Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress
A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory
PLIABLE SETS OUT WITH CHRISTIAN
NEXT to the Bible, the book that I value most is John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” I believe I have read it through at least a hundred times. It is a volume of which I never seem to tire; and the secret of its freshness is that it is so largely compiled from the Scriptures. It is really Biblical teaching put into the form of a simple yet very striking allegory.
It has been upon my mind to give a series of addresses upon “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” for the characters described by John Bunyan have their living representatives to-day, and his words have a message for many who are found in our congregations at the present time.
You remember that, when Christian, with “a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back,” cried out, “What shall I do to be saved?” he “saw a man named Evangelist coming to him,” who pointed him to the wicket-gate and the shining light. Then Bunyan says:
“So I saw, in my dream, that the man began to run. Now, he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began to cry after him to reurn; but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, ‘Life! life! eternal life!’ (Luke 14:26.) So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain (Gen. 19:17).
The neighbours also came out to see him run (Jer. 20:10); and as he ran, some mocked, others threatened, and some cried after him to return. Now, among those that did so, there were two that were resolved to fetch him back by force; the name of the one was Obstinate, and the name of the other Pliable.”
Instead of yielding to them, Christian began at once to plead with them to go along with him. Obstinate met all his pleas with mockery and abuse, but Pliable was easily persuaded to go. He is a type of those who, apparently, set out for Heaven; but who have not the root of the matter in them, and, therefore, soon turn back. The likeness that Bunyan has drawn of him is worthy of our attentive consideration, for it is true in every line.
It is significant that, in the first instance, Pliable went with Obstinate upon the evil errand of endeavouring to bring Christian back to the City of Destruction. In like manner, some of those who have been in the habit of keeping the worst of company may, sometimes, even without the operation upon them of the grace of God, be induced to forsake their evil companions, and to cast in their lot, for a season, with the followers of Christ.
These Pliable people, who are still a very numerous family, are very dependent upon those by whom they are surrounded. If they happen to have been born in a godly household, it is probable that they will make a profession of religion. It is even possible that they will be highly esteemed, and perhaps for years will bear a most reputable Christian character. If, on the other hand, they happen to be thrown among bad companions, they will be very easily allured by them, and be made to drink, to swear, and to fall into all the vices of the stronger persons by whom they are influenced. They scarcely seem to be men. They are mere jelly fish, swept along by every turn of the tide. They lack the true element of manhood, which is firmness. This, by the way, Obstinate had in excess. If you could put an Obstinate and a Pliable together, and make them one, you might, speaking of the natural man, have something more nearly approaching true manliness than either of them would be separately. Obstinate had all the firmness, while Pliable had none of it.
I think Pliable was a mouldable sort of creature; and, hence, Obstinate did with him as he liked until the poor feeble fellow came into the grasp of a stronger man than Obstinate, namely, Christian. After all, there is no man who is a match for a Christian in the matter of influence. There is a force about the truth, which is committed to our charge, when it is brought into fair play, that is not equalled by any form of lies. If a man’s mind is really pliable, there is no doubt that an earnest Christian, who has been led by Divine grace to walk in the right road, will have wonderful control over such a person. So strong was Christian’s influence that, even while Obstinate was reviling, Pliable rebuked him, and said: “My heart inclines to go with my neighbour.” Christian had not said very much; he had not appeared to exercise much influence; but something had already told on Pliable. In the very presence and look of a Christian, there is a power over the heart of man. Moreover, influence grows; so it came to pass that Pliable presently went even further, and boldly declared: “I intend to go along with this good man, and to cast in my lot with him.”
You perceive, however, that Pliable had no burden on his back, as Christian had. This was one of the proofs that he was not a true pilgrim. That which brings men to Christ is a sense of their need of Him. Albeit the sense of sin is not a qualification for salvation, yet it is the only motive that ever leads men to trust in Jesus; it is the impetus which Divine grace uses when it is drawing or driving men to the Saviour. Pliable did not, at first, appear to be greatly troubled when he heard that the City of Destruction was doomed; but when Christian talked so prettily about Heaven, he thought there might be something in it; indeed, he felt that there must be, when a man like Christian could leave his family and his business to go on a long pilgrimage; so he judged that, probably, he might do better himself if he went with Christian. But, all the while, there was no burden on his back; he had no sense of his need of a Saviour, and this was a very serious defect, to begin with, in one who was professing to go on pilgrimage to the Celestial City.
You will observe, too, that the only thing which tempted Pliable to go was Christian’s talk about the “inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away.” There are some preachers who can descant so prettily upon Heaven—the blessed associations of that happy country where they
“Meet to part no more,”—that half their hearers are constrained to say, “We also will set out.” These divines talk of the wall of jasper, the gates of pearl, the street of gold, the sea of glass, and the emerald rainbow round about the throne, in such a way that persons of a poetical temperament, and especially those of a pliable disposition, have their emotions excited by the descriptions which give only a material view of what was intended to be understood in a spiritual sense. They really think that Heaven is, literally, what the Book of the Revelation says it is figuratively. They never get at the kernel of the inward sense; it is the husk of the outward meaning that at. acts them. They are satisfied, charmed, bewitched, fascinated by that, so they resolve to set out on the journey.
