I recently read Andy Stanley’s book The Principle of the Path. It was fairly light reading, but Andy touches on some pretty challenging concepts, and I highly recommend reading it yourself. The primary theme of the book is that direction, not intention, determines our destination.
That may sound patently obvious, but it doesn’t really seem so in our daily lives. As Andy repeatedly points out, we tend to live like we think our good intent determines our destination. Unfortunately, good intentions are meaningless without clear direction.
Meanwhile, rather than focus on our direction, we allow all manner of distractions to command our attention. We get pulled off-track (or, as Andy would say, we get on the wrong path).
Andy calls this the principle of the path because it remains true no matter what you do. You can break a rule, but a principle is an immutable truth. You cannot break a principle, but (as Andy says) it can break you.
It’s easy to see this happening to those around us. We can easily forecast the destination for the student who takes the easy way out in his or her studies. We already know the ending for the friend at work who doesn’t devote any time to his family. It’s not hard to see the endpoint for the friend who escapes with drugs or alcohol. It’s easy to see the physical troubles on the horizon for the friend who neglects his health.
We can see the landmines in the lives of those around us. The question is whether we can learn to recognize our own path and learn to stay on it. Proverbs 23:19 says, “Listen, my son, and be wise, and keep your heart on the right path.”
How do we find the right path? Proverbs chapter 2 says that if we seek God’s wisdom and apply our hearts to his understanding “then you will understand what is right and just and fair – every good path” (Proverbs 2:9). So, the key to finding the right path is to listen to God’s leading.
We find God’s leading in the most simple way imaginable: we listen. That’s it. One of the amazing truths of our amazing God is that he cares about us enough to want to communicate directly with every one who will seek him.
But even when know the path, we have a hard time staying on it because we lie to ourselves. The trouble is that we prefer to listen to our own hearts. Unfortunately, Jeremiah 17:9 is perfectly accurate about what a bad idea this is. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure,” it reads. “Who can understand it?”
Our hearts often lead us down the path of self-gratification, and this path typically has a poor destination. We’ve all had some of these thoughts:
- I’ll just have one drink.
- It’s just an extra slice of pizza.
- It wouldn’t be wrong to have lunch with her.
- It never hurts to look.
- I’ll make time to exercise tomorrow, or maybe next week.
- I’ll work late tonight and have time to spend with the kids later.
- I’ll make time for ministry later.
When we see these thoughts in someone else, we understand the danger. When we see them in ourselves, we tend to rationalize them or think we are somehow immune from the danger.
But that’s the point of Andy’s principle; we are not immune. We make decisions every day about which path we will follow. And those paths, not our good intentions, determine our destinations.
While we might deny it, the truth is we tend to prefer instant gratification over God’s leading. We need to break out of that self-defeating cycle and focus on God’s leading. When we can do that, we’ll find our way to a much better end point.