Friday, November 21, 2008

The women in Pilgrim's Progress II

I love strong women. I think they are magnificent testimonies to Christ. Because ... they are combining things that the world can’t explain. They’re combining a sweet, tender, kind, loving, submissive, feminine beauty with this massive steel in their backs and theology in their brain. (John Piper, group discussion from T4G'08 HT Writing and Living)

In Pilgrim's Progress II, Christiana follows her husband on pilgrimage. With her travel her handmaid Mercy, Ruth to her Naomi, and her four sons, eager to tread in their father's footsteps. The garrulous village women try to prevent them leaving, mock them after they've gone, and quickly forget them in gossip about their flirtations. But Christiana and Mercy press on, confident that "the bitter must come before the sweet, and that also will make the sweet the sweeter".

It's easy to get the impression from Pilgrim's Progress II that women are weak. They're described as "weakly", "poor", "both of feet and heart more tender"; they quake at the Door to Hell; and they are addressed with diminutives like "dear heart" and "daughters". They neeed Great-Heart to protect them against ruffians, fight on their behalf, and guide them in the way.

Yet men are also addressed as "dearly beloved", tremble at the terrors of the road, and are told never to travel without a guide. Great-Heart exclaims, "men are so foolishly venturous as to set out lightly on pilgrimage, and to come without a guide. Poor Christian! It is a wonder he escaped." Nor is manhood any great recommendation: Christian rebukes Hopeful for trusting in his manly strength to overcome his enemies.

The reality is that Christiana and Mercy are strong. They are more vulnerable physically and perhaps emotionally than men, but far stronger than "chicken-hearted" Mr. Fearing. They travel the same path as Christian, and brave dangers men have run from. Christiana exhorts Mr. Feeble-Mind to be done with fear, and shows "what / It is for men to take a Pilgrim's lot". Gaius says, "Women ... are highly favoured, ... sharers with us in the grace of life."

One of my favourite scenes in Pilgrim's Progress is where Christiana braves the lions (persecution) and Giant Grim (the power of the state) on the neglected path to the Palace Beautiful (the persecuted church). She echoes Deborah, judge of Israel: "Though the highways have been unoccupied heretofore, and though the travellers have been made in times past to walk through by-paths, it must not be so now I am risen, now I am risen a mother in Israel" (Jud. 5:7). What a woman!

It's apparent from her many suitors that Mercy is comely, but this is not what makes her beautiful. "Fair as the moon" says Interpreter as Christiana and Mercy emerge from the Bath of Sanctification, adorned with the Spirit's seal, clad in white raiment (righteous acts, Rev. 19:8). Mercy dreams that Christ clothes her in silver and gold, gives her a necklace, earrings and crown, takes her by the hand, and leads her into heaven, where his Father welcomes her as "daughter" - a picture of God making Israel his bride (Ezek. 16:11-12).

A woman's beauty changes through the shifting seasons of her life. Mercy is the young, single girl, an example to "young damsels", and Christiana is the mature, experienced woman, a "mother in Israel". Here are the graces which make these women of God beautiful:

  • Mercy is tender-hearted. She weeps over the fate of her hard-hearted relatives.
  • She is humble in heart. Her favourite place is the Valley of Humiliation (Humility), which suits her quiet spirit.
  • She loves her Lord. In this Valley "one may think, and break at heart, and melt in one's spirit, until one's eyes become as the fish-pools in Heshbon" (Songs 7:4).
  • She is merciful to the needy. Her suitor, Mr. Brisk, rejects her because everywhere the pilgrims stop she makes clothes for the poor. She is rich in "good deeds", like the holy women of old (Ac. 9:36-41; 1 Tim. 5:10; Prov. 31:20).
  • She is a good home manager. Her would-be suitor calls her a "good housewife", and her hands are never idle (1 Tim. 5:13-14; Titus 2:3-5; Prov. 31:27).
  • She desires a godly marriage. "I will look no more on him; for I purpose never to have a clog to my soul." Instead, she marries Christian's oldest son, Matthew, so they may raise godly children (Mal. 2:15).
  • Christiana is a godly mother who fulfils her responsibility to love, teach and train her children. She watches carefully over their actions, tenderly weeps over her sick son, and is commended for teaching them God's truth.
  • She is wise and quick to understand the meaning of the emblems Interpreter shares with them (Prov. 31:26).
  • On her lips is faithful instruction (Prov. 31:26). As she is dying, she speaks words of encouragement and exhortation to the men and women she has travelled with.
  • She is a spiritual mother (Titus 2:3-5). She leads Mercy to fall in love with her own salvation, teaches her what to expect on the way, and supports her through dark places.
  • Christiana is confident in Christ on the day of her death, eager to cross the River "come wet, come dry".
  • Both Christiana and Mercy are strong women, who fear nothing more than God (Prov. 31:25; 1 Pet. 3:6). Mercy encourages trembling Christiana across the Slough, and although she faints at the Wicket-Gate, it's only because she fears not being accepted: her loud knocks shake the door.

