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Blog / Directionless Wanderer or Pilgrim Follower: An Interview with Michelle Van Loon

Directionless Wanderer or Pilgrim Follower: An Interview with Michelle Van Loon

Michelle Van LoonWhy are we so restless? All of us have a little wanderlust—a desire for that next thing, that new place—but this competes with our longings for security, control, and safety. We don’t like how it feels to be unsettled and uprooted, navigating a season of transition, dealing with the fallout of broken relationships, or wrestling with a deep sense of unease. And we do whatever we can to numb the feelings of unbelonging and powerlessness that come with it.

Bible Gateway interviewed Michelle Van Loon (@michellevanloon) about her book, Born to Wander: Recovering the Value of Our Pilgrim Identity (Moody Publishers, 2018).

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How do you define wandering and what are some common ways people experience it?

Michelle Van Loon: In Born to Wander, I define three terms that can describe our spiritual, physical, and emotional journey. An exile is someone sent or banished from their homeland. A pilgrim, on the other hand, is a person moving toward a sacred destination. And a wanderer is someone traveling without a purpose or focus…or are they?

In varying degrees, we humans live as moving targets, trying to escape the existential grief of separation from God and others. This reality is at the heart of our wandering. Each one of us experiences the painful disconnect that comes from exile from Eden and the miscommunication that replays the Babel story in our lives on a regular basis.

We experience wandering in a variety of ways:

  • Some of us learn to wander because of family issues including divorce, death, and dysfunction that drive us from one another.
  • Others learn to wander via our culture, as minority groups who’ve experienced systemic injustice and unholy discrimination find themselves on the outside looking in.
  • Some of us find that the place that’s supposed to be a community of love and welcome—our local church—has instead left us feeling like outcasts.
  • And the world right now has more than 65 million refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people around the world, according to an estimate by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Exile may be an experience common to most of us, but God never intended it to be a destination. Exile is meant to make pilgrims out of each one of us.

Why do you write that the words contentment and discontentment are misused among American Christians? What would be better uses of these terms in the lives of believers?

Michelle Van Loon: I’ve spent more than four decades in suburban church culture where I hear the word contentment used as sort of a mark of sacrifice in responding to consumer culture: “I wanted to remodel my kitchen, but God is helping me learn to be content with a new glass tile backsplash instead.”

I’ve also heard contentment used as Christian-speak to simultaneously broadcast ambition while signaling the virtue of humility: “I believe I’m called to be in charge of women’s ministries in this church someday, but right now, I’m content teaching the toddler Sunday school class. I just love those kiddos!”

1 Timothy 6:6 says, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” I suspect Paul, who penned these words to his young prote?ge? Timothy, would be very confused by the way in which we use contentment. The Greek word autarkeia used for contentment in this verse means that a person is resting in a place of safety and security in their lives. The context for this verse is a discussion of the greed of false teachers and the lure of our own acquisitive desires. Godly contentment says “enough” instead of spouting Christianized versions of “I want more.” I appreciate the irony of Paul saying that godly contentment is the only “more” for which we should be aiming. Godly contentment will keep us in a state of discontentment with the world around us.

What are the implications of Jesus’ command to “follow me”?

Michelle Van Loon: As change ripples through our culture, there has been much talk in the American church encouraging believers to embrace their status as exiles and outsiders. This language is not without context in Scripture: in John 17:14-19, Jesus emphasizes that we’re to live in the world but not be of it and 1 Peter 2:11 reminds us we’re citizens of the kingdom, not bound by this world’s ways. However, Scripture shows and tells us that exile is never meant to be our destination in this life, but to transform us into people journeying toward a destination with a sacred purpose—and without a tidy map.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus tells a religious leader who wants to become his disciple, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

Just as Christ called this man to “unsettle himself” and embrace a life of pilgrimage, he calls us, too, to the same journey. Those of us who are overly comfortable have no real incentive to follow him. Conversely, nor are those of us who’ve wrapped ourselves so firmly in the identity of exile from the world that we’ve learned to live in a bunker and sought salvation as a way to avoid a world we don’t particularly like.

Can I trust him even when I don’t understand why these things are happening? Will I follow him even though it hurts? And do I have eyes to see his perfect care and abundant provision for me through it all?

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Michelle Van Loon: A verse that’s especially meaningful to me is Psalm 84:5: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” Even after the chosen people reached the Promised Land, God had built into the yearly worship cycle three feast times each year—Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot (see Leviticus 23)—when they were to leave their homes and gather as one in order to worship together. They were practicing pilgrimage regularly. Psalm 84:5 reminds me that a pilgrim’s life is a beautiful life.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway?

Michelle Van Loon: Bible Gateway has long been my go-to reference tool! I appreciate the ease of use, the many, many translations and paraphrases, and the access to study materials like commentaries. (My favorite commentary on the site is the IVP New Testament Commentary.) I’m a grateful regular visitor at the site.

Bio: Since coming to faith in Christ at the tail end of the Jesus Movement, Michelle Van Loon’s Jewish heritage, spiritual hunger, and storyteller’s sensibilities have shaped her faith journey and informed her writing. She is the author of five books, including Born to Wander: Recovering the Value of Our Pilgrim Identity, If Only: Letting Go of Regret, and Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith. Michelle is a regular contributor to Christianity Today‘s women’s blog, In Touch magazine, and is the co-founder of, a website for midlife women and men. She’s married to Bill, and is mother of three and grandmother of two. Learn about her writing and speaking ministry by visiting her website,

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Filed under Books, Discipleship, Interviews