Help at Despond

Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress: Chapter 3

Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress

A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory


“Wherefore Christian was left to stumble in the Slough of Despond alone; but still he endeavoured to struggle to that side of the Slough that was still further from his own house, and next to the Wicket-gate; the which he did, but could not get out, because of the burden that was upon his back. But I beheld, in my dream, that a man came to him, whose name was Help, and asked him what he did there.

“CHR. ‘Sir,’ said Christian, ‘I was bid go this way by a man called Evangelist, who directed me also to yonder gate, that I might escape the wrath to come; and as I was going thither, I fell in here.’

“HELP. ‘But why did you not look for the steps?’

“CHR. ‘Fear followed me so hard, that I fled the next way and fell in.’

“Then said he, ‘Give me thy hand.’ So he gave him his hand, and he drew him out, and set him upon sound ground, and bid him go on his way (Psalm 40:2).”

ACCORDING to the diversity of gifts which proceeded from the self-same Spirit of God, those who laboured in guiding wayfarers to the Celestial City, in the early ages of Christianity, fulfilled different offices, and were known by different names. Paul tells us, in his first Letter to the Corinthian Pilgrims (1 Cor. 12:28), “God hath set some in the Church, first apostles.” These were to go from place to place, founding churches, and ordaining ministers. There were, “secondarily, prophets”; some of whom uttered prophecies, while others were gifted in explaining them. Then came, “thirdly, teachers”; who were, probably, either pastors settled over divers churches, guiding pilgrims along the heavenward road, as Great-heart did, or men like Evangelist, journeying about to warn and direct such as they met.

“After that, miracles; then, gifts of healings;” and the apostle does not forget to mention another class of persons, called “HELPS.” Who these people precisely were, it would be very difficult, at this period of time, if not quite impossible, to tell. Some, who are learned in the pilgrim records, have thought that they were assistant ministers, who occasionally aided settled pastors, both in the pastoral work of visiting, and also in preaching the Word. Others have supposed that they were assistant deacons, and perhaps even deaconesses, an office which was recognized in the apostolic churches. Others, again, have imagined these “helps” to have been the attendants in the sanctuary, who took care that strangers were properly accommodated, and managed those details, in connection with the gatherings of persons for united worship, which always must be superintended by somebody.

Whoever they were, or whatever may have been their functions, they appear to have been a useful body of people, worthy to be mentioned in the same list as apostles, and prophets, and teachers, and even to be named with miracle-workers, and those who had the gifts of healing. It is very probable that they had no official standing, but were only moved by the natural impulse of the Divine life within them to do anything and everything which would assist either teacher, pastor, or deacon in the work of the Lord. They were of that class of brethren who are useful anywhere, who can always stop a gap, and who are only too glad when they find that they can make themselves serviceable to the Church of God in any capacity, however lowly. The Church in this age rejoices in a goodly brigade of “helps,” but perhaps a word or two may stir up their pure minds by way of remembrance.

John Bunyan, whom we shall see to be the master of Christian experience as well as of holy allegory has, in the passage at the head of this chapter, described a part of the work of these “helps” which is most valuable, and most required. “The man whose name was Help” came to Christian when he was floundering in the foul morass of despondency. Just when the poor man was likely to have been choked, having missed his footing in the Slough, and when, with all his struggling, he was only sinking deeper and deeper into the mire, there suddenly came to him a person—of whom Bunyan says nothing more throughout his whole allegory, and here only tells us his name—who put out his hand, and speaking some words of encouragement to him, pulled him out of the mire, set him on the King’s highway, and then went about his business—a man unknown to fame on earth, but enrolled in the annals of the skies as wise to win souls.

