GROWING ON THE RIGHT PATH
I would imagine that most of us have a smart phone these days. There are, of course, so many things we can do with our smart phones besides simply making phone calls. We can take pictures. We can store and play music. We can use it as our boarding pass when getting on a plane. We can look up information on Google.
The feature that I like the best is Waze app - especially here in Kuala Lumpur, where after almost six years I still find the roads very confusing. If you were to invite Daniela and me to your home, or out to a restaurant, unless it happened to be here in the city center where we live, I would probably never get there on my own.
But with Waze, I just put in the address and it shows me the directions and even tells me audibly when and where to turn. Better yet, it will even give me several different routes to get there and tell how long it should take. If a traffic jam develops suddenly up ahead due to an accident or parked cars blocking the traffic flow, it will alert me and suggest another route. Waze can get me to my destination the easiest way possible. I don’t have to get frustrated waiting in heavy traffic, for Waze will guide me to an easier, less congested route.
Getting to our destination via the easiest route available is great when we are driving. Why wouldn’t we want to get there as easily and quickly as possible? But with life, it is different. In life, the quickest and easiest way is not always the best way. Fortunately, God knows this, and so in life, God will direct us according to the way that is truly best, not necessarily the way that is easiest.
David alluded to this in Ps. 23. After declaring that the Lord was his Shepherd who provided for his needs, satisfied him with rest and restored his soul, David went on to say in vs. 3, "He guides me along the right paths for his name's sake."
Being guided along a path implies moving toward a destination, a goal that the path will take us to, and God has a goal for each of us. This goal includes our growth in Christ-like character, the kind of person we are becoming, how we respond to and relate to other people, how we are using the gifts God has given us, and so on. God desires that we would always live out the adventure of following and growing in Jesus, that we reach our full potential as His disciples. God desires that we always experience the thrill of His transforming work in our lives, and the satisfaction of seeing God use us in wonderful ways. Thus, God guides us along the right paths, paths that will help us reach the goal God has for our lives.
This means that when God guides us, it is not only to the right place, but along the right path. For it is not merely a matter of getting to the right destination, but the path that takes us there is just as important.
For instance, imagine two people who both have the goal of being the CEO of a company. There are different paths that could take them there. One person could go to university and major in business or finance, then get an MBA, begin working at a company and gradually move up the career ladder by developing and demonstrating their capabilities at each stop along the way. They would know the company well, they would have come to know the people who make up the company and what their work is like for them, and thus they could relate to them in an encouraging way. Through their education and experience they would have developed important and essential leadership skills. They would be well-qualified to be the CEO.
The other individual might become CEO because their father started and developed the company, and when he retired, he gave it to them. They didn’t have to study hard in university, and they never had to work their way up the career ladder, developing important skills along the way, because they knew the position was simply going to be handed to them.
Both individuals ended up at the same destination; they became CEO. But the paths they took to get there were very different, and thus while the destination was the same, they were not the same. The nature of the path directly influenced the kind of person and the kind of leader they became. In this example, only the first path would enable the person to learn and grow in all the areas necessary to be a successful CEO. It's not only the destination that matters, but also the path we take to get there. David assures us in this psalm that the Lord our Shepherd guides us along the right path.
The path is so important, for life happens along the path. We can easily forget this if we focus only on our destination, only on the goal we want to reach. But we need to be wise about the paths we take, for life happens along the path, and that shapes who we become. Circumstances that challenge us, people that impact us for good or bad, friends that encourage us, unexpected events that confuse us, temptations that test us, trials that strengthen us, times of celebration that renew us - all kinds of things happen along the path.
These are the things that go into molding us and developing us, which is so important in God's plan for our lives. In fact, often we cannot get to the destination, to the goal God has for us apart from taking the right path, for apart from the transformation of our lives that happens along the way, we would not be prepared for what God has for us in terms of our destination. So God guides us to the right kind of life, becoming a person of Christ-like character, which happens as we travel along the right path.
If we become the people God wants us to be, it will be no problem for God to place us where He wants us to be. So often when it comes to God's will for our lives, all our focus is on the "where." Should I go to this university or that one? Should I take a job in this city or that city? Should I get married or stay single? We are concerned with the end product; God is more concerned with the process. We focus on where we should be; God focuses on what we should be - that is, what kind of person we should be.
But if we align ourselves with God's thinking and focus on what we are becoming as followers of Christ, if we persevere on the right paths even when they are difficult, then God will be able to move us into those places and situations where He not only wants us to be, but where He can fully use us. On the other hand, if we have not become the people God wants us to be, then there really is no point in getting to the right place because we won't be ready for it even if we should get there.
