“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’” (Matt 4:1–3; NIV)

So begins the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. This passage is traditionally connected with Lent—the six-week season during which many Christians pray, repent, and practice disciplines of self-denial.

In important ways, both the story of Jesus’ tempting by Satan and the season of Lent evoke the traditional Christian practice of pilgrimage. Pilgrimages are spiritual journeys in which we leave behind comforts, incur costs, face difficulties, and endure disciplines. Christians undertake pilgrimages to encounter God in a more direct way—traditionally, at a holy place related to the events of the Gospels, or to the life of a saint.

Given the link between Lent and pilgrimage, Ash Wednesday is a fitting time to reflect on what the image and practice of pilgrimage can teach us about the Christian life.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

A Story, Not a Philosophy

First, the Christian life is aptly described as pilgrimage, because it is more appropriately understood as a story than as the acceptance of a philosophy. We Christians move through time, journeying toward the holy goal of glorifying God and enjoying him forever. Along the way, we experience trials, discomforts, disciplines, camaraderie, conflicts, highs, and lows.

Yet the analogy extends further: not only is the life of each Christian a story, but so is Christianity itself. Christianity is the story of God coming to earth as a first-century Jew from Nazareth, living among us, dying, rising, and redeeming us. This story of salvation through Christ is part of the larger, cosmic story that runs from creation to new creation: a purposeful story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

In the story of Christ in the desert, we see Him face Satan’s challenges. We see Him wrestle with those challenges, marshalling His resources and His wisdom to fight His enemy. And His responses are consequential—they take Him in one direction and not in another. Like Christ, we Christians succeed not by fixing our sight on an abstract philosophy or a fixed Law, but by clinging to our Father God. As we face temptations along our pilgrimage, we turn to One who is stronger than we are. It is this exercise of personal trust, not merely giving cognitive assent or living according to Law, that constitutes our faith.

This is one of the things that modernist forms of Christian faith—whether liberal or fundamentalist—have gotten most disastrously wrong. Inasmuch as modern Christians have framed faith as cognitive assent to an ethic (whether social or personal) or a science (whether Darwinist or Biblicist), they have made Christianity a thing of conventional knowledge and fidelity to rules rather than personal knowledge and loyalty to God. The Lenten practice of prayer draws us back from such inadequate, intellectualized, legalized understandings to faith as it really is: intimate connection to our Creator and Redeemer.

Pilgrimage Is Physical

Second, thinking of the Christian life as pilgrimage reminds us that our bodies, their senses, and their locations matter in our spiritual journeys. Not only does pilgrimage involve the sequence of events the pilgrim experiences in time, but it also involves the pilgrim’s sensory, concrete experience of place in the material world.

Thinking of the Christian life as pilgrimage reminds us that our bodies, their senses, and their locations matter in our spiritual journeys.

It is not Christianity but post-humanism that ignores our bodies, claiming that they are inessential to who and what we are. We are embodied souls. No matter how much the transhumanist might wish it, our souls could never be uploaded to a computer with no diminution of our personhood. Both pilgrimage and the Lenten disciplines remind us of this fact.

Between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, hundreds of thousands of Christians made the long, expensive, and dangerous pilgrimage to the Holy Land. From the late 1200s on, the Jerusalem tour featured a series of special locations connected to Jesus’ life: the place where Simon of Cyrene was forced to take the cross; the spot where Mary swooned on meeting her son; the house of Mary; and so on. So powerful was the experience of these places that pilgrims began setting up replicas of them back home, starting a tradition carried on in modern churches: “the stations of the cross.”

The embodied practice of pilgrimage speaks deeply to Christians who take God’s gift of creation seriously. We are reminded of His taking on flesh in the Incarnation; His work among the Hebrews (whose foundations were the People, the Land, and the Temple); and the many ways He has continued to accommodate His revelation and open His grace to us as embodied beings.

Lent magnifies this truth: we are designed to need and enjoy created goods, but we are also often tempted to love those goods inordinately, and to sin in securing them for ourselves. To Satan’s “tell these stones to become bread” (the use of illegitimate means to satisfy our bodies’ legitimate needs), we are to respond by looking higher than those needs—to the very word of God—trusting that, as we seek first the kingdom of God and righteousness, those needs will be taken care of. This is one meaning of the Lenten practice of fasting.

The Journey Changes Us

Third, pilgrimage is a journey that changes us. Change is a cardinal mark of the Christian, for God loves us too much to leave us as we are. Our sanctification takes place in time, as we struggle with temptation and draw on his grace. We are disciplined, and that is a good thing, though it is not pleasant. We are convicted, pierced to our hearts, dragged from our comfort zones, refined as by fire, and made better in and through various kinds of suffering (often without understanding why we are experiencing that suffering).

