“Onward Christian Soldiers” is a favorite hymn of most people. It is far better known than
“Wayfaring Stranger,” which begins: “I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger, traveling through this world of woe.” Yet the sentiments of the vast majority of professing Christians are with the second song, despite the fact that they are not very poor, and they are traveling in very fine style. The pilgrim motif is a lot more popular than the soldier motif.
There are reasons for this. “Pilgrim,” in John Bunyan’s classic 17th-century allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, was basically an unemployed drifter before he was converted, and an unemployed traveler after. What did the man do fora living? Like the radio and television character of the 1940’s and early 1950’s, Ozzie Nelson, he had no visible means of support, no calling. Ozzie, however, must have done something for a living, but Pilgrim just plodded on and on through life. Bunyan, a wandering tinker for much of his life, and imprisoned for most of the remainder, to some degree resembled Pilgrim. But a tinker at least faced a market and delivered valuable services; Pilgrim was, as far as we can see, a vagrant.
This pilgrim motif stresses internal struggles over sin, rather than struggles with external enemies. The soldier motif is the opposite. The soldier gains his self-confidence and skills in boot camp; after this initial training, he is assumed to be ready for battle. He concerns himself with the enemy, who is a true threat to his life. The pilgrim is more like a newly reformed alcoholic, or a drug addict going “cold turkey.” He wails, groans, struggles with inner horrors, writhes, and concentrates on what is going on inside him. He is at war with himself and his flesh, but not primarily at war with the external environment. The various allegorical characters in Pilgrim’s Progress are external representations of internal enemies: vanity, doubt, despair, and so forth. The pilgrim does not bother much with his external environment, since he is only passing through. The soldier, on the other hand, is a conqueror, and he has to be concerned with what is going on around him.
Perhaps the most detailed Pilgrim manual is William Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armor, the 17th-century book which devotes its 2,000 pages to a consideration of every conceivable personal temptation faced by the soul–except, unfortunately, the temptations of the battlefield. Gurnall did not involve himself in the theological battles of the day, which were literally life-and-death battles, and he signed the Act of Uniformity in 1662, thereby insuring his continued income as a State-certified pastor, while 2,000 Puritan ministers refused to sign and were thrown out of their pulpits and, in many cases, into jail. Gurnall preferred a life of irrelevance, warring with his own internal lusts, ignoring the external civil issues of his day. However harrowing his internal battles may have been, this pilgrim made his journey through his environment in comfort and relative safety.
People get shot on battlefields. They get hurt. They aren’t paid much, and what little they have is at perpetual risk. They can count on little from their external environment. They rely on their own wits, their past training, their experience under fire, their army supply system, and, most of all, the success of their commanding officer. The best-executed battle plan can lead to disaster if it is not the appropriate battle plan. The stakes are high, yet the foot soldier must act in faith, obedient to his commanders, whether or not the plan is well-designed. The chain of command must function all the time, if it is to function at all.
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