(The above painting is by Joses Feid Anastasius Grün entitled Picture of a Mountaineer.)
I admit to giving this entry a rather provocative title, but to be honest, this is the title that most adequately expresses the question in my mind as I ponder the modern phenomena which I have observed in a large number of my friends, known simply as (drum roll) Wanderlust. Before I get into the meat of this little discussion point, I wish to give definition to what I am talking about.
Wanderlust is a simple compound word straight from the German words Wander, which means to wander, and Lust, which means to you know, lust. Obviously. That is a pretty straightforward etymology, especially since English has adopted these words as its own without changing them whatsoever. These words were apparently put together as one, in the 1850s, an age when travel and industry were rapidly increasing, with Steamboating, Railroading, and Keelboating having been perfected for public travel in the decades previous. The word was meant to be used to express the unique feeling which those who have traveled and enjoyed it feel when the urge to travel again comes upon them. There is a certain similarity inherent in the meaning of this word which is akin to the meaning of being stir-crazy, or having cabin fever. These phrases however, both have to do with being confined to the indoors and desiring to go outside, whereas wanderlust has a much more wide ranging scope in its definition, which includes but is not limited to going outside, seeing new places, visiting old ones, and generally going on long trips to far away places. It is a very convenient word for a very specific meaning.
In modernity, and specifically in the community of Evangelical Christians in which I find myself, the term Wanderlust has taken on even more significance than its etymology so obviously suggests. It has come to be the defining trait of an entire community of people who can relate to one another on the grounds that they always want to be somewhere else than here. I say that jokingly, but in sincerity that is how it is with them, and they would agree to that with a chuckle. My question is whether this type of lust should be praised for its unique brand of culture and excitement as I know the secular world sees it, or regarded as a sinful modern malady to be treated.
How on earth would you have come to such a negative conclusion sir, you ask? I will tell you, but first, I must put forth some qualification. I myself, am not a traveler, rather, I am an introvert. I have lived in the same house for twenty years and have little desire to leave. I have never left the United States, and have never felt the sensation of Wanderlust so talked of by my peers. I should also qualify that much of what I will say is based on my own opinions and experiences as an inexperienced hermit. I therefore have something of a bias against vacationing, since I myself find little pleasure in a simple change of location. And to all those who are determined travelers, I bear you no ill will, and mean no offense or disrespect to you or your hobby.
So to begin, there is nothing about travel which, on the face of things, makes it inherently sinful or sacred. It is what it is, getting from one place to another-traveling. Many say traveling is good; it brings new experience, and allows for the culturing, and maturation of the traveler, as well as opening new opportunities for financial gain, creation of friendships and spiritual growth. I agree with them. There is a whole world of wonder and adventure to be explored, created by our God that we might experience it with Him, and so there lies an incredible prerogative for the inhabitants of God’s earth to do so. There is little more impactful to the human mind and life, than to stand on a mountain, looking over the vast and detailed beauty of the landscape beyond, and to know that it was God who shaped it all with His hand. This is definitely worth doing, and would be a practice which I would call sacred.
Practical or spiritual types of travel however, i.e. travel for the betterment of someone who has never been to another country, business traveling, family reunions, or traveling on a spiritual pilgrimage, is not the kind of travel I am talking about. People have been traveling for pleasure and spirituality for centuries, and the royal or wealthy have been doing so since the dawn of human civilization. What I am referring to, is a certain subculture of traveling for the sake of traveling, done by those who have traveled much in the past already, and who will continue to do so as their hobby, their entertainment, and/or their goal for saving up each month. The point of this travel is to culture oneself, to experience other ways of life, to get away from responsibilities and veg out in beautiful, exotic surroundings. The people who do so often, proudly wear the badge of “Worldly and Sophisticated,” often saying how much more mature and experienced they have become for traveling the world; no one around them can argue that point, even if it’s not true, simply because “Well, I haven’t been to Paris, so I guess he’s more interesting than I am…” You also seemingly cannot legitimately call yourself a true artist if you have not had at least one tour of Europe, and you will be ridiculed if you claim to be someone who likes foreign culture if you have never been to one yourself.
