Reflection from The Pilgrim's Progress
One of the great encouragements of my Long Service Leave was re-reading The Pilgrim’s Progress, parts one and two, by John Bunyan. As you may not be familiar with this classic of English Christian literature I am going to take a moment to share with you why it was an encouragement to me and has been an encouragement to so many in the centuries since it was written.
John Bunyan [1628-1688] became, by God’s grace, a non-conformist preacher in Bedford in England. For his labours in the gospel he was imprisoned for most of 1660 to 1672 and then again for about six months in 1677. At the time of his imprisonment he had a young wife and four children, one of whom was blind, and had to rely on the generosity of his congregation to sustain both himself and his family. Yet it was in those 12 years in prison that he wrote the bulk of Pilgrim’s Progress which went on to join the Book of Common Prayer and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as, after the King James Bible, the staple diet of English protestants, shaping their understanding of the Christian life.
Three features of the work in particular refreshed my soul.
Firstly, it has great clarity about what is at stake in believing the gospel. At the beginning we meet a man, Christian, burdened with sin, distressed in mind, and asking “What shall I do to be saved”, seeking an escape from the city of Destruction. He meets Evangelist who urges him to flee from the wrath to come [1 Thess. 1:9-10] and that starts him on His journey to the celestial city. The great contrast between these two cities, his origin and his destination, and between his fear of judgement and the peace he comes to know at the foot of the cross, is a reminder that being faithful to the gospel all our lives is worth everything. And Bunyan makes it clear that faithfulness is sticking to the narrow way whatever the trials that we meet along it, the way provided by the Lord of pilgrims to bring them to the celestial city. That way is the way of listening to and trusting Jesus, relying on His death for our sins, and taking our direction from Him and from Him alone. In the weariness we sometimes feel it is good to see clearly what is at stake in persevering to the end.
Bunyan makes it clear that faithfulness is sticking to the narrow way whatever the trials that we meet along it
Secondly, Bunyan presents the life of the Christian as both a pilgrimage and a spiritual battle. Believers are seen to be on a journey throughout our lives in which we will have many experiences and trials, with the aim always to keep moving to our destination and recognise we have no lasting home here. His description of the trials believers meet rings true all these hundreds of years later because Bunyan’s focus is on the struggle that goes on in a believer’s heart, the struggle to keep trusting the promises of the gospel and the grace of our Saviour in all circumstances. We meet, for example, the slough of Despond that must be struggled through to start on the way, a picture of the experience of the awakened sinner dealing with ‘many fears, doubts and and discouraging apprehensions’. Christian must also travel through the valley of humiliation and encounter the accusations of the devil who points out to him all the ways he has failed to be a good follower of the Lord, is later detained in Doubting Castle by Giant Despair where he is tempted to despair of life itself until he remembers the promises of God and is tested even at the end in death. I found it helpful to be reminded that the real struggle for faithfulness is in our hearts – that is where we are tested; and encouraging to recognise my own trials in Christian’s and also to see in his deliverance the resources for my own deliverance in the gospel. Bunyan’s portrayal of those we meet along the way, and there are many, is also lively and instructive, whether negative examples like Formalist, Legalist, Talkative and Ignorance, or encouraging companions like Faithful and Hopeful. They sharpen both our discernment and thankfulness for true companions
I found it helpful to be reminded that the real struggle for faithfulness is in our hearts – that is where we are tested
Thirdly, it was good to be reminded through an engaging story of the goodness of the Lord of Pilgrims. As Christian says to Apollyon when facing his accusations, “The Prince whom I serve and honour, is merciful, and ready to forgive.” Throughout Christian experiences our Lord’s patience, His provision, and His help, whether in answer to prayer, or through the Word, or through the provision of other believers. Christian is never abandoned to his own resources, even though sometimes neglectful and forgetful of the provision our Lord has made for all pilgrims, and finally brought with joy to the celestial city by the grace of His Lord.
Christian experiences our Lord’s patience, His provision, and His help, whether in answer to prayer, or through the Word, or through the provision of other believers.
To be reminded of what is at stake in persevering, of the reality of the Christian life as pilgrimage and spiritual struggle and the nature of the trials that can befall us, and of our Lord’s faithfulness and kindness, the provision He has made to bring us to Himself, was a gift as I used this LSL to take stock of the years past and think about what the coming years may bring. I hope Pilgrim’s Progress can bring you the same encouragement.
But let the last words commending his work to us be Bunyan’s.
“And now, before I do put up my pen,
I’ll shew the profit of my Book, and then
Commit both thee, and it unto that hand
That pulls the strong down, and makes weak ones stand.
This Book it chaulketh out before thine eyes,
The man that seeks the everlasting Prize:
It shews you whence he comes, whither he goes,
What he leaves undone; also what he does:
It also shews you how he runs, and runs,
Till he unto the Gate of Glory comes.”