Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress
A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory
THE TWO PILGRIMS IN THE SLOUGH
THROUGH their much talking, and little praying, and giving no heed to where they were going, Christian and Pliable all of a sudden found themselves floundering in the Slough of Despond. Bunyan says:
“Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt; and Christian, because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire.”
Even then, had they but known where to look, they might have discovered that there were, “by the direction of the Lawgiver, certain good and substantial steps, placed even through the very midst of this Slough.” Had they set their feet upon these steps—in other words, had the pilgrims trusted the promises of God—they might have gone through to the other side with scarcely a stain upon their garments.
I always feel inclined to blame Evangelist for some of the discomfort that poor Christian suffered in the Slough of Despond. I am a great lover of John Bunyan, but I do not believe him infallible; and the other day I met with a story about him which I think a very good one. There was a young man, in Edinburgh, who wished to be a missionary. He was a wise young man; so he thought, “If I am to be a missionary, there is no need for me to transport myself far away from home; I may as well be a missionary in Edinburgh.” There’s a hint to some of you ladies, who give away tracts in your district, and never give your servant Mary one.
Well, this young man started, and determined to speak to the first person he met. He met one of those old fishwives; those of us who have seen them can never forget them, they are extraordinary women indeed. So. stepping up to her, he said, “Here you are, coming along with your burden on your back; let me ask you if you have got another burden, a spiritual burden.” “What!” she asked; “do you mean that burden in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress? Because, if you do, young man, I got rid of that many years ago, probably before you were born. But I went a better way to work than the pilgrim did. The Evangelist that John Bunyan talks about was one of your parsons that do not preach the Gospel; for he said, ‘Keep that light in thine eye, and run to the wicket-gate.’ Why, man alive! that was not the place for him to run to. He should have said, ‘Do you see that cross? Run there at once!’ But instead of that, he sent the poor pilgrim to the wicket-gate first; and much good he got by going there!” “But did you not,’ the young man asked, “go through any Slough of Despond?” “Yes, I did; but I found it a great deal easier going through with my burden off than with it on my back.”
The old woman was quite right. John Bunyan put the getting rid of the burden too far from the commencement of the pilgrimage. If he meant to show what usually happens, he was right; but if he meant to show what ought to have happened, he was wrong. We must not say to the sinner: “Now, sinner, if thou wilt be saved, go to the baptismal pool; go to the wicket-gate; go to the church; do this or that.” No, the cross should be right in front of the wicket-gate; and we should say to the sinner: “Throw thyself down there, and thou art safe; but thou art not safe till thou canst cast off thy burden, and lie at the foot of the cross, and find peace in Jesus.”
Now let us leave Christian for a little while, and turn our thoughts to his companion, Pliable. This experience in the Slough of Despond was the first trial he had met with since he had started on pilgrimage. It was, comparatively, a slight one. The Slough was not likely to swallow them up. It was not nearly so bad as lying in Giant Despair’s dungeon or fighting with Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation. It was not much for anyone to endure, but it was more than Pliable could stand. Bunyan thus describes what happened to him:
“At this, 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.’ And with that he gave a desperate struggle or two, and got out of the mire on that side of the Slough which was next to his own house. So away he went, and Christian saw him no more.”
In like fashion, it often comes to pass that, without any great outward trial, but simply through despondency of mind, a sudden damper pales the flush of early joy, and some of those who set out on the road to Heaven turn back, and so prove that they did not start aright, and never had the work of God, the Holy Ghost, truly in their souls.
Some of you, dear friends, when you are attending the services here, or meeting with your companions in one or other of our many Bible classes, get very warm, and excited, and enthusiastic; and then, perhaps, you have to go away to live in the country, which is like going out of a hothouse into an ice well, and straightway you forget all about the happy experiences that you enjoyed amongst us. Or it may be that, instead of your hearing a comforting and soothing sermon, some Sunday morning, I preach an arousing, heart-searching one, and you are offended, or frightened, and give up all desire to tread the pilgrim pathway.
“The fearful soul that tires and faints,
And walks the ways of God no more,
Is but esteem’d almost a saint,
And makes his own destruction sure.”
Beware, I pray you, of any religion that merely springs from the carnal desire of enjoyment of Heaven. Both the terrors of hell and the joys of Heaven are insufficient to make the soul seek the Saviour truly. There must be a sense of sin and a desire after holiness, because, after all, the essence of hell is sin, and the essence of Heaven is holiness, and you are not likely to go to God merely because of the external hell or Heaven. You will only be led to trust in Jesus Christ through the essence of the two external things, namely, sin pressing upon you, and your soul crying out after purity, and holiness, and likeness to God.
May God grant that we may not have any Pliables in our church! Alas! we do get them sometimes, and they go a great deal further on the pilgrim’s road than Mr. Bunyan describes. They go right by the Interpreter’s House; they climb up the Hill Difficulty; they even pass the cross; but, of course, they never feel their burden roll off their backs. They are not conscious that there is a burden there. When Christians sing, they also sing because they think they are to have the same inheritance by-and-by. They generally go through the Valley of Humiliation in broad daylight. Apollyon never fights with them, and they wonder how it is that he does not assail them. They think what good people they are, and what bad people they must be who have those stirrings and smitings of conscience of which they hear us speak. They cannot understand why we talk about Christians having such fierce conflicts within; but if they really knew the Lord, they would soon understand all about it; and until they do know Him, much of our preaching must remain a mystery to them.
