Prologue from part 1:
I am not a hiker. And though I appreciate the beauty of green and flowering things from behind the glass of a window, I’m not even really that fond of being outdoors. So I was surprised to discover that the image that came to me year after year as an analogy to describe my life, was a mountain. Complete with hiking trails.
The second time this mountain imagery came up, I had already decided to sign on full time with the ministry I’d been part of for 6 years. I’d been offered the choice to move to another city in a nearby state, or to stay at the campus I knew and loved. They asked me to pray about it, and when I did, the same mountain image emerged from my subconscious. Only this time, there were two ways up the mountain.
The first way up was the hiking trail I’d traveled before: with some gradual inclines, some steep inclines, and a path that switchbacked up and around the mountain, marked out for me and cleared of sagebrush and debris. To me this clearly represented staying at my alma mater. There were challenges involved, sure, but the struggles and pain would be experienced in the context of familiarity, in my comfort zone.
The other way was to ditch the trail and cut straight up the side of the mountain. I could tell that that way, I’d regularly slip and fall. I’d be scraped and cut up by the weeds and brush since there wasn’t any clearing to make room for me. There were no safety rails and no guarantee that I’d make it out alive, but it would definitely make me stronger if I survived. As dramatic as the comparison is, this direct and dangerous way was the option to move to the unfamiliar school.
In both God said he would be with me. In both I would grow and find people to walk with. In both I would see amazing sites if I paused long enough and could find the footing to take a break. He never told me which one was better or which one he wanted me to do. He laid them both out in front of me and asked what I wanted.
I was surprised. Up to that point I’d thought God was just in the business of giving “callings” and asking for obedience (which I was eager to do); I’d never considered that he might be interested in what I wanted.
What did I want?? I wanted comfort, a cocoon to wrap around me, my same group of friends, familiarity with how things worked in my city and at my alma mater!
But I also wanted to grow the most I could in my “idealistic 20s.” To have a good story to tell at the end of them. To prove to myself and my mother that I was serious about this work and that this was a valid way to spend my life (maybe not the healthiest desire, but I’m just being honest). To learn to need God, to become more sensitive to where he was walking and how his hand was lovingly guiding me and helping me navigate rocky terrain. To deepen my understanding of his heart, his purposes, his ways. Stronger character than I had before.
I wanted all of that, more than I wanted my comfort and security.
So I chose the harder way.
And most of those things did happen. I certainly got scraped up along the way; I even acquired some wounds that still occasionally ache or sting. But during moments of rest or bandaging myself up, I got to look out periodically from vista points and see both the beauty around me and the progress I had made, even on the days when it didn’t feel like it. I learned to identify when something was broken, what I needed to heal, and how to take better care of myself to avoid future injury.
It sucked, and it was worth it.
Some might think that because I survived the uphill battle (and gained so much through it) that I’d be an advocate for always taking the harder path, the one that promises the most suffering and character-building. I used to think that way. But I’m not entirely sure anymore that taking the harder way is always the best thing to do. I did it because
- I was given the choice (we are not always so free to choose into or out of suffering),
- I knew there was no freer time in my life than my 20’s to take such risks, and
- I wanted the deeper spiritual and emotional healing that it offered.
And sometimes what’s “hard” and what’s “easy” is not very clear cut.
My advise for anyone making a major life decision (and who senses God is giving them a choice instead of a clear calling), is this: Don’t default to the familiar and comfortable way just because it’s easier. And don’t default to the harder way if you’re one of those who tends to pursue self-sacrifice (more on that). Instead of defaulting, try this: Ask yourself what your spirit deeply longs for, listen intently for the answers, and take the path that will lead you there.
In Part 3, I’ll tell you the story of when the mountain image returned and I decided to take the slow, meandering path.