Life for the Christ follower is often spoken of as a pilgrimage or a journey. These metaphors help us to understand that nearness to and intimacy with God are our primary goals. Our sin separates us from God. Jesus died so that we could be reconciled to God our Father. Those who receive Jesus as Savior and Lord have been justified, and will spend eternity in God’s presence.
And yet, as we walk this dark earth we face some significant challenges. Our sinful nature, the ways of the world, and spiritual enemies work together in an attempt to create distance between us and God. This is the essence of what’s called spiritual warfare. Through the process known as sanctification, the Holy Spirit empowers us as we seek to draw near to God. The Spirit helps us in numerous ways. These include leading us in God’s word, in prayer, and in fellowship with other believers. Even with all this help, we struggle as so much around us seeks to place distance between us and God.
The closer we walk with God and away from sin, the more we enjoy love, joy, peace, and all the other fruit of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22-23. These are results of drawing closer to God and seeking to live life in his presence. As we walk closer to our King, we sense his pleasure and presence in numerous ways.
I suppose that’s why the metaphor of a pilgrim is such a powerful way for us to understand life for the Christ follower. Perhaps this was best illustrated in John Bunyan’s late 1600s work titled, “The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come.” In this classic, the main character draws ever closer to God by following the clear Pilgrim’s path. As he does so, enemies seek to draw him off the path through many schemes and temptations. To the degree that he leaves the path and follows the enemy’s schemes, the distance between him and God is increased and he finds himself in turmoil.
Those who seek with all their hearts to draw near to God through Jesus will understand the Pilgrim metaphor. When we are especially near to God, or hard on the path so to speak, our hearts know joy and peace to a degree that non-believers cannot imagine. One of the great mysteries of our faith is the fact that we can know joy and peace even in the midst of tribulation. That’s why in Philippians 4:7 the peace of God is said to “surpass all understanding.” There’s no earthly reason why anyone should know peace and joy in the midst of severe challenges. And yet, Christ followers can.
As we stay on the path and in God’s will, a supernatural peace is there for us, and we sense God’s presence, pleasure, and nearness. And yet, what happens when we choose to walk away from the Pilgrim’s path?
Every one of us, Christ follower or not, remains subject to our sinful nature and to the powerful pull of this sinful world through many temptations. What’s more, spiritual enemies work overtime against Christ followers. This only makes sense since those who have not been reconciled to God through Jesus are already slaves to sin. Yes, spiritual enemies work among non-believers. I suspect, however, that the most experienced and effective warriors of Satan are tasked with waging war against the most devoted followers of Christ.
As we give way to sin, as we turn off from the Pilgrim’s path to God, the distance between us and God increases. The result is that the sense of nearness, intimacy, joy, and peace we know when we keep hard to the path begins to dissipate and wane. Moreover, it needs to be recognized that sin cannot be contained in one area. It bleeds over into other parts of our lives.
I experienced this first-hand this past week. I don’t generally have issues with anger, yet one day this week I allowed anger to take root in my heart. It actually felt good at first. I felt justified in being angry. As the anger grew, I started to sense the Spirit warn me. Ignoring this, I allowed anger a place in my heart.
After a few hours, I started to pray about an unrelated issue. As I prayed, I clearly sensed a distance from God that was frightening. It’s not that God was mad at me or had turned his face, it’s that I chose to allow sin to take root. I chose to step off the Pilgrim’s path. Using this metaphor, it was as if there were many trees of the forest between myself and God. I dreaded this sense of distance that had developed between me and God. I felt it expanding as I held on to anger.
As I struggled with this, passages like James 1:19-20 came to mind. In the NIV this reads:
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
Another passage that speaks to this is Ephesians 4:29-32:
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Whether or not I had been justified in my anger, the Spirit led me to recall the fact that God and others have every right to be angry at me. Like everyone else, I am a sinner in need of God’s grace. As long as we live in this world, we are subject to our human nature and will do things from time to time that cause others to be angry with us. As I reflected on God’s word, I knew I needed to ask for forgiveness, and to cast off the anger that I had allowed to take root.
After confessing the way that I had allowed anger to grow and take root was sin, and acknowledging that I had chosen to ignore the initial promptings of the Spirit, I sought forgiveness from God through Jesus. It was not long before I sensed again the nearness and intimacy with God that I love so much. I was back hard on the Pilgrim’s path. I am so thankful that God is slow to anger, and abounding in love and forgiveness.
Reflecting on this situation, I wondered about people who harbor anger for a long time, perhaps for many years. Does one get used to it? Does it create a distance from God that begins to seem normal? Does a Christ follower who harbors anger for years create his or her own path a few yards off, but parallel to, the Pilgrim’s path to God? I can’t answer these questions. All I can do is pray that I and others will cast off any anger that seeks to take root in our hearts.
As we walk through this dark world’ let’s encourage one another to stay hard on the Pilgrim’s path to God. As we do so, let’s remember the words of Hebrews 12:1:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
May we be guided by God’s word, empowered by God’s Spirit, and encouraged by one another as we seek to walk the path that leads ever closer to our King. Amen.