When the Straight & Narrow Isn’t

by Jonathan Trotter on January 1, 2015

My parents had their life all mapped out, and then their baby was born with chromosomal abnormalities and died at home, surrounded by tubes and oxygen tanks, only a month old.

As a teenager, I had my life pretty well planned out (get my pilot’s license, be Nate Saint). But then my mom got cancer and died. And the path of God darkened.

The “plan of God for my life,” the path I was following with full confidence and youthful arrogance, disappeared. Because sometimes the straight and narrow isn’t.

God doesn’t always lead in straight lines.

He is the God of fractals, making beauty and order out of lines that look like a drunk man was drawing during an earthquake. Left-handed.

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 God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform.

He plants his footsteps in the sea

And rides upon the storm.

The paths of God meander. But somewhere along the way we got this idea that we should be able to sit down, especially in January, and map out THE SPECIFIC WILL OF GOD FOR OUR LIFE AND MINISTRY FROM NOW UNTIL FOREVERMORE. I’m sorry, but my life’s just not working out like that. But if yours is, then hey, more power to you.

Don’t mind me, I’ll just be hanging out back here with all the folks who are a wee bit confused by God sometimes.

Deep in unfathomable mines

 Of never-failing skill,

 He treasures up his bright designs

 And works his sovereign will.

I’m a fan of vision and purpose and alignment. I’ve read tons of books on leadership and vision. Really. My personal “Vision & Mission” statement is taped to the tile on my office wall and I read it several times a week. However, I’m beginning to wonder if these ideas are more suited for a corporation than my life.

Perhaps God has a higher purpose than us coming up with a goal and then perfectly implementing it. It really seems to me that few people, even the heroes of the faith, saw the whole plan of God for their lives, and then developed perfect action steps that they then enacted flawlessly. Mission accomplished.

Perhaps the Kingdom of God advances less militaristically and more organically. Less check box like, and more with an ongoing awareness that God’s plans seldom travel in a straight line (at least from our perspective).

What about Moses? He had the great call and purpose of freeing the people of Israel. However, a good chunk of his life looked very much NOT aligned to that goal. How would we look at a person in Moses’ position, whittling away time in a faraway land while the people of Israel languished in slavery? Was that out of alignment? Do we just blame it on the fact that Moses didn’t follow God’s plan, so he got banished for DECADES? I sure am glad I obey God perfectly. All the time.

Or David, anointed by God, but residing in pastures. Where was the alignment? Where were the action steps? He didn’t even kill Saul when he had the chance! That’s like minus one action step to ruling the Kingdom.

And then there’s Jesus, who knew at age 12 specifically what the Father had called him to do. However, up until the age of 30, his day-to-day jobs and activities did not LOOK aligned to the call or mission of God. What a failure.

 His purposes will ripen fast,

 Unfolding every hour.

The bud may have a bitter taste,

 But sweet will be the flower.

Who’s Flying This Plane?

David says in Psalm 23:3, “He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name.” I’m no farm kid, but I’m pretty sure the farmer gets to decide the “right paths.” Which is a bummer if you’ve already got the straight and narrow completely sorted.

For each transition in our life, Elizabeth and I have tried to listen to God, we’ve tried to discern his path, and we’ve been mostly sure (about 83%) we were heading in the right direction. However, in each case, we did NOT have any idea what the step AFTER that step would be. But we pretty much knew what we needed to do to obey today.

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Have you ever noticed that pilots are dumb? I mean, really, who gets from Chicago to Korea by flying north?! It’s like they’ve never looked at a map. Oh, that’s right, they didn’t look at a map, the fools added a dimension and looked at the GLOBE. The flight paths of giant airliners look really dumb if you’re stuck in two dimensions. But wow, add that third dimension and everyone starts shouting, “O Captain, My Captain!”

I imagine God’s kind of like that too. Sometimes, I want to get to Asia and God says, “Um, you know, that’s great, let’s fly over Santa Claus.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s stupid, I need to go STRAIGHT west and then a bit south.” And God says, “You have no idea what you’re talking about. Would you like kimchi or chicken fingers?”

God deals in dimensions we know nothing about. And I believe he will sometimes lead us along paths that look wrong, that look out of alignment, that, get this, require faith.

If God leads you “off target” or out of alignment, will you follow Him?

There are more parameters, more dimensions, more curvatures of the planet, than we will ever know. If God’s plans really are more wonderful than we could imagine, why do we strive so hard to imagine and define them? Can we rest in a loving Father? Can we continue to move forward in obedience, even if we don’t know where that obedience will lead?

 

Bonhoeffer (Because, Why Not?)

The dude had guts. And I think an uncanny ability to see from a height that helped him understand things. So, after his life deviated from his own plans in a BIG WAY (think Nazis and prisons) he was able to write:

“I’m firmly convinced – however strange it may seem—that my life has followed a straight and unbroken course, at any rate in its outward conduct. It has been an uninterrupted enrichment of experience, for which I can only be thankful. If I were to end my life here in these conditions, that would have a meaning that I think I could understand; on the other hand, everything might be a thorough preparation for a new start and a new task when peace comes.”

In other words, he knew his life looked out of whack. It looked grossly misaligned and greatly off kilter. But, he pulled out that pesky thing called faith, got comfortable with some intellectual dissonance and the tension of unknowing, and believed that God had it under control. No matter what.

How could he say these things? Because He knew his God.

Blind unbelief is sure to err

And scan his work in vain.

God is his own interpreter,

And he will make it plain.

