Monday, January 14, 2008

Reflections on an Earlier Time

Pilgrim’s Progress – A summary:

In this work, John Bunyan uses an allegory – the story of a “pilgrim” named Christian and his journey – to illustrate the life, from conversion to death, of the faithful disciple of Jesus.

The story begins when a man named Graceless from the City of Destruction (Earth, or this world) comes across a Bible and upon reading it becomes profoundly convicted about his sin and guilt, with the understanding that he is unable to survive God’s judgment. This guilt of sin becomes in the story a great burden strapped to his back that he in no way can relieve or rid himself of. He takes to walks alone in the fields and sleepless nights as he is in deeper and deeper despair over his state. Because of this behavior, his wife and children and neighbors begin to think he has lost his mind and try various abusive tactics to “bring him back to his senses”, but to no avail. Finally, Graceless encounters Evangelist, who shows him the path to the Celestial City, which he enters through the “wicket gate”, visible at some distance with the help of the Light.

Graceless decides to go on pilgrimage, and sets out for the gate. Of course, his friends and relations in the City of Destruction do not understand him and try to dissuade him from such a foolish and costly journey. Nonetheless, he will not be dissuaded and sets out with a companion named Pliable. Unfortunately, he meets with one of the many obstacles he will encounter along the way at the Slough of Despond and nearly gives up before he even gets to the gate. The Slough represents the kind of discouragement and despair that can entrap and work against anyone who seeks to follow Jesus, and sure enough Graceless, who is now called Christian, loses his companion, who returns home.

Before Christian can get to the wicket gate, he is met by Worldly Wiseman, who attempts to convince Christian to rid himself of his burden in an easy and expedient manner by resorting to Morality – essentially avoiding the cross and attempting to be justified by religious works. Christian begins down this path, but seems to sense its danger. He is met and admonished by Evangelist, who turns him back to the path that leads to the wicket gate.

Christian enters the gate, and so begins his journey on the King’s Highway. He follows the highway to the Interpreter’s House (the Holy Spirit) who illuminates him in the essentials of a disciple’s journey, and finds himself deeply refreshed by the experience. Soon after leaving the Interpreter’s house, Christian encounters Mount Calvary, where he sees the cross of Jesus and the empty tomb. It is here, at the cross, that he is fully and finally relieved of his sin burden.
Christian encounters a number of other things on his journey, many of them great difficulties, but also some simple and unique joys. He scales the Hill Difficulty, but at the top finds the House Beautiful (the local church or congregation) where he is greatly refreshed. He battles the fiend Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation and overcomes him. He passes through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and though terrified by what he sees and hears, finds encouragement from the 23rd Psalm in the midst of it. He is despised at Vanity Fair along with his traveling companion Faithful, who ends up losing his life in that town; he is tempted to return to the delights of the world at Hill Lucre, and his detour at the Bye Path Meadow costs him greatly when he and his new companion Hopeful from Vanity are captured by the Giant Despair and held at Doubting Castle.

Through all these experiences, he learns great truths, is constantly comforted and provided for by God’s people, has profound fellowship and communion with fellow pilgrims he meets along the way, and learns how to evade temptation and resist the urge to give in and give up. Ultimately, the highway leads him to Beulah Land, just across the River of Death from the Celestial City. It is here at Beulah that he is refreshed and encouraged to overcome the final obstacle, which is death. In the midst of the river, Pilgrim is nearly overcome with fear, but is encouraged and reminded at last by Hopeful of his secure status as a Son of the King, and finally passes into the Celestial City to the great joy of the Shining Ones and all who dwell there.

Book Two is the excellent sequel of the story of his wife Christiana and their four sons, who themselves follow the footsteps of his journey and arrive safely at the other side.

How this book challenges us to live today

One of the things that immediately stood out to me and that I found in contrast to the church in the West today was the emphasis on self-mortification and suffering as positive aspects of the disciple’s life. In an age where we try to keep church members attending by serving expensive coffee and making sure the climate control is optimum, the challenge is to present cross-bearing as a fundamental aspect of true Christianity without apology while still meeting people at their various stages of spiritual development. We have grown very comfortable in the Western church, and we must regain the self-denying spirit of an earlier time before we lapse into a collective spiritual coma.