All this means that sometimes God will lead us on paths that are enjoyable, pleasant, we are surrounded by friends, and success comes easily. We wouldn’t change a thing about the path we are on. But other times God will lead us in paths that are not easy, for growth is not an easy process. But as we follow our Good Shepherd along His path, we will become new people in Christ. After all, it says God leads us "for His name's sake." As we become more like Christ, His name is honored. That also means we can trust His guidance. If God leads us "for His name's sake," God surely is not going to lead us in a way that would harm us, for His reputation is on the line.
Of course, God leads us along the right paths for our benefit, but God also does it for the honor of His own name. As He leads us along paths that bring about transformation in our lives, that help us grow in love for God and others, that provide us with meaningful opportunities to bring about good in this world, God's name is honored through that, for others can see the good that is happening in us and through us. So we can fully trust God's guidance, even if at times we can't fully understand it.
One thing we can be sure of - as we follow Jesus He will lead us on paths for the purpose of transforming our lives. Again, it's not only where we go or what we do, but who we are becoming. God's goal for us is that we would grow into the fullness of Christ. In Eph. 4:14-19 Paul wrote out his prayer for the Ephesian Christians, and in that prayer he said, "I pray....that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God." That is a pretty high goal, yet that is God's will for us, that we would be transformed into truly godly people who are filled with the fullness of God. Among other things, that means the character of God has become deeply rooted within us. So God will lead us along paths that help us grow in godliness, in Christ-likeness. How gracious of God not to leave us stuck in our self-centeredness, but He leads us on paths that encourage our growth in becoming more like Jesus.
This transformation is rooted in relationship. David Roper writes, "Following Christ requires effort, but it is the effort to stay close to Him and listen to His voice." The more we get to know Christ, the more we understand of His love for us and His commitment to us, the more we will want to follow Him along the right paths.
Yet if we're honest, we have to admit that sometimes we don't like the paths our Good Shepherd leads us on. Even when we know they are the right paths, that they are really for our own good, we sometimes resist them, for as I said, sometimes they are hard. The transformation of our lives, of our character, is not easy.
At times we find ourselves wanting to detour off the path God is leading us on. We may think to ourselves, "I don't like this path that is making me face my inadequacies, my immaturity, my selfishness, my sinfulness. I don't like this path that is demanding I grow and change and give up habits and patterns I've become quite content with. I don't like this path that is challenging me to grow in patience, in humility, in gentleness, in other-centeredness, in love."
Sometimes we may find ourselves wishing there was a WAZE app for life, a voice that would speak to us, “Difficulty ahead. Take alternate route!” But God is too wise and gracious for that. So let’s not be like Jacob, wrestling with God as we resist His ways, as we object to the paths He is leading us on. For as long as we resist God and seek other paths to travel on, paths that are easier and more to our liking, we will never reach our destination of becoming filled with the full measure of God.
In addition to resisting the path God is leading us on, there is another danger we must avoid. One of the characteristics of sheep is that they are creatures of habit. So if left to themselves they will follow the same trails to the same fields of grass, even though after a while those fields become eaten bare and can no longer sustain them. The sheep will eat the grass to the ground to the point that even the roots are damaged.
Phillip Keller, who for a number of years managed sheep, wrote, "The greatest single safeguard which a shepherd has in handling his flock is to keep them on the move....They must be shifted from pasture to pasture periodically." So for the good of the sheep, the shepherd must have a pre-determined plan of rotation from one field to another, which the shepherd then leads the sheep to.
The shepherd David surely knew this about sheep, so he knew he had to constantly be guiding the sheep along different trails to new pastures. If he did not, if he was content to simply let the sheep follow their in-born pattern to graze in the same areas, the health of the sheep would suffer as would his reputation as a shepherd.
There are, of course, some parallels between sheep and us in this regard. We, too, are creatures of habit, even when those habits are not good ones, maybe even destructive ones. We get stuck in a rut and stay there. We develop certain patterns that we keep on repeating because we're grown accustomed to doing them. Or maybe we've found an easy path, one that doesn't require much of us, so we are quite content to stay there. Like sheep walking the same trails and grazing the same fields until there is nothing left to nourish them, we sometimes find ourselves repeating the same behaviors because we are familiar with them and have grown comfortable with them, even though they hurt us in the long run. The result is that it stifles our growth. It keeps us from growing into the fullness of Christ.
They could be behaviors that are obviously sinful - nurturing a lustful appetite through pornography, or feeding a prideful attitude by always putting others down. We find some enjoyment, at least temporary enjoyment, in these pastures, so we keep gravitating toward them.
