Brambles! Maya and Steven stared ahead. After several minutes of uncertain glances at the compass and then back to the brambly woods in front of them, they led the group onward, promptly turning north to walk along the road. A quarter of a mile later, the scenario repeated, only this time they sought advice. They were the leaders of the day, and decisions were getting hard.
“Do we really have to go in there?” they asked.
“Where is your destination?” I returned.
“That way,” they replied in unison, both pointing at the menacing underbrush that lay between them and their destination.
After waiting a few moments in silence to allow the reality of their situation to sink in, I asked, “Do you need to go through there to get to the destination?”
Their shoulders sagged as they nodded. Their faces registered fear, resignation, and dread of what lay before them.
Until that point in the day, the group had been able to reach their destinations with ease. A trail or road had provided easy hiking. They had proven two destinations already, and a few more lay ahead of them as the sun slid toward the horizon. They had to continue.
This moment arrives on nearly every group’s journey through the wilderness. The group must inevitably leave the easy trail behind and embark into the unknown, unfettered wild of the brambles. We call it bushwhacking. It’s a moment when the only way to the destination is to go through the hard places. Many refuse to leave the luxury of the trail, choosing instead to hike miles in the wrong direction in an effort to avoid the inevitable. Others sit and stare, unwilling to move in any direction and nursing their desire to remain in the comfortable and fully known.
Don’t we all do it? Nobody wants to leave his comfort zone to embark on a journey that could demand something difficult or challenging. I’ve been doing it all week…staring a new project in the face and wishing for something familiar to replace my inevitable task. I’ve been avoiding it, trying to find a way around, knowing the whole time that the only way for me to get to the other side—the side of competence, growth, and confirmation of my giftings—is to step into the brambles and embrace the unknown.
The children of Israel did it when the twelve spies set out to explore Canaan. They returned to give their report: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey!” (Nu. 13:27). That destination you gave us is good! “But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large.” (Nu. 13:28). The assignment looks really hard, too hard in fact. Can’t we find another way? The “brambles” they were staring at grew larger and stronger, and the Israelites’ fear grew. “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are…the land we explored devours those living in it.” (Nu. 13:31-32). So, they threw a fit and demanded that the Lord give them an easier path or that He would take them back to Egypt, which certainly seemed more comfortable than performing the daunting task of entering the Promised Land. Their bad attitude about doing hard things and demands to remain comfortable in the status quo simply delayed the inevitable for 40 years. They endured years of wandering and still had to fight to take possession of the land. But, those 40 years were a refining fire that produced obedient children who overcame amazing odds.
Just as plowing into a field of briars will leave you with scrapes and bruises from thorns that entangle or rocks that trip, forging into the unknown of the Christian life can be risky, uncertain, and it may even result in some pain and heartache. James 1:2-4 says “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Doing hard things develops perseverance and ultimately provides a training ground for transformation, growth, and maturity—a maturity not found in someone who hasn’t experienced challenges. Older people will tell you that some of their greatest growth and joy resulted from extreme hardship or risk that came from stepping into the unknown. The scrapes, scratches, and bruises from the brambles will heal in time. And God promises us that even in the brambles of the wilderness He is “making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” (Is. 43:19).
Maya and Steven made it through the thicket and reached their destination on the top of that ridge. However, to be honest, it wasn’t what they had hoped for. Were they discouraged? Yes, they were bruised and tired, and no beautiful, sweeping view, an awesome cave, or an obvious reward greeted them. There was only a 60-foot deep sinkhole with trees blocking the view so that it was barely distinguishable from a valley. Were they discouraged? No, they chose to trust the compass and the Lord to take them through the hard place. They topped the ridge with a confidence that no easy path could have produced.