Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress
A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory
HAVING spoken about the best way of helping souls out of despondency and distress, I shall now proceed to describe those who may truly be called HELPS—for it is not everybody, and not even every professing Christian, who is qualified to perform this most needful work.
The first essential for a true “help” is, that he should have a tender heart.
Some brethren are, by Divine grace, specially prepared and fitted to become soul-winners.
I know an earnest brother, whom I have often called my hunting dog, for he is always on the watch for those who have been wounded by the Word. No sooner does he see that there are souls that appear to be anxious than he is on the alert; and whenever he hears of a meeting of converts, he is all astir. He may have appeared dull and heavy before, but, at such times, his eyes flash, his heart beats more quickly, his whole soul is moved to action, and he becomes like a new man. In other company, he might not feel at home; but, among converts and enquirers, he is all alive and happy. Where they are to be found, his heart takes fire directly; for, amidst the diversities of gifts that proceed from the one Spirit, his gift evidently is that of helping souls out of spiritual trouble. Such a man was Timothy, of whom Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I have no man like-minded, who will naturally care for your state.”
You know that, in ordinary life, some people are born nurses, while others cannot nurse at all.
If you were ill, you would not care to have them near you, even if they would come for nothing, or pay you for having them. Probably, they mean well; but, somehow or other, they have not the gentleness and tenderness which are essential in a good nurse. They stamp across the room so heavily that they wake up their poor patient; and if there be any medicine to be taken at night, it tastes all the worse if they administer it to you. But, on the other hand, you have known a real nurse—perhaps your own wife—you never heard her walk across the room when you were ill, for she steps so softly that you might almost as soon hear her heartbeat as hear her footfall. Then, too, she understands your taste, your likes and dislikes, and always knows exactly what to bring you to tempt your feeble appetite.
Whoever heard of a nurse more fit for her work than Miss Nightingale? She seems as if God had sent her into the world on purpose, not only that she might be herself a nurse, but that she might teach others to nurse. It is even thus in spiritual things. I have used a homely illustration to show you what I mean. There are some people who, if they try to comfort the distressed, go to work so awkwardly that they are pretty sure to cause a great deal more trouble than they remove; to console the mourner is, evidently, not their forte.
The true “help” to souls in trouble is one who, though his head may not be filled with classic lore, has a large and warm heart; he is, in fact, all heart.
It was said of the beloved apostle John, that he was a pillar of fire from head to foot. This is the kind of man that a soul wants when it is shivering in the cold winter of despondency and distress. We know some such men; may God train many more, and give to all of us more of the gentleness that was in Christ; for, unless we are, in this way, fitted for the work, we shall never be able to do it properly.
A true “help” wants, not only a large and loving heart, but a very quick eye and ear.
There is a way of getting the eye and ear sensitively acute with regard to sinners. I know some brethren and sisters who, when they are sitting in their pews, can almost tell how the Word is operating upon those who are near them. Trained and experienced “help” knows just what they ought to say to their neighbors when the sermon is over; they understand how to say it, and whether they ought to say it in the pew, or going down the stairs, or outside the building, or whether they ought to wait till later in the week. They have a kind of sacred instinct; or, rather, an unction from the Holy Spirit which tells them just what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. It is a blessed thing when God thus sets His watchmen along the borders of the Slough of Despond. Then, with quick ears, they listen to every sound; and, by-and-by, when they hear a splash in any part of the mire, though it may be very dark and misty, they hasten to the rescue. Possibly, nobody else hears the cry of the soul in distress but those who lay themselves out to listen for it.
We also want, for this work, men who are swift of foot, to run to the relief of the distressed.
Some professors never speak to their neighbors about their souls; but we thank God that there are others, who will not let a stranger go away without an earnest word concerning Christ. I pray such “helps” to persevere in the good habit, and I am sure that the Lord will bless them in it; for, while there is much that can be done by the preacher who faithfully delivers his Master’s message, there is often even more that can be done by those who are able, in personal conversation, to get at the hearer’s conscience, and, with the Holy Spirit’s aid, to enlighten his soul.
