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When you boil it all down, this is what you’ve got.
You can live a wasted life.
Or you can live a wise life.
It all comes down to which trail you choose.
Throughout history, there have been many famous trails. The Appalachian Trail, the Oregon Trail, the Natchez Trace, and the Chisholm Trail are just a few of the renowned trails of America’s early days. It was our nation’s first interstate system…before there were states.
But no matter which trail you might be talking about, history shows again and again how wise it was to stay on the trail. If you were going to Oregon, it made a lot of sense to follow the Oregon Trail, instead of trying to blaze your own way. It doesn’t take a lot of gray cells to figure out why.
It took countless heartbreaking trips down dead-end trails before the right one was established. But those who had gone before finally found a trail that had all of the essentials. And you could count on the fact that those trailblazing pioneers marked the trail for those who would come after them.
The trail, then, was the path of wisdom. If you stuck to the trail, you could hope to find water, graze for your animals, shelter, and resting places along the way. Those who had gone before knew what they were doing. The marks on that trail summed up the collective wisdom of years.
Maybe you’ve never thought much about it, but you are on a trail, too. Right now, at this very instant.
It may be the right trail, or it may be the wrong trail, but either way, you’re smack-dab in the middle of it. If you’re on the wrong trail, there’s still time to change your direction. If you’re on the right trail today, you could choose the wrong trail tomorrow. Every day when you crawl out of bed, you choose the trail all over again.
The Christian life is a trail.
Çt’s a trail of life that begins at conception and ends at death. And right now, as you begin this book, you’re about to take the next step. Only eternity will reveal how crucial that step might be.
A Story in Every Hyphen
When you walk into a cemetery, you look at the headstones and see someone’s name, date of birth, and date of death.
But what do you see in between those two dates?
You see a short horizontal line. A hyphen. The hyphen represents that individual’s whole life—his or her entire stay on earth, whether long or short, happy or tragic, glorious or shameful. You and I tend to look at the two dates, the beginning and the end, but the real story is in the hyphen. The hyphen represents the trail of someone’s life.
If you are in relationship with Jesus Christ, you are somewhere on that trail. You’re moving along that hyphen. You may just be starting out. Perhaps you’re in your twenties and just launching a career. Or maybe you’re in your thirties with an armful of kids and a mortgage that won’t go away. Perhaps you’re in the midlife stage of the journey and trying to figure out what you should do in the second half. Or perhaps, like me, you are shocked and appalled to realize you are fifty!
I can remember my grandfather being fifty, and—man!—he was old. Or maybe you've already sailed on past that midcentury mark and are heading into your sixties, with thoughts of retirement rolling around in your head. Then again, you might be in your seventies or eighties and already retired.
What do all these men at different ages have in common? They’re all on the trail. Some of them have just stepped onto the trail, others are at the halfway point, and some have the finish line in sight. Nonetheless, they’re on the trail.
In Psalm 71, King David stops for a few minutes to reflect on the years of his life. He talks about his old age. And then he looks back over the many miles behind him.
David Checks His Back Trail
Picture a lone hiker on a winding mountain path as dusk approaches. He’s been walking a long, long time, one foot after another, making switchback after switchback as he climbs the steep grade. Finally, coming to a wide place in the trail, he shrugs off the pack from his weary shoulders and sits down on a broad, flat rock, still warm from the afternoon sun. Looking out over the vista below, he takes note of the winding trail he has just traversed—a crinkled gray ribbon in the gathering twilight. Though the path is long, the mountain air is crystal clear, and the hiker can see a great distance.
All the way back to his youth. If you read David’s words carefully, you’ll note that every trail has three parts:
• the past;
• the present;
• the future.
O Lord God, You are my confidence from my youth.
By You I have been sustained from my birth;
You are He who took me from my mother’s womb….
I have become a marvel to many….
Do not cast me off in the time of old age;
Do not forsake me when my strength fails….
And even when I am old and gray, O God, do not forsake me….
You who have shown me many troubles and distresses
Will revive me again.
