We stood there on the bank of what back in Tennessee would have been called a creek, but here in southwest China was a river. The woman beside me, an older Christian sister and friend, was giving me a cultural lesson.
I’m sure she had no idea how close to my heart she was hitting with it.
To our left was a bridge to cross the river, but to our right were stepping stones. These cut stone slabs were about two feet by three feet and built up on little piers about a foot out of the water. They were spread just far enough apart to make you use a long stride or hop from one to the other.
We’d recently had a significant amount of rain, so a few of the stones were submerged several inches below the green surface of the water, just enough to get your feet good and wet if you tried to cross that way, but not enough to deter the laughing couples making their way across to the far bank.
The image of the stones under the current prompted my friend to share a Chinese saying with me: “Cross the river by feeling the stones.”
At this point in my two years of life abroad, my Chinese had progressed but not to a point where I could grasp the finer points of the many Chinese sayings. My friend knew I enjoyed learning them anyway, so she shared this one with me, along with its origin.
She told me to imagine all the stepping stones were underwater far enough that it was hard to see them. Now, when you crossed the river, you would have to feel with your foot for each stone as you got to it. You couldn’t be sure of the stones up ahead, only the stone you were standing on.
The saying meant that you should feel for each next step in life, but you could not be sure of the rest of your future.
At the time when I heard this saying, I was nearing my return back to the States. Perhaps my friend sensed the great frustration I was feeling at the uncertainty ahead of me, but she couched her lesson in a dose of culture, not overt spiritual guidance. I was grateful.
The saying was terribly relevant. I hadn’t yet fully learned to trust the unseen in my life to God. My years abroad had left me feeling isolated and more than a little lost. I felt certain that God was directing me toward work with refugees thereafter, but that field had too many angles, too many approaches to make me feel sure of myself going forward. I wanted to see the stepping stones all the way across my future.
To be more honest, I wanted a bridge. I had had to work so hard at my life in China, I was silently praying for ease in the future.
But God doesn’t give us that. He makes us feel for rocks we can’t see. That’s faith, after all. Faith in the Rock of our Salvation who knows what we need.
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:31-34).
In the months I had left before re-entry, I grew to accept the hidden path with more patience and ease of mind, and I came home with just that first rock to stand on.
Still today, I am feeling for the stones, praying for just the next one.
God never promises us knowledge of the future, only the next firm step in His love and faithfulness. Through the grace of God, I will keep my eyes off the water swirling around my legs and up at Him and His Kingdom. I know the rocks will be there to meet my feet when it is time to take the next step.
Are you presently hoping for a bridge? What will help you better trust the unseen stones of God’s providence?