How beautiful the godly woman, and how lovely her graces! Her mouth gives wise instruction, her spirit is filled with a quiet trust, her heart is tender and humble, her hands overflow with mercy, her limbs are strong. Courageous, she dares to walk between lions and travel through the Valley of the Shadow. A mother in Israel, she nurtures and teaches the young. To be a woman like this is my heart's desire: and I hope yours, too. "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised" (Prov. 31:30).

Questions for reflection
What have you learned from the women in John Bunyan's life and Pilgrim's Progress? Would others describe you as a "strong woman": not bossy or overbearing, but gentle, humble in heart and quiet in spirit, with an inner core of strength which comes from trusting in Christ? If young and single, are you so in love with your Lord that no lesser love will do? If older and experienced, are you a "spiritual mother" to the women around you? Which womanly grace would you most like to grow in? Ask God to help you become the woman he wants you to be.


Dianna Wood said...

First, I want to thank the Lord for your ministry. I just found your blogs and I am thrilled!

Second, I am sad and convicted at the same time. When I read, "I love strong women. I think they are magnificent testimonies to Christ. Because...they’re combining a sweet, tender, kind, loving, submissive, feminine beauty with this massive steel in their backs and theology in their brain."

What I realize is that I am a misfit. I have never had a maternal drive, I have never been emotionally vulnerable, I have always been a "coach" not a "nurse". I would not be described as "sweet" or "tender" by the world's definition and yet God made me a woman.

What does "quiet in spirit" really me? I feel "bold in spirit". I have seen God use this "boldness" for His glory; to greatly assist a sister who needed to hear the truth without it being flowered over; to share the beauty of Christ with a perfect stranger with passion, power,love and zeal.

I don't have a soft, sweet tender voice. I have a rather powerful and commanding voice. I didn't ask for it, and I don't glory in it, it is just my voice.

Part of my profile on my blog says, "I don't put bandages on tumor, I dig them out"; "I will help you build a house, but if you smash your finger with the hammer, don't come running to me for comfort. I will tell you, "Gee, I'm sorry, now "cowboy up" and get back to work.

Is this attitude displeasing to the Lord? Seriously, I would greatly appreciate your insight. Am I to pretend to have the gift of mercy? Am I too always speak tenderly when someone needs strong rebuke. I wouldn't want to be treated that way. Is there something seriously wrong with me?

Sorry to lay this all on you. Any insight you might have would be greatly appreciated. I am not thinned-skinned and care more about learning and growing than I do about being handled tenderly.

Please feel free to read my blog (especially the right hand column which is basically a "warning" to readers) and be brutally honest with me.

God has been laying this stuff on my heart lately and perhaps He led me to you for guidance.

In Christ and For His Sake,

Jean said...

Hi, Dianna, I just realised you had posted on here, sorry!!

I am searching my heart to know what to say to you and it may take a few days. Be patient!

Looking forward to meeting you in heaven, and to see all that you can be in Christ,


Jean said...

Dear Dianna,

At last - a response to your post! Here's some tentative reflections:

God has made us all different. Some are weak, others strong; some are very aware of their need for people, others are independent; some are naturally gentle, others outspoken. God makes us the way he does for a reason. He rejoices in you because he made you. As you say, there are times when he has used your particular strengths to bless others.

