Secure the Right Path

To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination

- Stephen Covey

Life is short. The late publisher of Forbes magazine, Malcolm Forbes said it stronger: “It’s a very short trip. While alive, live.” 1 For the arrogant person who deceives himself about the reality of his ultimate demise, James, the leader of the first-century church in Jerusalem, writes: “Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (Jas. 4:14). One of Job’s three friends, Bildad the Shuhite, reminded Job that “we are but of yesterday and know nothing, for our days on earth are a shadow” (8:9). And Moses still reminds us today that “the years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Ps. 90:10). “This year flew by” is a common pronouncement heard as Christmas approaches each year. As in a calendar year – so in the totality of one’s life.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), the brilliant mathematician, physicist, inventor, and apologist for the Christian faith, clearly understood the brevity of life, his own mortality, and his place in the universe when he wrote:

When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after – as the remembrance of a guest that tarrieth [tarries, lingers] but a day – the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this time and place allotted to me? 2

How would you answer these questions of immense importance? Who put you here? Why here? Why now? For what purpose?

This last question underscores a deep longing we all have for a sense of meaning. Psychiatrist and Nazi death camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, maintained that “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives.” 3 “Deep in our hearts,” writes Os Guinness, “we all want to find and fulfill a purpose bigger than ourselves. Only such a larger purpose can inspire us to heights we know we could never reach on our own. For each of us the real purpose is personal and passionate: to know what we are here to do, and why.” 4

Even if we have not yet come to terms with the ultimate questions of our existence and gained some sense of our true purpose in life, we are, nonetheless, still moving forward through time and space in daily steps taken on one of life’s numerous pathways. We are going somewhere. Our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs inform our words and behavior, including the hundreds of choices we make in a given day. The ultimate destination may not be clear to us but, by the time we have reached our twenties, we have assimilated thousands of ideas from parents, teachers, movies, theatrical productions, travel, artists, friends, religious leaders, musicians, books, and images, as well as from our own life experiences. Many of these ideas become foundational and passionate convictions which guide us throughout our brief lives and lead us onto paths that will, with certainty, impact each successive step until the final one is taken and the full weight of our choices can be felt and measured by the watching world, thus exemplifying Søren Kierkegaard’s observation that “life is lived forward but understood backward.” 5

A Study in Paths

Paths are intriguing. Whether they wind through thick forests or beautiful gardens, over majestic mountains or alongside serene lakes, they have the power to arouse our curiosity, stir our interest, and summon us to step away from a world of concrete, noise, crowds, and stress. Appealing to our imagination, they call for us to seek out those places we have always wanted to visit – an old water mill or a covered bridge – or nudge us to move into a quieter, more peaceful beauty to absorb the sights and sounds of nature. These are the paths that refresh us and send us home with new perspectives and renewed hope.

Other paths, however, appear dreary, dark, even dangerous, arousing fear or, at least, extreme caution. They cause our hearts to beat faster and elicit alarm and panic. Those who have remained in a forest beyond the light of day know the intense feelings associated with the uncertainty and strange noises that emerge with the night. These are the paths that breed dread and chase us back to a safe place with heavy breathing and racing heartbeats.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the word path in a way that enhances our own experiential notions. Accordingly, in the physical sense of the word, a path is “a narrow unmade and (usually) unenclosed way that people on foot can use; a way specifically made for people on foot, as in a park or alongside a road.” In this definition, note that the concept of a path is neutral, without reference to the various kinds of paths one may take. A path-breaker or, more commonly, a trail-blazer opens up a way for others to follow until it becomes a trodden or, as we say, a beaten path [“He followed the beaten path,” i.e., the path that others had paved for him]. In its extended and figurative use – the way we will be using it – the word path means “a course of action; a way of proceeding; a mode of behavior or conduct; especially a way of life leading to a spiritual goal.” 6

The Paths of Solomon

The concept of a path is actually quite old, pre-dating the West Germanic language before the Christian era. The Old Testament book of Proverbs, dating from King Solomon, speaks of two kinds of paths: (1) God’s paths and (2) those which are contrary to God’s paths. God’s paths are spoken of as the path of life, the paths of the Lord, His way or ways, a straight path, the course of the just, the path of the righteous, the way of righteousness, and the way of your laws. 7 Consider King David’s claim, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11), and the simile from Solomon’s Proverbs, “But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (4:18). God’s paths are for our good – even when they are seemingly restrictive or painful – for they are paved with truth and inevitably lead to life.

To be sure, as John Milton suggested, not all paths are pleasant: “Their way lies through the perplex’t paths of this drear wood.” 8 Paths taken in opposition to God’s ways are called dark ways, crooked, the path of the wicked, evil, and wrong. 9 Proverbs acknowledges that there are those who “forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness” (2:13), and affirms the wisdom of a loving father who warns his son, “Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of the evil” (Prov. 4:14). William S. Plumer (1802-1880) warned: “Crooked ways are to be avoided because they are wicked; rough ways, because they are uncomfortable; and dark ways, because they are perilous.” 10

The Paths of Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien used the concept of paths extensively in his classic work, The Hobbit. On the morning after Elrond presented Gandalf and the dwarves with the interpretation of the rune-letters, they set out toward the Misty Mountains to the land beyond. Tolkien masterfully brings the reader to feel the seriousness of the choices that lie ahead of them:

There were many paths that led up into those mountains, and many passes over them. But most of the paths were cheats and deceptions and led nowhere or to bad ends; and most of the passes were infested by evil things and dreadful dangers. The dwarves and the hobbit, helped by the wise advice of Elrond and the knowledge and memory of Gandalf, took the right road to the right pass. 11

Multiple Implications

God’s infallible Word and Tolkien’s beloved fantasy remind us that there are multiple implications for us as we consider the figurative use of the word path and contemplate our way of life.