The longer I serve abroad, the less I desire to do great things for God and the more I desire to just be with Him. I feel less ambition and more Peace. Less like I’m racing the buzzer, and more like I’m being pursued by a Lover.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll work less, caught up in some heavenly romance. It means that I’ll work closer. Closer to the One my soul desires. Closer to the One the world needs. Closer to the heart of God.

And frankly, I don’t care how straight or how twisted the path is, if it leads farther up and farther in, I’m so there.

 

*photo credits: flightaware and unsplash

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About Jonathan Trotter

Jonathan is a missionary in Southeast Asia, where he provides pastoral counseling at a local counseling center. He also serves as one of the pastors at an international church. Before moving to the field with his wife of sixteen years and their four kids, he served as a youth pastor in the Midwest for ten years. He enjoys walking with people towards Jesus and eating imported Twizzlers. | www.trotters41.com | facebook: trotters41 | twitter: @trotters41
  • Elizabeth

    Excellent thoughts. I loved the analogy of pilots, flight plans and extra dimensions.

  • Lisette Lewis

    This reminds of a quote I read once: “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard

    • I love that quote, Lisette! Thanks for sharing it here. May God bless you and yours. Happy Saturday!

  • Moriah

    THANK YOU. Yea. Totally totally totally. Loved the last part.. to love Him with all heart, soul, and mind. That is enough for the rest.

    • Enough. Now there is a word with some life implications! Thanks for the comment, Moriah.

  • Steve White

    Great analogy of the great circle routes. Yes, God does not proceed linearly as we think of linearly.

    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quotes a good poem along these same lines.

    On the peak of earthly glory
    I look back in surprise on the path I have taken
    which I would never have been able to invent for myself,
    an incredible path through hopelessness
    from which I was yet able
    to send humanity a reflection of Your rays of light
    And for as long as it is necessary that I keep reflecting them,
    You will let me do so.
    And what I do not finish — well then,
    You have assigned others the task.

    This page says the words actually were written by Abbot Alipius, a 20th century Orthodox monk.
    http://educatingwithreverence.com/2012/11/12/solzhenitsyns-prayer/

    • “As we think of linearly.” I love that! And thanks so much for adding that quote, Steve. I love the part about “the path I have taken which I would never have been able to invent for myself.” So true.

  • mylittlegumnut

    Love it!

  • This was a great piece, Jonathan. I highlighted that exact same passage in Bonhoeffer when I read it this fall. Fascinating story, and someone whose theology is still so incredibly relevant to our ‘churched’ hearts.

    “The longer I serve abroad, the less I desire to do great things for God and the more I desire to just be with Him. I feel less ambition and more Peace. Less like I’m racing the buzzer, and more like I’m being pursued by a Lover.” — Especially loved this, and although I’ve only been abroad for 9 months, I feel every single bit of it. Good word, today!

    • Yeah, that book was a masterful story of an amazing life. I just started Eric Metaxas’ book called Seven. It’s pretty sweet so far, too. I read your recent post about persisting, and can I just say, may the God of Peace be with you guys in 2015! : )

  • Jana Lackey

    Wonderful read! It hurt good! Thanks!

  • Susanna Linton

    But you didn’t quote my FAVORITE verse of that hymn!! (Or my second-favorite verse of the same hymn, for that matter!) “You fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds you so much dread are big with MERCY and shall break in blessings on your head! Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.” I so very frequently need the reminder that what I perceive as trouble usually proves to be serious blessing instead…

    Aside from that minor complaint: you nailed it again, Jonathan. Thank you!

    • Ha! Susanna, you have no idea the internal editorial crisis that occurred as I pondered all the verses to that song! : ) But I’ve “upvoted” your comment, as has Elizabeth, to ensure that all future readers will be blessed with the verses that remained on the cutting room floor. : ) And hey, when Alf finishes the wake park, are you coming?

      • Susanna Linton

        Is there really any approved answer to that last question besides “Yes!”?!?

  • Dawn Matusz

    This explains my “hunh???” moments perfectly. 🙂 Great post!

  • Nicola Olsen

    Catching up on emails and WOW. Your post just blew me away. Humor and truth mingled is a beautiful thing. The part that spoke loudest to me, as my family ponder a possible life-transition out of Missions, is:

    “God doesn’t always lead in straight lines. He is the God of fractals, making beauty and order out of lines that
    look like a drunk man was drawing during an earthquake. Left-handed.”

    Seriously, thank you. This came to my inbox at exactly the right time. I like how God does that.

    • I like how God does that too! Awesome. Thanks for sharing your comment, Nicola, and may the Father of Peace be with you guys as you ponder those possible changes.

  • Rachel paraguay

    A balm to my soul, thank you!

    • So grateful we serve a God who cares, even in the curves. God bless, Rachel!

  • This post came at the perfect time. Our life is in transition (again), and it is good to be reminded that God’s plan and His timing are always perfect–even if we don’t understand what’s going on behind the scenes.

    • Grateful for the good timing. Praying for the transition. Thanks for stopping by, Erin, and may the great Reminder also bring wonderful Peace to you and yours!

  • Amy Heague

    Thank you for re sharing this. I really needed to hear this.

  • Renee Smith

    Thanks for the inspiration as we sweat or slide through mud serving Him Together here in S E Asia. Yes- each day has enough trouble. Let’s press on & trust Him for today. Jesus said,”look at the birds of the air…..” 🙂 -Your boys soccer coach from Hope 🙂

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