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.