Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pilgrim's Progress: journey through a changing landscape

This book will make a traveller of thee,
If by its counsel thous wilt ruled be;
It will direct thee to the Holy Land,
If thou wilt its directions understand.
John Bunyan is inviting you on a journey. It’s a pilgrimage from a City doomed to Destruction to a City of Glory. Along the way, you’ll face giants, fiends, lions and robbers. You’ll be tempted to leave the stony path for softer pastures. You’ll meet people who try to turn you from the way. You’ll face hunger, thirst, weariness, even death. There will be times of rest and refreshment, but also times of doubt and despair. Are you ready to travel the straight and narrow path?

God also invites us on a journey. Like Abraham and Moses, we are nomads travelling through an inhospitable land to a fair country we have been promised but never seen. We flee Satan's country for a new and better land, a heavenly City prepared by God. We are “aliens and strangers”, “sojourners and exiles”, “strangers and pilgrims on this earth" (Heb. 11:13; 1 Pet. 2:11 – NIV, ESV, Geneva). God calls us to turn our backs on all that is dear to us, and to run, like Christian, with fingers in our ears and faces towards heaven.

Do you think of your Christian life as a journey? People talk about their "spiritual journey", but it's often a fuzzy-minded way of saying "You have your journey, I have mine". We've forgotten the Bible's idea of the Christian life as a pilgrimage through an alien landscape, beset by troubles and trials, ever tempted to stray from the true path. We have much to learn from Pilgrim's Progress. Let's travel with Christian on his pilgrimage, and see what hints we can pick up about our own journey.

Expect danger and difficulty

As we follow Christian, one of the first places we come to is a steep and stony Hill. Running becomes walking, walking becomes clambering, and Christian drags himself up on hands and knees. Two terrified men run past, warning of the lions which prowl the path ahead. Christian's troubles are barely beginning, for this is the way of "wearisomeness, painfulness, hunger, perils, nakedness, sword, lions, dragons, darkness, and, in a word, death." One day soon, his dearest friend will lose his life for his faith. It would be so easy to turn back, but for Christian - and for us - only one thing will do. "You make me afraid; but whither shall I fly to be safe? ... I must venture. ... I will yet go forward."

Be careful where you sleep

Half-way up the Hill is an Arbour, where Christian stops to rest in the warm afternoon sun. Rest becomes slumber, slumber becomes sleep, and his precious parchment-roll drops from his hand. There are few more dangerous activities in Pilgrim's Progress than sleeping! Lost assurance, roaring lions, or a comfortable, creeping death await the sleeper. I'm about to turn 40, and it's sobering to remember how the comforts of middle age or retirement lull many Christians to sleep, so that they lose their zeal for God, neglect their watch against sin, and put their hope in the joys of this life. I want to avoid the dangerous pleasures of a sleepy Christian life.

Remember you travel through a changing landscape

The Hill of Difficulty is topped by the Palace Beautiful; the Valley of the Shadow of Death gives way to the River of Life; Doubting Castle is followed by the Delectable Mountains. A friend shared with me that she learnt from the changing landscape of Pilgrim's Progress to picture difficult times as a steep hill, a dark valley, or a stony path, and easy times as fruitful trees by a river, a rose-covered arbour, or a green meadow. If hard times are no more than a hill, they will come to an end, and can be faced with hope and courage. If times of happiness are no more than a resting-place on our journey, then we had better not place all our hopes there.

Carry your guide-book and don't stray from the path

It's easy to get frustrated with Christian. How hard can it be to keep to a way "straight as a rule can make it"? Why does he take the meadow-path which runs alongside the way, even if it's inviting to tired feet? But every day, don't you and I choose the easy way over the right way? And Christian's way is not always clear. At one point it branches into two straight, narrow paths, and the confused pilgrims forget to look at their map, and take the way which leads to danger. Not all our decisions are easy or obvious. Early this year, I made some important decisions without remembering to pray, read the Bible, or heed good advice. I had to live with the consequences, but how much better if I had followed God's clear directions!

Choose your travelling companions with care

I don't often think of people I meet as hindrances or helps on my journey: but how carefully Christian has to choose his travelling companions! Some hide their true nature with smiling faces and confident words: "Why go the long way to the Gate? Why walk through rain when sunshine will do? Why be so picky about right and wrong?" Others prove to be true companions: Christian is upheld by Faithful's words in the Valley of the Shadow, Hopeful's wise counsel in the dungeon of Giant Despair, and godly conversation through the Enchanted Ground. May God help us recognise the peril of listening to the smooth words of a false teacher, and value the precious gift of an uncomfortable rebuke from a wise friend!

Don't get distracted

Sometimes the land Christian travels through entices him with exotic luxuries. Wanton offers the pleasures of the flesh; Madame Bubble promises feasts and fame; Demas beckons to his silver-mine. In Vanity Fair stalls bow under the weight of "houses, lands, trades, places, honours, ... kingdoms, lusts, pleasures; ...harlots, wives, husbands, children, … silver, gold, pearls". I don’t find wealth or fame particularly tempting (I might if they were offered me!) but I know that everyday blessings like marriage and children, safety and security, or good health and a middle-class home, can make me forget where I’m heading.

Old Honest sums it up beautifully:

It happens to us as it happens 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 every one a friend that we meet with in the way.
Here's what I've learnt from Pilgrim's Progress. I've learnt that no time lasts forever: that times of difficulty are followed by times of rest, and times of refreshment with new trials. I've been warned not to leave the path for an easier way, the promise of safety, or the lure of pleasure. I've been reminded not to put down my roots in pleasant places, and be lulled to sleep by comfort and happiness. I'll choose my travelling companions with care. I'll keep my Guide-book close, and consult it often. I'm determined to travel on days of sunshine, and days when I struggle against the wind. I'm travelling a pilgrim's path, and with God's help, I'll make it to the end. "The bitter must come before the sweet, and that also will make the sweet the sweeter".

Questions for reflection
How has Pilgrim's Progress encouraged you in your journey? Do you expect the Christian life to be hard, or are you surprised when difficulties come? Are you ever tempted to "sleep", to forget your watch against sin, when things get comfortable? How does it comfort and challenge you to remember that no time, good or bad, lasts forever? Are you well-read in your guide-book, the Bible? What kinds of travelling companions do you have: ones who help you keep to the path, or ones who lead you astray? What do you find tempting about the land you're travelling through? Pray that God will help you persevere to the end.

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