I was impressed with how the characters on pilgrimage were all horrified by their sin and were deeply grateful for forgiveness. It reminded me that we need to be unapologetic in talking about, preaching against, repenting of, and grieving over sin. Not that we want to live a life of “sin management”, but rather that the pursuit of Christ needs to include a healthy loathing of sin and all its attendant death.

Another recurring theme in the book is endurance. Like the pilgrims portrayed in the allegory, we will encounter opposition, persecution, temptation, and weariness. In an ecclesiological climate that tolerates and even encourages a certain amount of catering to our flesh, it is imperative that we fight hard to remain “in the way” and continue to fight the battles that are part and parcel of the Christian life. Parallel to this idea are the concepts of combat and delayed gratification. I know that for me personally, it is difficult to remain on a “war footing”, yet the greatest reward comes to the one who waits on God for his gratification, and the greatest rest comes to the one who has labored the hardest in spiritual combat. Thomas À Kempis said, “If thou willest not to suffer, thou refusest to be crowned. If thou wouldst win the crown, fight manfully, and endure patiently; for without labour, there can be no rest; without combat, no victory”. This goes against the grain of most of American Evangelicalism today, but would be so profitable for us if we could recapture it. A final facet of Bunyan’s portrayal of endurance is the need for complete dependence on God, which Christian finds so true in his journey. The reality is that we are helpless by ourselves, and we simply will not endure unless we are living in humble dependence on the provision of God.

Bunyan makes no apologies for an insistence on sound doctrine. Interestingly, this was written well before the Evangelical era, yet its distinctive Reformation theology is still fresh today. Because of the battles that have been waged in the last 150 years over theology and doctrine, some have come to conclude that doctrine is the problem, and if we are to ever have “unity”, then we must forgo insisting on certain theological essentials. The challenge for us is to be united around truth as well as mission.

Related to the things I have already mentioned, Bunyan’s vivid portrayal of Christian’s perspective on this temporary and perishing life is a real tonic to the contemporary church. While we must engage this world intelligently and compassionately, it is imperative that we keep in perspective the fact that it is passing away. Only then can we “store up treasures in heaven.” Particularly compelling is Christian’s response when he realizes his city faces judgment and he must leave it. What he values becomes clear. He counts all things loss – even his family – for the sake of Christ Jesus (Php. 3:7-10) and goes on pilgrimage without them. He sees the goods of this world as they really are – useful and even necessary, but of no real value in comparison to that which is coming.

Finally, a challenge to us today is Christian’s fear of God and his sense of the preeminence of God’s glory above all other things. We have created a very humanistic and anthropocentric take on our theology, at least at the street level, where we fool ourselves into thinking the thing God cares about more than anything else is people. In reality, it is God’s glory and His own great name that is foremost on His mind. A man-centered theology leaves one helpless to understand, then, things like the Egyptian plagues, the destruction of Jericho (“men, women, and children”), and God’s wrath poured out in Revelation. And it hobbles us in any ability to understand human suffering or to truly comfort someone who is experiencing it. I was challenged anew to fear God more and tremble at His Name by reading this book.


Anonymous CresceNet said...

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January 15, 2008 at 10:33 AM  
Blogger Aaron said...

I absolutely love this post Steve! This was one of the most refreshing things I have ever read. Your exhortation after you beautifully summarized the book ( I am going to go back again and read this, starting today)was awesome!

Preach On Brotha!

PS. I got this "CresceNet" comment on my blog too and have no idea what it is.

Let's interact on this particular post in future (when we both get time of course).

January 26, 2008 at 9:23 PM  
Blogger Steve said...


I just finished the book for the first time and I loved it. It was very helpful in keeping things in perspective.

January 27, 2008 at 12:28 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

I have a lunch appointment here in a minute but I have a little time to kick it with you here on the blog about this book.

One of my favorite parts in the book is this one...

"Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children, perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, LIFE! LIFE! ETERNAL LIFE! So he looked no behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain."

Love it man! Letting the pursuit of Christ (because of His pursuit of me (I am a Calvanist so I had to throw that in there:)trump all in my life! I get fired up every time I read that part.

You remember this one?

January 29, 2008 at 11:16 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

The idea of forsaking this world has been so lost on American Christians.

We need as pastors to reitierate these ideas to our people...

By living them out!

January 29, 2008 at 3:05 PM  

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