The Journey Part 3: Traveling Companions
- Alister McGrath Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, and President of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics
- 2007 7 Jul
Many have read Daniel Defoe’s great novel Robinson Crusoe. The book is set on a desert island, on which Robinson Crusoe has been shipwrecked. He believes that he is utterly alone. He begins to face the challenge of loneliness, and prepares to cope with all the difficulties that he knows must lie ahead. Then something happens which changes his entire perspective on his situation. While walking along the shoreline, he notices a human footprint in the sand. Suddenly, everything is changed. Someone else is there. Crusoe is not sure whether to be frightened or delighted!
So often we try to get on with the life of faith as if we were hermits, struggling on our own. Perhaps we are too proud to admit that we need help in our walk of faith; more likely, we have simply failed to realize that others are accompanying us now, and have trodden that same road before us. Every step of the long kingdom road has been graced by the presence of others before us, and moistened with their tears, whether of joy or sorrow. We may learn from what they have already experienced, just as we may find reassurance in the knowledge that they have been through the wildernesses of this world before us. We may take comfort from the presence of others who even now are making that journey alongside us.
And - finally! - we may rejoice in the sure knowledge that one day we shall join them in the New Jerusalem, our journeying finally ended, as we raise our voices together in praise at the glorious sight of our Lord and Saviour, and eat and drink with him in the kingdom of God. The journey will then have ended; something else more wonderful will have begun.
So how can these traveling companions help us in the journey of faith? Let’s look at one, and ask how he can help us. Horatius Bonar (1808-89) was one of Scotland’s leading nineteenth-century pastors and hymn-writers, perhaps best known for his hymns ‘Fill thou my life, O Lord my God’, and ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’. Bonar was educated at
The theme of coping with suffering looms large in Bonar’s writings. Five of his children died in quick succession, leaving a deep impression on him. One of Bonar’s most characteristic thoughts is that suffering is ‘the family badge’ of Christians. Suffering, for Bonar, is simply inevitable in this ‘vale of tears’ in which we shall spend our exile. It is an immense consolation to know that others have known it before us, and felt its pain.
The path of sorrow is no unfrequented way. All the saints have trodden it. We can trace their footprints there. It is a comforting, nay, it is cheering to keep this in mind. Were we cast fettered into some low dungeon, would it not be consolation to know that many a martyr had been there before us; would it not be cheering to read their names written with their own hands all round the ancient walls? Such is the solace that we may extract from all suffering, for the furnace into which we are cast has been consecrated by many a saint already.
The image offered by Bonar is important. The footprints of the saints are imprinted on the road of faith ahead of us. In journeying, we are following behind them, sharing their experiences and sorrows, just as we shall finally share their joy at entering through the gates of the heavenly city.
For Bonar, it is essential to keep our experience of suffering firmly illuminated by the Christian hope.
‘If we suffer, we shall also reign with him’ (2 Timothy 2:12). Of this we are assured. Oneness in suffering here is the pledge of oneness in glory hereafter. The two things are inseparable. His shame is ours on earth; his glory shall be ours in heaven. Therefore let us ‘rejoice, inasmuch as we are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, we may be glad also with exceeding joy’ (1 Peter 4:13).
The hope of heaven allows us to carry on through the vale of suffering, coping with the hardship of exile, yet knowing that its days are numbered. One day, we shall return home. It is a helpful and encouraging thought for those who follow Bonar on the road of faith, and look forward to embracing him in the New Jerusalem, when suffering and pain will be left behind for ever.
So what about those times of hardship and doubt? In our next article, we will think about these in more detail.
Used by permission of Alsiter McGrath
Alister McGrath is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, and President of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics. He has co-authored the international bestseller The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine (InterVarsity Press) with his wife, Joanna Collicutt McGrath, who is a psychologist. He has also authored the forthcoming book, due to be published on 25 September, entitled Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first (HarperOne). For further information about Alister McGrath, visit his website at www.alistermcgrath.com.