Pliable was an utter stranger to vital godliness. He had converted himself; or, rather, Christian had converted him by his talk about Heaven; and, perhaps, if it had not been for the Slough of Despond, he would have gone, as Ignorance did, right to the river side, and been ferried over by Vain-hope, only to be refused admission at the gate, and to be carried by the two Shining Ones, bound hand and foot, and to be cast into hell by the back door, for there is a back door to hell as well as a front one; and some professors, who have, apparently, gone very far on the road to Heaven, will ultimately go to hell by this door unless they repent of their sin, and believe in our Lord Jesus Christ.
But what became of Pliable after he struggled out of the Slough of Despond? Bunyan says:
“Now, I saw in my dream, that by this time Pliable was got home to his house again; so that his neighbours came to visit him, and some of them called him wise man for coming back; and some called him fool for hazarding himself with Christian; others again did mock at his cowardliness; saying, ‘Surely, since you began to venture, I would not have been so base as to have given out for a few difficulties.’ So Pliable sat sneaking among them.”
There is one thing about the world that I have often admired. We sometimes say, “Give the devil his due,” and I will give the world its due. I mean that, when a man goes a little way in religion, and then turns back, mere worldlings generally despise him. I believe that the wicked world has a genuine respect for a true Christian. It hates him, and that is the only homage it is able to pay him. The reason why the men of our Saviour’s day hated and mocked Him, was because they had what I may call an awful respect for Him, and did not know how otherwise to express it. They hated and loathed what they could not rightly appreciate; and thus they showed, by their mockery and scorn, how far they were from comprehending the excellence of the Saviour. You must expect similar treatment from the ungodly if you are like your Lord.
But when a pretended pilgrim turns back, they despise him; they call him a “turncoat,” and they could not very well hit upon a more correct name for him. “Oh!” say they, “a little while ago, you were with the earnest people, and you were, apparently, as earnest as they were; but what are you now?” Then, when the man is seen walking into the alehouse, you know how they greet him. “Ah, Mr. Sobersides! so you’ve come back, have you?” When they track him to the theatre, they say to him, “How long is it since you were at the Tabernacle?” or make some coarse joke about him. They know how to handle the whip of scorn, and I thank them for using it, and hope they will always lay on their blows right heavily.
But, mark you, the little scorn which Pliable finds it so hard to bear in this life is but a very slight foretaste of what he will have to bear in hell. You remember that remarkable description which is given by the prophet Isaiah of the king of Babylon, when he went down to hell, and all the kings whom he had destroyed, and whose countries he had ravaged, were lying on their beds of fire; and as they saw their great conqueror enter, instead of trembling, they hissed out, “Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us? How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”
If any of you turn back, as Pliable did, this will be the worst element in your everlasting torment, that you did, after a fashion, set out on the road to Heaven, that you did pretend to be a Christian, that you said you had enlisted under the banner of the cross, that you talked a good deal about your experience, that you went to the prayer-meeting, and perhaps even prayed audibly, that you gave away tracts, and yet that you were, after all, only a hypocrite, and therefore found yourself, at the last, amid the flames of hell. If I must perish, let it be as a sinner who has never professed to be a saint, rather than as a Pliable, who started for the Celestial City, and then returned to his home in the City of Destruction. It would have been better for those, who have had the taste of heavenly things in their mouths, and yet have not “tasted that the Lord is gracious,” if they had never known anything at all about the way of righteousness.
Some of you, dear friends, must be either Pliables or Christians; you have, naturally, such a disposition that you cannot help being easily influenced by your associates; and unless the grace of God shall make you a child of God, you will be led astray from Him. You cannot be Obstinate; you are too good—as we use the word “good” in a common way—you are too kind, too affectionate, and altogether too tenderhearted to act as that man did towards Christian. You could not bring yourself down to drink or swear; your mother’s influence and your father’s example have too much power over you for you to become an Obstinate. You cannot sin as others can; you cannot sin in ignorance. I was almost going to say, I wish you could. If you are to be lost, if you do not mean to believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, if you are determined to perish, it were far better for you to perish as Tyre and Sidon, than as Bethsaida, or Chorazin, or Capernaum.
I believe that, when some of you get into this Tabernacle, you feel that you must be Pliables. There are a few, in this congregation, whom I happen to know personally, who cannot help coming to hear me, though they remain unsaved. I preach at them, and they know I do, and respect me for it, and even thank me for it, and sometimes say that they hope they will be converted one day; but they are so pliable that they will weep under a sermon, and, after a fashion, pray; but when they get away from here, there is a stronger hand than mine that lays hold of them. Some companion says to them, “Come along; never mind what Spurgeon says, come along with me;” and they cannot say “No.” They have not the moral courage to say they will not go where the ungodly lead them. Whenever they are tempted to sin, they yield. They wish there were no tempters, and that they could get into a world where goodness was in the ascendant. They are like a sailing vessel, which depends on every wind, and is blown hither and thither by every breeze. They have no inward force to enable them to resist. This is not the way to get to Heaven. You need, as it were, a Divine engine mightily at work, with all its heaving, panting energy, that you may make headway against winds and waves, and keep straight on, at the same rate, always steadily advancing towards the far-off port.
May God, by His grace, bring you to this blessed condition! I should have liked to have spoken to you so effectively that you could not have forgotten what I said, but would have gone home to think about it, and to pray about it, and to believe it. I should like you even to wish that you had never been born, because then I should hope that you would wish to be born again. There is no hope for you else. You have been born once; there is no possibility of your getting over the fact that you have your being. Ask the Lord that you may have your being in Christ Jesus. You are a creature, and the only hope for you is to be made “a new creature in Christ Jesus.” May the Holy Spirit bring you to this point! Ask Him to do so. The best place to get a sense of sin is at the foot of the cross. May my blessed Master meet you there, and draw you to Himself, and so may you be saved, and not be found amongst the Pliables at the last! Amen.
C. H. Spurgeon, Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress: A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory