Our Joyful Pilgrimage
Our Lord Jesus Christ is a wise builder of his church across generations and centuries. Each age has its own challenges, battles to fight, and truths to defend. He is forming his body the church over all the years until his return; no single age manifests the fullness of his life and grace. Each believer has his particular gifts, a measure of grace allotted to him, and a particular place in which to stand and serve the Lord (1 Cor. 7:17; 12:4-6), and the same is true of the church collectively. The church does not reach her perfection until the end. This should temper our expectations; we cannot do everything, and God does not expect this of us. It should also enflame our zeal to be and do all that we can according to his energy that mightily labors in us (Col. 1:29). We labor for the Master, and he must have many crowns, many victories, loves, and deliverances worked out in all his people across the millennia.
As we march to our eternal inheritance, the Scriptures plainly speak of our lives as a pilgrimage. This is not said to make us feel wistful or to unsettle our souls. The description reminds us that we shall have trouble along the way. This life will not be heaven. Our age especially believes it can master any problem. Too many fantasies and romances have deceived many into thinking that a personal heaven is just over the rainbow of wishful thinking. The reality can be jarring to the unprepared.
For example, young women should not think that marriage will be a personal utopia of romantic bliss or solve all their problems. Mature women tell a different story, of the labor required of keeping and guarding a home, the challenges and weariness of raising children in the fear of the Lord, living under a sinful head, and their sinful natures fighting back against authority and the temptation to remake their husbands into their personal saviors. This is the Christian woman’s pilgrimage, and there will be trouble and sorrow in it. All the books try to tell us how to overcome the trouble and have the beautiful family, but as any wise woman will tell you, being a wife and mother will at times be messy and unpleasant and soul-piercing. Faithfulness and strength are found only by looking to Jesus and keeping your eye upon the prize: his smiling commendation and fellowship
Men face their own challenges in our age. Many spend significant time commuting. For others, instant communication often translates into “never really off the clock.” Upon returning home, they are to help with children, lead in worship, read a little on their own, maintain the home, and participate in the life of the local church. Men are subject to constant temptations, belittled in society for daring to think of themselves as Christ’s leaders in home and church, and generally made to feel responsible for every bad thing that happens. This is a hard pilgrimage, as much as any degree of persecution – to be faithful to God’s truth in an evil age, to guide families in the fear of the Lord, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. A Christian man’s greatest need is to see the glory of Christ and to fellowship with him daily.
We must live unto Christ while living in a society that scoffs at every aspect of our Christian pilgrimage. Much that was good and gave a strong sense of community in the broader society is gone, except in our churches, which are often little islands of sanity and our only real point of connection with like-minded people. Most the public institutions through which likeminded citizens divided the load are now largely the caves of atheist secularists, and we can no longer wisely or safely make use of them. Their goals and ours are worlds apart – the distance between heaven and hell.
These pressures are part of our pilgrimage. Our forefathers faced their particular challenges and vexations. The Good Shepherd led them through their stretch of the church’s corporate journey to her crowned destiny. He will lead us through ours. The important thing to remember is that our Lord has ordained our road and load. Our temptations are not accidental. He makes no mistakes. Trusting his government, love, and providence will preserve us from three attitudes that are devastating to the Christian pilgrim: complaining, fear, and hatred.
Whatever else is happening to us and in the world, we are to be joyful servants of God. He has made us glad (Ps. 92:4)! He hates a complaining spirit – negativity about everything, walking around as if the weight of the world rests upon our puny shoulders, and constant suspicion or anger. Nothing makes the pilgrim’s path more miserable than complaining. It says to the Lord, even without words, “I do not like what you are doing, my circumstances, what others are doing, me, me, me.” Let us instead see our particular challenges as part of Jesus’ unfolding work and kingdom. We must trust him without complaining, pining away for something different, and refusing to pick up our cross and follow him.
