By Thomas Lambrecht –
As a young adult, I became fascinated by the story told by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I was inspired by the extraordinary adventures on behalf of human goodness undertaken by ordinary folk.
Through my wife’s recommendation, I recently became acquainted with a devotional book called Walking with Bilbo (Tyndale, 2005), by Sarah Arthur. It draws spiritual lessons from the various happenings in the Tolkien story (which is in keeping with Tolkien’s deep Christian faith). Fortunately for my wife and others, you do not need to have read The Hobbit to benefit from the devotions. They are biblically-centered and practical in their daily application.
One chapter recalls an episode in The Hobbit when the hobbit Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf comrades need to pass through a broad, dark forest called Mirkwood. Their mentor, the wizard Gandalf, warns them that the only safe way through the forest is to stick to the main path through the center. In Gandalf’s absence, however, the group becomes bored. Day after day, mile after mile, there is nothing but trees! To compound the problem, the dwarves and their hobbit comrade are running out of food. Who knows how much longer this forest will last? Is it not time to disregard Gandalf’s advice and leave the path, just for a short while, to break the monotony and find something to satisfy their need for food? In the story, of course, the decision to do so leads to bad things happening — what Arthur calls “misadventures.”
I can really relate! This coronavirus pandemic has been going on for six months. No in-person church or small group. No concerts or movie theaters. No fun trips. For many, no eating in restaurants. No getting together with friends or even family. For some, not even the ability to work, since they have been furloughed or let go from their jobs. When you have watched everything good on Netflix, you know you are in trouble! Worst of all, we have no concrete idea when it will all be over.
The stay at home routine can become mind numbing. In some places, when things began to open up again, people went wild. Beach parties. Packed bars and nightclubs. Family get-togethers. Forgetting to wear masks or practice physical distancing. The predictable consequences of going “off the path” were a dramatic spike in Covid19 cases and a surge in deaths and hospitalizations.
As Arthur points out in her devotional, these situations illustrate the fact that sometimes, the Christian life can become routine and even tedious. The daily Bible reading and prayer times can become stale. Staying faithful in our marriage or celibate in singleness can seem unexciting. Weekly or monthly tithing can crimp our ability to have fun or buy something we really want. The daily effort to be kind to others in the face of insult and selfishness can become wearying.
As Arthur puts it:
Sometimes you wake up in the morning and — unless there’s a cataclysmic disaster or even just the slightest deviation from the norm — the day’s events will go exactly as predicted with no change from the everyday tasks God has called you to do. Homework is still homework, laundry is still laundry, and dinner must be prepared before the end of the day. … The truth is, if we stick to the path God has chosen for us, we’re not guaranteed eye-popping, jaw-dropping, heart-racing adventures all the time. In fact, we may be asked to do the mundane, the banal, the mind-numbingly boring.
And that’s exactly when we’re tempted to stray. We begin to starve for change, for something to break the tedium of our days, to get the heart rate up again. So we contemplate taking the slightest jog off the track, just to see what’s out there. Those are the times when the misadventures of our lost and wandering peers look almost tempting. … We begin to wonder if there’s perhaps some other path. …
Other times, we’re tempted to stray because we have genuine needs that must be met, like the starving dwarves in Bilbo’s tale. Perhaps we’re simply exhausted at the end of the day and need to relax. Why not with a six-pack? Or maybe we feel the pain of poor self-esteem. Why not pick on someone else in an attempt to feel good at another’s expense? If we’re not careful, our genuine needs can lead us to justify all sorts of unhealthy behavior. (pages 110-111)
It is in those times that we need to remember that God’s way for us is always best. Going off the path can lead to spiritual and even physical danger.
The Bible has a lot to say about staying on God’s path.
- “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
- “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the rock eternal. … The path of the righteous is level; you, the Upright One, make the way of the righteous smooth. Yes, Lord, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you” (Isaiah 26: 3-4, 7-8, emphasis added).
- “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it'” (Isaiah 30:21).
- “I instruct you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths. When you walk, your steps will not be hampered; when you run, you will not stumble. … Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go your way. … The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter until the full light of day. But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble” (Proverbs 4:11-12, 14-15, 18-19).
- “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 16:25).
- “This is what the Lord says, ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls'” (Jeremiah 6:16).
- “Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ … Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord” (Isaiah 2:3, 5).
The good news is that we have the resources to keep us on God’s path for our lives. We have the Holy Spirit to guide us, if we will listen, and to give us strength for the journey. We have the Lord Jesus as our companion on the journey, who as a man went through times such as we are experiencing, who can sympathize with our weakness and encourage us by his presence. We have the Word of God, which is the “light for our path,” showing us the way to go. We have brothers and sisters in Christ who can help and encourage us along the way. When we are feeling hemmed in by the routine, it helps to be transparent with the Lord and with our human companions on the journey. Sharing our struggles takes the power out of them and enables us to receive encouragement and strength.
We are called to persevere in faithfulness to God’s path, whether that path be exciting or mundane. We find life, peace, and rest for our souls on that path. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). Or in the words of Gandalf, “Stick to the path!”
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.