Slough of Despond
“He brought me
up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a
rock, and established my goings.”
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the great Christian classic, Pilgrim’s Progress. In the opening pages of that book, we are introduced to the pilgrim. He is “clothed in rags” … “a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back.” His rags symbolize his inability to please God. The book is the Bible. The burden represents his sins. Reading the Bible has convicted him of his sins. He is aware of his lack of holiness before a holy God. He desperately wants some kind of relationship with God. He loves God, but he is weighed down by his sins. Other people think he is crazy, his brain has been cracked by too much reading of that book, but he does not care. All that he can think is what shall I do about this burden? What shall I do about God?
He met a man named Evangelist, who is a spiritual guide or mentor. Evangelist gives the Pilgrim a parchment roll, which convinces him that he needs to escape from this world. The Pilgrim who will eventually be called Christian then asks the obvious question: where shall I escape to? Where shall I go? Evangelist points him toward the Wicket Gate, which he cannot actually see, but he can see the light next to it and so he starts toward that.
A “wicket gate” is a small gate, usually set in a larger door. This reminds us that the path to heaven is through “the strait gate” as LK13:24 says. It is the narrow way that leads on to God and few there are that find it.
The pilgrim flees his city, which is called the city of destruction. His wife and children run after him, crying for him to return, but he puts his fingers in his ears and runs on. He is so desperate for God that no relationships he has on this earth can compare to that one eternal relationship.
His neighbors turn out to see him run, convinced that he has finally gone off the deep end, but two of his neighbors are determined to go after him and “fetch him back by force.” They intend to give him a good talking to and bring him to his senses. They are named Obstinate and Pliable.
They catch up to the Pilgrim and try to talk sense to him, in their way of thinking.
Obstinate says to him, “What are the things you seek, since you leave all the world to find them?”
Christian responds, “I seek an inheritance uncorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away...” [He quotes I Peter 1:4.] He continues, “Read it so, if you will, in my book.”
Obstinate says, “Tush! Away with your book! Will you go back with us or no?”
Christian says, “No, not I, because I have laid my hand to the plow.”
Well, Obstinate has had enough, he leaves and goes back to the city, but Pliable decides to stay with Christian and walk with him on his journey.
As they walk along they talk about the glories of heaven and the shining towers of the Celestial City. And Pliable cannot get enough of this stuff. He says to Christian, “The hearing of this is enough to ravish one’s heart, but are these things to be enjoyed? How shall we get to be sharers thereof?”
Christian says, “The Lord, the Governor of the country, hath recorded that in this book, the substance of which is if we be truly willing to have it, he will bestow it upon us freely.”
Then Pliable says, “Well, my good companion, glad I am to hear these things; come on, let us mend our pace!” It’s easy for Pliable to say that: he doesn’t have the great burden on his shoulders that Christian has.
Alexander Whyte was a Scottish preacher of the late nineteenth century, and in St. George’s Free Church in Edinburgh for a period of about a year or so he gave a famous set of lectures on the characters from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. This is what he says about Obstinate:
“Little Obstinate was born and brought up in the City of Destruction. His father was old Spare-the-Rod, and his mother’s name was Spoil-the-Child. Little Obstinate was the only child of his parents. He was born when they were no longer young, and they doted on their only child and gave him his own way in everything. Everything he asked for, he got; and if he did not immediately get it, you would have heard his screams and kicks three doors off. This man is a man who is used to getting his own way.”
Obstinate was like a mule, and when Pilgrim tried to reason with him from the Bible, Obstinate said, "Tush! Away with your book."
Pliable is a different kettle of fish. Whyte says, “Pliable was willing to go with Christian for the benefits that Christian describes. He wants the good things. He wants what Christianity offers, but he’s not going to be willing to pay the price of self-sacrifice.”
Pliable never read the Bible, or listened to the word preached. Thus, he is not burdened. He does not carry the guilt of his sins on his shoulders. He wants the blessings and the privileges, but he is not ready to pay the price. That is he is not really ready to part from his sins. He wants heaven, but he wants his sins also.
So let us return to Bunyan’s story. Obstinate is gone. Pliable and Christian are continuing on their journey until they come to the Slough of Despond. It is a swamp and they are walking along talking about heaven and paying no heed to where they are, and so they fall into it. It is like the “horrible pit” or “the miry clay,” that the Psalmist describes.
Pliable does not have a burden on his shoulders, and he is able to extricate himself from this Slough easily, but he is mad at Christian. He says, “well is this is the way things are going to go, I want none of it. You can have all those promises for aught I care. “And with that, he gave a desperate struggle or two, and got out of the mire on that side of the slough which was next to his own house. So away he went, and Christian saw him no more.”
