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To Be a Pilgrim

If you are old enough you might well remember the words to this old hymn. You most probably sang them in your morning assembly at school. I know I did!

‘To be a Pilgrim’, of course also commonly known as ‘He who would true valiant be’, is the only hymn that the tinker turned preacher John Bunyan (1622-1688) is credited with writing. It is without doubt indelibly associated with him. It first appeared in Part 2 of his classic novel The Pilgrim’s Progress, which he originally penned in 1684. Its narrative is based on the biblical texts found in Hebrews 11 verses 13-14 which talks about us as believers being strangers in this world and in exile here on earth. It talks about those of us who are on a journey to a better heavenly country. As Jim Reeves put it several decades ago in one of his well-known spiritual songs:

‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore!’

And that’s exactly what a pilgrim is, someone on a journey to a sacred and better place. In this sense every one of us who have confessed Christ as Lord and Saviour are pilgrims – headed for the Celestial City we call Heaven.

Psalm 84:5 in the New International Version says this:

‘How blessed is the man whose strength is in the Lord and whose heart is set on pilgrimage.’

It’s talking about those who are determined to see the journey right through to its final destination. It’s talking about those who are committed through thick and thin to go the distance with God. The poetic words of John Bunyan are talking about exactly this.

One commentator has said: ‘Bunyan’s burly song strikes a new and welcome note in any hymnal. The quaint sincerity of his words stirs us out of an easy-going dull Christianity to the thrill of a great adventure!’

Bunyan’s original words were actually modified in 1906 for the ‘English Hymnal’. At the same time it was also given a new tune composed by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams using a traditional melody known as ‘Monks Gate’.

The spiritual novel Pilgrims Progress was actually written by Bunyan while he was serving a twelve year prison sentence in Bedford jail charged with preaching without a licence. In truth it was because he refused to conform to the official state church. He was ordered to stop preaching, he wouldn’t and he was unjustly and unceremoniously thrown into prison! Here he spent his time studying, writing and preaching to his fellow prisoners.

Pilgrim’s Progress recounts, in allegorical form, the experience of a person called Christian, from the first awareness of his sinfulness and spiritual need, to his personal conversion to Christ and his life as a believer. The book follows Christian’s pilgrimage to the ‘Celestial City’, his true and eternal home.

Bunyan’s work back in the late 1600s was an immediate sensation and its popularity has endured for well over three hundred years as a classic in English literature. Bunyan wrote his now famous hymn, which was originally written as a poem in 1684 as part of Pilgrim’s Progress. The words are spoken by Mr Valiant-for-truth to Mr Great-Heart.

Now when it comes to pilgrimage or what we often refer to as the journey, is it not true to say that in some ways the journey is as important as arriving at the actual destination itself. It’s on the journey where we are stretched, where we learn endurance and tenacity or drop out altogether, where faith arises or doubt prevails, where battles are won or lost, where relationships begin or end, where character is forged or selfishness comes to the fore.

It was Ernest Hemingway who said ‘It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.’

Of course, for the Christian our destination is critically important – eternal life with the Lord Jesus Christ and the new heaven and new earth. However, it’s a huge mistake for any of us to underestimate the journey we have in getting there. In reality our spiritual pilgrimage – our journey in God – is never straightforward. There are many twists and turns, ups and downs, breakthroughs and challenges, along with both exhilarating and difficult moments, times on the mountaintop and times in the valley or wilderness, times of joy and times of pain, many straight and easy roads and many untimely detours, times of refreshing and times when we are dry and parched. As they say, that’s life! Winding through and navigating the uncertainties of life is never easy, but one thing is for sure our Lord God has promised to travel the journey with us – every single step of the way!

Here are 12 scriptures taken from the NIV that speak of God’s commitment to walking the journey with us:

  1. In Deuteronomy 31:6 the Lord speaks and instructs us to ‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”’
  2. Deuteronomy 31:8,’ The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”’
  3. Joshua 1:5, ‘No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.’
  4. 1 Kings 8:57, ‘May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our ancestors; may he never leave us nor forsake us.’
  5. 1 Chronicles 28:20, ‘David also said to Solomon his son, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the Lord is finished.’
  6. Psalm 37:28, ‘For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones’
  7. Psalm 46:1, ‘God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.’
  8. Psalm 94:14, ‘For the Lord will not reject his people; he will never forsake his inheritance.’
  9. Isaiah 41:17, ‘“The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the Lord will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.’
  10. Isaiah 42:16, ‘I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.’
  11. Matthew 28:20, ‘…and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”’
  12. Hebrews 13:5, ‘Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’

And here is the truth of the matter, no matter how bleak the situation might seem, no matter how empty it all feels God will never leave you! His promises are true. His word is above all! We can move forward because He goes before us. And if God is for us then who can be against us?

So, as fancies flee away, fear not what men may say, keep on labouring night and day to be the pilgrim God wants you to be…..and remember… He walks with you!