This culture has been present in the world ever since 1800s, when the Victorian English of the upper crust would see such travels as the right of passage for the noble and aristocratic who would lord their travel experience and breeding over anyone lower than themselves on the strata. Since then however, it has become easier and easier for the non-aristocratic to travel, til now anyone with a job that brings in any more than minimum wage has the opportunity to go to France and see the sights like the Victorians did. The ability to travel has changed, but the attitude and culture of the Worldly and Sophisticated amongst the people of the west has grown rapidly in the past fifteen to twenty years, and seems to have affected mainly the 20-something, to 30-something age demographic. It is not limited to these ages, but is notably observable in these generations. Indeed it has taken on a different tenor than before, idolizing travel not for the sake of becoming a well bred noble lord, but for the sake of “Becoming a better person,” a moral well exemplified by the book and film, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which accurately depicts the type of artsy travel aesthetic I am describing.
This is simple fact, and even this trend, which has it’s own unique aesthetic and demographic, may seem like nothing more than an interesting piece of trivia in current events which glorifies being a cultured world traveler. Indeed, magazines are filled with travel sections encouraging young people to get away from their jobs and busy lives to partake in some frivolous and expensive foreign fun, usually including a centerfold of a hiker in full gear looking down on a green valley from some cliff in the lofty crags of the Alps. It is not an evil, it is simply entertainment for those of us who have a more active or energetic temperament, they say, and works to make a person healthier, happier, and gives you a taste for foreign cultures. In a secular mindset, they would be right. In a secular mindset, being more experienced, more worldly and sophisticated than someone else is a valid pursuit.
This is where Christian religion comes in, and when I say the word religion, I mean a system of beliefs or traditions about deity and spirituality which informs your thoughts and actions. I will always mean to use the term religion in a strictly literal way without any negative connotations. Religion is a good thing; false religion is what Christians are to avoid. Loving Jesus as God and loving your neighbor is indubitably religion. False religion, is pretending to serve God, and using Him in order to garner fame and fortune, or a sense of personal gain. Just wanted to clarify that.
Now then, back to wanderlust. In terms of daily life and traveling, Christianity especially in the Protestant church, has had a pretty well established say on how people are to view foreign travel. If you travel anywhere, it should be for the opportunity for preaching the gospel, even if it’s because you are visiting your German aunt Bertha. The Protestant church is indeed identified by it’s focus on foreign missions ever since the reformation, and this focus increased greatly with the advent of revivalists and traveling missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In modern Protestant thought, one can go so far as to say that there are only two types of Christians, (in fact I have heard several Evangelicals say these very words) there are those who go on missions trips, and then there are those who are disobedient.
Now, I highly value the gospel, as well as the Evangelistic focus to evangelize, but my thoughts on this particular quote are quite contrary. You are either a traveling missionary preacher, or you’re disobedient? The Bible says nothing of this sort, and the Bible is our authority on all things. We are all to be witnesses, but nowhere in the Bible does it say that doing foreign missions as a gospel preacher is a mandatory activity for all Christians. Most of the disciples of Jesus never left their country of origin, and many never even left their cities or towns to preach the gospel. In fact, Paul himself, the foremost evangelist in the Bible second only to Jesus Christ Himself, said that not all are preachers, not all are teachers, not all speak in tongues, and not all prophecy. Each one is to do his duty, whether that means Preaching to the masses on the streets of a foreign country, or speaking in tongues quietly at home to the Lord. Both are valid forms of obedience, but neither are mandatory according to the Scriptures. We can be witnesses to the unsaved by our example, whether we are a preacher, an encourager, or a waiter. In God’s eyes, there is no difference, we all can show Christ’s love.
