Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday Salt: John Bunyan - When Sin Causes Us to Lose Heart

John Bunyan began writing The Pilgrim's Progress while in prison in 1675. A lay preacher with only a basic lower-class education, Bunyan wrote a book that became perhaps the first great English novel and one of the most popular Christian books ever. Charles Spurgeon claimed to have read it over 100 times, saying: "Next to the Bible, the book that I value most is John Bunyan’s, 'Pilgrim’s Progress,' and I imagine I may have read that through perhaps a hundred times. It is a book of which I never seem to tire, but then the secret of that is, that John Bunyan’s, 'Pilgrim’s Progress,' is the Bible in another shape. It is the same heavenly water taken out of this same well of the Gospel... ." (1901, Sermon #2724).

Bunyan's tale is an allegory of the journey of a Christian from the City of Destruction (the world of man) to the Celestial City. The struggles of faith are portrayed as obstacles and dangers, and the people's names reveal their nature. Early on in his journey, Christian and a companion called Pliable become stuck in the murky bog called the Slough of Despond:

"At that Pliable began to be offended, and angrily said to his fellow, Is this the happiness you have told me all this while of? If we have such ill speed at our first setting out, what may we expect betwixt this and our journey's end? May I get out again with my life, you shall possess the brave country alone for me."

Pliable does make his way out and turn back, and another character explains what the Slough is: "it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore it is called the Slough of Despond; for still, as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place." (text of the book online)

Pliable's reaction seems common. When we first begin to realize our guilt and how awful sin is, we can be overwhelmed by shame. It is tempting to reject the awareness of our sin rather than admit that our own sins are really so terrible and shameful. Or we may be discouraged by fear that God can never accept us after all these sins. But the reason we have so much trouble with conviction of sin is that we are not focusing our gaze wider to see the awesome extent of the grace that is flowing to us in Christ. If we think about how great and deep God's love is and how completely the mercy of God wipes away our sin through the cross, then the shame of our sin should not overwhelm us. We should be able to bear the unpleasant realizations about ourselves because our consolation and encouragement is that what Christ is giving us will completely eclipse all of that. The joy of knowing God is so great it will blot out the shame of sin.

As another character says of Pliable later on: "Alas, poor man, is the celestial glory of so small esteem with him, that he counteth it not worth running the hazards of a few difficulties to obtain it?"

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