“As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I came upon a certain place with a den, and lay down to sleep. I fell asleep and dreamed. In my dream, I saw a man clothed with rags standing in a certain place, with his face turned from his own house.
“In his hand he held a book, and he bore a great burden upon his back. He opened the book, and as he read, he wept and trembled. Unable to contain his emotions any longer, he broke out with a mournful cry. ‘What shall I do?’”
Thus begins Pilgrim’s Progress. The den from which Bunyan dreams is his jail cell in Bedford. The man whom he sees is the hero of the story, Christian. The book Christian holds is the Bible, and the burden on his back is the guilt of sin.
He is distressed because the book says his hometown, the City of Destruction will be burned with fire. He tries warning his family of the danger. They show concern at first, but eventually grow angry and make fun of him. As he walks through the fields alone, he is met by a man named Evangelist. Evangelist directs him to the Wicket Gate where he will be told what to do.
Christian immediately takes off running. His family and neighbors yell for him to come back, but he puts his fingers in his ears and continues to flee. Two of his neighbors, Obstinate and Pliable run after him. Christian refuses to return but tries persuading them to join him on pilgrimage. Obstinate rejects his offer but Pliable accepts.
Christian tells Pliable of the glories of heaven as they cross the Plain of Ease. They come upon a swamp that neither sees until they are stuck in it. The extra weight from his burden causes Christian to sink. Pliable pulls himself out and returns home, offended by the difficulty. Christian reaches the other side of the swamp but cannot lift himself out.
A man named Help pulls Christian out and sends him on his way. Bunyan asks why the swamp is not fixed. Help explains it is the Slough of Despond, “a low-lying place where the scum and filth that comes with the conviction of sin drains and collects as the traveling sinner becomes aware of his lost condition.” The Slough cannot be fixed, but the King has placed steps across it.
Christian continues across the plain. He is met by a gentleman named Worldly Wiseman who asks where he is going and why. Upon hearing of his pilgrimage, Worldly Wiseman suggests an easier way. He points Christian toward the town of Morality where a man named Legality (or his son Civility) will take away his burden.
Christian turns out of the way. As he approaches the mountain where Legality lives, it looms over him threateningly and spews fire. Evangelist meets him again, identifying it as Mt Sinai and Mr. Legality as a cheat who pretends to save by means of the Law. He redirects Christian back toward the Wicket Gate.
This first stage portrays the start of Christian’s conversion. Bunyan is criticized for making his conversion too lengthy. After all, conversions in our day are quick and easy. One must only repeat a prayer or be baptized to be regarded as a full-fledged believer. Not so for Christian. His conversion is a long, grueling process that reflects Bunyan’s own experience.
Even so, Christian demonstrates a proper response to the gospel. He shows us how to fulfill Jesus’ demands for discipleship by forsaking everything to “enter at the narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13-14). While Obstinate is the hard path where the seed is snatched away and Pliable is the rocky soil where the seed grows quickly but withers because it has no root, Christian is good soil that hears the Word and produces a crop (Matthew 13:1-9).
Who is your Evangelist?
Maybe you aren’t a Christian yet. Maybe your conversion is just starting, like Christian’s. Be aware: it isn’t always a smooth process. You will likely face opposition and hardship for your new faith. Friends might tell you you’re making a mistake. Relatives might say you’re betraying your family. Others may say it isn’t necessary, that there are easier ways to get rid of your burden. Like Christian, you might feel mired by self-doubt and a newfound sense of guilt.
Don’t let these things hinder you! Christian can’t even see the Gate yet, only the light emanating from it. Yet Evangelist tells him to head toward it. Who is your Evangelist? Who is encouraging you to turn to the Lord? Continue heeding their advice and heading toward the light.
Whose Evangelist are you?
Maybe you are already a Christian. Maybe you are well-advanced on your pilgrimage with conversion far behind you. If so, one of your duties is to be an Evangelist to those still living in Destruction City. We must tell others the good news of Jesus Christ and guide them to enter at the Gate.
Be aware: it isn’t always a smooth process. Your friends and family might not accept the gospel right away. Like Christian’s family, they might mock you. Like Obstinate, they might reject your message outright. Like Pliable, they might seem to accept it only to abandon it shortly after. Like Christian, they might be led astray. Continue faithfully reminding them to head toward the Gate.
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