The Principle of the Path | Andy Stanley

by Glenn on April 20, 2016

This past weekend I read Andy Stanley’s The Principle of the Path: How to get from where you are to where you want to be (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008).

It’s very good. One of the things that confirmed that for me was when we went out to eat and an old Beach Boys classic came over the sound system transporting me back to summers spent working at camp in Southern California:

Don’t worry baby
Don’t worry baby
Everything will turn out alright

For the first time, I understood how completely wrong this song is. If only it were true that things turn out alright just because we say they are going to turn out alright. How things turn out normally depends on what we do. Things tend to turn out alright when we take a series of actions to produce the results that comes from those actions.

The central metaphor of this short and readable book by Stanley is the idea of a path.* In every area of our lives—finances, relationships, work, spirituality—we are headed somewhere. This is a book for orienting yourself to that idea in this world.

Stanley seems to want a couple of things for the people who read this book. First, he wants them to avoid trouble. Many (maybe most?) problems in life are avoidable if we don’t take the path that leads to those problems, for example borrowing on a credit card and finding yourself with debt you cannot pay.

Second, Stanley wants his readers to take a longer view and see individual decisions as part of a longer pattern. We may view the decisions we make in isolation, but Stanley points out how individual decisions are taking us places we may or may not want/should or should not want to go.

Early on, Stanley tells us we need to understand the difference between a solution and a path. He writes:

“How absurd would it be for someone who was lost, miles away from where he wanted to be, to say, ‘I need a solution!’? Or to ask you to fix his problem? Wouldn’t make sense, would it? When someone is where he doesn’t want to be, he already knows the solution; what he needs is direction. There is no fix for being lost. To get from where we don’t want to be to where we do want to be requires two things: time and a change of direction. There isn’t a quick fix.”

As a pastor he reflects,

“I’ve talked to many individuals who want to discuss their problems. But they don’t really have problems. They have chosen to live in the wrong direction. They don’t need a solution. They need a new direction.”

Among the things I appreciate about this book is how Stanley is taking a very old Biblical idea and saying it in a fresh way. There are so many places you can turn to in Scripture that speak of paths. For example, Psalm 1 begins, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked …” Proverbs 16:25 warns, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” Stanley is writing in this tradition of Hebrew Scriptures that is pretty clear that there are good and bad paths to walk in life. He avoids moralizing about this, though. The reason to choose good paths is not to earn God’s favor, but to recognize life for what it is. We are people headed someplace—the wise thing is to go to a place we want to get to.

So what do you say to someone who has taken a bad path? There is a great moment in this book:

“Not too long ago I was being interviewed by a national organization that does Christian events for men. One of the questions they asked me went something like this: ‘Reverend Stanley, what would you say to the husband and father who has not done a very good job managing his finances and because of the downturn in the economy finds himself in real financial trouble? What would you suggest someone in that situation do?’ I said, ‘I have no idea.’ At that point the interviewer asked the camera operator to pause for a moment. He looked at me a bit bewildered. ‘No idea? You don’t have any advice to offer?’ ‘No,’ I said. Then I went on to explain that an economic downturn doesn’t so much cause problems as it reveals them. Hard times reveal where we are (and where we aren’t) faster than anything else. The person who wrote the interviewer was looking for steps. A fix. A to-do list. But if a man chooses the path of financial irresponsibility, he will eventually arrive at an unenviable destination. An economic downturn just speeds up the trip.”

Stanley is no-nonsense in the service of wanting his readers both to understand and to live out common sense. One of the main truths he wants to communicate is this:

Direction—not intention—determines our destination.

He takes considerable time getting to that moment. It can be hard for us to get honest with ourselves when we live with denial and self- justification. Stanley is working hard to get around/through those barriers.

Over the years, I’ve often thought of corollaries to Stanley’s central truth about direction determining destination.

Corollary No. 1: Direction is more important than speed. I can remember times I’ve become lost while driving and found myself driving faster. The direction we are headed is more important than our speed.

Corollary No. 2: Direction is more important than our current location on a map. I think about it this way: There are two guys. One is in San Francisco, California, the other is in Alexandria, Virginia. Which one is closest to Washington, D.C.? The obvious answer is the guy in Alexandria, Virginia. But if that guy starts heading West and our guy in San Francisco starts heading East, the guy in San Francisco is actually closer based on the direction they are headed. And the truth of the gospel is that our direction determines everything. When we head toward God, he, like the father in the parable of the two sons, comes running to us.

Stylistically, there is no pretense in Stanley’s writing. It’s a conversational tone that I get the sense comes out of sermons he preached. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Queen Gertrude tells Polonius, “More matter, with less art.” What I enjoy about Andy Stanley is that he is all matter. He has truth he wants to communicate and he says it clearly and plainly.

This is consciously not a self-help book. Stanley doesn’t offer steps. One of the things I’ve found exhausting in preaching is when you attend week after week, and week after week you are given a series of steps you need to take. If you get three steps each week, at the end of a year you’ve got more than 150 steps. That’s a lot of steps to be paying attention to continually.

Further, those steps can make us feel either self-righteous because we are keeping the steps and think, therefore, God has to accept us, or full of self-loathing because we’re not keeping the steps and believe, alternately, God won’t accept us. “There is none righteous,” is the plain teaching of scripture. We all need the gospel.

And the true gospel recognizes that life has difficulties. Some of these difficulties are of our own making and Stanley is quick to point out that God’s acceptance of us having made poor choices doesn’t relieve us from the effects of those choices.

Clearly Stanley has seen people for whom troubles have come because of the choices they’ve made, but he’s also seen people with troubles like those of Job—you can’t point to a reason.

Sometimes things happen that we can’t trace to following or not following the correct path. This is where Stanley ends the book. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s a courageous one. It’s easy to preach a false gospel that says, “Do this and that and life will turn out well.” Stanley wants his readers to trust God with their lives and recognize that not every dream comes true and not every circumstance is of our own making. We all have to contend with losses.

Throughout the book, Stanley offers some illustrations from the life of David. These were refreshing for their treatment of David as a complex human being (rather than a morality tale) who sometimes took the right path and sometimes didn’t.

The main challenge of the book is to minimize intentions and maximize behaviors. We say, “I didn’t intend for that person to be hurt by what I did,” but it’s better not to do the thing that hurt. Or, “I didn’t intend to get so far into debt,” which, Stanley might say, “Don’t go into debt.” There is no escaping the practical application of this book. What we do matters. The decisions we make and the steps we take are taking us to places we do and do not want to go.

What to do and what not to do? Stanley has left that to his readers for whom he appears to have the highest of respect.


*In college we heard the idea “We’re all on a journey.” This remains true, though the idea of life as a journey has for me an air of open-ended discovery about it, which is appropriate for when we are in college. While learning and discovery should never stop, we need to think about where our journey is headed. I like how Stanley’s metaphor of a path is so direction-focused. Where is your journey taking you? The answer depends on what path are you on.