Psalm 71:5–7, 9, 18, 20
David looks over his back trail and sees all the marks of the goodness and care of God. From the time he was a boy shepherding his father’s flock, he has seen God intervene for him time and time again. As he looks back over the past, it’s very apparent that God has sustained him, and the old king’s heart swells with gratitude.
Now, in the present, he has become a marvel to many. He’s not a kid anymore. He’s a full-fledged adult male who has tremendous responsibility. He’s not responsible for a bunch of sheep anymore. Now he’s the king of Israel.
David must have shaken his head with wonder as he thought about it. From shepherd to king. What a wild ride it had been! Now responsibility sits fully on his shoulders. He's aware that life is rushing by. He's not playing Little League anymore; he's got grandkids doing that. He's way on the other side of midlife. So he looks to his future on the trail. And what does he see?
He sees old age.
It has already crept up on him.
He doesn’t have the hand-eye coordination he used to have. The energy doesn’t surge the way it used to. Like it or not, he’s coming to the end of his trail. And he humbly asks God to be as faithful to him at the end of the trail as He was at the beginning.
As with David, you and I are going to have all kinds of challenges and experiences along the trail. There will be places of great danger as well as vistas of beauty and grandeur. There will be long monotonous miles; other stretches will keep us on our tiptoes with anticipation. There will be valleys of challenge and crisis that threaten our very existence.
ýet’s face it: We’ve never been down this trail before. We don’t have a clue what’s around the next bend. We might hazard a guess or work the odds a little and come up with a pretty good scenario. But for all our figuring and analyzing, we could miss the mark by a country mile. James, the apostle, put it bluntly: “You do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (James 4:14).
So we’re walking along the trail, and we really have no idea what the next mile—or even the next hundred yards—might bring. Every season of life has its own challenges to meet and gauntlets to run. We may be in the dark, but we’re not alone.
The trail has been marked.
David is long gone. Now you are on the trail—a path with a past, present, and future. God is behind you, forgiving your sins and helping you deal with your past mistakes and shortcomings.
He has also mapped out a future for you. He's gone on ahead and blazed a trail for you that is full of good works, significance, and fulfillment. You are His workmanship, and He is planning to utilize you. Your future is bright because He has ordained your trail.
And here in the present, His hand is upon your life wherever you are. He is sovereign in your life. He has a plan. He has outlined a trail for you, and if you’re smart, you’ll stay on it. If you’ve drifted off the trail—or never even started on it—it’s time to put that all behind you. The trail is where you want to be.
Following the Footsteps
For over ten years, I’ve wanted to write a book for men out of the Psalms. Psalms is obviously for all Christians, men and women, young and old. But I’ve always felt that there is something distinctly masculine about Psalms. A man wrote each of those 150 Psalms. David wrote seventy-five psalms; Asaph, a contemporary of Solomon, wrote twelve; the men of Korah, eleven; Solomon composed two; and Moses and Ethan each wrote one.1
When it comes to the Psalms, David was way out in front of the other guys. David was a man’s man—not a feminized wuss. He knew what it meant to lead men in battle and to take out the most famous bully the world has ever known. As a teenager, he had killed a lion and a bear single-handedly. Let’s put it this way. David could handle himself.
But there was another side to David that might surprise some people. Jesse’s youngest son had a great love for lyrics and music. He was like one of those guys who can pick up a guitar and captivate an audience with his songs. David was a masculine, multitalented, multidimensional male. He experienced life to the full. He had tasted the sweet wine of success and the bitter gall of failure. He was acquainted with victory and no stranger to humiliation. He had been to the mountain of unequaled joy, but he knew every nook and cranny of the valley of despair. In other words, David had been down the trail.
Much of what David experienced is marked out in the Psalms. David encountered both good and bad along the trail of life, and in the Psalms he wrote down what he experienced on it. You see him fighting off depression, and you see him overwhelmed by the blessing of God. You see him in the clutches of fear, and you see him reminding himself of the faithfulness of God. The good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s all on the trail.
And hear me on this: David marked the trail in Psalms so that we would have a place to go when we hit the rough spots and dangerous passages along the way. Psalms is where we go when we need encouragement, breathing room and a big shot of hope.
That's why I love the Psalms so much. That's why I seem to live in the Psalms.
I’m always there, always working through it “one more time.”
