March 21, 2012

A sheep on the path

My father was a grain farmer who had a few milk cows and a few feed cattle. We never had sheep, but while on my own land, I did buy a small flock — once. They are not easy to care for but that experiment helps me better understand the way of sheep. They follow each other. 
In fact, sheep are notorious path takers. They walk on a trail and stay on the trail, the same trail, walking it over and over until that trail becomes a path, then a gully. Their herd instinct makes them easy to lead. 

In one sense, we are like that. When we says, “Everybody's doing it” we show our sheep likeness, at least until something better comes along and attracts our attention, or something scares us and we bolt off in all directions. 

David wrote the 23rd Psalm with sheep and our likeness to them in mind. The “something better” that should attract us is the Lord, and instead of instinct, fear, or copying others, He urges us along the best path.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (Psalm 23:1–3)
As I read this, I think about a literal path. It is not a destination, but the way I travel to a specific place. The path may be wide, narrow, marked or unclear. In the psalm, it is a “path of righteousness” indicating how God wants me to live as I travel toward my destination. This means my path should never include anything that God’s Word forbids, no murder, adultery, fornication, gluttony, slander, cheating and so on. These road signs are unmistakable in Scripture and any "sheep" can read them! The entire flock is supposed to live righteously.

Does this promise of His leading include individual plans for specific Christians? Some say yes. Others argue that God is not as concerned about our decisions concerning college, career, or marriage as He is about morality and the attitudes of our hearts. He wants  me to stay off destructive paths, following Him instead of “falling in with the many to do evil (Exodus 23:2). Jesus warns also,
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matthew 7:13–14).
However, these paths could mean two types of guidance, spiritual and circumstantial. Spiritual guidance concerns my moral life, living the way God desires. For instance, the Bible says, “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification,” and “Give thanks in all things for this is the will of God concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 4:13; 5:18). These are ways or paths that obedient Christians walk.  

Circumstantial paths are more about those daily practical decisions, and come in varying ranges of importance. What job do I take? Which store do I shop in? How do I decide today’s routine? Since the psalm says “paths of righteousness” then righteousness is my first consideration. He knows my heart and my motivations. I could make some decisions like a sheep, basing what I want to do by what feels good, what appeals to me, what everyone else is doing, what builds my ego, and a host of other inner motivations that a sheep largely ignores. 

Yet God does not me to be oblivious to my motivations. When I’m at a crossroads, He wants my heart set to do His will. If not, He may reveal to me my own heart on the choices before me. By that, I can see that one choice is simply a temptation and the other is a righteous path. 

He also may reveal His heart on the matter. He uses His Word, but also the emotions of Christ who lives in me. if the peace of Christ prevails, I will sense that and know which path His will. However, if I’m not at rest, it is often because the Spirit who lives in me is agitating me about the path ahead, warning me to turn aside. 

No matter how He gets me to the right path, I also have some responsibilities. One is to trust Him totally. Sheep who are planning their own course get themselves in trouble. I’m not to be like that. Jesus never loses His sheep and I need to remember His faithfulness.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. (Proverbs 3:5–7)
I’m also to, “Pray without ceasing,” and “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16). I can know the right path if I am continually seeking God and staying open to His leading.

This openness means humility, the opposite of being wise in my own eyes. The sheep who think like that can so easily become a predator’s breakfast. To stay safe, I must acknowledge that I am not my own shepherd, listen for His leading, and then do with He says.
He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies. (Psalm 25:9–10)
The bottom line about the will of God is always asking for whom am I doing this? Why do I walk this path? Am I wanting whatever might be in it for me, or am I more concerned that God is honored and glorified? 

David wrote, “. . . . for His name’s sake” because my life is to conform to the Lord’s path and the Lord’s plan. It is for His glory, not mine, His character and reputation, not mine. The path that I take will reflect on Him, and even though right choices will make me more like Christ, that also is for His glory. 

Lord, sometimes Psalm 23 runs through my mind as it likely does with many people. We memorized it as children, hear it often at life events. Today, You use it to remind me that You will guide me through this day to walk on Your path. You may not reveal Your overall plan, but You will show me the next step and keep my feet moving toward the goal set before me — shaping me into the image of Your Son and leading me to eternal glory, bringing glory to Yourself in the process. 

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