Throughout God’s Word a recurring metaphor becomes evident; faithful believers are likened to travelers or pilgrims on the road of life. Psalm 84:5 declares, Blessed is the man whose strength is in You, whose heart is set on pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is a long journey to a sacred place, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.
The idea of pilgrimage is introduced in Genesis. God reveals himself to Abram and requires of him that he leave his homeland and go to another land of God’s bidding. Now the Lord had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Gen 12:1-3 (NKJV). Why did God call Abram out from his familiar surroundings? God knew he needed to be removed from old friends and situations that might hinder his full obedience to Him and that his departure would provide a definite step of faith. God has, throughout the centuries, required his people to come out from among the world and to be separate. We are special people with a special destination – heaven – and as Christians we are all pilgrims. We have realized that this world is not our home and we have started our trek to “our Father’s house.”
Hebrews 11 gives a long list of Bible characters and explains, All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it and they agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Heb 11:13-16 (NLT). According to this passage, all the faithful characters listed shared a common understanding that they were pilgrims, sojourners, travelers and nomads—human beings just visiting this planet on their way to their true and promised habitation.
In reading the accounts in the Bible of the lives of the many pilgrims that have come before us, it is clear that life’s journey is almost never a simple excursion. Instead the path God provides is almost always a circuitous expedition over extremely adventurous territory. As Christian sojourners our hearts are on the road that leads to heaven and God, but the places of the heart we must visit on the way offer unique and varied challenges.
As we traverse this foreign land we can be assured of many side trips to “spiritual locations” along the way. Like required stations or stopovers along life’s journey, there appear to be compulsory sites we must all experience. Many places of the heart described in the Bible have geographical titles that tie them to a metaphorical map of life’s journey. Similarly to our predecessors who followed the Lord through literal deserts and valleys and like those who climbed actual mountains in order to be obedient, those on “spiritual” pilgrimages also take visits to places both uncertain and sublime.
Visits to the desert, the valley, the high seas, the fruitful places and the mountaintops are among those sacred places that we all have an opportunity to discover. They are inevitable sites of the soul that God’s itinerary almost always dictates and has in store. The Bible provides rich symbolism to be researched and understood about each of these sacred stopovers that are so common to God’s people. Much can be gleaned as we interpret the imagery of Scripture and apply the wisdom and experiences of other pilgrims who encountered these sites along the way.
The desert or wilderness is an arid expanse of land that is unsettled, usually used as pasture for animals and is suitable only for the nomadic lifestyle. A sojourn in the desert or wilderness in the Bible is associated with seasons of temptation, solitude, persecution and barrenness.
The valley is a tract of low lying land between mountains. The valleys of ancient Palestine were mostly dry, rocky, glorified riverbeds where occasional torrents caused flash floods during the winter. In Scripture, the valley symbolized low times of affliction, pain and vulnerability.
The mountains of the mid-east are known for their stark appearance. They have no great forests on their slopes and are instead characterized by cliffs, crags and rock overhangs. The mountains symbolized strength and steadfastness. They depicted God’s power and were the backdrops of great spiritual events and revelations.
The sea refers to the Mediterranean and the Jews had a natural tendency to shrink away from the sea. Traversing the sea was associated with great danger, little control and constant fear. To pass through the “deep” was symbolic of passing through a time of heavy affliction wrought with tossing waves and storms.
Fruitful places or gardens in biblical times were usually walled enclosures, in which there were paths that led among the trees and foliage. An individual could rest among arbors decked with aromatic blossoms and enjoy the effect. Gardens were used as sacred places and fruitful gardens symbolized prosperity.
We can look into the lives of Scripture’s pilgrims, compare notes on their journeys and learn from their successes and failures. The question becomes “how did those who came before navigate their course through life and how will I navigate mine?” Peter in his epistle warns Christians, “And remember that the heavenly Father to whom you pray has no favorites. He will judge or reward you according to what you do. So you must live in reverent fear of him during your time as “foreigners in the land.” For you know that God paid a ransom to save you… 1 Peter 1:17-19 (NLT)
The apostle Peter believed that we should be wise and fear the Lord because of the lessons others had learned during the times of their pilgrimage. We should pay attention and realize we are also foreigners on a sojourn paid for through the precious blood of our Savior. I agree with Peter and I would add we should not be accidental tourists along life’s path because each place we are fortunate enough to visit has a beauty and a lesson of its own. I think what we often fail to realize is that each place is actually a meeting place with our God and a site to be savored and walked through with Him. Each of the sacred places of the heart, even the difficult places, give us an opportunity to grow closer with Him and to know Him in deeper and more intimate ways.
Fellow pilgrims, October 17-19, 2008, the Women at Crossroads are heading to Winter Park for what we hope will be a life-changing women’s conference. Grab your backpack and your Bible, because spending a weekend adding to your understanding of Sacred Places of the Heart is bound to impact your relationship with God in countless beneficial ways.