This is a series of excerpts from a book called Edwards on the Christian Life by Dane C. Ortlund. Specifically, the words below come from a chapter entitled “Pilgrimage – the Flavor of the Christian Life.” I think they have some resonance for the times we’re living in and pass them along for your encouragement and consideration.
Christianity is hard. One reason for this is the jarring tension between what we say is true of us now that we belong to God and what we experience day in and day out emotionally, relationally, physically, and all the rest. If we are God’s children, we wonder, why is there so much senseless adversity in our lives? Such pain is disorienting for those seeking to walk faithfully with God. The difficulty is not just that life is painful, but that life is painful despite the spectacular realities we believe have washed over us.
One answer Jonathan Edwards would give to this disconcerting experience is the believer’s pilgrim status. A Christian is someone who has undergone a transfer of citizenship. We now belong somewhere else. Before new birth, we were at home in the world and strangers to God. After new birth, we are strangers in the world and at home with God. While this exchange results in new joy for the next life, it also results in new pain for this life. We are suddenly aliens here. Ambassadors, as Paul says – that is, someone who represents the king in a foreign land while their homeland lies elsewhere (2 Cor 5:20). This world is not our home.
Consider visiting the beach. When we wade out into the ocean water, we immediately feel the waves beginning to come against us. First our ankles, then knees, waist, and so on. As we continue out into the water, though, inevitably a wave comes that cannot be out-jumped. It washes over us. We become completely submerged, and there is no way to avoid it.
That total submersion wave is what Edwards knew God sends to his children to drive home their pilgrim status and the hope that flourishes only on the other side of such pain. I do not have in mind bad grades, failed dating relationships, rejected applications for school or jobs, the flu, or resentment over being sinned against. These are certainly forms of adversity that can reinforce our pilgrim status. But they are waves that hit us in the knees or waist. We lose our balance, but quickly get it back. We keep moving on, weathering the trial but essentially unchanged. We aren’t forced to acknowledge that we are pilgrims. We can continue funneling our hopes and dreams into the things of this world. We are not compelled to change. Such trials wash into all of our lives with some regularity.
But those who live into their later years and are quietly walking with the Lord from a posture of fundamental trust have often weathered something deeper. At some point in their lives a wave washed over them that could not be out-jumped. And somehow they survived emotionally. They softened rather than hardened. Someone who has become a Christian and truly believes what he or she confesses to believe comes to a point in life where they must suddenly, for the first time, bank all that they are on that professed belief. Their true trust must be proved. It is not as though they didn’t believe before. They did, with sincerity. But their belief to that point had been tested only by the gently lapping waist-high waves of garden-variety adversity.
To switch metaphors: it’s the difference between saying you believe a parachute will float you safely to the ground and actually jumping out of the plane. It’s the difference, Edwards would say, between merely professed affections for God and truly gracious affections. At that moment of life meltdown we are forced into one of two positions: either cynicism and coldness of heart or true depth with God as we welcome our pilgrim status. Either we remain citizens of this world psychologically or we embrace a citizenship above.
When that moment comes looking for us, sent by the hand of a tender Father, we will either believe that what we said we believe has just been disproved, or we will believe that what we said we believe will sustain us. The two lines of professed belief and heart belief, to this point parallel, are suddenly forced either to align completely or to move further apart. We cannot go on as before.
The pilgrim is – to state the obvious – on a pilgrimage. A destination is in mind. Our status as strangers in the world is not perpetual displacement, ceaseless wandering. We are journeying from point A to point B. “He that is on a journey, he is often thinking of the place that he is going to, and ‘tis his care and business every day to get along, to improve his time to get towards his journey’s end.”
And our destination is no temporary rest but final rest. It is paradise, Eden restored. One illustration Edwards uses is to point out that the sane traveler is not tempted to make even the nicest hotel his permanent home. He is simply passing through. Amid all the “waves and breakers” that sweep over us in this life, small and great, we who belong to Christ have planted our hope elsewhere. It is invincible.
Edwards put it as follows in his famous sermon on Christian pilgrimage, “The True Christian’s Life a Journey Towards Heaven” – God is the highest good of the reasonable creature. The enjoyment of him is our proper happiness, and is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here: better than fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of any or all earthly friends. These are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean. Therefore, it becomes us to spend this life only as a journey towards heaven.
How can a regenerate man or woman not be changed when reading that? Just a little bit? We know such a statement is true. But after days upon days simply living life – paying the bills, working through the marital arguments, fighting and sometimes succumbing to various temptations, worrying about the future, picking up meds at Walgreens – heaven fades from view. Left in neutral, our hearts slide away from enjoyment of God, and toward enjoyment of this world. Psychologically we slowly transition from being pilgrims through this world to being citizens of this world.
And then we read a paragraph like that. We read, “To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here.” Suddenly the lake home we have been dreaming of owning one day grabs us a little less forcefully. We are liberated. This life, we are brought to feel once more, is not our one shot at joy. We are pilgrims. Our true home, a home better than any that money could buy here, is coming – “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (I Pet 1:4). So why not sacrifice the shadow for the substance, the drop for the ocean? Why not invest where it matters?