Which Way Is North?

Gary B. Swanson

Which Way Is North?

There is something in the flight pattern of a butterfly, lightly flitting its way from azalea to buttercup in a spring garden, that suggests randomness and spontaneity, brevity and evanescence. In fact there appears to be no pattern in its flight at all. Yet there is also something that is equally profound and enduring. “The butterfly counts not months but moments,” writes the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, “and has time enough.”1

“Time enough” and, for the Monarch butterfly at least, a seemingly resolute sense of direction. Called the “King of Butterflies,” the Monarch is well known in North America for its annual migration. Easily identifiable in its distinctive orange and black markings, it sets out southward on a mass winged exodus that stretches up to 3,000 miles. From both eastern and western United States—and as far north as Canada—thousands of Monarchs depart sometime before the first frost in August or September for southern California and Mexico. Then, when winter is over, the generation born there return to the same locations from which their previous generations have come.

Researchers have found that the flight patterns appear to be inherited. And they are based on the insect’s antennae, which enable it to respond to a time-compensated Sun sensor and the magnetic field of the Earth. It is a kind of compass—a natural GPS—that indicates which way is North.

Any call for revival and reformation is—in a sense—an appeal to be reminded of the direction in which we are migrating. Jesus said, “‘If I am lifted up from the Earth, [I] will draw all peoples to Myself’” (John 12:32).2 This drawing of all peoples sounds like a kind of spiritual magnetism, an attraction in Jesus’ direction, and it urges a response.

But how can we know for certain that we are facing North spiritually? “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end [its direction] is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12, italics supplied). The call for revival and reformation is a call away from what merely seems right. It is a call to return to the true, Magnetic North.

It begins, certainly, with sustained, continuous prayer. And it is a return to Scripture: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

In the fifth chapter of The Great Controversy, Ellen G. White recounts the pivotal point in the world’s history of the life and ministry of John Wycliffe, a cleric and Oxford University professor of theology. In 14th-century England, Wycliffe, often called the “Morning Star of the Reformation,” asserted the centrality of Scripture in the life of the individual and of the Christian Church. Wycliffe led in the translation of the Bible into the English language and “declared the only true authority to be the voice of God speaking through His word. And he taught not only that the Bible is a perfect revelation of God’s will, but that the Holy Spirit is its only interpreter, and that every man is, by the study of its teachings, to learn his duty for himself.”3

Thus, the return to Scripture should inspire more than mere reading, more than mere information. Far more than an intellective exercise, it also must include the application of that Scripture to everyday life.

"Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). Words like feet and path indicate movement, a sense of progression. They suggest that there should a response to the reading of Scripture. “It is less important to ask a Christian what he or she believes about the Bible,” writes theologian Lesslie Newbigin, “than to inquire what he or she does with it.”4

Scripture should serve as the Christian’s only compass. It shows which way is true North. Like a compass, it tells which direction to go based on its own power. It has an inherent authority.

And having its own authority is significant when it comes to the spiritual principles of biblical interpretation. Adventist theologian Roy Gane points out that the Bible “makes an enduring system of divine principles, rather than human ideas, the guide for belief and lifestyle. Divine principles are to be interpreted and applied within cultural contexts, but they are not to be revised or manipulated to accommodate human desires.”5

“We all need a guide through the many strait places in life,” adds Ellen G. White, “as much as the sailor needs a pilot over the sandy bar or up the rocky river, and where is this guide to be found? . . . The Bible. Inspired of God, written by holy men, it points out with great clearness and precision the duties of both old and young. It elevates the mind, softens the heart, and imparts gladness and holy joy to the spirit. The Bible presents a perfect standard of character; it is an infallible guide under all circumstances, even to the end of the journey of life.”6

Clearly we must do more than merely face North. Based on the Bible as a compass for our lives, we must step out and move toward the North. Scripture counsels us to be facing in the right direction—and moving in the right direction: “Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it’” (Isa. 30:21, italics supplied).

Bible study will point readers in the right direction; the application of that Bible study should cause them to move in that direction, to do what that Bible study commands. Christians must truly be “doers of the word” (James 1:22).

“The truths . . . revealed [in Scripture] unite to form a perfect whole,” adds Ellen G. White, “adapted to meet the wants of men in all the circumstances and experiences of life.”7

Christian revival and reformation begins here: Full acceptance of the Bible as God’s revelation to humankind and the commitment to follow it as the needle to the pole. There is nothing random, nothing evanescent about this flight pattern. The Bible is the enduring compass that points to the Magnetic North—to Jesus Christ.



1. Http://www.quotegarden.com/butterflies.html. Accessed November 8, 2012.


2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this piece are quoted from the New King James Version.


3. The Great Controversy, p. 93.


4. Isabella D. Bunn, ed., 444 Surprising Quotes About the Bible (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2005), p. 12. Italics supplied.


5. Http://www.perspectivedigest.org/article/23/archives/16-1/relating-to-the-bible-1. Accessed November 10, 2012.


6. Maranatha, p. 44.


7. The Great Controversy, p. vi.