The poor pilgrim is left stuck in the mire alone. Finally a man named Help comes by and pulls Christian out of the Slough and “set him upon sound ground and bid him go on his way.”
Christian asks Help why such a place is allowed to exist at all.
Help responds, “This miry slough is such a place as cannot be mended. It is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore it is called the Slough of Despond. For still, as the sinner is awakened out of his lost condition, there arise in his soul many fears and doubts and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together and settle in this place.”
What Bunyan is doing is describing to us what often happens to seekers after Christ. These people are not yet Christians. They discover the gospel, discover Christianity, discover the Bible, and become convicted about their sins. This lays a great burden of guilt upon their shoulders, but they do not yet know how to get rid of this burden. They have not taken their sins to the cross, they have not trusted finally and entirely in Jesus. All that they know is that they are sinners and they more they think about it, and the more they try to fix their problem for themselves or by themselves, the worse it gets, the more conscious they are that they are sinners who deserve eternal punishment.
Now, Bunyan is not suggesting that every single Christian comes to Christ in exactly the same way. Bunyan himself came to Christ this way, and experienced this burden for his sin and guilt for his sin for well over a year. But everyone does not have this same experience. Perhaps some of you came to Jesus Christ when you were still infants. You never remember a time when you did not trust in Jesus. Some of you, like Samuel or John the Baptist, have been believers from your mother’s womb. You should praise God. You are especially blessed. But many of us are not so fortunate. Many of us were converted later on in life and what Bunyan is describing here is one of the things the law of God can actually do to a person in the process of conversion.
Paul speaks about it in Romans 7. He speaks about the connection between sin and the law, and he says, “...But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin, by the commandment, might become exceeding sinful.” Sin drives us to the Scriptures, and what do we see in the Scriptures? We see the commandments of God that say ‘Do this’ and ‘Don’t do that’, but the more we try to obey the law of God, the more we realize how sinful we are. It is a spiral. Sin drives us to the Scriptures, and the Scriptures constantly tell us how sinful we are.
And this is a dangerous time. It’s a time of great temptation. In effect, those who are seeking after Christ are tempted by Satan to return the City of Destruction, to give up on Jesus. And in Bunyan’s book, that is what Pliable did.
Later on in the book, Christian meets Apollyon, who is either Satan or one of Satan’s chief servants. Apollyon says, “It is ordinary for those who have professed themselves His servants after a while to give Him the slip and return to me. Do thou so, too, and all shall be well.” That is exactly what Pliable had done earlier. He professed himself to be the servant of the Lord until the going got tough, and then Pliable returned to his true master, the devil.
And when Christian was in the Slough of Despond, this was the sort of thing the devil was whispering into his ear, “Give up on all this Christianity stuff and come back to me.”
Now Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory off a spiritual journey. The action is in the mind and heart of the pilgrim. Obstinate and Pliable have their places in our own hearts, for they are part and parcel of our old sinful nature. Obstinate rebels against the Word of God – "Away with your book", he says. Thus, Obstinate represents a whole class of folks who will not hear the Bible. You cannot talk to them about Scripture. Their minds are totally closed to the Word. I meet people like this sometimes. You start talking about the Bible and you might as well be talking to a doorknob because they are not listening.
Pliable is the weaker young brother who will always refuse "the cost of discipleship" and whine about going home when the road turns difficult. It is in the Slough of Despond that Pilgrim and Pliable part company. As long as there was plenty of talk about "an endless kingdom … and crowns of gold … and everlasting life … and garments that will shine like the sun", Pliable was happy, but the Slough of Despond was hard going, and he did not want any part of that.
Help told Christian that the Slough was where all the “fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions” settle together in one place. When we look at honestly at ourselves and realize the extent of our sins and the extent of our separation from God, we may be so overwhelmed that we feel like we are caught in a bog from which there is no escape. We may give up on God and God’s forgiveness. This is our Slough of Despond.
We all come to the Slough in some form or fashion. In the hollow darkness of the night, in the bleak times of the soul, the promises suddenly seem empty to us. We are all tempted to turn back like Pliable and just go along with whatever anybody says and pretend.
What should you do when you come to your Slough of Despond. Bunyan said that if you persevere there will a helper. In fact, Bunyan named him “Help.” This one named “Help” is the Holy Spirit. That is the promise. Hang on in your hard times. God will send his Spirit to you, and as the psalmist says, he will set your feet upon a rock; he will establish your goings.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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