It was mid December and I had just resigned from my job as one of the High School Pastors at a large church in Cincinnati. Finally, after ten months of preparation, I took the step and turned left. Standing at the bottom of this seemingly impossible hill I wondered what He was going to do now. Twelve years ago, He called me into ministry and I never looked back. I gave up my life as I knew it to follow Him only to now find myself here, off the beaten path, in one of the darkest alleys of my life.
Turning took me away. I was now walking (slowly) in a perpendicular direction to what used to be my life. I turned, everything else seemed to keep moving the same way. Transition is hard. To leave a place, even if you know where you are going, is rough. Endings aren’t always easy and, if we are honest with one another, rather than turn; some of us resolve to make the most of where we are and who we are with because, even if it’s hard, it’s known and there’s something about known that keeps us comfortable.
I’m learning, when God invites us to turn, it is rarely about the circumstances around us and almost always about the circumstances within us.
We tend to think of follow Jesus as an outside job, when He clearly knows life unfolds from the inside out. Turning left wasn’t my issue, it was my invitation. The question in front of me that morning was simple, would I let go of my expectations and embrace His invitation?
Jesus came to give us life to the full and yet many of us settle in for life half empty at best. It does us no good to know Him if we aren’t going to follow Him fully. I would even venture to say, if we aren’t following Him, then it’s because we don’t really know Him. His promises for us are perfect. His gifts for us are always good. And so we can trust when He leads, He leads as an invitation and not because of an issue.
I have a favorite pair of running shoes. Or maybe I should say, I had a favorite pair of running shoes. Eventually, they stopped working for me and instead of helping they were hurting. They were my favorite because of the hours I spent in them. By month five or six, they were practically molded to my feet. They only became a hindrance because the soles worn down so much I could almost see through them. At this place, I had a choice to make. Hang on to something that once fit so well and refuse to believe they had worn out their welcome Or let go and move my feet into a nice (but not quite broken in) new pair of gel runners.
In Hebrews chapter twelve Paul says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,”
Heb 12:1, NIV
This passage makes perfect sense when it comes to the second part of Paul’s sentence, “the sin that so easily entangles.” Obviously we need to throw off sin so we can run the race God has prepared for us. Where I get hung up is when what used to be weightless and helpful is now feeling weight-filled and hurtful. Running up this unexpected hill with the Father would mean I didn’t run it with my friends, with my job or even the dreams I clung to most of my life.
Some of His greatest invitations are unexpected. They are the ones we didn’t see coming and the ones we hesitate to accept. The ones veering us away from the comfort of the old ways and into the unknown of the new. The only way to accept these invitations is completely. We cannot partially follow God to new places while wrestling to keep one foot in the old spaces. We have to surrender, throwing off anything and everything (good or bad) hindering us from the path God has for us.
Even good things become bad things when they keep us away from the God things.
The tension of the turn caused a lot of struggle. The unloading of resources and relationships dealt a lot of pain. The circumstances surrounding the turn unleashed a lot of confusion, but the voice of the Father brought enough confidence to readjust my posture and prepare for the future.
God cares more about the work He is doing inside of you than He does the work developing outside of you. That means He will not bypass the opportunity to teach you more about who you are on the inside just to keep you productive on the outside. Our lives are only ever as fruitful as our understanding of our identity is truthful. Recognizing He was reaching for me, I allowed God’s Word to push my chair away from my desk and I surrendered my position, my security and my dream. Turning away from my platform I stepped into a side street and began the unexpected journey of a lifetime.
You don’t get to the finish line of something you don’t start.
This was my time of testing. Did I really believe God’s promises would prevail? Identity transformations happen on the hills, as we climb, as we struggle to breathe and as we dig deep with all the energy we have inside of us and plunge into the dark unknown. These are the places where He opens our eyes and we see what we are really made of Him and thus we can do hard things, go to unknown places and overcome unexpected obstacles. These are the training grounds for redemptive living.
The Israelites walked away from slavery and into the wilderness not because of a punishment for the problems but because a promise for the presence. They needed the space so God could form in them an identity that would chose Him regardless of surroundings. Their future freedom was dependent upon their present surrender. Until we confidently know who He is and thus understand who we are, we will struggle to survive on the highways – let alone in the side streets and back alleys.
God leads us off to form us, shape us and recreate us. Another way of putting that is, He leads us off to disciples us. It wasn’t meant to be like this. Sin did a number on our identities. Our eyes dart around all day long noticing all that is happening around us instead of focusing on the reality within us. For much of my life, before my turn, my heart attached to anything that presented a glimmer of acceptance.
God didn’t rescue the Israelites just to see them put themselves back into slavery. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,” (John 8:36, NIV.) If there’s one thing the Father despises, it’s the enemies attempt to imprison us. We were created to be free, but because of sin, the road leading to our freedom is sometimes littered with turns, hills and hidden alleys.
The Good News is we have the best guide. He is always present and always working and He always has our best interest in mind. The journey off the beaten path is about learning to trust His leadership. It’s about recognizing; He sees things from a different perspective. He has insight and wisdom we don’t know about. If we could understand His ways, then He wouldn’t be who He says He is and then we would have an issue, because He wouldn’t be worth following.
Up until their left turn the Israelites had only seen the power of God, this was their time to experience the presence of God. This desert alley was meant to form in them and indestructible intimacy for who He is. For the disciples these back roads would build a deep covenant relationship between them and their Savior. It’s where they would come to know Him and one day eventually lay down their lives to follow Him.
You have a Father in heaven who wants to lead you off the beaten path and into your Promised Land of freedom. There is a way to more than you’ve ever asked or imagined, but it’s not the well paved highway you might have hoped. Whether you are voluntarily stepping off the path or the road you’ve been traveling has been temporarily closed and staying on it is nearly impossible. Sometimes we choose the turn and sometimes the turn chooses us.
Don’t let the enemy keep you idle when the Father has prepared your feet for walking.