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Occasional Letters - Standing on the Promises

D Newell, Glasgow

Rereading a beloved book is rather like visiting an old friend – you can be sure of encouragement. Now, one of the ways a good book carves itself on the reader’s mind is by creating episodes which are so vivid they cannot be forgotten. Robinson Crusoe’s startling discovery of the solitary footprint in the sand; Emma’s unpardonable rudeness to Miss Bates on Box Hill; Nicholas Nickleby’s thrashing of the one-eyed bullying schoolmaster Mr Squeers – these are all scenes that linger. But is there anything more gripping than the sight of one man desperately in pursuit of eternal salvation?

Now, he had not ran far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life! life! Eternal life! So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain.

There you have an emblem of a man in downright earnest. It comes, of course, from Bunyan’s compelling allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress. A recent holiday in Donegal (with a Kindle kindly provided by a longsuffering friend) gave me the opportunity of again accompanying Christian and later his wife Christiana on their journey to the Celestial City. And it was with renewed interest that I noticed how remarkably accurate is Bunyan’s understanding of the Christian life. The spiritual journey is no gradual movement from failure and trial to triumph and delight. So simplistic a scheme would only be a falsification of the believer’s experience down here. Most of us soon discover that the pathway is not a straightforward ascent, but rather is full of unexpected ups and downs, mountaintops and valleys, moments of intense loneliness and times of warm fellowship. In my naivety I used to think that things got easier as one got older. Bunyan knew better. One of the older pilgrims of Part Two, Mr Honest, puts it like this:

It happens to us as it happeneth to wayfaring men; sometimes our way is clean, sometimes foul, sometimes up hill, sometimes down hill; we are seldom at a certainty; the wind is not always on our backs, nor is everyone a friend that we meet with in the way. We have met with some notable rubs already; and what are yet behind, we know not; but for the most part, we find it true, that has been talked of, of old, a good man must suffer trouble.

And one trouble that constantly besets Christian is the tendency to be downcast. Indeed, Bunyan structures his story so that on three significant occasions his pilgrim falls prey to this snare – near the start, around the middle, and just before the end. And each time the remedy is found in the Word of God. Heading for the wicket gate with his fair-weather friend Pliable, Christian falls first into a nasty piece of boggy ground called the Slough of Despond. Bunyan explains its meaning:

This miry slough is such a place as cannot be mended. 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.

Convicted of his sinful condition and his dreadful destiny a man may become overwhelmed by guilt and terror. And yet, as Christian learns, there is a safe way through the slough. Help, who pulls him out of the mud, asks, "Why did not you look for the steps?", to which Christian replies, "Fear followed me so hard, that I fled the next way, and fell in". So there are stepping stones across the bog for those who look for them. Bunyan’s margin explains that the steps are the promises of God. That is to say, built into the Bible’s candid exposure of man’s sinfulness is the assurance of salvation in Christ: "the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom 6.23). The gospel both wounds and heals.

The second episode comes as a direct consequence of foolish self-confidence. By now Christian is a mature, well-taught believer, and has a younger pilgrim by his side. Seeking an easier route to glory, he persuades Hopeful to follow him into By-Path Meadow, which leads, alas, to the domain of Giant Despair, so that both pilgrims quickly find themselves incarcerated in Doubting Castle. And there they linger in misery for three days. But in the goodness of God Christian, who has almost given way to despondency, suddenly remembers he has a key:

Now, a little before it was day, good Christian, as one half-amazed, brake out in this passionate speech: What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty! I have a key in my bosom, called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any lock in Doubting Castle.

We may become so busy with self-scrutiny and self-pity that we forget Scripture. God’s promises properly understood can deliver us from anxiety of soul and distress of mind. Take Psalm 50.15, for example. Jonah 2.2 ("I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me") proves that the promise of this psalm can apply even to those who are simply reaping the results of their own failure. Jonah in the fish was not suffering for righteousness’ sake but for wilful disobedience – yet the Lord in mercy heard his cry. It is never wrong to call on God.

On the final lap of the journey, Christian and Hopeful face their last obstacle, the river of death. Again Christian is overcome by nagging doubts and fears:

The Pilgrims then, especially Christian, began to despond in their minds, and looked this way and that, but no way could be found by them, by which they might escape the river. Then they asked the men if the waters were all of a depth. They said, No; yet they could not help them in that case; for, said they, you shall find it deeper or shallower, as you believe in the King of the place.

As they enter the water, Christian is dragged down under the weight of accumulated regrets and remembered failures, so that he "began to sink, and crying out to his good friend Hopeful, he said, I sink in deep waters; the billows go over my head, all his waves go over me!". No saint is invulnerable down here. But once again the answer lies in the Word. Hopeful shows how one believer can use Scripture to encourage another in his time of trial:

Then said Hopeful, My brother, you have quite forgot the text, where it is said of the wicked, "There are no bands in their death; but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men" (Ps 73.4-5). These troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters are no sign that God hath forsaken you; but are sent to try you, whether you will call to mind that which heretofore you have received of His goodness, and live upon Him in your distresses…Be of good cheer, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole…with that Christian brake out with a loud voice, O! I see Him again, and He tells me, "When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee" (Is 43.2). Then they both took courage.

In quoting suitable texts Hopeful (how well he lives up to his name!) stimulates his brother’s memory of Scripture and thereby reinvigorates his faith. It is the Word that gets us across the slough; it is the Word that brings us out of doubting castle; it is the Word that holds us up in the floods of death. God’s provision for His people’s needs is always His Word, with its encouraging promises that Christ receives all who come to Him (Jn 6.37), its assurance that the simple believer is for ever free from condemnation (Rom 8.1), and its guarantees that no one can pluck us out of His hand (Jn 10.27-29). But if we would live in the good of the old hymn, standing securely on such wonderful promises in times of emergency and spiritual leanness, we must be diligent to store them in our souls in times of plenty.

To be continued.


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