There is an iconic scene in John Hughes’ classic Planes, Trains, and Automobiles where Del (John Candy) and Neal (Steve Martin) are driving down the road in the wrong direction against the traffic flow. Next to them, in the lane going in the right direction, a couple attempts to warn them, shouting, “You’re going the wrong way!” Del looks at Neal and says, “How would he know where we’re going?” They confidently, yet errantly, continue down the road toward two oncoming semi-trucks! This comical scene is illustrative of the ancient proverb that warns: There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death (Proverbs 14:12).
This proverb exposes a truth so dreadful that we are bashful to look upon it, yet we dare not look away. It is possible to do what is right in our own eyes—even with noble intentions—and still be wrong. There is nothing more embarrassing than being convinced in our bones that we are right and then discovering that we are wrong. Think about a time when you blindly offended another. At first, when confronted with the error, several reactions can emerge. Some may deny or dismiss the person’s complaint, defending the actions on the grounds of the other’s misunderstanding (remember Del?). Others may react with anger, wondering how the other person could have so misread their intentions. These responses seek to veil the painful truth we cannot bear—not only that we are wrong, but that we are not proficient at discerning what is right!
The prevailing ideological thread that undergirds much of the spirit of the time has been deemed “expressive individualism” by sociologist Robert Bellah. In its most basic form, expressive individualism theorizes that human beings are to determine their sense of self and life’s purpose not by listening to the voices in the proverbial adjacent lanes but by looking deep within for an authentic expression of the true, inner self. We long to “believe in ourselves” or “follow our hearts,” trusting that what is within us is good and will not lead us astray. The problem with discerning our purpose is that it is possible, even likely, to be convinced we are going the right way and still barrel ahead toward destruction.
The Old Testament book of Judges serves as a cautionary tale to us regarding the dangers of humanity’s pursuit of self-evident rightness. God’s people had been freed from slavery and blessed by God to worship Him in spirit and truth (Exodus 8:1). God gave humanity the covenant law to guide them. The law functioned similarly to the kindly neighboring motorist cautioning, “You’re going the wrong way!” Following the law was the way of life; turning from it was the way of death. However, as the narrative of Judges continues down the road, it portrays a progressively bleaker picture of humanity as Israel pondered, “How does He know where we are going?” They jettisoned God’s purposes for what seemed right in their own eyes. The book concludes with the dastardly phrase: In those days, Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit (Judges 21:25, emphasis added). In the end, Israel’s way led to death, destruction, and chaos.
Contemporary culture is built on a house of cards: belief in the human capacity to determine what is right. While I am an optimist by nature and I long to see the best in everyone, the biblical conception of humanity is much more nuanced than western culture would like to acknowledge. Human beings are created in the image of God, full of potential and dearly loved. As such, there is good in each person. However, human nature is also tainted by sin, and our internal compass no longer reveals True North. So, there is a way that seems right to us, but that leads to death in the end.
This frailty ought not to be a recipe for despair. God has not abandoned us to determine what seems right, for it is a burden we cannot bear. Graciously, God has revealed the Way to us in Jesus (John 14:6). Furthermore, God has given us His Spirit to redeem and regenerate our faulty compasses—lavishing His grace upon us when we have so wrongly done what seemed right in the moment. We are not alone in discerning what God has purposed for us. The closer we grow in our relationship with the Way, the more clearly we can discover His way… the right way.
by Pastor Brad Rogers