“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land” Ezekiel 36:24 (NIV).
Dear Christian travelers,
Before arriving at the Charles de Gaulle airport, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. I had done this before, after all. This was my second time spending the winter semester in a francophone region, studying the language and absorbing the culture. The difference was that previously my adventure had brought me to Chicoutimi, Québec, whereas this time I was exiling myself to Paris, France. I approached both trips with the same purpose: to improve my French.
In my experience, however, Paris was not the ideal environment for learning to speak French compared with Chicoutimi. In Chicoutimi, the atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming. Interactions with locals were met with encouragement and respect, providing fertile soil for learning and increasing my confidence. There was ample opportunity to engage with French culture in Paris, thanks to the abundance of museums and historical sites, but, outside of discussions with fellow Christians after Sunday services, it was not easy to establish relationships. The atmosphere was isolating, with people rushing from place to place, avoiding eye contact. Several attempts at interacting with Parisians were characterized by impatience and even disdain for my accent and errors, or simply by being responded to in English, which is one of the greatest frustrations for a language learner.
Not the trip I thought it was
As the months progressed, I became aware that this journey had little to do with language acquisition or linguistic barriers and everything to do with growing in my faith. Removing myself from everything familiar to me – family, friends, church, school, work, home – resulted in some serious soul-searching: Who am I? Who is God? What does faith mean? What does trust look like? What unanticipated struggles or surprising joys might transpire during this time away? How much will this change me? How do I live out my faith as a newcomer visiting an unfamiliar land?
I began to realize that I am no more at home in Paris, France than I am in Wyoming, Ontario because ultimately, as the Bible informs us, we are all sojourners here on earth. Peter addresses his first letter “to God’s elect, strangers in the world” and reiterates this idea in Chapter 2 when he says, “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul” (v. 11). Hebrews 11:13 tells how the heroes of faith “admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth” and in 2 Corinthians 5:4, Paul recognizes our longing “to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.” We may travel the world several times over or we may live in the same small town as our parents and grandparents did – either way, we have been “chosen . . . out of the world” (John 15:19) and “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). So, as a fellow pilgrim, I’d like to articulate what I learned on my travels concerning the implications of the enduring identity we share. The challenges that arose in Paris, as it turns out, were not primarily related to speaking French or getting lost in the metro or missing out on the best Canadian winter in ages (I love snow); rather, the greatest challenges were spiritual in nature.
From the beginning of my trip, I decided I wanted to capitalize on the flexibility of my schedule to spend as much time with God as possible. I had mornings free with minimal risk of interruption, so I used those hours to dig into the Word, recognizing that such opportunities might be rare in the future. How could getting to know God better be linked to struggle? God did not content himself with providing me merely theoretical knowledge of his character. He wanted to test my beliefs. He allowed Satan to sift me.
What did this look like? A particularly pronounced example began on a Saturday in March. After one of the best days I had spent in Paris with my fellow Redeemer in France friends, I returned to my residence for what I thought would be a relaxing evening of solitude. As the night progressed, however, I was suddenly overwhelmed with an enigmatic darkness, overtaken with oppressive anxiety and despairing thoughts. I did not know what to do with myself. My soul was completely overcome and grew hardened against God. I was incapable of understanding how such anguish could ensue unrelated to external circumstances. I thought, “God, we have been spending so much time together. Why would you abandon me for no reason? How can I trust a God like that?”
These questions compounded until my mind was so bombarded by lies that I could no longer see truth. Reading the Bible seemed impossible. My prayers were angry and selfish, even to the point of saying, “God, I do not want to be a Christian anymore. I am done with you.” It was a dark place. Yet, through it all, my Father’s faithfulness shone through. He provided me with a friend who never left my side, patiently listening to my frustrations, sharing my hurt, praying for me and pointing me to truth. The Holy Spirit progressively softened my heart and spoke to me in a multitude of ways. Over the course of a few weeks, my relationship with my Creator was restored, deeper than before, and my perspective on salvation transformed. It was purely his story of saving me. I was utterly powerless to rescue myself. All glory be to God, whose “grace is sufficient for me” and whose power is indeed “made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor.12:9)!
The faith march
The only explanation I can give for this episode is a spiritual battle, and, as a result, I am learning to take sin, temptation and the spiritual realm more seriously. Faith is not just a walk – it is a march. We are fellow travelers, but also fellow soldiers. Why is it so important that we “put on the full armour of God”? So that “[we] can take [our] stand against the devil’s schemes” (Eph. 6:11). Also, we must recognize that this is “our struggle” (v. 12), not “my struggle” or “his struggle” or “her struggle.” What soldier fights alone? Perseverance in the faith is a communal effort. Together we are more than conquerors through Christ. As a community of believers we are helpless unless we are “strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (v. 10). We were created to be dependent on God and on each other, so we should train together, march as one, and make a habit of providing mutual reinforcement because our battles will be more than we can bear singlehandedly.
Travel can spark introspective inquiries related to identity as we interact with other cultures and peoples. Yet the most important aspect of our identity cannot be found within ourselves. We cannot fully appreciate who we are unless we know who God is, because without him we are nothing. Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. [ . . . ] This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:5, 8). We are adopted as sons and daughters and “if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Rom. 8:17). This is not primarily for our sake, though, but “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:4-6). Once we understand who we are in Christ and consider him to be the source of our fruitfulness, we can live according to this identity and glorify our Father, no matter where we find ourselves geographically.
He will lead me safely home
Friends, let us fight this good fight together, let us help each other finish the race, let us inspire one other to keep the faith. I look forward to seeing what God has in store for me in the coming months and years. He is worthy of my trust, sovereign over my circumstances and more than able to pull me through whatever situational or spiritual difficulties come my way. No matter where I wander, he will call me back, lead me safely home and welcome me with open arms.
Your sister in Christ and fellow pilgrim,
Mindy De Boer