There are seasons of life when we find ourselves nestled up comfortably in God’s lap, studying the lines of His face, enjoying His felt nearness. These seasons are to be treasured and enjoyed, but they are only a part of the Christian life.
There are also seasons of life when we find ourselves following God to uncomfortable and unknown places that we did not choose. In these seasons, we find our way by searching for God’s back. God seems to be up ahead of us, leading us; we are behind, trying to keep His back in view as He leads us onward.
In his book The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus Brennan Manning recounts a time when he realized why God had seemed to turn his back to him rather than his face.
“Yet His turning away was not rejection but an invitation to follow Him to a place that I did not want to go.”
Rather than reading the turning away of His felt nearness and face as rejection, Manning realized that this turning was an invitation to follow Christ to new places.
No one wants to leave the tender places of God’s felt presence, the warm seasons where all seems ordered and right. God seems to know that. As such, sometimes He lovingly rolls up the tents of His presence and presses on ahead, signaling us to follow.
While on the path, straining to keep sight of His back, we pout and complain. We didn’t want to go anywhere. We were happy back there. The path is too arduous, the sun is too hot, our mouths are too dry. Besides, we don’t even know where we are going.
Hiking with my toddler and a dear visitor last week, I saw an actual depiction of this played out. My toddler did not ask to go on a hike. Rather, he was rudely awakened from a cozy car nap and brought to the park against his will. He didn’t want to climb the huge hill to the trail. He didn’t want to follow the trail.
Realizing that he had no idea that I was leading him to the beach and trying to empathize with his perspective, I would give him prompts and rewards. Walk ten steps, then I will carry you for a while. Piggy back ride. Repeat. All the way until we reached the beach, which probably felt like an eternity to his crabby little self.
The little man came to life at the beach, playing in the sand, counting seashells and searching for rocks.
The hike there felt miserable and pointless to him; however, I knew I was leading him to a place that would give him life.
In much the same way, God is a relentless yet empathetic Father and guide. He refuses to let us live too long in places of comfortable control. He must set on ahead and lead us to new places, places where we will encounter Him more deeply and in new ways.
When He packs up His felt presence and turns His face from us, He is inviting us to follow him to places where He knows we will get more of Him and become more like Him.
We may not want to leave the campsite we have become so comfortable with, so accustomed to; we may not be naturally interested in going any further. However, those who love Christ, who know that His presence is life, will and must eventually pack up and follow God’s back.
They will follow His back through tight places, through steep ravines, through boring badlands, not because it is exactly what they dreamed of all their lives, but simply because they trust Him and need Him.
He is not a hard taskmaster, He is a loving Father and a wise God. He will not exasperate us on the journey, but He will press us and force us to closer to our limits than we would prefer. Just as I forced Phin to take more steps than he thought he could endure, He will say, “Ten more steps and then we will rest a bit.”
Piggyback, walk, pout; piggyback, walk, pout, we will follow His back until He brings us to place where we will see His face more clearly.
If you find yourself comfortably on his lap, looking at face, enjoy, but remain ready to follow him when he packs up to take you elsewhere. If you find yourself tired and on a trail you never intended, keep sight of your Father’s back.
Face, back; face, back, we will continue until we all finally live continually in His presence with His face ever before us.