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Trapped in Despair
April 19, 2012
Today we continue reading John Bunyan’s classic work The Pilgrim’s Progress, and we arrive at the seventh stage of his journey. Last week Christian’s friend Faithful was martyred while passing through Vanity Fair. This week he meets up with Hopeful and the two journey on.
This portion of the book was quite a bit longer than those that came before. It roughly divides into three parts; first Christian and Hopeful encounter a man named By-Ends and then his friends Mr. Hold-the-world, Mr. Money-love, and Mr. Save-all. I will leave it to someone else to explain what this is all about as I found it kind of confusing. I can say, though, that this is one of those places where you can see the depth of Bunyan’s theology as he presents a back-and-forth argument where Christian argues against using religion for pragmatic purposes. By-Ends and his friends are suggesting that it is wise to be religious for the sake of worldly gain. Part of Christian’s response includes these words:
[T]hat man who takes up religion for the world, will throw away religion for the world; for so surely as Judas designed the world in becoming religious, so surely did he also sell religion and his Master for the same. To answer the question, therefore, affirmatively, as I perceive you have done, and to accept of, as authentic, such answer, is heathenish, hypocritical, and devilish; and your reward will be according to your works.
Having moved on from that conversation, Christian and Hopeful come across a man named Demas, obviously a reference to the Demas mentioned by the Apostle Paul, a man once involved in ministry but who forsook it all because he loved the things of this world. In this story Demas tries to woo the pilgrims off the narrow path with the promise of riches. Or maybe it isn’t the promise as much as the hint or suggestion. “Won’t you just come and take a look?” But those who come and look stumble and fall as the ground around is shaky and unstable.
Having gone past Demas, the pilgrims spy what looks like an easier road, a path that leads through a meadow. They decide to try out this shortcut but end up being taken by Giant Despair and chained up in his castle. There they are beaten and abused and chained in darkness. This is rather an interesting part of the book which Bunyan uses to portray the hopelessness and despair that may come to the Christian, especially when he has strayed from the path and blundered into sin. It is such despair that the pilgrim may even be tempted to take his own life. It is only the encouragement the men give to one another that keeps them from such sin.
At the depths of the pit of despair Christian suddenly remembers something.
Now, a little before it was day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out into this passionate speech: What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty! I have a key in my bosom, called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any lock in Doubting Castle. Then said Hopeful, That is good news; good brother, pluck it out of thy bosom, and try.
Christian remembers the promises of God and those promises unlock the gates so he can leave despair behind. It’s an interesting and powerful metaphor, though I found myself wishing that Bunyan had given a little more attention to what those promises are. Nevertheless, the point is clear: the promises of God defeat despair.
For next Thursday please read (or listen to) stage eight. You may want to consult the CCEL version if the version you are reading has a different chapter breakdown.
The purpose of this program is to read these books together. If you have something to say, whether a comment or criticism or question, feel free to use the comment section for that purpose.