October 2, 2022

Choosing to Follow

A personal journey.

Sarah Gane Burton

I keep a log of important spiritual milestones—something I call my “burning bushes.” These are moments or periods of time when I can say with absolute assurance that God was acting in my life. Of course, God acts at many points in our lives, often without our awareness, but I find it helpful to write down those moments that present a clear picture of God’s will for me at a given time. Sadly, it’s easy for me to forget these important encounters with God, but in times of spiritual drought He prompts me to review them, and I am encouraged by the memory of His faithfulness in the past and His promises for the future. 

As I lay in bed recently, still recovering from a bout of COVID-19 that had infected me, my husband, and both of our young children, I had a candid conversation with God about my “burning bushes.” 

I am a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist and have always had a clear sense of the presence of God in my life. But that “sense of presence” was far more perceptible to me in childhood. 

An Existential Question

For several years I have wondered why I don’t sense God in the same way that I did as a child. Had my study of theology and hermeneutical methods reduced my thinking about God to an academic exercise rather than a vibrant and very personal relationship with my Creator and Saviour? Had the presence of God withdrawn from 

me because I had entered too much into the world? Was it simply a matter of “outgrowing” my childlike faith? 

I asked God these questions as I mentally retraced my spiritual journey. My early years are filled with moments of awe at God as my Creator and Redeemer. I talked to my friends and strangers about God with excitement and without reservation. I was falling in love with God

By the time I was 11, I was somewhere between falling in love with God and falling in love with myself. I had inadvertently moved beyond my love for God to a love for being righteous. Middle school provided the wake-up call needed to jolt me out of my self-righteousness, but the rosy glow of my childhood spiritual experiences disappeared. The discouragement and anxiety I experienced in my spiritual walk changed the way I perceived myself and God. From that point on, my relationship with God became more private and pragmatic. I still experienced “burning bush” moments, but they were further apart. The “honeymoon phase” was over. 

As I remembered these experiences it became clear to me that an important, but not abnormal, shift had occurred in my relationship with God. I had discovered that the world was not a rosy place and that my walk with God was not all stars and sunshine. I had discovered that I could not rely on what I was feeling about God or if I was feeling His presence—I had to choose to follow Him, no matter what I felt. I had to trust that His presence was there. 

Peter’s Journey

In many ways Peter experienced something similar. Jesus called him to be His disciple after a miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:4-11), and the next three years were filled with miracles of transformed bodies and minds and teachings that inspired multitudes. He understood that Jesus was the Son of God (Matt. 16:16), and was part of Jesus’ inner circle with James and John. Peter was falling in love with His Redeemer. 

Near the end of Jesus’ life Peter and the other disciples felt secure in their relationship with Jesus and their understanding of His mission. But despite their close relationship with Him, they had not yet given up their own aspirations of greatness. In The Desire of Ages Ellen White writes, 

“Even the disciples, though outwardly they had left all for Jesus’ sake, had not in heart ceased to seek great things for themselves. It was this spirit that prompted the strife as to who should be greatest. It was this that came between them and Christ, making them so little in sympathy with His mission of self-sacrifice, so slow to comprehend the mystery of redemption.”1 

Peter was so confident in his loyalty to Jesus that he pitted his own faithfulness against those of his fellow disciples: “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matt. 26:33).2 Everything changed when Jesus was arrested. The disciples’ sense of success and security disappeared, and they ran from Gethsemane. Even Peter, who said he would never deny Jesus, swore three times that he didn’t know Him (verses 69-75). 

An important shift occurred in the disciples following Jesus’ resurrection. They began to understand the enormity of what He had done for them and the true cost of following Him. In the years after His ascension, they relied on their faith in His presence through the Holy Spirit and the memory of His ministry, death, and resurrection. They chose to follow Jesus even when they were persecuted and killed. The “honeymoon phase” was over. 

Peter, in one of his letters, discusses the importance of the testing of faith in the life of the believer. He encourages his readers to rejoice, even when they experience trials, “so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7). 

Peter knew something about trials—he had seen Jesus crucified, he had been imprisoned, and he was aware that he would die a martyr. His relationship with Jesus at the time that he wrote his epistles did not look the same as right after Jesus had filled his nets with fish. It was much stronger because Peter, by the grace of God, had chosen to follow Jesus every day, no matter the cost. 

Peter continued writing to those reading his epistle, encouraging them in their faith in Jesus, whom they had not seen as he had. “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (verses 8, 9). Peter had had the privilege of knowing Jesus during His ministry on earth, and he had been present when Jesus told Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). He knew that faith was a choice, not a feeling. It was a daily choice that reaped the rewards of a joy-filled relationship with Christ. 

The Call to Follow

Jesus called not only the disciples. He also issued a call to His listeners: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). This call extends to us. It’s a call to follow whether we were born into the faith or came to it later in adulthood. It’s a call to daily choosing Jesus over self, knowing that there is a cross that we too must carry. 

Our faith is always a growing faith, and we will experience different phases, just as we do in any other relationship. We may experience a “honeymoon phase” right after conversion and then find ourselves crippled by discouragement, anxiety, or doubts. We are not alone in this experience. Many others have gone through the same journey and the same valleys. More important, we are not alone, because Jesus Himself is with us. The One who called us to follow Him “will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). Let’s choose to follow Him, not because we feel like it or because we like being right or doing the right thing, but because He chose us and loved us first.

1 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 409. 

2 All Scripture quotations have been taken from the English Standard Version.