When our kids were small, we spent a lot of time in the woods behind our house. We’d tramp along the pathway begun by mostly unseen deer to visit “our” waterfall. We’d place our feet into the narrow groove of the path begun by hundreds of small hoof-prints seeking drink at the waterfall’s stream. Their path, begun by tiny hoof-steps, transformed through the years into a deep and wide pathway as hundreds of footsteps of happy children raced along its route. Now, a decade later, I fondly remember our waterfall treks when I read these words:
“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” (Henry David Thoreau)
One footstep doesn’t a path make. Cutting and maintaining a footpath through deep woods only happens with many footsteps. In our woods, grass blades crushed by deer’s small hoof-prints began what my children’s footprints completed.
Mental paths work the same way. As we over and over believe and act on a thought, that thought assumes boss-like dominance, for good or bad, in our lives. Modern neuro-scientists and psychiatrists tells us this. Thoreau observed the same in the 1800s. And God said it all thousands of years before:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” (Rom 12:2)
Physical paths in forests, mental paths in brains, and spiritual paths of supernatural transformation: all are made not by a single footstep, or a single thought, or a single moment of loving and choosing God’s way, but by again and again-ness and over and over-ness.
We’re transformed into a person who knows the will of the Lord, who knows the Lord, as we over and over meditate on His words to us; as He cuts deep spiritual paths into our being by the power of the Holy Spirit. As we then obey, we find Him faithful, and so love Him even more: we’re transformed from the person we were before we knew the Lord into a person who thinks and acts as a new creation.
Cutting pathways with intentionality
A few cursory readings of sections of scripture, or single sermons listened to, won’t a transformative path make. We have to meditate on the verses’ meaning and application. We have to pray to apply, and then work to apply the teaching of the sermon. Daily. Over and over. Intentionally.
And also, beforehand. Proactively. As we face each new instance or concept in life, we cut pathways by questioning ourselves: “In this area, will I act as a follower of Jesus through the way of the cross, or will I actually act and choose the world’s way?”
- The world’s way self-promotes, self-justifies, self-protects. The world’s way says, “I can and should have glory now.”
- The way of the cross lives life in light of the rejected Shepherd, Jesus. The way of the cross knows that the way up is to go down. Like Jesus. (Phil. 2:5-8)
But we don’t only discern and question our motives. We must choose. One of my pastors points out that we choose the world’s way without even thinking. So we have to be intentional: We must work to discern the oppositeness of God’s way from our own natural way. Through the Spirit’s enabling, we then submit to God’s way. The way of the cross.
You probably think you do this already. I’d say that about myself, too. But as I listened to my pastor’s sermon, I was convicted that worldly thoughts and aspirations about power, and the purpose of life, and the end-goal of love, still speak into my everyday choices. Here are some of his thoughts on the opposites — the world’s way vs. the way of the cross:
Power. World’s definition = power makes sure my desires are fulfilled by everyone and everything around me. Through the way of the cross = power is used for self-sacrifice and for the good of others.
Life. World’s definition = the life worth living is experienced by those with the most toys. Through the way of the cross = true life is loyalty to God, even if you die.
Love. World’s definition = love is when you make me feel good; you give me pleasure. Through the way of the cross = to the undeserving and unlovely, I give grace and patience and kindness. I fight my self-justifying tendency toward arrogance, irritability or resentfulness, and I give my life for you.
I’m left wondering: How many other areas of life do I need to put under the microscope? What would my default definition of the purpose of marriage be, for instance, versus viewing marriage through the way of the cross? (Something like this: World’s definition = You marry me and make me happy; we gather a lot of toys together, and you fulfill all of my desires. Through the way of the cross = I sacrifice my own desires for your good, even when you are undeserving and unlovely. I give grace and I care for your good more than my own. I do all I can to make your love for the Lord easy. We, as one, give our lives for God, even if we die.)
As I begin to view instances and relationships and concepts through this renewed lens, I’m left with strong need. I pray for me, and for you:
Father, by the power of your Spirit, please do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. Stop us short when we’re conforming to this world. Give us discernment. We want to be aware when we’re not choosing the way of the cross. Then convict us. Soften our hearts! Please cut deep, re-new-ed pathways, transforming, through your Word, our minds and heart’s desires.
For more help: The Renewed Mind and How to Have It, sermon by John Piper.