Surrounded by so many evils, fear raises its ugly, paralyzing head. But the Lord “has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love, and a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7). He has given us power – in his word as we abide in it, by his indwelling Spirit as we walk with him. By the power of God, we can resist the evils of our age and overcome them. We can love, when the streets are burning with hate. We have a sound and self-controlled mind that sees God’s hand and trusts his wisdom. What wonderful gifts he has freely given to us in his Son (Rom. 8:32)! We have power to resist temptation, fear, and the desperation of helpless sinners for whom heaven is a steel curtain. Not so the believer in Jesus – he has love gripping his heart, God’s love from which nothing can separate him (Rom. 8:38-39). He has heavenly help, an interceding Prince and Savior, and the indwelling Spirit of power, truth, and holiness.
Think daily on God’s great love, which is set, immovable, as great as it can be (Zeph. 3:17; 1 John 4:1). Sing of his love when you awaken. His love is so deep that he dove into hell to rescue us by the blood and righteousness of his beloved Son. It is so high that it raises us up to the favorites of heaven, gives us an immediate audience before the HOLY, HOLY, HOLY God as our Father, and sets our spirits on high when they are in the lowest depths of despair. His love is broad and wide, carries us through every trial and sends us on our way rejoicing when we trust his promise of mercy. God’s love is so wondrous that we must pray to understand it (Eph. 3:18).
We shall become sad, complaining, and fearful pilgrims unless we give serious thought to God’s great love in Christ. To know and be assured of God’s love, look at the way Jesus loved his own to the end, without flinching before the cross, willingly laying down his life to bear our sins and heal us by his stripes. Look at the way he was willing to be forsaken judicially as our substitute so that we would never be forsaken. Do you feel forsaken? Look at the cross. Look at the Lamb now exalted and interceding and reigning over all things for our sake. It is hard to remain sad before such love. As pilgrims, we may not find much love in this world, but heaven has flooded earth with love. The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord. Is it any wonder that we are told to rejoice always?! Lack of joy is lack of a sense of God’s love.
Some will say that all of this will be enjoyed later, but what we need now is to don our soldier’s helmet and fight grimly to the death. This is true, but we are also the loved and loving soldiers of the great King. Can any sin be forsaken and obedience take its place without love? Will he bless any strategy that does not at its heart find its energy and motivation in his great love for us? It is the love of Christ that constrains us, hold us together, holds our lives together, and keeps us firmly on the path (2 Cor. 5:14). We shall never have the most compelling loves – laying down our lives for one another and loving our enemies – the loves that are most like his, unless we are growing in his love, are assured of it by his promise, and trust him to love us always, to the end, whatever comes.
Perhaps our pilgrimage is not as grim as it sometimes seems. It would be grim if we were cast adrift on the sea of trouble with only our strength and wisdom to guide us. God has taken us to himself in Christ. He enfolds us in his love. With his love comes power and help. We have his truth and promises to feed faith and enflame love. We become sad and sometimes useless and enfolded in our own disappointments when love grows cold, our sense of his love and our love to him. Go back to his word and rediscover the greatness of his life (1 John 4:1-10). The world knows nothing of this. It knows nothing of God’s love gift of the Spirit, but we know him. He is in us (John 14:17). We know him and see his ways. He sheds abroad the love of God in our hearts (Rom. 5:5).
Trouble and cheer are thus strangely united in our pilgrim experience (John 16:33). We shall know trouble in this world and feel it deeply. We shall cry. Knowing God’s love does not free us from walking through the valley of the shadow of death. It means God walks with us. His love in Christ certifies this promise. When you are tempted to doubt it and feel overwhelmed by trouble, look again at the cross. He that crushed his Son for you (Isa. 53:10) has bound you to himself forever. He will sanctify your troubles and tells you to be of good cheer, for our Lord Jesus has overcome the world. He overcame it by love and the joy set before him. Let us labor to be joyful pilgrims of the great King. Passing through many troubles and sorrows, we shall at last reach his kingdom of joy, light, and eternal happiness.