July 2017 Feature
I know, O Lord, that the way of humankind is not in themselves,
that it is not in the person who walks to direct their steps.
As a young man, I worked as a foreman on a US National Forest Service fire-crew in the Cascade Mountain Range in Oregon. The Cascades’ undulating hills and conical peaks are beautiful, but easy to get lost in if you leave the trail and head into the woods.
I discovered this the hard way when I led my crew into the woods to extinguish a small lightning fire in a large dead Cedar about two miles off the main road. Rain and mist from the low canopy of clouds limited our view.
Unable to locate the burning snag, I called in a spotter plane to circle over the tree as a guide. We knew the aircraft would only circle briefly, so when it did appear above the trees we hastily set down our packs and dashed some 300 meters to the smouldering snag.
The rain had done most of our job for us, so I had part of the crew fell the tree and douse its coals while I and three crewman walked back to fetch our packs that contained food but more importantly our compass.
Given that we hadn’t run far, we assumed fetching the packs simple, but thirty minutes in and no packs to be seen, we turned back to the fire. Yet, we were unable to find the fire. For two hours we searched but to no avail; we were adrift in mists, rolling woods and the gloom of dusk. I had a map, but it was useless without a compass for bearings.
Finally, the mist began to give way and the cloud canopy lifted. In the distance I saw Bachelor Mountain appear on the horizon and with this landmark and the sunlight filtering in I was able to pinpoint our position on the map and thus we were able to make our way back to the fire.
With light came direction and Jeremiah’s prophecy suggests the same. According to the word given to Jeremiah, humans are not designed to make their way by themselves.
Spiritually, vocationally, and relationally, they need guidance and that need is built into our physical and spiritual DNA. Indeed, Biblical Hebrew language reveals our need for guidance. In ancient Hebrew, the term “in front of” (qedem) is word for “past.” and the word for “behind” (achar) is the root of the term “future” (achareet).
Hence, humans face the past and walk backward into the future and it follows that “the way of adam (humankind) is not in themselves;” humans require another to guide them in their way. Without orientation, direction, and grace we are fated to wander aimlessly. Both collectively and individually we need another who sees the future gives guidance to on our way.
That guide is given a name by Abraham (Gen 22:14). Abraham names to the one who not only stayed his hand from killing Isaac and provided the sacrifice as “Jehovah Jireh” (KJV) or “The Lord Will Provide” (NIV).
Yet the name “Jehovah Jireh” literally means “Yahweh who sees”. Thus, Abraham honours Yahweh who sees to his need and guides him in his way. Abraham like Jeremiah realizes that his way of is not in himself, it was not in Abraham who walks to direct his own steps.
The implications of this for us are legion as we make our own way in the world, but let me suggest at least three areas it affects us.
First, knowledge that is sound and leads to wisdom requires revelation. You see without sound guidance the data, research, quantitative and qualitative analysis we gather is of questionable value.
Certainly controlled experiments, statistical analysis, rational decision analyses can produce mountains of data that can be diligently catalogued and refined, yet without wisdom and direction cannot tell us what is its value and how we understand and apply it.
As Stanley Fish has noted:
No matter how much information you pile up and how sophisticated are the analytical operations you perform, you will never get one millimeter closer to the moment when you can move from the piled-up information to some lesson or imperative it points to; for it doesn’t point anywhere; it just sits there, inert and empty.[ii]
Fish reminds us that research and analysis that leads enables reason and sound engagement insists that it answer normative questions such as “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?” Naturally that requires more than a description of what is, but some insight into what ought to be.
Biblically that requires that knowledge be informed by the one who sees and guides. Thus, sound research should be informed by revelation and even spiritual guidance.
Apart from sound guidance, humankind is prone to organise and use knowledge to pursue what in the long run are personally or collectively destructive and defiling. Thus, spiritual autonomy affords an intellectual vertigo that is bound to harm more than it heals.
Yet, the spiritual dependency of sound analysis and reason suggest the more profound reality, that knowledge is personal. Jeremiah’s prophecy assumes another. The act of “directing” transcends a mere rational course of action and contends we need one who is able to direct us a methodology for life.
Jeremiah’s words imply the bond of a traveller and their guide. And because this guidance is personal it is also infers that it is nurtured in a dynamic back and forth.
Thus, rather than a commander and a soldier, it is more like a pair engaged ballroom dance where there the subtle communication of lead and sensitive response make the two dancers one in motion, expression, and essence.
Finally, if my understanding of the passage is correct, this direction is a free gift. Our need for direction may be universal, yet it is not imposed.
The wanderer is not forced by the guide, nor is the guide under obligation to direct. As a gift it requires that the traveller to accept and follow the direction of the guide, and the guide free to direct as they see fit and according to their will. By design it is a relationship build on trust that the direction given is for the good.
Naturally, this has implications for how we think about grace, action, and good works. When it comes to the relationship between, grace faith and works, a passage many of us have learned by heart is Ephesians 2:8ff
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves—it is the gift of God. Not by works lest any person boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ for good works. which God prepared in advance for us to do.
The relationship between grace, action, and direction is lost in the English translations of this passage. The verb “to do” peripateō literally means to walk and refers to the direction of one’s life.
Therein lies the deep echo of this passage with the prophecy of Jeremiah. Grace, faith, salvation as well as our work and life interpenetrate one another. Our life work and fulfilment thus rest in our relationship to the one who leads and guides and indeed laid down his life that we might be reunited with him through grace and faith.
Here our nature and calling to be relational, rational, and compassionate beings find its completion and fulfilment. He is our guide as we walk with him.
[i] All bible verses are my translation
[ii] Stanley Fish; “Are there Secular Reasons” New York Times: Opinionator, February 22, 2010 6:00 pm. At http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/are-there-secular-reasons/ .
Dr Thomas Harvey is Academic Dean at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. He taught theology at Trinity Theological College for many years.