When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. [Exodus 13:17-18a (NIV)]
Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. … After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. [Acts 16:6-7,10 (NIV)]
While hiking up the ski mountain, we discovered that what takes only nine minutes on the gondola takes several hours. A 2,200 vertical rise became a more than five mile hike. When looking at the trail map, it is easy to see why—rather than walking straight up the face and following the path of the gondola, the trail traverses back and forth across the mountain. Geometry taught us that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line yet, sometimes, the most direct way is not always the best way. In actuality, going straight up the face of the mountain is near impossible except for the fittest, most adventurous, and possibly craziest of hikers. Being none of those, we followed the meandering trail. There were moments of discouragement as we crossed back and forth across the face of the mountain, catching a brief glimpse of our destination in the distance, before passing again into the woods and continuing our slow ascent.
Is that what it felt like for the Israelites who spent forty years on a trip that should have taken only a matter of days? The forty years, of course, were tacked on for disobedience, but their initial route, given them by God, wasn’t the shortest one either. The shorter route from Goshen to Canaan, a four or five day’s journey, would have led them through Philistine country and was heavily guarded by a string of Egyptian fortresses. God wisely knew that His people, their spirits broken by years of slavery, were not yet ready for war. Their inexperience and possible cowardice would make them shrink from conflict and want to return to Egypt. Knowing this, God sent them the long way around to the Red Sea, an eleven days’ journey. Then, just as they’d gotten to the edge of the wilderness, instead of going forward, God re-directed them back to make camp by the sea. It probably made no sense to the people but it did to God. Pharaoh, thinking them lost and discouraged, would be lulled into a false sense of confidence. He would pursue them, giving God the opportunity at the Red Sea to prove to the Egyptians (and Israelites) exactly with whom they were dealing: the one true God.
God knows our abilities, our weaknesses and fears. By giving us lesser trials, He prepares us for greater ones, just as he did for the Israelites. Sometimes, the less direct route is necessary for us to gain knowledge and experience and learn to trust, obey and appreciate God and His blessings. Other times, God takes us the less direct route because He has a greater task for us elsewhere. When Paul wanted to go into the provinces of Asia, for example, he was directed instead to Macedonia where he brought the gospel message to Europe. He eventually got back to Asia but one look at his missionary journeys shows us that the Apostle never took the most direct route; instead, he followed God’s plan. Admittedly, when our journey takes longer than expected, it is frustrating to think we’ll never reach our objective. We must remember that God is guiding us to the destination that He has chosen by the path that He wants us to take. It may not be the shortest or easiest trail; it will, however, be the best.
There is a long way which is short and a short way which is long. [Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 53b]