When we read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, there’s a lot of walking described. Was it really so important to include the long trips on foot?
Peregrinate [verb] – To travel or journey from place to place, especially on foot.
The majority of Exodus through Joshua in the Bible could be easily summed up with “They walked a lot from one location to the next. Some complaining and judgments and a whole heap of rules happened along the way.” Et voila, no need to read those five books, right?
Except the writers of these books paid an unusual amount of attention to each leg of the Israelites’ journey to the Promise Land and then their work of conquering as they went from one city to the next.
We’re specifically told about how God was a cloud by day and then a fire by night that lifted and guided the Israelites forward. The names of notable mountains and springs as well as cities and other people groups encountered are specifically mentioned; the grumbles about hunger, exhaustion and general dissatisfaction are recorded in almost excruciating detail.
If we truly believe all of the Bible is divinely inspired (and we do), why would God include this extensive, unflattering travelogue? More to the point, what does he want us to see as we read about ancient Israel’s rocky expedition to their future homeland?
The Why of Our Walking
While studying records of women who were captured by Native American groups, Professor Amy T. Hamilton notes, “Walking, whether coerced or voluntary, always requires the effort and agency of the walker. As opposed to a passive body carried away on horseback or in a wagon, the captive who walks is intensely aware of her embodiment, as she must purposefully place one painful step after another.
“In narratives written months and even years after their actual captivity, the writers use representations of themselves walking in captivity to express not only physical and emotional pain, but also a degree of agency and resilience.”
For some individuals, she suggested that their writings indicated an increased awareness of an internal journey through their wandering.
Physical therapy work would seem to back up her conclusions. Multiple studies have found that walking is not only good for physical health but also for mental health. There are some physiological reasons for this like endorphins; but walking, unlike many other forms of exercise, is usually slow enough that it allows for conversation or private mulling over internal issues.
The relatively gentle exertion not only gives us space to think about unrelated topics but also almost demands it. Walking forces us to go slowly enough that there’s no way that the scenery is going to entertain us the entire time. Let’s be honest. We’re going to get bored. Tedium urges us to consider other matters, and then we have a choice: complain or do something more productive.
These quiet moments or conversations can be when our minds are still enough for us to hear God speak, as Neil Rhodes, one of Times Square Church’s pastors, said in a sermon, “God never forces us to do anything. He gently leads us and gives us the choice to say yes or no to his will.
“We are all on a journey and often times this journey is not without difficult days and wilderness experiences. There is another traveler on this journey with us, it is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has the goods of God and supplies what we need to get us through the winding roads. The Holy Spirit will lift our hearts and cause us to focus on Christ, his love and His faithfulness. Staying on course with God and making right choices are where true joy is found.”
The journey’s tedium gives us the opportunity to listen for God’s voice; but wandering has another benefit, one we like less but need just as much.
The Incredible Importance of Falling Down
Laborious travel almost always leads to breakdowns. Israel’s trip through the desert was a spectacular example of how swiftly tired, bored people can start bickering and then embroil themselves in moral failure.
It’s almost enough to turn you off group road trips, but it isn’t as if God doesn’t know this is the most likely result. In fact, it’s almost as if he plans for it.
Matthew Oser reminisced a little wistfully about how his children always loved stories about him experiencing some kind of humiliating pratfall, noting, “It seems there is something inherent in the human condition that we learn much better from failures than we do from victories.
“Even so, we all desire to isolate ourselves from those painful stories of our own defeats—seriously, who wants to relive the pain, humiliation, and embarrassment of our worst moments? Instead, we curate our images, prune and pick our best snapshots, and incessantly manage how others view us. It’s no surprise we tend to do the same with our heroes….
“…fidelity to history and our heroes often does not curate a pretty picture, but it does display the whole of the person, movement, or issue. And through it, we learn from all of our vulnerabilities that not only is no person, institution, or idea perfect, but also that God uses our entire story to teach the lessons He has for us along our journey from faith to sight.”
We will fail. If we’re bored or tired or hurting, we often fail faster.
As creatures who are a peculiar hybrid of the physical and spiritual world, our physical hardships often mirror spiritual struggles, and our bodies can often inform our soul-deep needs. Nothing reminds us of our frailties quite like walking a steep or stony path. The physical act is parallel to the emotional and spiritual efforts and failures that we must push through in a season of grief or lostness.
When we fall down — there’s a reason the very language is ubiquitous for the physical act and spiritual state — the fight to find our feet and the friend’s hand we may need to stand again mirrors itself between the sidewalk and the quiet minutes in our church.
We Were Made to Walk
Humans have been walking since God made us, and the vast majority of the world has no other option when it comes to transportation, so it’s slightly amusing to see modern strength training and health studies start emphasizing walking as a premier form of exercise.
In fact, NBC news reported, “A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that those who adhered to a walking program showed significant improvements in blood pressure, slowing of resting heart rate, reduction of body fat and body weight, reduced cholesterol, improved depression scores with better quality of life and increased measures of endurance.”
Dr. Matt Tanneberg, sports chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist for elite athletes, stated, “Walking can be as good as a workout, if not better, than running.”
Science is slowly coming to acknowledge this particular truth God has woven into the world since the beginning of time. Our Father has created us to walk, to peregrinate, over great distances, both physically and spiritually. God has given us the grace to endure the slow journey, and he will meet us and walk alongside us, teaching us, correcting us.
Day by day, we put one foot in front of the other in this journey called life.