The Bible does say however, that we are always to do all things unto the glory of God. This leaves nothing at all out of it. It is an all inclusive statement, and if taken with the rest of scripture, means glorifying God in a very specific manner at the same time. You cannot glorify God by any and all means. That is not what the verse is trying to say. What it means is, glorify God by obeying His commandments found in the rest of the canon at all times, thereby, causing all that we do to be glorifying God. It means, staying away from narcissistic tendencies, from doing anything that will glorify yourself rather than God. It means that we keep God in mind at all times, thanking him for the good and praising Him in the bad, taking every opportunity when going out to speak the good news of God’s love to those who might be open to it, doing everything necessary to keep daily quality time with Him, and remembering and talking with Him when doing things that are not outwardly spiritual. It is prioritizing the inner life of worship and prayer to God above all things.
Therefor the question arises; is it sinful to travel around the world just because I want to? The modern day Evangelist uses scripture effectively to convince you that the only Christian “legal” way to travel is with the intent to evangelize or minister. The modern day secularist uses science and numbers effectively to convince you that the best reason to travel is to do it for the fun of it, rest, and relaxation, and is the most healthy thing a young person could do for his or herself. Who is more right?
Is there a solution? What is the answer to this question? You may answer for yourself. That is between you and God. Indeed, I do have a thought or two on the subject, but the reason I wrote this was mainly to cause thought on the subject more than anything else. I definitely have had to think much on this subject, simply because it gets brought up a lot in modern media and in the circle of friends and family I possess.
I have served in several churches, and a couple of different ministries, and all of them had a focus on missions and evangelism to some extent, which attracted a significant catch of those who would call themselves “citizens of the world,” and would fit into the “wanderlust community.” They are all Christians, and ascribe to living their lives for God, which meant something specific to me, but in all actuality means many things to many people.
All of these youthful adherents to the Word of God had participated in Missions at some time in their lives, but not all continued to do so. I would hear of some of my friends taking trips to Europe or South America once every couple of years, once a year, and sometimes even once a month, with differing focuses on missions and entertainment. Those who were very active missionaries would travel constantly to and from the Middle East, and I could definitely understand their reasons why, and their ardor for preaching the gospel there, while I could not necessarily relate to their insane energy. But when I would hear news of those who traveled once a year over seas or even oftener without so much as a thought to ministering to others, I would be legitimately taken aback. Questions such as “Do they have the money for that?” or “Are they visiting family?” or “Couldn’t they be using their money for someone else?” or “Why are they even doing it?” would run through my mind like a swarm of hornets disturbed from their nests by a well aimed stone throw.
The answers I would get from them when they returned would do little to quell the little flurry of doubts in my mental wasp’s nest. “Why do you go so often if not for missions?” I would ask.
“The people are just so nice over there! Nicer than here.”
“I feel so much more cultured when I go to new places.”
“I just love the art, and architecture.”
“The atmosphere is just so unique and wonderful.”
“The views, wildlife and landscapes are just so beautiful.”
“Rock climbing on those mountain ranges is worth the time and effort it takes to go there.”
“The food and wine is so great, you can’t get it anywhere else.”
“I love the feeling you get when waking up in a different country. It’s so exciting!”
These, among other comments of similar content, were always the types of answers I would receive upon asking the question of why; and if I were to be brutally technical, I would call those secular answers to a theological question. For these types of things, the adventurous and restless of heart spend thousands of dollars multiple times a year in hotel costs, food costs, and plane tickets. Consistent recreational travel can be pricey.