For a thoroughly efficient “help”, give us, also, a man with a loving face.
We do not make our own faces; but no brother, who is habitually grim, will do much with anxious enquirers. Cheerfulness commends itself, especially to a troubled heart. We do not want levity in this holy service, but there is a great difference between cheerfulness and levity. I know that I can always tell what I feel to a man who looks kindly at me, but I could not communicate anything to one who, in a cold official way, talked at me from a great elevation, as though it were his business to enquire into my private concerns with the view of finding me out, and sending me to the rightabout. Engage in this difficult work softly, gently, affectionately; let your cheerful countenance tell that the religion you have is worth having, that it cheers and comforts you; for, in that way, the poor soul in the Slough of Despond will be more likely to hope that it will cheer and comfort him.
Earnestly, too, let me recommend you to have a firm footing if you mean to be a “help” to others.
If you have to pull a brother out of the Slough, you must yourself stand fast; or, otherwise, while you are trying to lift him out, he may pull you into the mire. Recollect that, listening to the doubts of others may give rise to similar doubts in your own mind unless you are firmly established as to your own personal interest in Christ Jesus. If you would be useful in your Lord’s service, you must not always be doubting and fearing. Full assurance is not necessary to salvation, but it is necessary to your success as a helper of others.
I remember, when I first taught in a Sunday school, that I was trying to point one of the boys in the class to the Saviour. He seemed troubled about his spiritual state, and he said to me, “Teacher, are you saved?” I replied, “Yes.” “But are you sure you are?” he asked; and though I did not answer him just then, I felt that I could not very well assure him that there certainly was salvation in Jesus Christ, unless I had trusted Him myself, and proved His power to save. Endeavor to get a sure foothold yourself; for, then, you will be more useful around the edge of the Slough of Despond than those will be who are constantly slipping on its slimy banks.
As you want to help those who are struggling in the Slough, try to know it well; find out its worst parts, and ascertain where it is deepest.
You will not have to go far to learn this; you have probably been in it yourself, and therefore remember something about it, and you can easily gather from one and another whereabouts it is worst. Seek, if you can, to understand the mental philosophy of despondency of spirit;—I do not mean by studying Dugald Stewart and other writers on mental philosophy; but by real, heartfelt experience, seek to become practically acquainted with the doubts and fears which agitate awakened souls.
When you have done this, may the Lord give you—for you will need it if you are to become very useful,—a strong hand, in order that you may firmly grip the sinner whom you want to rescue!
Our Lord Jesus Christ did not heal the lepers without touching them, and we cannot do good to our fellow men if we always remain at a distance from them. The preacher is sometimes able to lay hold of his hearers; he can feel that he has them in his grasp, and that he can do almost anything he likes with them; and if you are to be a “help” to others, you will have to learn the blessed art of laying hold of the conscience, the heart, the judgment, the whole man. When you once get a grip of a troubled heart, never let it go till you land it in peace. Have a hand like a vice, that will never let the sinner go when once you have hold of him. Shall a servant of God ever let a sinner fall back into the Slough when once he has taken him by the hand, and begun to pull him out? No; not while the rock, on which he stands, remains firm and steadfast, and he can hold the sinner by the hands of faith and prayer. May God teach you to clasp men by love, by spiritual sympathy, by that sacred passion for souls which will not let them go till they are saved!
Once more, if you would help others out of the Slough of Despond, you must have a bending back.
You cannot draw them out if you stand bolt upright; you must go right down to where the poor creatures are sinking in the mire. They are almost gone; the mud and the slime are well-nigh over their heads; so you must roll up your sleeves, and go to work with a will if you mean to rescue them. “But they cannot speak correct English!” says someone. Never mind; do not speak superfine English to them, for they would not understand it; speak bad English which they can understand. It is said that many of the sermons of Augustine are full of shockingly bad Latin, not because Augustine was a poor Latin scholar, but because the dog-Latin of the day was better suited to the popular ear than more classically correct language would have been; and we shall have to speak in similar style if we want to get hold of men.
