The Christian Life as Pilgrimage
by Derek Thomas
Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.
A half-century ago, I sang these words in school assemblies set to music composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The words appear in Part 2 of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress as part of Mr. Valiant-for-Truth’s testimony. Earlier, Valiant had introduced himself to Mr. Great-heart and his companions with the words, “I am a Pilgrim, and am going to the celestial city.”
All Christians are pilgrims heading to the celestial city. Bunyan was simply reflecting the Bible that he loved. Scripture affirms that Christians are pilgrims. In the paradigmatic covenant made with our father Abraham, God promised him Canaan as “the land of your sojournings” (Gen. 17:8). And in the New Testament, Peter reflects the same idea when he describes his readers as “elect exiles” (1 Peter 1:1; cf. 1:17, “the time of your exile”). Similarly, in reviewing the faithful believers of Old Testament history, the author of Hebrews refers to them as “strangers and exiles” (Heb. 11:13).
The Christian life is a road trip, a journey of the most exhilarating kind. It has a starting point and a terminus. It is a metaphor of movement. Christians do not stay in one place too long, for they are set for another location. Early Christians were referred to as the followers of “the Way”—a reflection that they seemed determined to follow a different path (Acts 9:2; 24:14).
Several issues arise. First, there is the idea of an adventure. Yes, adventure. If Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit initially shunned adventure because it upset the equilibrium of his routine way of life in the Shire, he would later record his extraordinary journey in a breathless tale bearing the subtitle There and Back Again.
Christians explore a somewhat different journey—Here to There, perhaps. But it is nevertheless a journey equally as exciting, fraught with tales of valor and danger. There is something exciting about the Christian life. New glimpses of God’s provision, intervention, and rescue await at every turn. We have no idea what a day may bring forth (Prov. 27:1), but we may be assured that nothing happens without our heavenly Father willing it to happen. We are called to follow our Master wherever He leads us—in green pastures beside still waters, as well as in the presence of enemies and a valley of shadow and death (Ps. 23).
My friend and predecessor at the church I now serve, a name familiar enough to readers of Tabletalk, Sinclair Ferguson, often ended his sermons with an exclamatory “Isn’t it wonderful to be a Christian!” Yes, it is a thing of great wonder, an exciting adventure every second of the way.
Second, pilgrimage is evocative of the transitory nature of this life. “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). “The things that are seen are transient” (2 Cor. 4:18). What does it mean to refer to this life as “transient”? The answer lies in the tension evoked in the New Testament between the “now” and the “not yet.” Christians are those upon whom “the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). Something of the world to come has already perforated our spacetime existence and has claimed us as citizens of another realm (Phil. 3:20).
This perspective raises fundamental tensions. In one sense, we live here with a variety of responsibilities as citizens of this world. The reclusive life of withdrawal and abstinence is not a biblical worldview. This bizarre view of life is caricatured in Simeon Stylites the Elder, a man who climbed a pole in Syria in AD 423 and remained there for thirty-seven years until he died. This is a denial of Christianity, not its affirmation. Christians get involved in society. Christians reshape society. They are lights in dark places. A new affection has overtaken Christians that makes everything else seem paltry and trite. In the words of Thomas Chalmers, the Christian life is ignited by the “expulsive power of a new affection.”
A third aspect of pilgrimage is a sense of direction, a goal, an end point. The journey has a destination. Christianity provides a shalom, a sense of wholeness and completeness. Christians know who they are and where they are going. Aimlessness and drift characterize so much of life without the embrace of Christ.
Christians “look” for “things unseen” (2 Cor. 4:18, where the Greek verb “to look” suggests an intense, steady gaze). It sounds like a paradox: we look for something that cannot be seen. Glory awaits, and Christian pilgrims maintain a steady but determined discipline of facing forward. What lies ahead fills our vision and keeps us expectant. What awaits steady pilgrims surpasses expectation and defies explanation.
“Onward and upward! To Narnia and the North!” is a statement in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia tale The Horse and His Boy. All pilgrims of the cross agree: onward and upward!