Three thoughts from my journey through Pilgrim’s Progress

Having found a lovely, dusty old version in a charity shop, in my time off this Easter I’ve been reading John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. 

If you haven’t come across it, in rather blatant form using aptly named characters, we follow the journey from The City of Destruction to The Celestial City of our central character, Christian. He is started on his journey by, yep, Evangelist, and along with his friends Faithful and Hopeful, he encounters such baddies as ‘Little-Faith’, ‘Talkative’ and ‘Obstinate’. I know.

If I’m honest, at times it was a bit of a struggle, I found I couldn’t read much in one go, but I’m glad I kept going. Three big things stood out from reading Bunyan’s take on the Christian life.

1) Bunyan expected the Christian life to be immensely difficult

The Slough of Despond, the Hill of Difficulty, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Doubting Castle (and its owner the giant Despair) are all – for Christian, Faithful and Hopeful – stops en route to the Celestial City. 

Encounters with monsters, scorn from onlookers, mockery from friends and family, temptation from false teachers are all par for the course. And for Faithful, as he and Christian arrive in the area most familiar to my modern eye, Vanity Fair, it ends in a brutal murder. 

Nowhere is there a hint of “your best life now”. For the Pilgrims, the journey is long, tiring and tough. And responsible advisers along the way, and indeed Evangelist right at the beginning, make sure they tell Christian this in no uncertain terms. Food for thought there in our evangelism. Come and have life, but come and die to find it.

2) Bunyan expected genuine Christians to get it wrong a lot

Refreshingly, Christian is not the hero of the story. I was surprised at how often Christian turns aside from the way, ignored the advice given to him, forgot truths he had been taught along the way and lost sight for a while of his pilgrimage. However, the Lord sustains him. He does remember. He does get up again. I took immense courage from this, that in our countless missteps, true believers are held in his grace as they come back to the way and walk again.

Interesting that what keeps Christian going seems to be in equal measure:

  • The certainty of salvation, in the form of a scroll he is given at conversion
  • The counsel and encouragement of his fellow pilgrims, who in turn often need his counsel and encouragement
  • The hope of the glories of the Celestial City

Let’s be friends that look back and look forward together.

3) Bunyan expected heaven to be absolutely mind blowing

The journey is treacherous, and long, but throughout it is clear that it is a journey worth making. His description of heaven, to the weak, wobbling but faithful Christian, as he enters the final hurdle, the River of Death, is quite beautiful:

You must there receive the comforts of all your toil, and have joy for all your sorrow; you must reap what you have sown, even the fruit of all your prayers, and tears and sufferings for the King by the way. In that place you must wear crowns of gold, and enjoy the perpetual sight and vision of the Holy One. You shall serve him continually with praise, with shouting and thanksgiving, whom you desired to serve in the world, though with much difficulty, because of the infirmity of your flesh. There your eyes will be delighted with seeing, and your ears with hearing the pleasant voice of the Mighty One. 

Lord, help me take up my cross, follow the narrow way, and do it gladly! For one day I will see you, and you will swap my toil for comfort and my sorrow for joy.

Doubt and faith in the middle of the story

I’m not one of those doubting Christians. I hope you’re impressed? Yep? Good.

I’m proud to say that when I came to Jesus I experienced no doubt whatsoever. I know, amazing isn’t it! Utter confidence. Total zeal. Complete conviction. I never wobbled.

Until day two.

At a party, a good friend, in response to hearing that I’d become a Christian, frowned, paused, and then quite bluntly asked: “So you deny evolution and think I’m going to hell?”.

I replied with a pause of my own. And then sort of mooed. “Mmm”.

Pre-party I had been trouble free. But suddenly I was confused. Questions entered. And for the first time, doubt. Not an all-out rejection of Jesus, which is clearly never commended, but an uncertainty, an unsureness. And it’d only been a day.

Why do we doubt?

Charles Spurgeon – a big dog, amazing Christian hero guy – said, when asked if he ever doubted: “I think, when a man says, ‘I never doubt,’ it is quite time for us to doubt him”. I like that a lot. This beardy, fiery, godly man can’t help but almost laugh at the idea that someone would profess to be doubt-free. For the real Christian, Spurgeon says, doubt is part and parcel.

But why is that the case?

There’s lots of things we can say, but here’s one thought:

We doubt, because we’re in the middle of the story.

Watching Divergent for the first time, I wasn’t exactly gripped – it’s not the best film evarrr after all – but at various points, I found myself drawn in by the plot twists, questioning characters, unsure how it would resolve. This led to the heart-beat rising. Some surprises. Some shocks.

But last term, through doing some film nights with students, I had to watch this movie a total of five times. I’m now almost word perfect. And I’m in the know. I watch Tris as she nervously waits to see if she’s made the grade in boot camp, and while those around me bite their nails and stress, I smile. She makes it. And she wins. And I know.

That’s because I sit at the end of the story. And when I’ve seen the end, it all makes sense. I see how it all resolves. I see that the twists and turns are within the context of the over-arching story which I already know.

The question is, where do we sit, as Christians?

Do we sit at the end of the story? Has the plot line resolved? Have all the characters been reconciled and all the questions answered? If so, then doubt wouldn’t be an issue at all!

But I’d suggest that’s not where we live. As Christians we sit, not at the end of the story, but right in the middle.

Of course, the kingdom has come in Jesus – and he’s been kind enough to give us a sneak preview of the end. We don’t know what the future holds but we do know the one who Holds the future, and all that. And Christianity is not a “buckle in until heaven” faith, but a living, present-day, active one.

But just as it would be wrong to deny that the kingdom is “now”, it would be just as wrong to deny it is “not yet”. As Christians we are not at the end yet. The Revelation 21 scene is not here yet. And so, in the meantime, it makes perfect sense that we have questions. Uncertainties. Doubts.

Oh, there will be a day when doubt disappears. It will be cast into the memory banks, never to be seen again. Everything will make sense. As Paul says to the Corinthians: “Then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

But the other half of that verse is just as true. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part”. Yes, as Christians we know. And yes, as Christians we can see. But in part. And dimly. Because we’re in the middle of the story.

How does this help?

The cash value of this in our lives is that we don’t need to panic.

The Christian life, this side of Jesus’ return, was never meant to be question-free. It makes perfect sense that there’s questions, struggles, doubts. Things have not resolved yet.

We have a God who promises to wipe every tear and abolish death. And yet, for now, we have newsreaders who point us to tears and death, all over our planet. We’re meant to engage with that. Not, as Spurgeon says, to claim “I never doubt”, and not to claim we live in the “know fully, see completely” era, when we’re actually in the “in part, dimly” era.

This isn’t all there is to say. We must come to Jesus with our doubts, we must seek to honour God and live by faith, not by sight. Doubt is not a glorious virtue in itself, as if scepticism is more spiritual than certainty. But maybe that’s for another day.

For now, let’s not panic. We’re not bad Christians when we see dimly. At least we’re no worse than the Apostle Paul! Could it be that the questions and complexity of day two of my Christian life is much more what the New Testament expects than the doubt-free, crest-of-a-wave of day one?

For thought:

– Are we willing to be real about our doubts?

– Where are you experiencing the “in part, dimly” nature of being a Christian?

– How can we grow in being community where doubt is not condemned but engaged with?