The question I would raise in response to those answers, as a representative of the heart of God, and partially as a representative of the introverted homebodies of the world, would be this. “You spend all that just to have fun and pamper yourself by touring another country, but how much do you spend on God every year?” Now most people, both secular and Christian, would call the person who would ask that sort of question legalistic, a killjoy, or a party pooper. Those who wish to be technical about it would try to justify themselves by saying, “I spend the entire year working, serving, and ministering for God, the least I can have is a few weeks of culture for myself. The proportion I serve God is much greater than that of my own pleasure. Surely a loving God would not begrudge me of that small luxury.” And that is actually correct. God Himself begrudges us no good thing or luxury. In fact he does not even begrudge the secular of their sin. At least, not yet…
When we sin, we do hurt God. But when we pass up the chance to Love God more, it is not only that God is neglected, but we lose out as well. We lose out on spiritual maturity, we lose out on a moment with God which could change us forever, and most importantly, we lose out on a chance for greater intimacy with God which will never come again. Is it wrong to spend a few weeks and a few thousands for our own amusement? No, not at all, but if we do it with the goal being self fulfillment, it is definitely settling for less eternal blessing and present intimacy with God than we could have had otherwise, had we intended that trip for experiencing God and preaching the Gospel.
The bottom line is this; the world seeks health and wellness because it values self gratification over the worth of God. If you’re healthy, you will have more fun when you play. For those of us who know we have been bought with a price, and have given ourselves to the Lover of our souls, even our health and wellness becomes secondary to the calling of Christ. That being said, God Himself values our bodies and our health, and desires that we respect the temple that is our bodies by doing what we can to be in peak physical condition in order that we might fulfill the deeds he has called us to do before the creation of the world. So, if we follow His plans and his heart, we will take good care of ourselves anyway, which may include a restful weekend in the mountains, or a trip to a museum, or even an afternoon at he beach, but if we give ourselves to a lifestyle of extravagant traveling, apart from a goal to win souls and give glory to God, we will become dependent on it, just as one may become addicted to drugs. A drug addict suffers withdrawals. An avid traveler suffers from wanderlust. It may not be as debilitating or openly negative as drug addiction, but it will definitely be as destructive to the inner life, and will cost us even more.
We live in a day and age which idolizes travel, and traveling to an inordinate degree, and if we follow the trends, we are in danger of having the sacred sucked out of our activities, and replaced with secular ambitions of a humanistic nature that leads to the sort of pride which separated the upper class from the peasantry of old. The reason this is so important an issue to me, is because the Lord has clearly stated in the Bible how we as Christians are to live. Scripture clearly states that all men will be judged, yes for their actions, but also for the thoughts of the mind, and the intentions of the heart.
There’s the rub. If you do it for God it’s the good, right, and Christian thing to do, if you do it for yourself it is a secular, Godless and therefor worthless thing to do. You either are sowing to the Spirit, or you are sowing to the flesh, as the Bible states, you are always doing one of the two. I definitely do not think that having a vacation, or taking a tour of Europe from time to time is wrong, I greatly desire to do so one day. However, one should always ask oneself “why am I doing this?” Because as a Christian, everything we do should be either for God or for others, and even doing things for others will be doing it for God. The more of God we see and love, the less we try to please ourselves and our own “Lusts,” whether they be monetary lusts, sexual lusts, or “Wanderlusts.”So, the next time you consider going on a trip to “get away from it all,” just make sure you don’t run away from your responsibility as a bond-servant to God.
Now I know that this post was quite preachy, but God has called us all to a standard of holiness we cannot reach without intentionally following in the footsteps of Christ, whose footsteps I might add, only led him out of his home country once, and that was for the purpose of getting alone with His father, and ministering to a single Canaanite woman. This was recorded for us as an example, let us not neglect it.
Now this admonition of mine applies not only to traveling, but to any form of self indulgence that our modern era has made accessible to us. If we leave God out of anything we love, we are withholding our love from God, and anything, from reading books to video games, can become an idol in His place. Wanderlust may be used in an innocent way, just as the term stir-crazy may be, but I hope and pray that the culture of wandering will not cause a generation to wander from the commandments of the Lord with an innocent and healthy activity. I am reminded of the lyrics to one of my favorite hymns, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, Prone to Leave the God I love, Take my heart Lord, take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.” Amen.
To all those wanderers out there, I love and support you in your wandering, as long as it leads you further up, and further in. God bless you in all your journeys.