There are periods, in the Divine life, when the help of judicious Christian brethren is invaluable. Most of us, who are now rejoicing in a well-assured hope, have known quite as much as we wish to know about that awful Slough of Despond. I myself floundered in it for five years, or thereabouts, and am therefore well acquainted with its terrible geography. In some places, it is deeper than in others, and more nauseous; such as the spot where David was when he cried, “I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing”; but, believe me, a man may reckon himself thrice happy when he gets out of it; for, even at its best, when he is fairly in it, it threatens to swallow him up alive. Dear, very dear to us, must ever be the hand that helped us out of the horrible pit; and while we ascribe all the glory to the God of grace, we cannot but love most affectionately the instrument whom He sent to be the means of our deliverance.

On the summit of some of the Swiss passes, the Canton, for the preservation and accommodation of travelers, maintains a small body of men, who live in a little house on the mountain, and whose business it is to help travelers on their way. It was very pleasant, when we were toiling up the steep ascent of the Col D’Obbia, in Northern Italy, to see, some three or four miles from the top, a man coming down, who saluted us as though he had known us for years, and had been awaiting our arrival. He carried a spade in his hand; and though we did not know what was ahead of us, he evidently knew all about it, and was forearmed and prepared for every emergency. By-and-by, we came to deep snow, and our kind pioneer immediately went to work with his spade to clear a footway, along which he carried the weaker ones of the party upon his back.

It was his business to care for travelers; and, ere long, he was joined by another, who brought with him refreshments for the weary ones. These men were “helps,” who spent their lives on that part of the road where it was known that their services would frequently be in requisition. They would have been worth little in the plains; their attentions might even have been considered intrusive had they met us in any other place; but they were exceedingly valuable, because they presented themselves just where they were required, having, as it were, waylaid us with kindness.

“Helps” are of little use to a man when he can help himself; but when he is hopelessly slipping amid the slime of the Slough of Despond, then a man of affectionate heart becomes more precious than the gold of Ophir.

The men of this brigade of “helps,” if I understand Bunyan aright, are stationed all round the borders of the great dismal Swamp of Despond; and it is their business to keep watch, and listen along the brink of the Slough for the cries of any poor benighted travelers who may be staggering in the mire. Just as the Royal Humane Society keeps its men along the borders of the lakes in the parks in wintertime, and when the ice is forming, bids them to be on the watch, and take care of any who may venture upon it, so, a little knot of Christian people, both men and women, should always be ready, in every church, to listen for cries of distress, and to watch for broken hearts and cast-down spirits. Such are the “helps” whom we need; and such, perhaps, were the ancient “helps” mentioned by Paul.

It may be well to give a few directions to these “helps” as to how they may assist seeking sinners out of the Slough of Despond.

From my own pastoral experience, I am led to recommend a careful imitation of “the man whose name was Help” as he is described by Bunyan. So, first, when you meet with one who is despairing, get him to state his own case. When Help assisted Christian, he did not at once put out his hand to him; but he asked him what he did there, and why he did not look for the steps. It does men much good to make them unveil their spiritual griefs to their comforters. Confession to a priest is an abomination, but the communication of our spiritual difficulties to a fellow Christian will often be a sweet relief and a helpful exercise.

You, who seek to aid the awakened, will be wise, like the angels at the tomb, to enquire of the weeping Mary, “Woman, why weepest thou?” Their answers will direct the helper’s line of action, and assist in the application of the necessary consolation. The patient who understands the malady will the more cheerfully yield to the treatment of a wise physician. I have occasionally found that the mere act of stating a difficulty has been the means of at once removing it. Some of the most distressing doubts, like hideous screech-owls, will not bear the light of day. There are many spiritual difficulties which, if a man did but look them fully and fairly in the face long enough to be able to describe them, would vanish during the investigation. “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” is our Lord’s way of setting reason in battle array against unbelief. Let the mourner state his case, by all means; and do you patiently listen to it. Get that young man alone, dear brother; ask him to sit down quietly with you, and then enquire of him, “What is the point that puzzles you? What cannot you understand? What is it that makes you so dejected and dispirited?” Wisely did good Help induce Christian to unbosom his griefs; do thou likewise.