Lenten exercises are intended not only to shift our attention away from our needs and onto God’s presence, but also to help transform us into the sorts of people whose attention is habitually focused on Him and away from ourselves, whose “default setting” is to refuse to indulge inordinate desires and illegitimate means for satisfying them. We seek to be transformed into the sorts of people who, when we do fall, turn to God in confession, repentance, gratitude for His forgiveness, and renewal of faithful discipline.

We struggle with our enemy, who attacks us through the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. And as we seek to be changed into those who habitually resist those attacks, we find in Jesus’ struggle of Matthew 4:1–11 the foundation of Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”

No Pilgrimage Is Ever Solitary

Fourth, no pilgrimage can be solitary. Neither can the Christian life. Medieval pilgrimage was much too dangerous to be taken on alone. Each pilgrim needed the protection, help, and companionship of her fellow pilgrims.

In God’s wisdom, we are saved into communities. We are not left to struggle alone. John Wesley aptly said that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian, and that the person who tries to live the Christian life without the help of other people is like one who tries to climb a rope of sand.

We might think that the communal nature of the Christian life is not illustrated in the story of Jesus’ temptation; but remember that Scripture shows us those forty days as coming immediately after his baptism, which is one of the clearest instances in all of Scripture of the mutual operation of the Trinity’s three persons. Remember, too, that those days in the desert prepared him for the days when he would gather to him the Twelve, who would remain with him throughout the remainder of his earthly pilgrimage.

Even though they address our most private temptations and patterns of sin, Lenten disciplines, too, are communal. In many churches, we gather on Ash Wednesday to receive ashes on our foreheads. These ashes are the visible mark of our sinfulness, our mortality (“to dust we will return”), our repentance, and our need for the love and forgiveness shown in Christ. And in liturgical churches, each Sunday during Lent features communal reminders of our common pilgrimage.

The Earth Is Not Our Final Home

Fifth, Scripture tells us we are pilgrims and exiles on this earth—restless, homeless, and bound not to become too attached to anything while we are here.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word most often translated as “pilgrimage” derives from a root meaning “reside temporarily,” and it was applied particularly to residence in a foreign land. The Hebrew noun often translated as “pilgrim” means something like “sojourner” or “resident alien.” The Greek term rendered as “pilgrim” in the King James Version is used to describe Christians whose final citizenship is in heaven, and who are regarded as temporary dwellers on earth (as in Heb 11:13 and 1 Pet 2:11).

In other words, the overtones of “homelessness” experienced in any journey or pilgrimage (remember Bilbo Baggins’s discomfort and homesickness at many points in his adventure) resonate with an important biblical theme. There is something spiritually helpful in being reminded that what we call our “homes” on earth are truly not our real homes. Here in the fallen world, even on our best days, we are separated from God in ways that we will not be in the new creation.

C.S. Lewis followed Augustine in arguing that the very fact that we desire what this present world cannot give us is a sign that we are made for another world. When he came to write his own spiritual memoir, he penned two books: The Pilgrim’s Regress, and then the shorter and more polished Surprised by Joy. Both followed this exilic theme of desire for a world beyond ours. To live in the world as a pilgrim is to hold things, places, and even people, lightly—enjoying them all in God, not as gods. For the nature of sin is not that we love bad things, but that we love good things as if they were final things.

To live in the world as a pilgrim is to hold things, and places, and even people, lightly—enjoying them all in God, not as gods. For the nature of sin is not that we love bad things, but that we love good things as if they were final things.

This also means that the more we absolutize our own culture, or race, or gender, or other facet of our experience that seems most like “home” to us—insisting that it has greater power and importance than other people’s “home experiences”—the farther we are from the kingdom. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female. When we make power claims for these statuses, we are in effect holding on to proximate goods as if they were ultimate goods. And this separates us not only from God, but also from each other.

Unfortunately, our current culture gets half of that truth right. It understands that none of these human statuses can be raised up as greater than others, but it also insists that none of them can be critiqued from a universal moral framework. The separation from God and from each other remains; in fact, it is often worsened.

As we leave our comfortable places behind in service of a higher goal and a greater home, we—like Tolkien’s hobbits—often wish we had never left those comforts. Progress and change come to us only gradually, and through many a trial and deprivation. But as Bilbo and Frodo discovered, the higher goods of vocation, adventure, and their own good work in the world could never have come to them as long as they were comfortably ensconced in their hobbit-holes. Likewise, if we make ourselves comfortable in our own little worlds, separated as they inevitably are from God, we end up walling ourselves off from the grander, if more difficult, experiences of pilgrimage. Ultimately, we wall ourselves off from our real home with God in a renewed heaven and earth.

If we make ourselves comfortable in our own little worlds, separated as they inevitably are from God, we end up walling ourselves off from the grander, if more difficult, experiences of pilgrimage.

Our Lenten disciplines address us as pilgrims and exiles—believers who need to moderate our attachments to the world to prepare us for the next. To Satan’s “All this I will give you”—calculated to inflame prideful and lustful idolatries—we are to respond, as Jesus did in the desert, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” Only then will we be weaned from the too-familiar comforts of this home and oriented toward our true home.