Thursday, July 20, 2017

For Weak and Weary Pilgrims

One of my favorite Christian books is Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. I first read an abridged version when I was young, and I was enthralled by Christian's journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. It was an exciting adventure complete with hair-raising escapes and evil villains. But it wasn't until I was an adult that I began to appreciate how much Bunyan drew from the Scriptures as he laid out the believer's journey from the moment of conversion to the final destination of heaven.

I was naturally drawn to the main characters of Christian, Faithful who dies a martyr's death in Vanity Fair, and Hopeful who became Christian's new companion. These are heroic figures who persevere through affliction until they cross the river and are welcomed by the King of the city. But lately I've been encouraged by several of the minor pilgrims in Part II: Mr. Ready-to-Halt, Mr. Feeble-Mind, Mr. Despondency, and his daughter Much-Afraid. Yes, their names don't sound brave at all, but I can relate to these characters in more ways than one.

It's easy to get the idea that "good" Christians experience nothing but victory after victory with nary a temptation or struggle until they cross the finish line in a blaze of glory. But I wonder if the race looks less like a sprint and more like a marathon where the runners are exhausted with just enough strength to drag themselves across the finish line or are carried over by their comrades. It's in these moments of weakness that we realize how much we need the family of the faith to be arms of support when it's hard to take the next step. Whether we are the givers or receivers of this help, we aren't meant to go it alone, and Bunyan gives a moving example of this.

After being rescued by Mr. Great-Heart, Mr. Feeble-Mind confesses that he is a burden to himself and to the rest. However, Mr. Great-Heart responds in this way:
But, brother, said. Mr. Great-heart, I have it in commission to “comfort the feeble-minded,” and to “support the weak” (1 Thess. 5:14). You must needs go along with us; we will wait for you; we will lend you our help (Rom. 14:1); we will deny ourselves of some things, both opinionative and practical, for your sake (1 Cor. 8), we will not enter into doubtful disputations before you; we will be made all things to you, rather than you shall be left behind  (1 Cor. 9:22).1

What is also beautiful is that these weak and weary saints are still pilgrims who finish the race, only leaving their infirmities when they take the last stretch across the river. They are welcomed by the King just as much as Mr. Great-Heart and Mr. Valiant. Why is that?
When Jesus Christ counts up His Jewels at the last day He will take to Himself the little pearls as well as the great ones. If a diamond be never so small yet it is precious because it is a diamond. So will faith, be it never so little, if it be true faith, Christ will never lose even the smallest jewel of His crown. Little-faith is always sure of heaven, because the name of Little-faith is in the book of eternal life. Life-faith was chosen of God before the foundation of the world. Little-faith was bought with the blood of Christ; ay, and he cost as much as Great-faith.2

Regardless of whether we feel strong or weak, the former does not add to our salvation, and the latter does not disqualify us. We are saved in the same way - by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2 (NASB)

1. The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan, Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, pp. 229-230.
2. Mr. Ready-to-Halt and His Companions, Charles Spurgeon.

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