For those in the American Restoration faith stream, it is axiomatic that the way forward is to go back. I recently saw a Facebook post by one of my friends who quoted C.S. Lewis as saying, “We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” That quote, I suspect, resonates with many people in the Restoration heritage. Yet for all the passages offered about “seeking the old paths” there are other texts, also in the Bible, that warn us not to go back, but to go forward – deeper into the walk of faith, deeper into the heart of God.
The prime example, of course, is Israel’s experience in the desert immediately following the exodus from Egypt. God’s plan seems to have been to keep Israel in the desert for a few months and then to lead them into the promised land. Unfortunately, Israel had other ideas. God called them to faith, based not on some pie in the sky wish, but on the hard evidence of God’s provision and deliverance from Egypt. Israel persisted in grumbling and complaining, allowing the needs (and they were real needs) of the moment to overshadow their trust in God. In incident after incident Israel entrenched themselves in the habit of complaint and murmuring rather than prayer and expectant faith. They also developed a quote to express their lack of faith – “Let us return to Egypt. At least there we had all the food we wanted!” It is staggering, really, to imagine a group of people who could so quickly rewrite their history of slavery and the accompanying misery into a memory of a well stocked buffet. Of course the Egyptians fed them, how else would they have the energy necessary to work each day. But it is highly doubtful that there was ever a day when the food supply was “all we wanted.” (Exodus 16:3)
On the eve of entering the promised land the spies returned and reported that the land was truly amazing, but there were obstacles. The cities were well fortified and the people were ready to fight for their land. In addition, there were also giants there and “we seemed as grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13:33) Rather than answer the call of faith, Israel decided to choose new leaders and head back to Egypt.
The impulse to “go back” can, of course, be a wise decision. But it can also indicate a devastating lack of faith. The path of faith always leads to unfamiliar territory. The only thing familiar about the path of faith is the uncertainty in creates in the hearts of the people who walk that path. The way to God’s will is to trust enough to keep moving forward in faith, even when every fiber of your being cries out to return to the known quantity of the past. It is not just ancient Israel who finds their reconstructed memory of Egypt more palatable than the path that God is calling them to walk.
I once sat on a bed in Gorlovka, Ukraine with my wife, Lora, holding our return tickets to America. We had been in Ukraine about two weeks and it was nothing like we imagined it would be or like it had been promised to us. We stared at our return tickets, wanting desperately to use them, then prayed that God would bless our decision to keep our commitment to what we believed was his call in our lives. The path of faith is never easy, and I have discovered that it seldom leads me back to a comfortable past (whether real or imagined). Instead it continually beckons me forward to a future that God knows and I can only dream about.
What is the primary direction of restoration? I believe that there is value in going back – back to the Bible, back to Jesus, back to the early traditions of our faith. However, I would offer this caution: we do not go back as an escape from going forward. That is the road that leads to death in the desert and a wasted generation. We only go back to get our bearings, to get the courage we need to say yes to God’s call to walk into his will for our future. The call of faith is always forward to the very heart of God. Faith is the spiritual preparation that allows you to say with Jesus, “not my will, but yours be done!”