scripture: “in all your ways acknowledge Him . . .” The Hebrew word “yada,” translated into English as “acknowledge” carries implications of intimacy that the English word does not. It’s the same Hebrew word translated in Genesis 4:1 “to know.”
“Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.”
The kind of intimate trust the writer of Proverbs is calling us to flows in the same vein as the shared intimate vulnerability between a husband and wife. In all our ways we are to take the risk of laying our lives open before Him and lean on His goodness. And in the process we will be directed onto paths that lead us to the ultimate goodness of His presence that we long for in the depths of our hearts.
Not by Sight
But I must admit that at times the path He leads me on doesn’t look or feel straight. It’s hard or counter-intuitive, seemingly taking me in the opposite direction I want to go. There are those times that I seek to honor Him and am unjustly accused or misunderstood. At other times I am asked to give when I don’t feel that I will have enough left over for myself. The temptation is always to make my own path and do things in a way that I feel I can control or more fully understand. The pull is always toward believing I know more than I really do. But where will I end up in the long run if I don’t learn to trust that He is leading me to that good place where I truly want to be?
I stood on that cliff in the California mountains many years ago with my teammates. We looked across a chasm at the spot where we wanted to be. But we had followed a path that led us to a place that prevented us from actually getting there. The straight-line route we took promised everything that we understood to be important to us in the moment: getting to our destination quickly to eat, demonstrating superior abilities, and winning! However, a “straight path” in this case would have actually been to follow what the map said, even when it didn’t appear to be leading us there in a straight line.
As a follower of Jesus, I am called to believe that He is worthy of my trust, leading me on a “straight path” into His goodness whether I can presently see it or not. It’s inscribed on His map.
. . . if I’ll put forth the effort to read it.