Leaving the comforting bustle of the crowd, I stepped off the boardwalk onto the geyserite-strewn path. This was my first solo hike. I was leaving from the Old Faithful area, where I lived and worked, to make a six-mile round trip journey to a backcountry waterfall. The first section of the trail skirted the edge of the Upper Geyser Basin before crossing a highway, passing through another geyser basin, and entering deep forest. I breathed deep, inhaling the strong scents of sulfur and pine mingling in the crisp morning air.
Just beyond the boardwalk, I stopped at the trailhead sign, where a temporary notice had been posted. “Bear frequenting area,” it read. Already nervy about my solitary trek into the wilderness, my anxiety spiked. I looked around, uncertain how to proceed. A happy-looking troupe of hikers was approaching from the direction of the falls, unhurried, unconcerned, and uneaten. Other hikers stepped off the boardwalk behind me, glanced at the sign, and proceeded down the trail without so much as a pause.
That, it seemed, was how it was done.
With a final backward glance, I left the trailhead and pressed on, first to the highway crossing, through Biscuit Basin, and into the thick forest that enveloped me the rest of the way to Mystic Falls. Certain a bear would burst from between the pines or meander toward me down the path, I swiveled my head from side to side and occasionally turned to check out the trail behind me—just in case. Eventually, I made it to Mystic intact. With the briefest of glance at what I would normally have lingered over, I whirled around and scurried back to the security of civilization.
That was decades ago. Between then and now, I’ve encountered countless “bear frequenting area” signs. Slowly, I became like the hikers I saw on that first solo hike, glancing at the posted sign and passing by with no discernable pause. I looked at the signs without seeing them, reading the words without registering the message.
It wasn’t that I didn’t think bears are out there. Of course, they’re out there. But the signs seem disconnected from my experience. I rarely saw bears from the road and I never saw one on the trail—even ones with the signs.
Until, one day, I did. And I was surprised. Even though I’d been told to expect it.
Sometimes, the trail informs how I live. Sometimes, it reflects it. When it comes to the ups and downs of life, it’s often the latter. With my focus fixed on all the details, I move into the day forgetting that—eventually—a big thing or a bottleneck of little things will come along and transform the terrain.
And I’m surprised. Are you? We don’t have to be.
Surprise is an indicator that our experience is not in line with our expectations.
Here’s the truth: I expect things to go generally smoothly—for weather, health, and small children to cooperate, for breathtaking views to materialize on easy trails, for the day to unfold the way I want. Admitting it this way, I know this is silly. I’ve been around long enough to know that this is not the way of life. Apparently, what I know isn’t enough to change my mindset.
Mindset aside, God, because He is kind, has given a glimpse at the nature of the trail ahead. He’s let us all in on what to expect, on what should—or, more accurately, shouldn’t—surprise us: trials. Fiery ones. “Do not be surprised when fiery trials come upon you, as if something strange was happening to you,” He tells us in 1 Peter 4:12.
Conversation with friends leads me to believe that trials are difficult for us to define, let alone expect. And when life is rolling along as it seemingly should, notices about such things barely register. Just as with the “bear frequenting area” signs, it’s easy to breeze on by with only a hint of an assenting glance. Because, who really wants to be reminded of the potential for something large, clawed, and carnivorous bursting out from between the trees when the day is sunny, the air is fresh and crisp, and the scenery is lovely?
Maybe we do. Maybe we want to navigate the landscape of life by faith—a landscape that is sometimes smooth, sometimes monotonous, and sometimes difficult, uncertain, or even painful. Maybe we need to always remember to expect the unexpected because surprise sometimes leads us to wander into terrain that’s more dark, lonely, and hazardous than the trail we were walking before.
Do not be surprised.
These are landscape-leveling words. They don’t alter the actual terrain, but they do prepare us for it and guide us through it. They nudge us to remember that God wasn’t caught off guard by a turn in the trail. They free us to be still and focus on the One our faith it in, rather than the difficulty or uncertainty of the path we’re walking on.
Whether the terrain involves an individual crisis of health, relationship, financial stability, or a global pandemic, we never really know what the landscape of life will look like after a trial. But we do know this: We have a Shepherd. He makes us lie down in green pastures. He leads us beside still waters and in paths of righteousness. He’s with us, even—or maybe especially—when we walk through the valley of the shadow of what feels like death. And, because of Him, we can carry on, navigating the landscape of life—and all its various trials—by faith.
Do not be surprised when fiery trials come upon you, as if something strange was happening to you.” 1 Peter 4:12.Maybe we need to always remember to expect the unexpected because surprise sometimes leads us to wander into terrain that’s more dark, lonely, and hazardous than the trail we were walking before. Click To Tweet We have a Shepherd. He makes us lie down in green pastures. He leads us beside still waters and in paths of righteousness. He’s with us, even—or maybe especially—when we walk through the valley of the shadow of what feels like death. … Click To Tweet