Joyous Spirituality of the Christian Pilgrimage

Mar 12, 2018
Hugh Martin

Genuine admiration of the cross of Christ – imbuing a man with the evangelical spirituality which is the want of the age, and which alone has been found powerful enough to alienate us from the world at every point – makes him, there can be no reason to doubt, what the psalmist calls himself, ‘a stranger on the earth’ (Ps. 119:19). Living by that faith which does not, and from the nature of things cannot, in this life ‘receive the promises, but sees them afar off, and is persuaded of them and embraces them,’ and realizes the splendidly dominating power of them, the man wakens up to the clear consciousness, and sees no reason for withholding the confession: ‘I am a stranger and a pilgrim in the earth’ (Heb. 11:13); ‘a stranger and a sojourner as all my fathers were’ (Ps. 39:12).
It is of some importance to vindicate this aspect of the Christian life from those objections which intelligent and averagely healthy-minded men of the world are not unnaturally apt to raise against it, as abnormal, melancholy, ascetic, adverse to the cultivation of friendship, and to such interest in the affairs of our own age as that religion must be false which would forbid.
There can be no doubt that the protestation, ‘I am a stranger on the earth,’ or ‘I am a stranger and a sojourner as all my fathers were,’ has a certain air of melancholy about it, a quiet tone of loneliness. The very reference to the ‘fathers’ gives it an air of the antique or the archaic. It has a little in it, one would say, of the ring of a voice grown old before its time. It is the utterance of a man longing for sympathy and finding little; a man occupied with interests and prospects and desires which obtain no favor in the eyes of those around him. He descends into himself, and discovers there matters of trial and sorrow, which the world in its levity is ignorant of; and he looks forth into futurity, and there he apprehends materials of anxiety and hope to which the world is content to close its eyes. He looks upward to the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, and as one who has been awakened to the knowledge of his responsibility to the King, he realizes that he has business in the court of heaven that the world knoweth not of. And looking round upon the very world itself, and appreciating its condition of wretchedness and danger as itself seeth it not, his feelings towards that world are unintelligible and unacceptable to it. Whether he look within or around, whether he look forward or upward, he is sensible of emotions in which the thoughtless and ungodly world cannot sympathize; and quietly and with something no doubt of mournfulness in his heart, realizing that he is separated in spirit from the vast mass of his fellow-men, he gives expression to the fact in the somewhat pathetic protestation: ‘Well, well, I am a stranger now, and a sojourner as all my fathers were.’

It is not that he regrets it. This is not the language of querulousness or of discontent. The fact of his separation and estrangement from the world is not unwelcome to him. It is his deliberate choice that it should be so. Or rather it is the inevitable result of a choice that he has deliberately made already, and which he is not repenting of, but repeating. Be the issue what it may, this at least is certain, ‘I am a stranger on the earth.’ I have come forth and am separate: and ‘I am a stranger on the earth.’ My chiefest desires and my chiefest distresses alike tell me that I have lost the sympathy of the world. My deepest sorrows arise from sin; from finding that I am myself so unlike to God; from so frequently displeasing God; from having so little heart to seek or to enjoy fellowship with God; from having so little ability to worship and love and serve God; from beholding so little of the light of his countenance, and seeing so seldom his glorious goings in the sanctuary. My deepest desires are for glorious views of the Son of Man, whom the Holy One of Israel hath made strong for himself and for me – strong for the magnifying and manifesting of the glory of God, and for the justifying and renewing of me, a sinner. My peace and joy now are when Messiah, in his infinitely precious righteousness, rises to my view as a shield and hiding-place; my refuge and my deliverer; when in spiritual faith I see the Father reconciling me unto himself, searching all my heart and meeting all my case; telling me that he can be righteous in freely loving me, a lost, rebellious, polluted sinner; and that I can be safe and blessed in fully trusting him, the Just and Holy One. My heart is then opened in its depths, and the light of grace and glory passes through it. But this is a light which the world knoweth not of: the things which it discloses both in me and in my God; in me, the sinner, unrighteous…; in God, the Just and Holy One of Israel; are things which the world seeth not, and will by no means believe though a man declare it unto them: the distressing exhibitions of sin and bondage and death in me, which the searching light of the Lord affords; and the disclosures of righteousness, liberty, and life in Christ, my living head and treasure, which the same light reveals; of these things the world is ignorant, – they are ‘foolishness unto them, neither can they know them, for they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor. 2:14).

But the world’s joys and distresses are as much foolishness to me. To mourn, as they mourn, the loss of some perishing portion; to joy, as they joy, in the obtaining of some fleeting idol; I now regard as foolishness indeed. I am crucified to the world, and the world to me. Our judgment and our desire are at variance; and that on no secondary or subordinate themes of interest. On the vital and primary objects of desire, or matters of distinguishing and fundamental interest, we are at variance. The shadow with them is the substance with me; and the shadow with me is the substance with them. They behold me pursuing something which they do not see at all; and little wonder (I excuse them) though that seems to them absurd enough: while I see them following what I know to be a phantom and a dream. Little wonder, then, if a deep and very practical alienation has arisen between us, a separation realized and ratified on both sides. We are fatally and forever strangers; ‘I am a stranger on the earth.’

