The Journey Part 1: The Process
- Alister McGrath Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, and President of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics
- 2007 27 Jul
One of the most helpful ways of thinking about the Christian life is to see it as a journey. The Bible itself is richly textured with this image. Perhaps the greatest of those was the forty-year journey of the people of Israel from their harsh captivity in Egypt to the promised land of Canaan. Elsewhere, we read of Abraham stepping out in faith to leave the land of his ancestors, and go to a place chosen by God. He did not know where he was going, but he knew who he would be travelling with – and that was good enough for him.
We also read of pilgrims, setting out to travel to Jerusalem, daunted by the thought of the mountains they must climb and the harsh conditions they will face – and yet consoled by the thought of the presence of God as they travel. We read of the people of Jerusalem returning home after their long period of exile in Babylon. The New Testament relates how the earliest term used to refer to Christians was ‘those who belong to the Way’ (Acts 9:2). They were to be seen as travelers on their way to the New Jerusalem.
Thinking of the Christian life as a journey through the world offers us a vivid and helpful way of visualizing the life of faith. It reminds us that we are going somewhere. We are on our way to the New Jerusalem. It encourages us to think ahead, and look forward with anticipation to the joy of arrival. One day we shall finally be with God, and see our Lord face to face!
Yet traveling does more than lead us to our goal. The journey is itself a process, which enables us to grow and develop as we press on to our goal. To travel is certainly about finally achieving journey’s end, with all the joy and delight that this will bring - but it is also about experiencing and encouraging personal and spiritual growth within us as we travel. Journeying is a process which helps our development as people and as believers.
How? Well, in one sense, the people who complete the great journey of faith are the same as those who began it. Yet in another sense, they are different, in that they have been changed by what they experience. A journey is a process of personal development, not simply a means of getting from A to B. To travel to a distant land is a purposeful and intentional matter. We must believe that this journey is worth undertaking. The journey itself offers us the chance to deepen our commitment to its object. As we travel, we have the opportunity of reflecting on our goal, and anticipating our arrival. Anticipation of the joy of reaching that goal then becomes a means of sustaining us as we travel.
Spiritual writers of the Middle Ages used the Latin word viator to refer to the believer on the road to heaven. The word literally means ‘a wayfarer’ or ‘a traveler’ – someone who is passing through the world. The term points to the need to see oneself as a sojourner, not a settler; someone who is passing through the world, not one who expects or wants to remain there – but who is certainly prepared to lend a hand to make things better as he passes through. Jonathan Edwards put it like this in his famous sermon ‘The Christian pilgrim’:
We ought not to rest in the world and its enjoyments, but should desire heaven . . . We ought above all things to desire a heavenly happiness; to be with God; and well with Jesus Christ. . . . We ought to possess, enjoy and use [life’s opportunities], with no other view but readily to quit them, whenever we are called to it, and to change them willingly and cheerfully for heaven.
For Edwards, as for all Christians, life is to be seen as an anticipation of something more marvelous which is yet to come. Death remains; yet is no longer to be feared. It is to be seen as the removal of the final barrier between the believer and the rapturous encounter with the living God. This book is about this journey of faith, and the ways in which we can draw closer to God before we finally meet him face to face. It is perhaps the greatest journey that can ever be undertaken, and brings immense satisfaction and fulfillment to those who make it.
In this short series of pieces, I propose to explore some aspects of this great adventure which we call the journey of faith. I hope to offer some thoughts that will help to make sense of things, and also to offer encouragement as we travel. To begin with, we shall explore the importance of maps in helping us undertake a journey.
Used by permission of Alister 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.