Do you know the difference between following and leading? The primary difference is position. The leader is out front - the followers are moving "behind" the leader, but consistently in the same direction as the leader. Now, this may seem a little rudimentary to some, but let me assure you, following is a lot tougher than just "getting in line" and "marching on". If you don't believe me, ask any first grade teacher! They will surely tell you how hard it is to keep those little one all in a neat row, especially if they are "standing still" for any length of time! They will wiggle, move out of line, squat on the ground to explore the potato bug crossing in a crack in the sidewalk, or simply fall out of line to go do something else. I think the same may be true with God in our lives - we line up behind him, but if he stands still for too long according to our estimation of how fast he should be moving, we get a little distracted!
Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for? (Matthew 16:24-26 MSG)
Do you remember playing the game of "Follow the Leader" as a child? Someone would be"it" and you would all do what the "leader" was doing. If he jumped, you'd jump. If he walked in a circle, you were close behind. If he sat down, so did you. The idea was to "catch" someone not doing what the leader did! They were "out". The last person "standing" was the new leader. Sometimes I think we try to live out our "obedience" to God's desires in our lives this way. We line up well, set out to do exactly what he is doing, then at some point, we get distracted. The moment of distraction may make us feel like we are "out" in this "game of life" - because someone noticed our "distraction". So, we sit down, watching others go on in their pursuit of the "leader". Sad, but it true - we sometimes quit because we don't think we "followed" well and we know someone else noticed.
Look at our passage. The good news is WE are not the leaders. If we were, whenever someone failed to "follow well", we'd make them sit out the rest of the game just like we did as kids! The thing is, we are not focused on becoming the next "leader", we are focused on being the best "follower" possible. Jesus was quite plain - we are not in the driver's seat. He has the honor. Sometimes being in the "passenger's seat" is the most difficult position to be in - especially when we think we know a short-cut to our destination! We want to direct the driver to take all the little "short-cuts" so we arrive at our destination a little quicker than the rest. Problem is, our driver has "traffic alert" - we don't! He knows what lays ahead just around the next turn - we don't. So, if we demand the short-cut, we may be placing ourselves right in the spot of "delays" and "disaster" without even knowing it.
Jesus lays out a couple of important aspects of his leading. First, we want to run from what is uncomfortable to us. He wants to lead us through it. To run from it seemingly allows us to avoid the emotional stress of the discomfort. Have you ever tried to run from something you thought was so uncomfortable, only to find your discomfort magnified by your inability to confront the situation? I have! It isn't worth it! I have shied away from touch relationship conversations - only to find the problem just gets bigger. I have refused to take the first step toward forgiveness and reconciliation - only to find the pathway "back" into relationship is now riddled with lots of messy stuff! It truly isn't worth it! We need to remember, Jesus would never lead us where he will not keep us! He wants us to "avoid" the "traffic" of this kind of stuff - taking the path he leads helps with truly avoiding the "delays" and "disasters" in life.
Second, he knows we get distracted by the "stuff" in life. "Stuff" is really a term we use for "clutter", isn't it. When we don't really know what is "inside" something, we call it "stuff". Like when we say we have a "junk drawer" in the kitchen. If someone asked you what you kept in there, you'd likely outline a few things and then add, "stuff like that". Why? Simply because you really cannot account for the "stuff" in there! It accumulates, doesn't it? In time, you have to clean out the "junk drawer" of all the "stuff" which has been stuffed in there! "Stuff" just fills space. It doesn't really need to be there. I used to clean out my son's drawers on occasion when he was younger. You would be surprised by what "stuff" a young boy finds fascinating to keep! There were little pieces of this and that, none of which really had any specific purpose, but it was "stuff" which caught his eye. So, he picked it up somewhere and there it was, squirreled away in the recesses of the "space" which really was intended for another purpose. This is the problem with "stuff" - it fills the spaces meant for something (or someone) else!
Last, but certainly not least, he knows we are susceptible to "trading away" what is really the most important thing to keep. We "trade away" our time - in search of things which we think will fulfill. We "trade away" our finances - in search of the next great buy or a winning fortune. We "trade away" our health - by holding onto grudges, living with bitterness, or pursuing life-dominating addictions. There are lots of ways we "trade away" the best for something or someone who will really not fill the "space" of our lives as it was intended to be filled. Jesus' objective in speaking to his disciples that day so long ago, and to us today, is to remind us of the importance of not "trading away" the place in our hearts where he is intended to dwell.
Truly, when we learn to follow the "leader" of our lives, we find "space" is uncluttered, the "stuff" of life is simpler, and his presence with us as we embrace the "tough stuff" is made a little less difficult. Just sayin!