Let any man read the Psalms of David deliberately, let him look upon them as the honest expression of the writer’s actual state of feeling: apart from the credit which he has been taught from his youth to assign to the Scriptures as inspired by the Holy Ghost, so as to form, simply and literally, the Word of God; let him simply contemplate with something like deliberation the state of heart, the character, the principle of conduct, the secret experiences which find vent in these wondrous compositions: and whether he has sympathy with the writer or not, he must come to the conclusion, ‘Assuredly this man was a stranger on the earth.’ The very revolt which the worldly mind feels from the sanctity and searching holiness of these spiritual songs is an involuntary confession that the writer of them must have been ‘a stranger on the earth,’ and the very reason why the ungodly man revolts and recoils from them, and never by any chance turns voluntarily to their pages with desire to meditate upon them, and be imbued with their spirit, is because, on the one hand, he is not prepared to be ‘a stranger on the earth,’ and, on the other hand, cannot but shrewdly know that the actual molding of his heart and character by these Psalms – the admission of their sentiments into any place of vital love in his heart, and of their principles to any place of influential government over his character and conduct in life, would inevitably make him what, from his love and friendship to the world, he is not prepared to be – ‘a stranger on the earth.’

But what the world recoils from, the Christian heart desires. Nor will the believer claim for his personal piety any sincerity and progress, except in so far as his heart has been molded into conformity with the Word of God and the experience of God’s people as there recorded. Though it be in every case by a gracious and omnipotent operation of the Divine Spirit that the heart is renewed into the saving faith of Jesus Christ, and brought under the influence of the fear and love of God, the change thus produced is not of such a nature that no account and no explanation can be given of it. Though accomplished by a secret and sovereign energy, it is accommodated to a most express and definite rule. It is achieved by the Spirit, but it is accommodated to the Word. And though the baptism of the Spirit and of fire, under which the heart is melted into self-abasement and kindled into the growing appreciation of the beauty of holiness be beyond our finite comprehension, yet the mold into which the heart thus melted is, so to speak, poured – the impress which it now assumes – is brought most tangibly and fully within the sphere of notice; for it is formed and framed into harmony with that potent Word of God, which he has been pleased to place into our hands, and condescend to entreat us to search: and if a heart, professedly changed by the Spirit of God, whose working we cannot trace, be not in harmony with the Word whose principles we can and may trace, the change professed has not really been undergone.

It follows that if we are true Christians and growing Christians, we will enter with true and growing sympathy into the protestation which the Word of God makes in the name of every Christian of being a stranger and a sojourner on the earth. In proportion as the depth and decision of our personal piety are enhanced, will this sentiment gain ground. As the Word of God dwells in us more richly, as we increase in the study and knowledge of the believing heart, and increase in sympathy with it, in its joys and sorrows, its responsibilities and privileges, its burdens and reliefs, its blessings and hopes, as these are opened up to us in the Scriptures; we will feel more and more alienated from a sinful and unsatisfying, and really very shallow world, and more and more satisfied with our position as ‘strangers on the earth.’

We will pronounce no censorious and indiscriminate condemnation on those from whom in spirit the grace of God has separated us. We will even watch against giving them unnecessary offence. We will remember, from our own experience, that true spiritual Christianity is sufficiently obnoxious to the dislike of the carnal mind to render it other than highly criminal in the Christian to present it to the unconverted in any additional and unnecessary offensiveness, or shorn of those features of acceptableness of which, even with all its sin-repelling integrity and purity, it is very far from being destitute. And whatever the world is really right in counting excellent and lovable, we will feel bound to show that living Christianity, instead of repudiating, rather sanctions and embraces, and is indeed alone capable of ripening into full maturity. But still we will never fail to see, if living in habits of reverential and lively fellowship with God, that the whole world of unconverted men is one wide waste of utter ungodliness, to which it is no sad doom but a saving grace to be a ‘a stranger.’ The unconverted world seeketh not the glory of God; it acteth not on the principle of fearing and pleasing God; its affairs are conducted with no reference to the will of God; in that world our Father’s word, and will, and presence, and claims are habitually, coolly, continually set aside. How then can we ever be other than strangers on the earth?

The secret of maintaining this trying position towards the world in all honor and truth of spirit, to the glory of God, to the promotion of our own spiritual interests, and comfort, and to the benefit even of the world itself – the secret of being truly, and comfortably, and usefully ‘strangers in the earth’ – lies in our being no strangers to God. It is well to give diligent heed to this. It is well to give heed to the process and principle whereby the believer is really enabled to take up and sustain this particular relation to the world. To the worldly man himself it appears exceedingly unnatural and incomprehensible how any human being can have his heart so removed from all that is usually accounted interesting and desirable here below, as to be passing through the world in the real character of a stranger and pilgrim. But if he would attend to the principle on which the Christian acts – if he would but deliberately judge of the process whereby the Christian has become, and still continues to be, a ‘stranger on the earth,’ he might come to admit, if he be at all ingenuous, that there is nothing unnatural, nothing certainly irrational, and nothing in the nature of things inaccessible or unattainable, in a man even of an active disposition and a social, and sympathizing, and affectionate heart, aspiring to be as the man after God’s own heart was, a ‘stranger in the earth.’

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