There is a certain prudery about ministers which disqualifies them for some kinds of work; they cannot bring their mouth to utter the truth in such plain speech as fisher-women would understand, but happy is that man whose mouth is able to declare the truth in such a way that the persons to whom he is speaking will receive it. “But remember the dignity of the pulpit,” says one. Yes, so I do; but what is that? The “dignity” of a war-chariot consists in the number of captives that are chained to its wheels, and “the dignity of the pulpit” consists in the souls converted to God through the Gospel proclaimed in it. Do not give your hearers any sublime jargon, Johnsonian sentences, and rolling periods; there is no “dignity” in any of these things if they go over the heads of your hearers.
You must, as Paul wrote to the Romans, “condescend to men of low estate;” and, sometimes, you will meet with men and women whom you must address in a style which does not commend itself to your own fastidious taste, but which your judgment and your heart will command and compel you to use. Learn to stoop. Do not, for instance, go into a cottage like a fine lady who lets everybody see what a great thing it is for her to condescend to visit poor people; go and sit down on a broken chair, if there is no other in the room; sit on the edge, if the rushes are gone; sit close to the good woman, even if she is not as clean as she might be; and talk to her, not as her superior, but as her equal.
If there is a boy playing marbles, and you want to talk to him, you must not call him away from his play, not look down upon him from a great elevation, as his schoolmaster might; but begin with a few playful expressions, and then drop a more serious sentence into his ear. If you would do people good, you must go down to them where they are. It is of no use to preach oratorical sermons to drowning men; you must go to the edge of the pool, stretch out your arms, and try to lay hold of them.
These, then, are some of the qualifications of a true “help.”
Now I close by endeavoring to incite those of our brethren and sisters, who have been “helps” in the past, to go on yet more earnestly with that work in the future, and to stir up those who have not tried it, to begin at once.
Perhaps somebody asks, “Why should I help others?” My answer to that question is,—because souls need help; is not that enough? The cry of misery is a sufficient argument for the display of mercy. Souls are dying, perishing; therefore, help them. A few weeks ago, there was a story, in the papers, of a man being found dead in a ditch; and it was afterwards ascertained that he must have been lying there for six weeks. It was said that somebody had heard the cry, “Lost! Lost!” but it was dark, and he did not go out to see who it was! “Shocking! Shocking!” you say; and yet you may have acted in the very same way towards immortal souls.
Among your neighbours, there are many who may not cry, “Lost!” because they do not feel that they are lost, yet they are; and will you let them die in the ditch of ignorance without going to their relief? There are others who are crying, “Lost!” and who need a word of comfort and direction; will you let them perish in despair for the want of it? Brethren and sisters in Christ, let the needs of humanity provoke you to activity on behalf of the many lost ones all around you.
Remember, also, how you were yourselves helped when you were in a similar condition to theirs.
Some of us will never forget that dear Sunday-school teacher, that tender mother, that gracious woman, that kind young man, that excellent elder of the Church, who once did so much for us when we were in trouble of soul. We shall ever recollect their bright attention and assistance; they seemed to us like visions of bright angels when we were in the thick fog and darkness of despair. Then, repay the debt you owe to them, discharge the obligation by helping others as you were yourselves helped in your time of trouble.
Moreover, Christ deserves it.
There is a lost lamb, out there in the darkness; it is His lamb, so will you not care for it for His sake? If there were a strange child at our door, asking for a night’s shelter, common humanity might prompt us to take in the poor little creature out of the snow and wind; but if it were the child of our own brother, or of some dear friend, the sympathy of kinship would constrain us to protect it. That sinner is, in any case, your brother in the one great human family; so, by his relationship to you, though he may not discern it at present, a moral obligation rests upon you to give him all the help that is in your power.