A Familiar Trail
Several months ago my wife, Mary, and I were at a place called The Cove, a mountain retreat center in North Carolina. Frankly, we really needed a retreat, and we were both excited to grab a little R. & R. in those mountains. While we relaxed on the deck of our log cabin, I could have had my pick of any of a couple dozen books I had been waiting to read.
But guess where I found myself again.
That’s right. In the Psalms.
During the past thirty years of my life, I’ve gone through five or six study Bibles. They all sit on my shelf. As I’ve gone through the Psalms, I’ve marked passage after passage in each of these Bibles. You can see black ink, blue ink, yellow highlighter, and even number two pencil. And you wouldn’t believe all the notes and observations I’ve scrawled in the margins. It’s kind of a mess, but I love every inch of it.
As Mary and I absorbed the peace and quiet in that place, listening to the wind whisper through the pine trees and looking out over the mountains, I thought about my many journeys through the Psalms. I thought about all my notes, arrows, stars, and highlights running through those 150 well-thumbed chapters.
That’s when it hit me. And I said the words right out loud.
"You know what this is, Mary? This is a trail."
Mary looked over at me, wondering if I was a little overdue for this retreat.
"There's a trail here, Mary! Don't you see? It runs right through the Psalms. And it is a marked trail. It's a trail of LIFE."
As many times as I’ve picked my way through the Psalms, I couldn’t believe that I’d never seen that before. Someone had gone before me. Someone on the same path through manhood; someone who wanted to know the same Lord, someone who had the same sort of imperfections, shortcomings, failures, and fears as I have. There are footprints in Psalms—footprints of some imperfect men who wanted to know God with all their hearts. And there are blaze marks—marks of truth that tell you about the character of God, the Word of God, and the promises of God. Those blaze marks keep you going when you think you’re finished.
Why is it that I spend so much time in Psalms? Because there's a trail there I can identify with. And unless I miss my guess, so will you. It's a marked trail. That's what those underlined verses are! I'll come across a concept or verse from Psalms, and I'll find myself living off it—maybe for weeks. And I discover that where I am in my life is where David was in his life. He's gone ahead of me, and he's marked that trail of life for me.
That’s why I marked those verses. I marked them because they spoke to the exact circumstances of my life. It hit me one day that David and I were riding the same trail—the trail between birth and death. It’s a trail we have only one shot at through the years that God gives us here on earth.
The trail is new to each of us day by day, and we have no idea what lies ahead (James 4:1315). When we encounter heartache, crisis, disappointment, and tough circumstances, we're surprised. Why does the trail have to be so hard? Why am I stuck on this lousy trail? Although it's our first time down the trail, others have walked before us, and the wise ones have left marks and blazes that we can follow to let us know we're on course. We tend to think we're on course when things are going well and smoothly, but remarkably, the trail is most clearly marked when we hit times of crisis and hardship. These are the times that forge us into the men God wants us to be.
There are verses in Psalms that I have literally lived off during times of unbelievable crisis and hardship. Each of those Bibles, representing approxi-mately five years of my life, is marked all the way through Psalms.
The Psalms speak directly to men on the trail because they were written by men on the trail. And sooner or later, we’re going to encounter those same rugged places and steep grades.
The trail is everywhere in the Scriptures. Here are just a few references. Emphasis has been addid in italics throughout.
How blessed is the man who does not
walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the trail of sinners.
Teach me Your way, O Lord,
And lead me in a level trail.
Transgression speaks to the ungodly within his heart;
There is no fear of God before his eyes….
He plans wickedness upon his bed;
He sets himself on a trail that is not good.
Psalm 36:1, 4
Make me walk in the trail of Your commandments,
For I delight in it.
Your word is a lamp to my feet
And a light to my trail.
Now if you look up those verses in your Bible, you're not going to find the word trail. You'll find the word path. So where did I come up with trail? A trail and a path are the same thing. They're synonyms. Bible scholars usually translate that Hebrew word as path, but it's just as correct to call it a trail. In the culture of the Bible, people would speak of a path, but a cowboy in the old West would speak of a trail. They're just two different ways of describing the same thing.