Next to this, enter, as much as lieth in you, into the case before you. Help came to the brink of the Slough, and stooped down to his poor friend. This may seem to you, perhaps, as an unimportant direction; but, depend upon it, you will be able to give very little help, if any, if you do not follow it. Sympathy is the mainspring of our ability to comfort others. If you cannot enter into a soul’s distress, you will be no “Son of Consolation” to that soul. So, seek to bring yourselves down to “weep with them that weep,” that you may uplift them to the platform of your joy. Do not sneer at a difficulty because it seems small to you; recollect that it may be very great to the person who is troubled by it. Do not begin to scold, and tell the anxious enquirer that he ought not to feel as he does feel, or to be distressed as he is. As God puts His everlasting arms underneath us, when we are weak, so you must put the outstretched arms of your sympathy underneath your younger and weaker brethren, that you may lift them up.

If you see a brother in the mire, put your arms right down into the mud that, by the grace of God, you may lift him bodily out of it. Recollect that you were once just where that desponding sister of yours is now; and try, if you can, to bring back your own feelings when you were in her condition. It may be, as you say, that the stripling or damsel is very foolish. Yes, but you were yourself foolish once; and, then, you abhorred all manner of meat, and your soul drew near to the gates of death. You must, to use Paul’s language, “become a fool for their sakes.” You must put yourselves into the condition of these simple-minded ones. If you cannot do this, you need training to teach you how to be a help; as yet, you do not know the way.

Your next step may be, to comfort these poor brethren with the promises of God. Help asked Christian why he did not look for the steps; for there were good and substantial stepping-stones placed through the very midst of the Slough; but Christian said he had missed them through excessive fear. We should point sinking souls to the many precious promises of God’s Word. Brethren, mind that you are yourselves well acquainted with the consoling declarations of Scripture; have them on the tip of your tongue, ready for use at any time that they are required.

I have heard of a certain scholar, who used to carry miniature copies of the classic authors about with him, so that he seemed to have almost a Bodleian Library in his pocket. Oh, that you would carry miniature Bibles about with you; or, better still, that you had the whole Word of God hidden in your hearts, so that, like your Lord, you “should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary”! “A word spoken in due season, how good is it!” Whenever you come across a distressed soul, what a blessed thing it is for you to be able to say to him: “Yes, you are a sinner, it is true; but Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners!” Possibly, he will tell you that he cannot do anything; but you may answer that he is not told to do anything, for it is written, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” He will, perhaps, reply that he cannot believe; but you can remind him of the promise, “Whosoever shall call upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Some texts in the Bible are like those constellations in the heavens which are so conspicuous that, when the mariner once sees them, he knows in what direction he is steering. Certain brilliant passages of Scripture appear to be set in the firmament of Revelation as guiding stars to bewildered souls. Point to these. Quote them often. Rivet the sinner’s eyes upon them. Thus shall you aid him most efficiently.

If a despairing soul should read these pages, let me quote to him these exceeding great and precious promises of our gracious God: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” “He retaineth not His anger forever, because He delighteth in mercy.” “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” These three texts are specimens of the “steps” which “the Lord of the way” has caused to be placed where they can best assist sinking sinners.

After quoting the promises, try to instruct those who may need your help more fully in the plan of salvation. The Gospel is preached, every Sabbath day, in thousands of pulpits, yet there is nothing that is so little known or rightly understood as the truth as it is in Jesus. The preacher cannot, even with all his attempts, make the simple Gospel plain to some of his hearers; but you, who are no preachers, may be able to do it, because your state of mind and education may happen just to suit the comprehension of the person concerned. God is my witness how earnestly I always endeavor to make clear and plain whatever I say, but yet my peculiar modes of thought and expression may not be suitable to the cases of certain persons in my audiences. You, by holy tact and perseverance, may be able to cheer those hearts which gather not a gleam of light from me. If my brethren and sisters, the “helps,” will be constantly and intelligently active, they may, by homely language, often explain where theologians only confuse; that which may not have been understood, in the form of scholastic divinity, may reach the heart when uttered in the language of daily life.

