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Traveling and the Christian Journey

Originally published Monday, 20 February 2017.

My husband and I have wanderlust. Now, before you get concerned, raise your eyebrows, and prepare to click away from this page, you should know that wanderlust means "a desire to travel."

Once, we were at the airport having just landed from a domestic flight. As we pulled our suitcases past the ticket counters for international travel, my husband looked wistfully at those standing in line and said, "I would love to just hop on the plane and head somewhere in Europe." I shook my head and laughed. 

Some of our travels take us to cities within driving distance. Others have taken us to the opposite end of the country. Still others to another country all together. We enjoy visiting large cities and small villages. We delight in touring historical sites and museums as well as hiking mountain trails and exploring national parks. We loved seeing the Eiffel Tower as much as dog sledding on a glacier in Alaska. We enjoy trying the foods unique to a culture and place. It's exciting to travel to someplace unknown and explore it for the first time.  

Our Spiritual Journey

The Apostle Peter referred to believers as sojourners and aliens (1 Peter 2:11). The author to the Hebrews described the heroes of the faith as strangers and exiles. "These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city" (Hebrews 11: 13-16). Jonathan Edwards commented on this passage: "this life ought to be so spent by us, as to be only a journey or pilgrimage towards heaven."

Spiritually, we are travelers. We are on a journey. We are merely visitors here because we belong in heaven. There are many parallels between our earthly travels and our spiritual pilgrimage. Here are just a few:

Traveling and Pilgrim Life

1. Pack lightly: I always tell my kids before we embark on a trip, "Pack your bags with what you wouldn't want to miss while we are gone. But remember, you have to lug it around yourself." Anyone who has traveled knows how much easier a trip is if you don't have to drag multiple bags around a city. On our first trip to Europe, we got lost searching for our hotel in London. Our suitcases were huge and we dragged them up and down streets, searching for the hotel (they didn't have the spinning wheels to make it easier). The longer we walked, the farther I trailed behind my husband. When we finally got to our room, we promptly fell asleep (breaking the big rule of travel—always conform to the time zone you are in).

Baggage in our spiritual journey will weigh us down as well. In the beginning of the classic allegorical tale, Pilgrim's Progress, Christian gets stuck in the Slough of Despond. He was weighed down by his sins (a weight titled "Burden," which he carried on his back) and the guilt over those sins, so much so that he sunk into the slough. Later in his journey, Christian came to the cross and that's when he finally dropped his Burden. Paul says, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us" (Hebrews 12:1).

We lay our sins and burdens at the cross of Jesus as we appropriate what he did for us in his life, death, and resurrection. Christ has set us free from all our burdens. "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).

2. Nothing goes as planned: One of the things I most looked forward to in Scotland was exploring the Highlands. We rented a car, got trail advice from a local, and promptly drove off to find a hiking trail. We made it less than a mile before we got into an accident (something to do with having to drive on the opposite side of the road and all). The rental company wouldn't let us rent another car. So no hiking in the Highlands for us. 

Another time we were in Nicaragua and headed back to the airport. It was a two hour drive down a rural dirt road. Our driver only spoke Spanish and ours is minimal at best. Midway through the journey, we broke down on the side of the road. Talk about nothing going as planned!

Our journey in life rarely goes as planned. How often do we begin our day only to look back on it at the end of the day and realize how little we accomplished on our to-do lists? "The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps" (Proverbs 16:9). In fact, God often interrupts our plans to help us grow in faith as we learn to depend more and more upon him and his grace. "Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths. She shall pursue her lovers but not overtake them, and she shall seek them but shall not find them. Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better for me then than now" (Hosea 2:6-8). Obstacles block our path. Unexpected twists and turns delay us. Sometimes we have to make u-turns and start over. The good news is that God governs it all for his glory and our good (Romans 8:28). 

3.  A guide is helpful: We've used local tour guides a few times to help us navigate unfamiliar cities. A guide drove us up the famed Lombard Street in San Francisco. Another walked us through the WWII sites of Northern France. But our favorite tour was through the city of Paris. Our guide took us on a walking tour of each neighborhood, explaining the history and pointing out important sites. She helped us learn the transportation system and told us the best places to eat. The tour prepared us for going out on our own the next day.

As believers, we all need guides, mentors that lead us through unfamiliar terrain. We need those with spiritual wisdom who can lead us in our journey as pilgrims. That's what Titus 2 is all about, "Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled" (2:3-5). We need other believers who have walked the path before us, to disciple us in God's truth and spur us on in the faith. After all, they know what it's like to lose jobs, to struggle in marriage, to have prodigal children, to have doubts and fears. Spiritual mentors know what it's like to cling to the gospel when nothing makes sense; their wisdom is essential to our journey as pilgrims.

4. As fun as traveling is, there are always reminders that it's not home: Everyone knows what it feels like to return home to your own bed and realize how much better you sleep there. My husband and I were recently in NYC and remarked on how loud it was. The incessant honking was aggravating. The long lines reminded us of waiting for a ride at Disney. As much as we loved our time exploring the city, we were happy to return to our more sedate home and life—and favorite pillows! Though we enjoyed visiting, we just didn't belong there.

Much in our pilgrim journey will remind us we are not at home. Sin, sickness, brokenness, and grief remind us on a daily basis that we don't belong here. We were made for something more and someplace better. Just as our body knows it's not lying on our bed at home, our souls know we are not where we belong. "For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come" (Hebrews 13:14). These reminders keep us from growing roots that cling to this world. Instead, we need set our minds on things above. "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth" (Colossians 3:1-2).

5. No matter how much you try not to look like a tourist, you still stand out: When we lived in Florida, we could spot a tourist at the beach without any effort. They were pale and arrived at the beach like they were moving in, with bags and bags of gear. They were also the only ones who went into the water in the wintertime.

My husband and I try hard to fit in and look like we know what we are doing while traveling but inevitably we give up and stop someone to ask for directions. While touring around Boston last year, we got lost on the train system. We asked an attendant for directions. In her thick Boston accent she said, "You aren't from here are you?" (Was it that obvious?) "No," we smiled. "We're from Florida."

Those who believe in Christ will inevitably stand out in this world. We have to because we represent something and Someone different than the world around us. Our accent is different because we speak God's word stored in our hearts. Our clothing is different because we are robed in Christ's righteousness. The work we do is different because we work to please our Maker first and foremost. We'll even look different because the glory of God shines on us and we reflect those rays in greater brilliance the longer we know him. And all of this is to have an impact in the world in which we live, "Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation" (1 Peter 2:22).

As believers, we are strangers and aliens in this world. We are citizens of heaven, "But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Philippians 3:20). Our life on earth is a journey to the Celestial City, to our home, the place where we belong. 

Are there any other comparisons you've experienced between traveling and your life as a pilgrim?