Monday, November 24, 2008

Troubled Christians in Pilgrim's Progress Part II

All the King's subjects are not champions; nor can they, when tried, do such feats of war ... Is it meet to think a little child should handle Goliath as David did? Or that there should be the strength of an ox in a wren? Some are strong, some weak; some have great faith, some little.

We've all known good-hearted, troubled Christians. Let's be honest, we're all troubled and broken in some way. Spiritually troubled: uncertain of our salvation, prone to introspection and guilt, or disturbed by feelings of God's absence. Emotionally troubled: battling addictions, anxiety or depression, hurt by relationships, or socially fearful and awkward. Intellectually troubled: confused about the truth, struggling with doubts, or mentally incapacitated. Physically troubled: sick and exhausted, in pain or chronically ill, or homeless and poor.

It's easy to neglect those who are deeply troubled - I know, I have done it myself, to my shame. To avoid their uncomfortable company and disturbing doubts and wounds we can't easily heal and sorrows unresponsive to comfort and difficult questions and unsettled hearts. Perhaps we talk mainly to our friends at social gatherings, ignore certain phone calls, or minister only to the eager and enthusiastic. After all, it's simpler to overlook those who absorb our energy and attention, don't fit into our visions for mission and church growth, or aren't easily helped to grow and change.

No Puritan pastor worth his salt neglected troubled Christians. Where we might refer a "difficult case" to a counsellor, Puritan pastors willingly carried the burden of counselling those who were troubled, sensitively and bracingly bringing God's truth to bear on their problems. I wish I could tell you all the Puritans' sane and sensible advice about spiritual desertion, doubts of assurance, and depression, but that will have to wait for another day. Instead, let's take a look at the many "weak" Christians in Pilgrim's Progress, and how we are encouraged to care for them.

Their names are a bit of a give-away, aren't they? Little-Faith, attacked by Faint-Heart, Mistrust, and Guilt; Fearing, carrying a "Slough of Despond" within; Feeble-Mind, sickly in body and mind; Ready-to-Halt, limping on his crutches; and Despondency and his daughter Much-Afraid, trapped by Despair in Doubting Castle. They doubt their salvation, baulk at every obstacle, and forget their comforts; they are easily offended, disturbed by theological disputes, and obsessed with their losses; they slow their fellow-pilgrims down, require their protection, and limit their freedom.

Whether you're a pastor or Christian leader, a fellow-Christian, or a troubled Christian, Pilgrim's Progress has much to teach you about responding to yours and others' troubles.

1. Pastors and church leaders

Great-Heart is a wise and compassionate pastor, with a God-given "commission to comfort the feeble-minded, and to support the weak". He walks and talks with his little group of pilgrims, consults his guide-book and directs them away from danger, and fights giants and dragons on their behalf. At the rest-houses (churches) along the way, special care is given to the weak. The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains (pastors) welcome them first and by name, present them with "a feast of things easy of digestion" (teaching truths they can handle), and declare that "all things must be managed here to the supporting of the weak."

2. Fellow-Christians

No wise pilgrim travels alone in Pilgrim's Progress, and no weak pilgrim is left behind. The strong bear patiently with the weak, walk more slowly so they can keep up, and protect them from fiends and monsters. Great-Heart encourages a reluctant Feeble-Mind: "You must needs go along with us; we will wait for you; we will lend you our help; we will deny ourselves of some things, both opinionative and practical, for your sake: we will not enter into doubtful disputations before you; we will be made all things to you, rather than you shall be left behind." A wonderful picture of how to care for the troubled Christians amongst us!

3. Troubled Christians

When we are troubled, Pilgrim's Progress gives us both comfort and a challenge. Comfort because Jesus has a special place in his heart for the weak, welcoming them lovingly, feeding them the best morsels, and making their way smooth. We're assured that even the weakest pilgrims can't be overcome by the fiercest foe if they stay faithful to Christ, and can't be robbed of the "jewels" of their salvation. How wonderful the day when we leave our weaknesses behind, and receive our welcome into the Celestial City!

But Pilgrim's Progress also challenges us when we're troubled. We're encouraged by Christiana to repent of our "aptness to fear and doubt" God's goodness. We're warned by Despondency to "shut the doors" on "desponds and slavish fears" lest we can "never shake them off". We're inspired by Feeble-Mind's resolve "to run when I can, to go when I cannot run, and to creep when I cannot go. ... [M]y way is before me, my mind is beyond the river that has no bridge."

I don't know about you, but I've been challenged by Pilgrim's Progress to do a better job of caring for my fellow-Christians. I've been challenged to have those difficult conversations, to love the lonely members of our congregation, to encourage friends struggling with anxiety or depression. And when I'm troubled - for, like all of us, there are times when exhaustion, discouragement or sorrow threaten to overwhelm me - I've been challenged to repent of my self-pity and self-absorption, to turn my eyes from myself to my Lord, to go on loving and serving others, and to keep moving forward, confident that one day my doubts will be answered, my brokenness healed, and my tears wiped away.

If you'd like to know more about how the Puritans pastored, counselled and cared for troubled Christians, you'll enjoy Peter Lewis' The Genius of Puritanism and the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter's The Reformed Pastor. There are many, many Puritan books on spiritual counselling, like Joseph Symonds' The Case and Cure of a Deserted Soul, but they're not readily available; instead, read the wonderful excerpts in Lewis' book. A couple of readily available books by Puritans on caring for the weak are Richard Sibbes' The Bruised Reed and William Bridge's A Lifting Up of the Downcast.

Questions for reflection and discussion
Are there times in your Christian life when you have become absorbed and obsessed by your troubles? What helped you to look to Christ and to persevere? Would you say you're good or bad at caring for those who are troubled? If you're a Christian leader, are there troubled Christians in your group who are being neglected? How could you use the Bible to encourage, comfort and exhort them? How can you set sensible boundaries, while still caring for their needs? Pray for the troubled Christians you know.


mattnbec said...

Great post and useful insights. Thanks.

Jean said...

Hi Bec! Lovely to see you here. Glad you enjoyed it.