First, there are innumerable paths that present themselves to us as viable options. American poet Robert Frost wrote of “two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” However, his intent was only to differentiate between a more traveled and a less traveled road that appeared when he came to a fork in a yellow wood, i.e., in his physical world. In reality, we may select from any number of figurative paths that present themselves to us as we travel through this life, including existentialism, naturalism, positivism, theism, deism, pragmatism, nihilism, hedonism, pluralism, atheism, humanism, and more. We may not be able to define or recognize the names and tenets of all the false paths that entice and beguile us, but they are very real even when we are unaware that we have embraced one or more of them as a way of life. The only true path is the one given to us by Jesus Christ who claimed to be “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6). We are invited to “enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it” (Mt. 7:13-14).

Second, we are always on a path that is winding through life toward a final destination. Abandoning one path indicates that we are moving toward, or traveling on, another. Every day we are confronted with circumstances, people, decisions, and inanimate objects that impact the course of our lives. Our thoughts and beliefs are also of prime importance and shape the way we see the world. Our worldview, according to Ronald Nash, “is a set of beliefs about the most important issues in life.…[It] is a conceptual scheme by which we consciously or unconsciously place or fit everything we believe and by which we interpret and judge reality.” 12 Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey add that “a person’s worldview is intensely practical. It is simply the sum total of our beliefs about the world, the ‘big picture’ that directs our daily decisions and actions.” 13 To be aware of one’s worldview is to recognize the path being traveled.

Third, all paths do not lead to the same destination. Tolkien reminds us that most of the paths available for Bilbo and company “were cheats and deceptions.” Some led to tragic ends, while others were “infested by evil things and dreadful dangers.” Proverbs acknowledges that “the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble” (4:19). Even casual readers of literature and keen observers of people would have to concede that some roads lead to life while others end in tragedy, sorrow, and death. To assume, however, that all paths lead to the same destination would be a grave mistake. “There is a way that seems right to a man,” asserts Proverbs 14:12, “but its end is the way to death.”

Fourth, qualified and experienced guides are safeguards against careless wandering, enticing distractions, and unholy deceptions. In the end, it was the wisdom of Elrond and the knowledge and memory of Gandalf that secured the right path to the right pass over the mountains. Without their guidance, Bilbo, Thorin, and the dwarves could have easily taken one of the paths that led them away from their destination and into grave danger – even death. Dr. Plumer said it candidly: “We are not fit to govern ourselves. We are not able to find the right ways of God in which we should walk.” 14 King David readily accepted the reality that he needed a guide: “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long” (Ps. 25:4-5). Acknowledging our propensity to stumble, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes cautions that “two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (4:9-10). The Apostle Paul clearly understood his role in leading his people to spiritual maturity: “And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Col. 1:28). Facing daily pressures to conform to the world and to give in to the power of the flesh, we would do well to invite a wise, knowledgeable, godly person to come alongside and help us “secure the right path to the right pass over the mountains.”

Staying on the Right Path

How does a follower of Jesus Christ stay on the right path? Charles Bridges (1794-1869) offers this wise counsel:

Take one step at a time, every step under Divine warrant and direction. Ever plan for yourself in simple dependence on God. It is nothing less than self-idolatry to conceive that we can carry on even the ordinary matters of the day without his counsel. He loves to be consulted. Therefore take all thy difficulties to be resolved by him. Be in the habit of going to him in the first place – before self-will, self-pleasing, self-wisdom, human friends, convenience, expediency. Before any of these have been consulted go to God at once. Consider no circumstances too clear to need his direction. In all thy ways, small as well as great; in all thy concerns, personal or relative, temporal or eternal, let him be supreme. Let the will be kept in a quiet, subdued, cheerful readiness to move, stay, retreat, turn to the right hand or to the left, at the Lord’s bidding; always remembering that is best which is least our own doing, and that a pliable spirit ever secures the needful guidance. 15

While Bridges’ counsel is wise and admonishes us to consult with God above every earthly source, there are many more things that every believer must learn in order to become a mature, reproducing follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. For now, however, secure the right path to the right pass into eternity. All others are “cheats and deceptions.”

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1 William Safire and Leonard Safir, Words of Wisdom (New York: Simon & Schuster Building, 1989), 219.

2 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin Books, 1966), no. 68, p. 48. Dr. Peter Kreeft said of Pascal: “I know no pre-twentieth-century book except the Bible that shoots Christian arrows into modern pagan hearts than the Pensées” (Christianity for Modern Pagans, 13).

3 Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 105.

4 Os Guinness, The Call (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998), 3.

5 Ibid., 53.

6 “path, n.1”. OED Online. June 2014. Oxford University Press. (accessed August 15, 2014).

7 Ps. 16:11; Prov. 2:19; 15:24; Ps. 25:10; 27:11; 119:15; Prov. 3:6; 2:8; 8:20; 4:18; Is. 26:8; 12:28.

8 Comus 37.

9 Prov. 2:13; 2:15; 5:6; 4:14; Ps. 119:104,128.

10 William S. Plumer, Psalms (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1867), 331.

11 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1995), 52.

12 Ronald Nash, Worldviews in Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 16.

13 Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1999), 14.

14 Ibid., Plumer, Psalms, 331.

15 Charles Bridges, A Commentary on Proverbs (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1846), 24-25.