The psalmist employs many metaphors to describe a life of faithfulness and righteousness, but there is something special about the metaphor of walking in the psalms. A primary image for the life of faith — which we read as the life of Christian faith — is walking along a path. The psalmists begs to God: ‘Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths’ (Psalm 25:4).
The psalmist is not alone in this. In other Old Testament writings a faithful person is described as walking in righteousness or uprightness (e.g. Isaiah 57:2, Proverbs 28:6). In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus Christ describes the way he instructs his followers to follow as narrow, though more recent idiomatic translations call the way difficult. When Jesus initially sends his apostles to heal the sick and preach the gospel, he sends them on a walk.
Americans, especially those with financial resources, are not a walking people — when we are given the opportunity, we often choose to drive, and the active among us may choose to cycle. Walking is associated with slowness, with inefficiency, perhaps with tedium. We have, by and large, discarded this way of being-in-the-world. And yet this is the metaphor God again and again chooses to describe a life of faith: walk in righteousness, stay on the narrow path, follow the Lord’s ways. This raises a question: what are we losing, theologically, as we abandon this ancient mode of travel?
For one, we lose a sense of place, a sense of rootedness to location. This familiarity with our surroundings increases our appreciation for what God has given us, and it also gives us first-hand knowledge of where we can do the most good.
There are few better ways to understand a neighborhood, to really know it, to walk it over and over again. At the beginning of my graduate studies, I found myself in a brand new city with a few weeks of leisure and little money. I spent my days walking the various parts of the city, getting lost, finding my way. This benefited me throughout my tenure there — more than a few times, I found myself hesitating before a turn, realizing I’d gone that way before and that it wasn’t the best path. When one becomes truly familiar with a neighborhood, or with a city, one can more easily choose the best way to go. This intimacy with our neighborhoods is something no other mode of transportation is able to provide, at least not to such a degree.
By walking a path, and by choosing between paths, we learn the way we ought to go. We learn this from experience and, often, our mistakes. When walking, mistakes can be costly. Walking a mile in the wrong direction means you have to turn around and walk a mile in the right direction just to end up where you started. That takes time and energy, and you feel the cost in your feet and your legs.
When we do not walk, we lose an appreciation for the cost of sin, the expense of turning around and beginning again. Turning the car around is no equal to having to trek back on foot. The former is a minor inconvenience — the latter is a ruined day. The psalmist knows the cost of sin — he sings of straying from the Lord’s ways, of losing sight of God’s paths. He sings with despair, with angst. He feels abandoned: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1). He describes the state of his life as having been in ‘an horrible pit’ full of ‘miry clay’ (Psalm 40:2). He knows that choosing the wrong path has serious consequences, the deadly consequences of sin.
And yet the psalmist sings that God ‘set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings’ (Psalm 40:2). Without this line, the opening to Psalm 40 would be incomplete, and the rest of the psalm would crumble. God, after all, does not condemn us to despair. While we despair in our sins, God offers hope. God offers to set us on the right path, upon a firm foundation, to let us walk in righteousness again. ‘By the words of thy lips, I have kept me from the paths of the destroyers’ (Psalm 17:4).
As the cherished hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ goes: I once was lost, but now I’m found. One needs the conjunction or, like Psalm 40, the song is incomplete. If the story ends and we are still lost, then it isn’t the Christian story — and there really is no other story worth telling. We find this pattern all over the Psalms. We sing of being lost, of straying from God’s ways, but we also sing Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD (Psalm 150:6) and Thy mercy, O LORD, endureth for ever (Psalm 138:8). God shows us the paths we must follow, and God when we stray God helps us find our way. And thus we sing of God’s enduring mercy.
One might think God’s path is the law. Surely when the psalmist writes of God’s ways, he often has the law in mind. But this is an incomplete understanding of the Christian picture for it neglects the Gospel, the good news that Christ came to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
The metaphors of walking, staying on the right path, and finding one’s way are not abandoned in the New Testament. Our Lord and Savior says of Himself: ‘I am the way … no man cometh unto the Father, but by me’ (John 14:6). The identification of Jesus with the way to the Father, where previously the law was identified with the way, is significant. Here the image of the right path to God is employed to strengthen the claim that Christ fulfills the law. It is Jesus Christ who is our way to the Father, and He is the only way. Christ’s fulfillment of the law, and thus Christ’s self-identification with the ways and paths of the Lord, are essential to the Gospel message. The law may guide us, shaping our moral lives and strengthening our faith. But it is Christ alone who is the path, and He alone will correct our course when we lose our way. I once was lost, but now I’m found. Christ found me. Christ finds my way. Christ teaches me His paths. Christ is my path.