But these patterns could involve other things as well that we don't necessarily equate with sin - laziness, poor use of our time, too much time on the internet and Facebook, a tendency to play it safe by remaining in our comfort zone, or limiting our relationships to the same social group we are a part of. Like sheep returning the same fields even though there is not enough grass there any longer to nourish them, we keep spending too much time in these activities. These aren't the right paths that will lead to our growth and development, and thus they also limit our usefulness.
One pasture we may be happy to stay in is simply being content with where we are at spiritually. Perhaps we became a Christian many years ago and attend worship services quite regularly, but the truth is for years we haven't grown at all in our walk with Christ. We haven't taken steps to grow in our understanding, we haven't deepened our faith or strengthened our commitment. We’re really not maturing in Christ-like character. We're not developing and using the gifts God has given us to serve the church and we're not moving out into new steps of obedience. We’re not loving in deeper ways. We've plateaued. We've become static in our Christian experience.
But notice, that isn't an option according to David and what he wrote in this psalm. "He guides me along the right paths." He guides us. He leads us. That means movement and growth. We are not to stay in the same place spiritually. Then we become like sheep that have eaten the grass to the roots and so can no longer be nourished and fed, and thus their health declines.
God has wonderful purposes for all of us. These purposes include growing in our faith so we have a living and dynamic relationship with God, deepening our understanding so we are firmly grounded in God's truth in the midst of this chaotic and unpredictable world, maximizing the opportunities and using the gifts God has given us to be His instruments and witnesses in this broken world, and growing in Christ-likeness as old patterns such as selfishness, greed, anger, and resentment give way to other-centeredness, generosity, a peaceful and gentle spirit, and a forgiving nature.
God offers us such a wonderful and exciting way of living as we become new men and women in Christ, freed from all the things that enslaved us, and as we accomplish truly meaningful things with our lives. But none of that can happen if we are content to just stay where we are. God always has new opportunities for us in terms of our own growth as well as our service, and for us to experience all that we must be willing to keep moving forward, to follow Him as He leads us along the right paths, paths that will help us grow and change and make an impact.
The obvious question at this point is: How does God lead us? How can we discern His guidance? There are a number of ways God leads us to the right paths.
Probably the means that God uses most often to guide us is His Word, the Bible. There God has already revealed much of His guidance to us. In God's Word God has told us most of what His will for our lives is. For instance, Jesus said that the greatest command is to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. So if a path is helping us grow in our love for God and for others, we can be pretty sure that is one of the right paths God is leading us on.
I Thes. 5:22 states, "Avoid every kind of evil." If there is a path before you that would lead you into something evil, obviously that is not God's path for you.
Phil. 2:4 instructs us to look not only to our own interests but also to the interests of others. So if there is a path before you that will call you to become more concerned for others, in all likelihood that is one of the right paths God is leading you on. It may not be an easy path, but it will help you become more like Christ, for as vs. 4 goes on to say, that will help you have the same attitude as Christ who put our interests ahead of His own, even dying for our forgiveness.
In Mk. 10:43 Jesus said that whoever wants to become great must become a servant. When I was 17 the path God guided me to was to spend the summer working at the church camp of my denomination in South Dakota. We would usually have between 100 and 200 campers each week. My job that summer consisted mostly of washing pots and pans – by hand - and with that many campers there eating three meals a day, there were lots of pots and pans to wash. And when I wasn't washing pots and pans I was doing something fun like cleaning toilets. That was not an easy path, but it was a transforming path, for that is when I first learned something of being a servant, and also appreciating those who served me in various ways and not taking their service for granted. If there is a path before you that would involve serving others, most likely that is one of God's right paths for you.
So already in His word, God has revealed to us many of the right paths He would lead us on. Ps. 119:105 states, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path.” God’s word illuminates, reveals many of the right paths for us, so we want to be firmly grounded in God’s word so we can be guided to the right paths.
Of course, God can lead us in other ways, such as through prayer when the Holy Spirit impresses on us a path we should take, or He may convict us of the wrong path we are on. God may lead us through the wise counsel of godly and mature Christians. God may give us a passion for something we never had before. It doesn't matter so much how God leads us, but that we follow His leading.
And it's crucial we see that the verse says God "guides" us; He doesn't "force" us. God is not going to make us become all He created us to be, He is not going to coerce us to grow and mature and be useful in His kingdom. God doesn't drive us but rather leads us.
So we must choose to follow His leading. But really, why would we choose anything else when we know that only God is our Good Shepherd, that He is perfect in His wisdom and love, so His plans for us are always good. And again, He leads us "for His name's sake." So of course, He will lead us in a good way, for in leading us He is putting His name on the line.
God will guide us in the right paths, so let us be committed to following His leading.