Last December my family and I moved to North Vancouver, to a house surrounded by trees on the shoulder of Mount Seymour. Settlement ends near our home and gives way to forests that include long trails up and down the mountainsides and valleys of this beautiful region.
I have taken to hiking these trails, and the other day I took a new one. I almost got lost, and instead came upon a fresh illustration of the guidance of God.
The trail started clearly and broadly enough, but after ten minutes, as I started down a hillside toward Seymour Creek and eventually home, the trail got smaller and smaller. Suddenly, as I rounded a bend, it disappeared. Actually, it didn’t so much disappear as become indistinguishable from several other possible paths, identically lined with pine and spruce needles. I began to feel more than a little worried, not least because I had not seen another person for half an hour or more.
God expects us to follow the trails of normal life without prompting and without special assistance. He has given us the ability to see the trail and to follow it. And much of our lives is just like that sort of hike: clearly marked-out paths of duties, opportunities, relationships, talents, limitations, joys, and challenges. We don’t need any big revelation about what we’re supposed to do. Instead, we need energy and faith and encouragement and perservance to do it.
But now I was lost. My orienteering skills consisted simply of listening hard for the waterfall of the creek so that, if all else failed, I could thrash and crash my way down the hillside and then follow the creek as best I could to civilization. But it would be an awfully tough go if I had to do that. The brush was quite thick in places and the decline was pretty steep.
So I looked around some more and–there it was. A pink ribbon tied on a tree branch. Someone had marked the trail, and as I approached the branch the path opened up before me. Down I continued.
This happened another four or five times over the next half hour. Pleasant clambering down the hillside on the fairly rigorous trail until–stopped. No idea where to go. And then a pink or yellow ribbon would appear, I would breathe a sigh of relief, and I would continue.
When we can’t find our way by normal means, God provides extraordinary means. Perhaps we “come across” a book or a television show or a stranger on an airplane flight that gives us vital information necessary to continue our life journey. Perhaps we gain counsel from a friend or teacher or relative. God knows where the trail becomes impossible to discern by normal means and so he has prompted and positioned other people to mark that decision point for us so that we may continue.
Sometimes we don’t spot the ribbon right away. Sometimes it’s because we’re frantic and we need to calm down and look harder. Sometimes it’s because we’re looking in the wrong direction: I assumed the trail would always go down, so I kept looking down. Eventually, however, I looked all around and saw a ribbon dancing on a branch well up the slope. It told me, correctly, that I needed to climb back up the hill for a while–in order to avoid a mud pit, as it turned out. So the ribbon isn’t always where we think it ought to be, but normally it will be there for us if we will patiently trust God for it and keep looking.
So I got down to the main trail and sauntered the rest of the way home–relieved from the surges of anxiety I had felt while descending, but now also a bit sorry that the excitement of finding and losing and finding the trail again was now gone.
And then it occurred to me. God had given me the basic wits to discern a trail and walk it properly and then had also provided those life-saving ribbons when the trail seemed to disappear. But God also had been my hiking companion the whole way. And had I gotten lost and there were no ribbons to reorient me, I am confident that God would have done what God often does in truly extraordinary situations in which the normal helps aren’t available: He would have spoken up and said, “Come this way.”
At these three levels, then, God guides: the wisdom he provides us to negotiate normal life; the special guidance he provides us when particular decisions have to be made among several plausible options; and the miraculous direction he provides us when absolutely necessary. God is our ever-present help in trouble, including the trouble of confusion.
Lastly, I don’t mean to say that Christians will never get lost on mountainsides–literal or metaphorical–and perish. But I believe that if they do, and they have been faithful (and have not gotten into trouble recklessly), then the voice of God has indeed told them to “come this way” and that way was Home.
Furthermore, even if we have ignored the warning signs and arrogantly struck out on our own, God is merciful and often sends us guidance–usually a search-and-rescue team–to get us back on track. We need not despair when we are lost that God cannot or will not find us.
We are not alone in the forest. God is with us–Emmanuel. And God has shown himself to be the way, the truth, and the life–at every turn of the trail. Walk on!