“The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.” (Proverbs 12:15)
In early July Pat and I traveled to Vancouver Island on the southwestern coast of Canada to pursue her hobby of birding. Rather than simply fly 2500 miles we opted to travel across Canada by train – a 3½ day journey that a number of friends have told us they’ve dreamed about taking someday. The service on the train was terrific and we were enchanted by many glorious sights of our neighbor to the north. It was a time to relax and enjoy the scenic breadth of God’s creation – from the lakes and woods of Ontario, across the Great Plains of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, over the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, to the final dizzying descent through British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean.
Although the train trip was intended to be its own adventure, there was an obvious irony that to go bird watching we first crossed an enormous land where there were certainly thousands if not millions of birds, none of which we observed. Aside from traveling too fast in an enclosed train car, we had no one to guide us. We had no one to whisper, “Listen to that whoo, whoo, whoo – that is the sound of a Great Gray Owl,” or “Do you see that flash of blue – that is a Mountain Bluebird!” As much as we would have welcomed a leisurely walk with an expert, our destination lay elsewhere.
By the time we reached Vancouver Island we were ready to get out and find some birds. No longer rocking along two steel rails, our pace slowed as we prepared for a quiet stroll through field and fen with binoculars in hand. First, however, we rendezvoused with a naturalist whom we earlier had engaged to show us around the area. We couldn’t have had a better guide than Christopher who despite being only twenty-seven had a love for birds as well as a deep knowledge of them that belied his age. It was easy to imagine that we were birding with Dr. Doolittle. When we entered a forest, Christopher would imitate various bird sounds that actually drew birds to us. At times they answered his calls with vocalizations of their own, making it seem as if they were conversing. Under his guidance we saw seventy different species of birds in two days.
Bird watching is a naturally slow-paced and soul-satisfying pursuit. Surrounded by the sounds, smells, and sights of nature, a walk in the woods or stroll on a beach is uniquely restorative – an activity that can be fully enjoyed on one’s own. However, in order to penetrate the cacophony of sounds and movements to find a specific bird in unfamiliar territory, a guide is essential. The longer we walked with Christopher, the more we heard and the more we saw. What seemed at first to be random chirpings became discernable calls. And the slightest motions in old growth forests soon became recognizable forms. Slowly our ears began to hear and our eyes began to see.
Christopher helped us to hear and see what we would have missed without him. He was a true guide. As I have reflected on our time, I realize that guidance is a principle that applies as much to our spiritual lives and relationships as it does in the natural world.
The Bible speaks about idols having ears that don’t hear and eyes that don’t see, and it cautions that people who trust in idols will similarly lack all discernment. (Psalm 115) Spiritual guides can help us see and hear God’s word for us. For example, when the Ethiopian asked Philip to explain a passage in Isaiah, his eyes of understanding were opened (Acts 8:30-31). Without a guide, we are apt to stumble from one experience to another, often not realizing our mistake until it is too late. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.”
Consider the virtue of seeking guidance.
Having relationships with others who can help guide and direct us on our life journey is an important principle of Christian living. The church has a rich history of formal guidance through spiritual directors. While spiritual direction is uncommon in evangelical circles, it is not unknown, for example, http://formedforlife.org. However, whether it is a spiritual director to help us hear God’s voice, a friend whom we meet with regularly, small group, or other form of Christian community, we need encouragement and counsel from other believers and they need us. When we are not intentional about seeking others but forsake meeting with them, we put ourselves at risk – the risk of stumbling, and the risk of setting up idols in our lives that can have devastating consequences.
We Americans have a heritage of rugged individualism, a dream of being self-sufficient, a cultural norm that is often in conflict with the “one another” commands in the Bible. Regrettably many of us Christians live solitary lives – making decisions in private, often based solely on our feelings. Dallas Willard points out the problem with this in Renovation Of The Heart, where he writes, “A great part of the disaster of contemporary life lies in the fact that it is organized around feelings. People nearly always act on their feelings, and think it only right.” To counteract this tendency, deep Christian community can encourage us to look beyond our feelings to see God’s design for our life.
Take childrearing, for example. Who among us has successfully navigated parenting without input from others? Trusting one’s own instincts is fine as far as it goes, but an outsider can often observe dynamics in a relationship or family that those involved are too close to discern. When we make an idol of self-sufficiency in such matters we are heading for disaster. There is much truth to the legal adage, “a person who is their own lawyer has a fool for a client.” The world tells us to “do your own thing,” so we have men and women sacrificing their marriages and families for the sake of a job or a more “satisfying” relationship. The consequences often aren’t fully realized or appreciated until years later. Is there anything more bitter than tears of regret for self-inflicted wounds?
I know a married person who seems willing to abandon spouse and young children for the sake of pursuing a dangerous profession. This is not an economic decision, but one that is based on their feelings – reportedly what is necessary for them to “feel alive.” The children and spouse are paying a dear price for this decision, but the individual seems oblivious. What is clear to those of us on the outside looking in is that this person will eventually grow too old, too weak, and too tired for this profession, at which point there will be no family to return to. That “train” will have left the station – resentments towards the absentee parent will be engrained. Although this person is a Christian, they have sadly forsaken their church community to pursue a reckless and almost certainly futile attempt at fulfillment. And tragically Paul’s caution that we reap what we sow will be proven true once again.
On the other end of the spectrum is a couple like my friend Bill and his wife. Now in their 60’s, they were intentional throughout their marriage to stay connected with other Christians and to seek out the best information on childrearing. Although they are the first to point out mistakes they made along the way, their “train” never got derailed – they were always seeking spiritual and relational guidance, which they gratefully received and applied. For example, Bill tells how very early in his career a mentor at his office counseled him that while many people could do Bill’s job at work, only Bill could be the husband to his wife and father to his children. Advice that he took to heart.
My own experience lies somewhere between the two previous examples. I was not involved in Christian community as a young man and did not take kindly to Pat giving me advice on interpersonal matters. (Actually I didn’t like anyone giving me advice on anything unless I asked.) Gradually, however, I came to see the value of counsel and community and in the past sixteen years have been blessed by friendships that involve exploring ideas and honest sharing of personal struggles. Sometimes all it takes is a question like, “Why are you afraid?” to suggest a course of action. (Some of the best guidance I have received has come in the form of a question.) For example, I was unsettled and nervous in the weeks leading up to the Vancouver Island trip. Several days before we left I met with a group of friends. A brief discussion and prayer settled my soul and allowed me to enter fully and joyfully into the Canadian adventure.
Our spiritual walk is a lot like birding. While there is much that we can learn and enjoy on our own, having a companion or two enriches the experience. And whether or not they are an expert, our journey through life like a walk through the woods is better with someone at our side.