To tell the whole truth about Mr. Pliable, I must say that he began exceedingly well. I have already reminded you that he defended Christian when Obstinate reviled him; and when Obstinate turned his abuse upon Pliable, and said, “What! more fools still?” he did not seem to wince under it. Some of these pliable people will even bear a great deal of persecution, and be content to be ridiculed, and laughed at; they will even suffer loss rather than turn back. If they do this really “for Christ’s sake,” it is well; but, often, it is only borne with a view to self-aggrandizement, and in order to obtain something better by way of recompense, so that it is selfishness still that rules them. They give up a little of the good that there is in this world—and it is not very much, after all, that they sacrifice—for the sake of the better world that is yet to be revealed. They will not give up all that they have—“house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands”—for Christ’s sake, and the Gospel’s, and therefore they are not Christ’s true disciples. They are prepared to make some small sacrifice, but only for the sake of winning Heaven or of escaping hell.
Observe the way in which Christian treated Pliable after Obstinate left them. I daresay he had known him before and understood quite well what a soft, easy-going fellow he was, and how very readily he might be twisted either one way or another; yet he did not disdain his company, but said to him: “Come, neighbour Pliable, I am glad you are persuaded to go along with me.” You and I, dear friends, are bound to invite men to come to Christ no matter who or what they may be; and we should try to encourage them all we can, even though we may have in our own heart a well-grounded fear that some of them will not hold out to the end. I do not think it is for us to say to young persons, who seem to be in earnest about spiritual matters, that we are afraid they will not persevere, and so discourage them. Our business is rather to say to each one of them: “Come, neighbour, come with me, and you shall fare as I do.” It is the work of the Spirit to fill the Gospel net; it is our duty to throw it, and drag it along the bottom; and whether we catch good fish or bad, is not so much our concern as our Master’s. Christian, though not yet at peace himself, had a commendable love for others. It is a beautiful trait, which I like to see in those who feel the secondary work of grace in their souls, that they want others to feel as they feel. This conduct on the part of Christian ought to be a lesson to some of you who have long had joy and peace in believing, but who do not say to others: “Come, neighbour Pliable.” Seek to have in yourselves something of the zeal and compassion of this poor pilgrim with a troubled conscience, yet with a sympathetic heart.
So Pliable, without counting the cost, or reckoning for a moment upon all the difficulties of the way, set out, in a thoughtless, light-hearted manner, upon that journey which will always prove too long for those who start on it in their own strength alone. As they went over the plain, Christian began to talk to Pliable of what he himself had felt—“the powers and terrors of what is unseen”;—but, directly he did so, Pliable changed the subject. He did not want to know anything about such matters; he had, in fact, taken the whole thing in a carnal sense; and, as for the powers and terrors of the unseen world, he knew nothing at all about them; and, apparently, he did not want to know about them, for he harked back to that which had attracted him at the first, and said to Christian: “Tell me now further, what the things are, and how to be enjoyed, whither we are going.”
These two men, as they went along walking and talking, fell into the error of speaking a good deal about things which neither of them properly understood. It is true that Christian said: “Since you are desirous to know, I will read of them in my Book.” There was that good element in their conversation, which we can cordially commend; still, even that may not be the wisest thing for young beginners to do. It is, indeed, a wise thing to read the Bible, and to talk of what it contains; but this must be done with much prayer if it is to be of real spiritual benefit. I look in vain for any word about Pliable praying, but I do read concerning Christian, even before he started on his pilgrimage—
“He would also walk solitarily in the fields, sometimes reading, sometimes praying; and thus for some days he spent his time. Now, I saw upon a time when he was walking in the fields, that he was, as he was wont, reading in his Book, and greatly distressed in his mind; and as he read, he burst out as he had done before, crying, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’(Acts 16:30, 31.)”
It was not so with Pliable. What he heard Christian read from the Book did not make him sorrowful, but enchanted and delighted him. He only thought of the Celestial Country, not of the plague of his own heart, nor of the damnable nature of his sin. These things had never come home with power to him as they had to Christian, and therefore he did not say: “Come, let us kneel together, and plead for mercy;” but he said, “Well, my good companion, glad am I to hear of these things; come on, let us mend our pace.” Yes, at first, there are none who are so enthusiastic as these empty, hollow ones. “Let us mend our pace,” said Pliable. Surely, brethren, the advice is good, but I do not like it from such lips. It is a very proper exhortation in its place, but not when it comes from one who has never been burdened on account of sin, nor broken under the hammer of God’s law, nor made to feel his own nothingness and worthlessness. You who are empty may well travel quickly; you who never felt the load of sin upon your hearts may well run swiftly. Pliable is all for pushing on, making a stir, and creating a noise. He attends revival services, and likes to have them protracted; when the fit is on him, he would be willing to be up all night, to turn his house out of the windows, and to do all manner of extraordinary things, all to show how full of zeal he is. But, in a little time, it will be all over. It is like the crackling of thorns under a pot, which burn so fiercely that they make the pot boil over, and put the fire out.
“Come,” said Pliable, “let us mend our pace.” Christian said, “I cannot go so fast as I would, by reason of this burden that is on my back.” Then, just as they ended their talk, Bunyan tells us that “they drew near to a very miry slough that was in the midst of the plain; and they, being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog. The name of the slough was Despond.”
C. H. Spurgeon, Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress: A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory, (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 11–21.