Over and over the Bible speaks of the trail. Job, in the midst of all his suffering and hardship, knew that he had to stay on it if he wanted to survive:
My foot has held fast to His trail;
I have kept His way and not turned aside.
Solomon, the wisest man on the face of the earth, had plenty to say about life on the trail:
Do not enter the trail of the wicked,
Turn away from it and pass on.
The trail of the righteous is like the light of dawn.
Watch the trail of your feet
And all your ways will be established.
He is on the trail of life who heeds instruction.
The way of the lazy is as a hedge of thorns,
But the trail of the upright is a highway.
The trail of life leads upward for the wise
That he may keep away from Sheol below.
Once you start looking for it, you'll find the trail mentioned throughout the Scriptures, especially if you realize that there is yet another word that refers to the trail. That's the word way.
Webster defines way as a means of passing from one place to another, as a road, street, or path. He could have added trail to that definition. For a trail is also a means of passing from one place to another, just like a road, a street, or a path.
In the New American Standard Bible (my favorite translation), the word way appears 584 times. Just this morning I was reading Proverbs 16, and I came across two verses that used the term way. By now, you know that I have substituted the word trail.
The highway of the upright is to depart from evil;
He who watches his trail preserves his life.
There is a [trail] which seems right to a man,
But its end is the trail of death.
These two verses bring up a significant point. There are actually three trails, and knowing the difference between them is the most important job you'll ever have in life.
Jesus taught about two of the trails in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the trail is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it."For the gate is small and the trail is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it."
Most people are on the wrong trail. It's big and wide—a ten-lane interstate freeway. There's plenty of room to spread out and get comfortable. All you have to do is set the cruise control and watch the miles fly by. But that's the trail that leads to destruction. Stick with that route and—sooner or later—you will crash and burn. It's the trail of disaster. It's the trail of a wasted life.
The narrow trail is the right trail. It doesn’t begin to resemble an interstate. It’s no parkway or turnpike with landscaping on the median. In fact, it can be a very difficult trail. You’ll find it monotonous at times. You’ll encounter frustration. At times you’ll also find yourself waiting, wondering, and wrestling with discouragement. And that gets you asking sometimes if it’s really worth it. But it is. For this trail, though difficult and narrow, is the path of wisdom.
You are on a trail.
And it must be the right trail.
Otherwise, you’ll get to the end of your days, look back, and realize that you’ve wasted your life. And I don’t know any man who wants to do that. Moses, one of the greatest men ever to walk on the face of the earth, didn’t want to waste his life, either. That’s why he recorded these words:
As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years,
Or if due to strength, eighty years,
Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow;
For soon it is gone and we fly away….
So teach us to number our days,
That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90:10, 12
The options in life basically come down to this: You can live a wise life, or you can live a wasted life.
That’s what it all comes down to.
Moses realized that most men get seventy years. If they’re fortunate, they might get into their eighties. But then it’s over. And quite frankly, the end of the trail isn’t too far off for any of us. If you’re twenty-five, you might have fifty or sixty years ahead of you. But that’s nothing. One day, you’ll wake up and be forty, and you’ll be asking yourself how those fifteen years went by so fast. If you’re over forty, you’ve gotten a grip on the fact that life isn’t forever. It’s very short, and it’s gone before we know it. David captured this thought so well in Psalm 39.
“Lord, make me to know my end
And what is the extent of my days;
Let me know how transient I am.
“Behold, You have made my days as handbreadths,
And my lifetime as nothing in Your sight;
Surely every man at his best is a mere breath.
“Surely every man walks about as a phantom;
Surely they make an uproar for nothing;
He amasses riches and does not know who will gather them.”
To put it another way, those seventy or eighty years are going to melt away like morning fog.
At this very moment in your life, you’re following a trail.
If you’re on the wrong trail, there’s still time to change direction.
It’s a trail you have chosen.
And when you boil it all down, you’ve got three trails to choose from.
The broad trail.
The narrow trail.
And what is the third alternative?
It’s a shortcut—sort of a phantom trail that always promises more than it can deliver. There’s always one thing you can count on with a shortcut. Sooner or later, it always merges with the trail to destruction.
And you don’t want to go there.