Finding the Will of God–or–Not Getting Lost in the Forest

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!

0 Responses to “Finding the Will of God–or–Not Getting Lost in the Forest”

  1. chriswignall

    Thanks John;
    This is a helpful formulation. Glad you didn’t decide instead that God was calling you to become an ascetic and just stay in the woods.

  2. Bennett

    The life/hiking trail metaphor is almost cliche (yet meaningful still!). What I really liked about your perspective was this:

    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.

    We often take God’s guidance as if it were like a tour guide or a local guide taking us to where we want to go. I’d be better off if I viewed God’s guidance more like a trainer/owner guiding their beloved dog. I don’t even fully understand where the trail will lead me, so why should I care if I feel lost as long as I am on the trail and He is leading?

  3. James


    I liked this I stumbled on (no pun intended) a similar metaphor hiking Moana Loa on the island of Hawaii (conveniently located in Hawaii). The hike crosses various lava flows, some of them only 10-15 years old, with no visible trail and no vegetation. If you wandered off too far, the ground may crumble beneath you.

    The trails were marked with piles of lava rocks. The way to stay ‘on track’ was to walk from a pile of stones, marking the trail to the next pile of stones. Often you could only navigate to the next point on the trail before you knew where to go next. I found it a great metaphor of our ‘limited vision’ as we walk faithfully as far as we can see and wait to see the path God is unfolding for us.

  4. Ian

    Hi John,

    Stephen King has something to add to this metaphor. He wrote a short novel called The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. The book is an extended parable about the human search for God. God chases the girl out of the woods in the form of a bear. King’s image reminded me a bit of C.S. Lewis’s Aslan in The Horse and His Boy when he chases the protagonists to spur them on.

    In my pre-Christian days, the poem The Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson grabbed my attention and gripped my imagination as Thompson depicts God as shadowy pursuer who is frightening and hard to outrun… that is, until one is caught and one realizes you are running not from death but from life itself. Here is a snippet:

    I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
    I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
    I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
    Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
    I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
    Up vistaed hopes I sped;
    And shot, precipitated,
    Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
    From those strong Feet that followed, followed after…

    Anyway, I thought I would add my three cents (or at least the sense of three varied authors). I am glad all it took was a ribbon and not a pack of rabid Canadian Geese to get you back on track.


  5. dan

    Reminds of a few times I was well and truly lost in the wilderness when I was planting trees up north. Good fun, eh?

    Anyway, if “God expects us to follow the trails of normal life without prompting and without special assistance” then I’m screwed because I have no idea what “normal life” is or should be.

  6. Shaun Jung

    Thank you for this blog entry. This was really encouraging. If Lord willing, perhaps further down the road, I’ll get to share my own story with you of how God had led me to find His will and not get lost in the forest. 🙂

  7. Steve

    Good thoughts as I am making some big decisions in several areas of my life right now. It also reminds me of when my wife and I went hiking in Vermont and almost got lost on our own unclearly marked trail. We went to a state park to hike up a mountain, but the sign to the main trail was somehow turned the wrong way. I would up following a clearly marked snowmobile trail(!). This was summer and I grew up in Florida. How would I know it was a snowmobile sign??? As it turned out, while on this “wring path” I took what is by far my most popular photo posted on Webshots, with nearly 15,000 views. A photo about being pointed towards God IMO

  8. Richard

    There’s such a strange gap between myself and Christians like you. We find such totally different things from the same experience. A metaphor and an application here that bolster your sense of something hollow it out more than ever for me.

    Encounters like this always make me want to understand better where the fundamental differences in our perception and understanding lie. Why is it that an example can both illustrate God’s presence to one person and absence to another? It’s actually quite impressive that in cases such as religion, people can have two so fundamentally different models and perspectives of the world and how it works, and still manage to thrive, feeling reinforced by experience of their model’s validity.

    I am grateful for your tone and presentation of your thoughts and experiences. It helps me appreciate them and provide more of the respect that they deserve than some of the more confrontational religious discussions out there can.

  9. Matt

    First of all, this article, although very detailed, was long and boring. Secondly, I don’t find your article supported strongly by Biblical principles. Among other references, Isaiah 42:16 says:

    “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.”

    God doesn’t expect us to do anything on our own. If we are left to fend for ourselves, we will fail, thus the reason for Jesus.

  10. John Stackhouse

    Thanks to those of you who have been encouraged by this post. As for Matt (#13), I shall pass by your first point and would begin to answer your second one.

    God indeed is not expecting us to do anything on our own. But he is expecting us to make use of the helps he has given us–education, social conditioning, native intelligence, conscience, the Bible, the Church, tradition, and more–to act like responsible adults and not witless children. We do not need God to tell us how to cook breakfast or drive a car or prepare for an exam or do our jobs. Most normal life needs a prayerful attitude, but it doesn’t require prayer for special guidance. We don’t need it, so God doesn’t supply it and we shouldn’t ask for it. We certainly shouldn’t congratulate ourselves on our piety by asking God to supply supernaturally what he has already placed nearby for us to use properly.

    You ask for Biblical principles, as well you might. Let me direct you to THE ENTIRE BOOK OF PROVERBS, for starters.

  11. Dan

    Dear John,

    Thanks for that encouraging story, which was both short and engaging.

    I agree with your response to Matt’s second point, but a source of anxiety for me, especially in some recent “big” decisions, is whether that is contra Prov 3:5. By not, as you say, praying for special guidance on an issue because I can use my common sense or do a bit of research or ask my wife, am I not “leaning on my own understanding” and thereby failing to “trust in the Lord”?


  12. John Stackhouse

    I love Proverbs 3:5, 6, too! I believe, however, that it is talking about one’s entire life stance, the attitude of one’s heart, the way one “leans.” One is, as the proverbs never tire of saying, to fear the LORD first and everything then follows from that basic orientation.

    To draw on the good gifts of God’s providence, such as one’s own reason and moral inclination and spiritual intuition, is to work in a posture of grateful use of God’s guidance, not to assert autonomy from God.

    And the deliverances of research or of one’s spouse are clearly not one’s “own understanding,” are they? Instead, they are gratefully used as outside sources to confirm or correct what we know “on our own.”

    How else is God going to guide us? Well, as I wrote, he can cause special circumstances or other providences to crop up in our lives when needed, and even communicate to us in visions, dreams, or voices. But it is a foolish, not “spiritual,” Christian who determines to live his life waiting for God to tell him directly every single thing he is to do. God is telling him, indeed, but not through miraculous means, but rather through the wonderful array of resources we each have available to us.

    Does this help clarify the point?

  13. Dan

    Yes, it does. Thank you.

    In my particular church tradition, one’s own reason is often abandoned in favour of “feeling led” to do such and such. Indeed, in many testimonies, it seems to be a hindrance rather than a gift from him, as though by not relying on one’s abilities proves that it was God that acted.

    Similarly, if my brothers and sisters in Christ are to be believed, they “feel” (and the use of that verb I guess indicates some kind of intuition or inner voice) God telling them about where to go on holiday, which charity to give to, which school to send their kids to, etc. Hence, I get a little perplexed about it, as this has not been my experience for what I would consider to be much bigger decisions that I’ve had to make.



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