The Non-Linear Christian Life

The Lord will make our ways straight, but we have to be willing to ask him for directions. Stay on the roundabout for a while. If you’re not sure which one is your exit, keep moving until God says, “This way.”

A roundabout in the fall

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). Our Christian path is, in many ways, straightforward. We were saved once and for all by believing in Christ for salvation. We believe no one comes to the Father any other way. Salvation, put like this, is simple. Sanctification, however, takes a more circuitous route.

The Romans 5 Roundabout

I learned how to drive in the UK where I lived for almost a decade. One feature familiar to all drivers on that little island nation is the roundabout, which is an alternative to the four-way stop. Once on the roundabout, you stay on until you reach your exit to the left (to the right if you’re driving in North America).

It’s possible to keep going around and around if you’re not sure which road is correct. The roundabout is also a kind of landmark (depending on how many there are) so that if you get lost (I do that a lot), you can go back to the roundabout and come off at the correct exit.

For a long time, it seemed to me that a true Christian was saved and then was supposed to progressively become a better and better person, more put-together, sin-free, gospel fluent, etc. At counselor training, our pastor/professor used Romans 5:3-5 to teach that the Christian life is not linear. It’s more of a zig-zag, or perhaps like that roundabout.

Romans 5:3-5 is a landmark I keep going back to when I feel lost. Sometimes I rejoice in suffering, and I grow, and then I fall back into joy-free despair before retracing my steps through the gospel promises and rejoicing in the presence of Christ.

I go back to growing, enduring, maturing, even to the point of grasping hope, and even steering my car the wrong way down one-way streets and finding all the dead-end roads.

But I can always get back on the roundabout, circling and circling until the way out is plain. Paul wrote that this is when “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). With His help, we can reorient ourselves and get back onto the correct path, which leads to peace and wholeness with Christ.

Holy Spirit GPS

A caveat in all of this is that we must be living in the Spirit and not the flesh, cultivating our faith-walk while we’re able, preparing for days of disorientation. We don’t know the whole route from start to finish, but we should always have an emergency plan, which leads us back to a safe re-start place.

There have definitely been seasons of deep darkness where I did not think to call on God, but the Holy Spirit groaned wordlessly and reestablished my way. You’ve been there, I’m guessing, and can relate to that fog, which seeps in and blinds us; we don’t know which way is forward and which is backward. 

We sink in despair or panic in our helplessness. During trials, “the temptation to spiral into untrue, anxious, or ‘what-if’ thoughts,” which “attempt to chip our faith and cause us to doubt the goodness of God,” wrote Sarah Dobrenski.

And then an audacious new sunrise reminds you that God’s mercies are new daily. You might not be able to do pretty, but perhaps vertical. An unexpected glimmer opens a hole in the fog: gratitude. Thank you, Lord, for keeping me from doing anything silly last night when I thought I wanted to die. Thank you, God, for hope.

Dobrenski quotes 2 Corinthians 10:5 in which Paul exhorts the church to take “every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ.” She encourages Christians to search for reminders in Scripture of God’s great goodness and his promises.

That is, go back to what you know about God, even if your world is in turmoil and confusion. It’s helpful to proactively program those scriptures into your GPS for emergencies, which is a discipline thing; a matter of making God our priority.

Jesus has shown great mercy and showered me with loving promises. Matthew 5 is full of blessings, which are for the poor, the grieving, those who seek justice, etc. Yet, I don’t always acknowledge or believe those promises when I struggle.

Where do I get the power to believe, acknowledge, and praise on a bad day? If I’ve been walking with the Lord regularly, reading his Word, then I tend to find my way back to the start more easily.

Ultimately, the Lord reveals himself to an individual believer as he likes. The Lord will make our ways straight, but we have to be willing to ask him for directions (Proverbs 3:6). We need to pray.

Getting Back on Track

If you are reading this right now from a layby along a road you know you weren’t meant to travel, wondering how to get back on the main road towards Jesus, here are some tips to get started.

1. Pray. It sounds trite, but then I stop and think about what I do when I’m stressed. Prayer is often second or third on the list if I think of it at all. My first thought is usually aaaah! Followed by how do I get out of this? Or if I had some chocolate right now, I’d be okay.

“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’” (John 8:12). Pray and he will lead you to his light so you can follow.

2. Listen. God will speak through a friend, a coworker, a billboard, a Bible verse, the silence. The key here, though, is to shut up. Clampdown on your thoughts. Let the Lord get a word in edgewise.

3. Prepare for the hard times — no one goes through life without suffering. Contemplate those life-giving Bible verses, which will jolt you out of an unhealthy state of mind, if only so you can turn the ignition in the engine and start moving again. You might go slowly at first, but at least you’re still moving.

4.Cultivate a right understanding. God is Sovereign. He doesn’t wait with bated breath to fulfill our desires; he waits for us to yield. Christ submitted, so when I need to restore a proper understanding of the Christian life (I need this every day), Christ’s life provides the only perfect example.

5. Lean into suffering. This has been one of my biggest lessons recently. Don’t paint a glossy coat of paint over the hard stuff and pretend like everything’s fine. Christian, ignoring or denying pain is not a sign of faith.

Pain is not a judgment against you either. While you don’t want to take out an ad in the paper or post your suffering on Facebook, imposing bad news on everyone indiscriminately, don’t lie about suffering to your trusted friends.

6.Stay on the roundabout for a while. If you’re not sure which one is your exit, but you aren’t disobeying God or doing anything unsafe, keep moving until God says, “This way.”

Going Around and Around

Do you feel like you’re just going in circles, as though the signposts are faded, or vandalism has rendered them colorful but useless? There truly are times when it’s best to turn off the engine and let God come for you — not in the middle of the road but parked close by. Keep calling and wait for your Father to find you.

He’ll lead you out. “This truth that our transcendent God is in control assures us we will not be lost or abandoned in a trial,” Dobrenski wrote. We are commanded to rest, it’s not an option, and rest is particularly useful when we are confused. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10).

We exalt God by trusting in him; by resting; by getting off the road and eating a chocolate bar. God didn’t say that, but I’m often confused when I’m hungry, and if I’m still confused, at least the chocolate was tasty!

For further reading:

The Trail to Faith

How Can I Recognize the Guidance of the Holy Spirit?

Is it Biblical ‘Where God Guides, He Provides’?

How Are God’s Mercies ‘New Every Morning’?

How Can We Enter God’s Rest?

Wanting to Want What God Wants

How Is There a Way that Appears to be Right but Leads to Death?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Media Trading Ltd


Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.