Beloved, you would not want any other argument, did you know how blessed the work is in itself. Would you gain experience? Then, help others. Would you grow in grace? Then, help others. Would you shake off your own despondency? Then, help others. This work quickens the pulse, it clears the vision, it steels the soul to holy courage; it confers a thousand blessings on your own souls, to help others on the road to Heaven. Shut up your heart’s floods, and they will become stagnant, noisome, putrid, foul; let them flow, and they shall be fresh and sweet, and shall well up continually. Live for others, and you will live a hundred lives in one. For true blessedness, divorce me from idleness, and unite me to industry.
If that is not sufficient reason, remember that you are called to this work. Your Master has hired you, so it is not your place to pick and choose what you will do.
He has lent you your talents, so that you must do with them as he bids you. Determine that you will at once do some practical service for your Master, for He has called you to it. If you do not, you will probably soon feel the rod of correction. If you do not help others, God will treat you as men do their stewards who make no right use of the goods entrusted to them; your talent will be taken from you. Sickness may come upon you, because you were not active while you were in health; you may be reduced to poverty, because you did not make a right use of your riches; you may be brought into deep despair, because you have not helped despairing souls.
Pharaoh’s dream has often been fulfilled since his day. He dreamed that seven fat kine came up out of the river, and that there came up seven lean ones after them, and ate up the fat kine. Sometimes, when you are full of joy and peace, you are lazy and idle, and do no good to others; and when this is the case, you may well fear lest the seven lean kine should eat up the seven fat ones; and you may rest assured that lean days, in which you do nothing for your Master, lean Sundays, lean prayers, and so on, will eat up your fat Sabbaths, your fat graces, your fat joys, and then where will you be?
Besides all this, remember that, every hour we live, we are getting nearer Heaven, and sinners are getting nearer hell.
The time in which we can serve Christ by winning souls is constantly waxing shorter. Our days are very few, so let us use them all for God. Let us not forget the reward which He will give to His faithful servants. Happy spirit, who shall hear others say, as he enters the celestial regions, “My father, I welcome thee!” Childless souls, in glory, who were never made a blessing to others on earth, must surely miss the very Heaven of Heaven; but they who have brought many to Christ shall have, in addition to their own bliss, the joy of sympathy with other spirits whom they were the means of leading to the Saviour. I wish I could put my Master’s message into words that would burn their way into your hearts. I desire that every church member may be a worker for Christ. We want no drones in this hive, and we want all bees, and no wasps. The most useless persons are generally the most quarrelsome; and those who are the most happy and peaceable, are usually those who are doing most for Christ. We are not saved by working, but by grace; but, because we are saved, we desire to be the instruments of bringing others to Jesus.
I would stir you all up to help in this good work; old men, young men, brethren and sisters, according to your gifts and experience, help.
I wish that each one of you would feel, “I cannot do much, but I can help; I cannot preach, but I can help; I cannot pray in public, but I can help; I cannot give much money away, but I can help; I cannot officiate as an elder or deacon, but I can help; I cannot shine as a ‘bright particular star,’ but I can help; I cannot stand alone to serve my Master, but I can help.” An old Puritan once preached a very singular sermon; there were only two words in the text, and they were, “and Bartholomew.” The reason he took the text was, that, in the Gospel, Bartholomew’s name is never mentioned alone; he is always associated with one of the other apostles. He is never the principal actor, but always second. Let this be your feeling; that, if you cannot do all yourself, you will help to do what you can.
When I gather my congregation together, I look upon the assembly as a meeting of the council, to present degrees to such disciples as, through many sessions of labor, have merited them; and then I feel that we may confer upon those who have used the opportunities well, the sacred title of “HELPS.” Some of you have long earned this honorable name. Others of you shall have it when you deserve it; so make haste and win it. God grant that it may be your joy to enter Heaven, praising Him, that by His grace, He helped you to be a helper of others!
C. H. Spurgeon, Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress: A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan’s Immortal Allegory