All our personality strengths come with weaknesses attached. I am a perfectionist, which I see as a burden because it makes me obsessive and self-absorbed: but I know it also has its good side, helping me to do things carefully and thoroughly, and to work hard (often too hard!).

So if God has made you strong, he knows what he's doing. Partly, I suspect, this is natural for single women, who have to cope on their own, and who also may not have married partly because they are staunchly independent.

But the kind of strength God wants from women (or men!) isn't an overbearing, bossy, insensitive strength. Jesus is "humble and gentle in heart" (Matt. 11:29), and we are to be like him. So if we are strong, our strength must be tempered with gentleness; if we are bold, our boldness must be tempered with humility.

As women, our demeanor will also be influenced by the fact that we are in a position of submission to husbands and male church leaders, and in a more general sense, are not to take positions of authority over men: we are not to teach (1 Tim 2:11-15) or to judge prophecies (i.e. to authoritatively evaluate the truth of what's said in the congregation, 1 Cor. 14:26-39).

I think this will make us more respectful and gentle in our demeanor. In a conversation with a man, we won't butt in, or state our views aggressively, or insist that we are right. Mind you, these probably aren't helpful when we talk to women either, but I am far more authoritative in tone when I talk to a young woman than a man. I have had to learn this through bitter experience: my tendency is always to want to take over in Bible studies, for example, and I have learned when to be respectfully silent, even when I'm busting to speak and tell everyone the "truth"!

Yes, I do think God wants gentleness, tenderness and nurture from you, as he does from all Christians. This doesn't mean there isn't a time for strong rebuke and boldness, or that he won't use the strenths you have. But like all of us, you have areas of weakness God is working on.

"Quiet in spirit", I think, isn't a quality of weakness. It's an incredibly strong quality: a submissive and gentle attitude which comes from the fact that we trust in God and don't give way to fear, like Sarah, who followed her husband into an unknown country, choosing to follow him into a life of faith(2 Pet. 3). You can only be gentle and quiet if you are strong and free from fear, strong with the absolute confidence that God is in control and he is loving.

"Is this attitude displeasing to the Lord?" I'm not sure I can answer that, not knowing you. But I do think God wants you not just to be bold, but to be gentle as well. I think you should be willing to welcome those in need with tenderness and comfort, and weep with those who weep. Jesus rebuked the strong and self-assured Pharisee, but he welcomed the broken sinner with gentleness and tenderness. The Puritans used to quote Matt. 12:20 - "A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench". We are to have the same attitude to broken and needy sinners.

I wouldn't suggest you "pretend to have the gift of mercy" - but I do suggest you pray for mercy (as a quality, not a gift) and repent when you are harsh. "Am I to always speak tenderly when someone needs strong rebuke?" - I don't think the two are incompatible. You can rebuke strongly, but gently and tenderly at the same time. Most women need to work on the first, you may need to work on the second!

It won't be easy for you, I know. But God's Spirit promises to work in us qualities like "patience, kindness, gentleness" (Gal. 5:22-23), and we can trust him to be changing us, and to repent, pray, and choose to "put on the new self, created to be like God" (Eph. 2:24).

I have spoken strongly to you because you asked me to, and I know you appreciate honesty (hopefully not "brutal!). I speak the same words to myself! I am amazed at God's work in you, that he has given you the humility to look hard at yourself, the honesty to ask others about this, and the courage to want to change. I praise God for the changes he is bringing about in you.

I hope these ramblings are helpful!


Dianna Wood said...

Dear Jean,

What a blessing you are to me and I am so moved by acknowledging that your response clearly took time, effort, and was well thought out and loving.

I have to admit that I smiled when I read, "I have spoken strongly to you because you asked me to, and I know you appreciate honesty (hopefully not "brutal!)."

I smiled because, your response was as gentle as a lamb.

One thing I am learning is that even if you whisper with a heart filled with tenderness and compassion--motivated by love and concern for a brother or sister; you will still be seen (by many) as "harsh".

We are living in a "self-esteem" focused culture even in the "church" and navigating this body of water without making ripples is becoming more and more difficult.

God has certainly used your "rambling" to bless me. When iron sharpens iron, sparks fly and what beautiful sparks they are.

Jean--you are precious to me. Your friend and sister-in-Christ,