To Be a Pilgrim

Blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
Whose heart is set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
They make it a spring;
The rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength;
Each one appears before God in Zion.

(Psalm 84: 5-7)

I came to faith as an adult, but God was preparing me for my journey many, many years before I finally made a decision for Christ. I loved singing certain hymns in Primary school, for example. I didn’t understand them, but I remember how uplifted I used to feel, and how I didn’t want them to end; and looking back I can see how that was the presence of the Holy Spirit touching my young heart and drawing me to Jesus. One such song was “Guide me o though Great Jehovah:”

“Guide me O though Great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak but though are mighty,
Guide be with thy powerful hand.
Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven,
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more!”

The second line, especially the word “Pilgrim,” conjured up something heroic in my imagination; something romantic, something above the humdrum of the daily routine of school desks and the constraints of parental authority, something that had mountains, deserts and jungles in the background. I had read “Pilgrim’s Progress” (almost certainly a children’s version!) when I was seven or eight, and another song I loved was “He who would valiant be,” by John Bunyan, taken directly from the book:

“He who would valiant be
‘Gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy
Follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.”

I didn’t really know what a pilgrim was when I was 9, but I knew I wanted to be one.

The Hebrew מְסִלָּה (pronounced mĕcillah), translated as “set on pilgrimage” in most modern versions, is actually a noun meaning a road or causeway, a raised way or a highway. A more literal translation of the text rendered whose heart is set on pilgrimage” would be something like “at the core of whose very being is a highway.” We can set our hearts on a thousand different objectives, from something we want to buy or somewhere we want to go, to a particular career or someone we want to marry; but in every case the objective is the destination, and not the journey to it. The psalmist had a different vision: the man is when he sets his heart on the journey, not the destination. And even though the Holy Spirit makes it clear where the journey will end, which is “Before God in Zion,” at the core of our pilgrim’s heart is the walk with the Way Himself, Jesus, as we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:14) God took care of the destination at Calvary, so that we can focus on the details of the journey.

Verse 6 tells us where the path takes us, which is through the Valley of Baca. “Baca” means weeping, probably (according to the Blue Letter Bible) suggesting gloom and barrenness. Jesus sends us to bring His life into a dark, barren world, through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Where there was darkness, He sends us to bring light; where there was weeping, springs of Life. And as we let His rivers of living water (John 7:38) flow out of us, this scripture promises that the rain will also come and “cover it with pools.” Although we often find valleys of weeping in our own lives, where the Lord works in our hearts to bring healing and life, this scripture tells us that it’s the pilgrim, not God, who makes the barren valley into a life-giving spring. The purpose of the pilgrimage is for us to bring God’s life and love to those around us, rather than to receive it for ourselves. And as we set our hearts on this purpose the Holy Spirit does what only He can do: He covers it with pools. Supernatural manifestations of the presence of God will gather in the valley as the pilgrim passes through releasing the love and power of Jesus into the barren place.

These promises are fulfilled for the one whose strength is in the Lord (verse 5); who trusts and relies on the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish those things that are impossible for the human frame. The more we draw on the strength of God, the more it increases in us. As we get older the natural course of our human strength is to diminish with every passing year, but in the Spirit the opposite is the case: we go from strength to strength as we walk on the path of faith.

Jesus is the Way: to say that the core of our being is our journey of faith is really another way of saying that Jesus is Lord of our life. Our journey ends when we “appear before God in Zion,” but we do not have to work for our acceptance: Jesus has paid the price for that, and our Heavenly Father has already received us as His babes when we were born again. “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1)

To be a pilgrim is to have no objective other than to walk the Narrow Way with Jesus and to have our hearts set on the journey, knowing that the destination is already taken care of and our purpose is to turn the barren places into springs of water as we pass through them; and believing the promises that His strength in us will increase as we do, and that pools of revival will gather as He pours out His Spirit on the thirsty land. What a blessing!

He who would valiant be
‘Gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy
Follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

Who so beset him round
With dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound –
His strength the more is.
No foes shall stay his might,
Though he with giants fight:
He will make good his right
To be a pilgrim.

Since, Lord, thou dost defend
Us with thy Spirit,
We know we at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away!
I’ll fear not what men say,
I’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim

John Bunyan (1628-1688)

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