Watching Out for Unmarked Paths

“Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”1

As Screwtape, the veteran tempter, counsels his young apprentice and nephew Wormwood, Christians are most easily led astray when they don’t notice it happening—when they walk blissfully along a smooth path with no warning signs. Satan has many such roads at his disposal, and we must pay attention to the warning signs in Scripture lest we wander down the “gentle slope.”

The Path of Discontentment

As a mother of a verbose toddler, I hear “I just” dozens of times each day. As in, “Put the truck away.”

I just need to drive over there.”

Or, “Get your shoes on.”

I just want to keep playing.”

While my husband and I are trying to break this habit in our son, it isn’t common only to toddlers. Often, I use the phrase “I just” to sugarcoat my own sin. As in, “I’m not being discontent. I’m just venting.” Or, “I’m not grumbling. I’m just stating my opinion.” We sinners are master of the euphemism of making the bad news sound palatable. Before long, we’re ingesting it in gross.

Discontentment easily tops this list. While we may long for the big things—the lake house, the new car, the new furniture set, or the exotic vacation—we’re already halfway down the road if we think that those things are all there is to discontentment.

This sign-less road gets me believing the lie that a change in circumstance will change me, that I would be a better me if only I had what I want. When the diatribe in my head starts to play about how much better things around the house would be if my spouse would only do x, y, or, z. When I walk out of church and think that the sermon would have been better if only the pastor hadn’t spoken so long or if he had had told better stories. When I don’t get the proper thanks that I’m owed for an act of kindness recently enacted. When I entertain these thoughts, I’m headed down the soft, gentle path that leads to the lair of the enemy.

If you’re on this path with me, we must first turn around and head back to the narrow way. Confess your discontentment. Call it what it is, and find forgiveness in the blood of Jesus. Then bask in the goodness of the Lord. I suggest Psalm 103, which will instruct our souls to “bless the Lord” and “forget none of His benefits.” Each gift we recount will put a sign on the road to remind us of where we’re going and the dangers that lie on following any other path.

The Path of Worldliness

 I remember when use of the word algorithm was limited to math class (a term that I may or may not have actually understood). Now it’s a household word. We all understand it to be the magical (okay, I didn’t understand it!) way that the internet knows what I like. Tony Reinke comments, “All our preceding videos watched, shoes bought, clips liked, terms searched, shows binged, movies rented—every past digital decision, even regrettable ones—inform a digital algorithm that targets us with a narrowed offering of what will capture our eyes next.”2 In other words, the “lust of the eyes” has never been so custom-fit by the world around us for each of our personal tastes. The result of this constant bombardment with images designed to divert our attention is that we easily wander onto the path set by the world, rather than by Scripture.

The opening verse of the Psalter captures this idea perfectly:

How happy is the one who does not walk in the advice of the wicked
or stand in the pathway with sinners
or sit in the company of mockers!
  (Psa 1:1)

First, we take a cautious stroll down the path. Soon, we’re standing and chatting with the friends we find there. And before we know it, we’re giving them our regular business. And it can all happen without our notice.

Perhaps your algorithm feeds you articles that cut against the grain of mainstream media. Don’t swallow the hook that says worldliness is never counter-cultural. Worldliness is anything that the derives from the world’s system rather than from God’s. Divisiveness, anger, name-calling, and hatred have much more in common with the fruit of the flesh Paul names (Gal. 5:19-21) than the contrasting fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

How can we navigate away from this path? As residents of the world, it often feels impossible. Consider the next verse of Psalm 1:

Instead, his delight is in the LORD’s instruction,
 and he meditates on it day and night.
  (Psa 1:2)

We have to look for the signs in the right place. We must keep our hearts tuned to the Word and linger there, rather than allowing the algorithm to dictate how we spend our time. And as we do, we’ll begin to see how the images the world slings our way do or do not jibe with Philippians 4:8:

Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable ​– ​if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy ​– ​dwell on these things. (Phl 4:8)

The Path of Bitterness

If you’ve ever experienced food poisoning, you understand the stealth power of bitterness. Perhaps it was a salad, a steak, a fish fillet, or a burger—whatever the culprit was, you probably enjoyed it immensely; that is, until you got sick. Suddenly what tasted so good had turned against you. Maybe you’ve never again patronized that restaurant or eaten that type of food. It’s not that it tasted bad going down. It’s what it did to you later.

Bitterness works in similar fashion.

Bitterness is the poison that deceives us into believing that holding on to the grudge, the hard feelings, the angst, or the irritation is pleasant. It just feels so good in that moment. Like the salmonella burger, the pleasure will be short-lived. However, unlike garden variety food poisoning, bitterness can strike in areas of your life you least expect. We basically know what will happen with food poisoning, but with bitterness, the sky’s the limit. Anger toward people against whom you don’t have a grudge; physical illness; a short temper; coldness to the Word of God; an ungrateful heart—all of these can be symptoms of the venom of bitterness.

The author of Hebrews warns his audience about the grave nature of this covert assassin. Simply put, bitterness is not characteristic of true Christ-followers.

Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness ​– ​without it no one will see the Lord. Make sure that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no root of bitterness springs up, causing trouble and defiling many. (Heb. 12:14-15)

The path of this pernicious poison, however, is just as primrose and pleasant as its companions, discontentment and worldliness. We take the first step down the road when we indulge that sweet feeling of withholding forgiveness.

I don’t mean to make it sound like forgiveness is always easy. I know firsthand that it’s not. In fact, without the Gospel, it’s probably impossible in some cases. But if you find yourself today seeing a signpost for the first time on the path of bitterness, I invite you first to gaze long at the Gospel. Marvel at the cost that the Savior was willing to pay to grant you forgiveness. Be amazed by grace all over again. Then ask God to give you that same heart toward the person in your life you don’t want to forgive.

What gentle, unmarked path has caught your attention lately?


1 C.S. Lewis. The Screwtape Letters. (Harper One: New York, 1996), 61.

2 Tony Reinke. Competing Spectacles. (Wheaton IL: Crossway, 2019), 59.

2 thoughts on “Watching Out for Unmarked Paths

  1. I’m a new subscriber to this blog and have been reading through your pages. A quick observation….the darker background coloring makes reading articles difficult for some of us with older eyes who need more contrast of the print. The white notations for name, date, etc., are unreadable. Your content that I’ve read so far is good, but difficult to read because of background color choice. Higher contrast would be helpful.

    FYI, I came across your site via Challies blog.

    Like

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