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.