Signposts Along the Way
When we feel lost in life, the Bible’s stories are there to guide us home through the fog.
By Jerry Sittser
Did you know that before the term “Christian” existed, believers were known as followers of the Way (Acts 11:26; Acts 9:2)? It was an aptly chosen name, because it implied two features of the early movement that set it apart: the way of salvation that Jesus Himself is, and the way of life that He calls His disciples to follow (John 14:6; John 13:15).
The name “The Way” evokes the image of a road, or a path we take through life, but it also suggests a story. As anyone who’s traveled knows, the elements of a journey are more than the simple movement from one place to the next. As we sojourn with Christ, we’re living out a narrative—one that eddies and cascades, at times rolling on gently, and at others with great drama.
The problem is, we don’t always know how to think of what’s happened to us. How do we “read” the complex story of our lives and interpret accurately what God has done and is doing? Traveling the Way, we find that we often need signposts, guiding us into the next leg of the journey, deeper into the narrative.
That’s why it’s so important to know God’s redemption story—preserved in the Bible— because it helps us to know ours better. In particular, we can turn to the individual accounts of faithful men and women from the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 11), to see our lives in the light of God’s truth. They remind us that there is, in fact, a path to follow when all seems lost.
Consider the following stories and observe how they operate as signposts. The selection below only scratches the surface of Scripture’s many stories and the possibilities they contain for guiding us on our own pilgrimage with God.
Signpost #1: Even when you doubt that there’s a way forward, God is at work.
Take, for example, the story of Sarah and Abraham, two early characters in the history of God’s redemptive plan. He appeared to them and promised that through their seed, He would build a nation and bless the world (Genesis 12:2-3; Gen. 15:1-6). But year after year passed, and Sarah remained barren. Still, the Lord never told them that He had changed His mind.
Many years later the Lord announced to Abraham that his wife would indeed conceive and give birth to a son, even though she was in her nineties. Eavesdropping on the conversation, Sarah began to laugh out of disbelief, as if saying sarcastically to herself, Can I really be expected to experience such joy this late in life? The Lord knew she had laughed and asked why. Then, poignantly, He added, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14).
Sarah laughed because, given her circumstances, she couldn’t imagine how God could fulfill His promise. She had no idea that at the moment of her greatest doubt and cynicism, the Lord was about to work a great miracle. As it turns out, the darkness of her disbelief was about to give way to the light of a glorious dawn.
Signpost #2: Even when you feel forgotten, the story isn’t over.
Consider the story of Joseph (Gen. 37; Gen. 39-47). What was it like for him to be betrayed by his brothers? To be sold as a slave? To be imprisoned for honoring his unappreciative master and trying to guard the honor of his master’s manipulative wife? His suffering lasted far longer than we can imagine or would have been able to endure. This is no sweet and sentimental story—not if you get inside it and imagine yourself in Joseph’s shoes.
One little incident in particular strikes me as just the kind of experience that could break a person. As the story goes in Genesis 40, two men from the Pharaoh’s court, the cupbearer and the baker, were imprisoned for some impropriety. Both had dreams so confusing that they had no idea how to interpret them. Joseph noticed how troubled the men seemed and inquired about their distress.
Telling the young Hebrew their dreams, they were surprised to discover that God had given Joseph the ability to interpret them. For the cupbearer’s dream, he predicted a favorable outcome; for the baker’s, an unfavorable one. Then he implored the cupbearer to remember him once his position of authority before Pharaoh was reinstated.
But the cupbearer forgot his promise, and Joseph remained in prison. It must have been profoundly disappointing and disillusioning to Joseph, who could have given up on God there and then. He had remained faithful, but where was evidence of God’s faithfulness? Why trust Him any more?
Joseph knew nothing of the future, of course. He had no idea of what was further down the road: Egypt’s years of bounty and famine; Pharaoh’s disturbing dream; Joseph’s supervisory role in the collection and distribution of grain that would later save Egypt; his reconciliation with his brothers and joyous reunion with his father. Joseph had to make a choice: trust God or abandon faith? Joseph chose to stay in the story, though his chance for deliverance appeared to have come and gone.
If Joseph had been released when he had hoped and expected to be, the story would have turned out well for him, to be sure, but only for him. In all likelihood, Joseph would never have seen his brothers and father again, never assumed a high position of responsibility in the court, never rescued an entire nation from starvation. Such would have been the price of a premature ending to the story.
Once again, this story serves as a signpost. Like Sarah, Joseph was called to believe that the Lord is at work when there was little or no evidence. And he stayed on God’s path.
Signpost #3: Even when your struggle seems to be for nothing, God Himself will be your reward.
Job’s story begins in a setting on earth. He is wealthy and powerful; he has a wife and many children; he is kind and generous, a model of faith. Then the scene changes abruptly. In the heavenly court, Satan challenges God, arguing that Job is good and faithful because God has made it so easy for him. Satan wants to put this man to the test, and God allows him to take away Job’s wealth, then his children, and finally his health (Job 1-2).
Job is left with nothing but his pain. He sits on an ash heap, where he laments, scratches his sores,and longs to bring his complaint before the Lord. Visiting Job to comfort him, three friends venture to explain why he’s suffered so much: they say it’s because he has done something to deserve it. His wife tells him to curse God. Job cries out in agony and despair to the Lord and wishes he were dead. But he rejects his friends’ tidy explanations and refuses to curse the Lord (Job 3-6).
Then the Lord spoke to Job out of a whirlwind, demonstrating with absolute authority that He is God—transcendent, powerful, and wise. Job is simply overwhelmed by this experience and in the end, surrenders and confesses that he interpreted matters he didn’t understand (Job 38-42).
It might all seem so random and unfair to us, largely because we stand outside the experience, thinking abstractly about God, as Job’s friends did. It was Job who experienced his specific catastrophic losses. Then again, it was Job who experienced the glory of Yahweh coming to him in that specific way. That’s why when we look at his story, we have to imagine what it would have been like for Job to meet the real God, and thus, why Job found he had no more questions to ask. For when a man discovers God as a real and glorious being, he finds that it is God who is the answer to every question. Job’s reward wasn’t the restoration of his livelihood and family (though he was given those gifts); his true reward was nothing less than God Himself.
This is why Job’s story can be a signpost: Job struggled. But somehow he pressed on in faith, if only as much as he knew how, until the Lord appeared. Then all his complaints and questions turned to wonder: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know . . . I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:3-5 NKJV).
The Way is hard and narrow, Jesus says. But He also assures us that His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matt. 7:14; 11:30). We might find it easier to live in this tension if we pause to read the signposts as we go. The difficulties faced by Sarah, Joseph, and Job remind us that though they suffered as we do, they stayed on the Way and experienced God’s redemptive plans coming to pass. Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, we, too, can lay aside everything that weighs us down, and continue onward—looking to Jesus Himself, who is both pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
Jerry Sittser is the author of A Grace Revealed: How God Redeems the Story of Your Life.