We need parlour and kitchen and workshop preachers, who can talk the natural speech of men; Universities and Colleges often obscure the truth by their modes of speech. If you, our friends who mingle with the world, will only put the same thing in another shape, the sinner will say, “Ah! I see it now; I could not comprehend it from the pastor’s language, but I can understand it from your plain talk.” Do, if you would help souls, point them to the Saviour. Do not trouble them with irrelevant matters, but direct them at once to “the precious blood of Jesus,” for that is the one source of pardon and cleansing. Tell the sinner that whosoever trusts in Jesus shall be saved. Do not point to the Wicket-gate, as Evangelist did; for that is not the truest way, but bid the sinner go straightway to the Cross. Poor Christian need not have wallowed in the Slough of Despond if he had met with a fully-instructed believer to direct him at the first. Do not scold the mistaken Evangelist, but seek, by always pointing the sinner to Calvary, to undo the mischief he wrought to the pilgrim.

Would you supplement this? Then, tell the troubled one your own experience. Many have been aided to escape from the Slough of Despond in this way. “What!” exclaims the young friend to whom we are speaking, “did you ever feel as I do?” I have often been amused, when I have been talking with enquirers, to see them open their eyes with amazement to think that I had ever felt as they did, whereas I should have opened mine with far greater astonishment if I had not. We tell our patients all their symptoms, and then they think we must have read their hearts; whilst the fact is, that our hearts are just like theirs, and, in reading ourselves, we read them. We have gone along the same road as they have, and it would be a very hard thing if we could not describe what we have ourselves undergone. Even advanced Christians often derive great comfort from reading and hearing the experience of others, if it is anything like their own; and to young people, it is a most blessed means of grace to hear others tell what they have gone through before them. I wish our elder brethren would be more frequently “helps” in this matter; and that, when they see others in trouble, they would tell them that they have passed through the very same difficulties, instead, as some do, of blaming the young people for not knowing what they cannot know, and upbraiding them because they have not “old heads on young shoulders,” where, by the way, they would be singularly out of place.

Once more, you will very much help the young enquirer by praying with him. Oh, the power of prayer! When you cannot tell the sinner what you want to say, you can sometimes tell it to God in the sinner’s hearing. There is a way of saying, in prayer with a person, what you cannot say direct to his face; and it is well, sometimes, when praying with another, to put the case very plainly and earnestly—something in this way, “Lord, Thou knowest that this poor woman, now kneeling before Thee, is very much troubled; but it is her own fault. She will not believe in Thy love, because she says she feels no evidence of it. Thou hast given evidence enough in the gift of Thy dear Son; but she will persist in wanting to see something of her own upon which she may rest, some good frames or feelings. She has been told, many times, that all her hope lies in Christ, and not at all in herself; yet she will continue to seek fire in the midst of water, and life in the graves of death. Open her eyes, Lord; turn her face in the right direction, and lead her to look to Christ, and not to self!”

Praying in this way puts the case very plainly, and may be in itself useful. Moreover, there is a real power in prayer; the Lord assuredly hears the cry of His people still. As certainly as the electric fluid bears the message from one place to another, as certainly as the laws of gravitation control the spheres, so certainly is prayer a mysterious but a very real power. God does answer prayer. We are as sure of this as we are that we breathe: we have tried it, and proved it. It is not occasionally that God has heard us, but it has become as regular a thing with us to ask and have as it is for our children to ask us for food, and to receive it at our hands. I should hardly think of attempting to prove that God hears my prayer; I have no more doubt about it than I have of the fact that the law of gravitation affects me in walking, in sitting still, in rising up, and in lying down. Exercise, then, this power of prayer; and you shall often find that, when nothing else will help a soul out of its difficulty, supplication will do it. There are no limits, dear friends, if God be with you, to your ability to help others through the power of prayer.
These directions—and they are not very many—you should keep in your memories, as you would the directions of the Royal Humane Society, with reference to people who have been in danger of drowning.

C. H. Spurgeon, Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress: A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory

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