Now, I beheld in my dream, that they had not journeyed far, but the river and the way for a time parted; at which they were not a little sorry; yet they durst not go out of the way. Now the way from the river was rough, and their feet tender, by reason of their travels; so the souls of the pilgrims were much discouraged because of the way. Wherefore, still as they went on, they wished for a better way. Now, a little before them, there was on the left hand of the road a meadow, and a stile to go over into it; and that meadow is called By-path Meadow. Then said Christian to his fellow, If this meadow lies along by our wayside, let us go over into it. Then he went to the stile to see, and behold, a path lay along by the way, on the other side of the fence. It is according to my wish, said Christian. Here is the easiest going; come, good Hopeful, and let us go over.
Hopeful: But how if this path should lead us out of the way?
Christian: That is not like, said the other. Look, does it not go along by the wayside? So Hopeful, being persuaded by his fellow, went after him over the stile. When they were gone over, and were got into the path, they found it very easy for their feet; and withal, they, looking before them, espied a man walking as they did, (and his name was Vain-confidence); so they called after him, and asked him whither that way led. He said, To the Celestial Gate. Look, said Christian, did not I tell you so? By this you may see we are right. So they followed, and he went before them. But, behold, the night came on, and it grew very dark; so that they that were behind lost the sight of him that went before.
After being refreshed at the Pleasant River, Christian and Hopeful resume their journey. They are saddened when they discover that the river is no longer close by. Now the Way is rough. Their feet are sore and soon the two pilgrims are discouraged. At first they are determined to keep to the Way. But as weariness and discontent sets in, they long for a better way.
Though disheartened by present trials, Christian has grown in his confidence. He and Hopeful have escaped Vanity Fair and recognized the folly of By-ends and company. The plain of Ease did not dull their watchfulness. They recognized and rebuked the temptation of Demas. They avoided the perils of the silver mine and took to heart the warning of the pillar of salt. Such successes on the journey should be cause for ongoing praise to God. But Christian has become too sure of himself. He has gained confidence, but his confidence is in his progress, not his God.
Christian’s misplaced confidence soon leads to carelessness and forgetfulness. The pilgrims see just to the left of their path a fair meadow. This meadow seems to promise relief. And it seems to lie parallel to the true path. Enticed by the hope of an easier way, Christian encourages Hopeful to follow him over the stile and into By-Path Meadow.
By-Path Meadow represents our own efforts at attaining righteousness. It is lush with pride and filled with the fruits of self-determination and good intentions. It is our attempt to define how we will live and walk before God in this life, especially when we grow discontent with the path God has us on. The stile represents how easy it is to cross over from resting our confidence in Christ to thinking too highly of ourselves. William Mason explains in his commentary on The Pilgrim’s Progress:
The transition into the by-path is easy, for it lies close to the right way; only you must get over a stile, that is, you must quit Christ’s imputed righteousness, and trust in your own inherent righteousness; and then you are in By-path Meadow directly.
The Pleasant River represents the joy and assurance that fills our hearts as we look to Christ and trust in Him for our salvation. This river does not flow near By-Path Meadow. Though Christ never fails us, we can sadly lose sight of Him. This is especially true when we forget His gospel and find confidence in our own efforts. Our hope must be in Christ and His righteousness, not our own successes along the way.
Christian forgets that he is an undeserving sinner, saved by grace. He forgets that his heart is wicked and can deceive him.
The heart is deceitful above all things,
And desperately wicked;
Who can know it?
If we follow our hearts rather than God, we can easily be led astray.
There is a way that seems right to a man,
But its end is the way of death.
Christian forgets that God’s way is best, even when it is difficult. Earlier in the allegory, he learned at the House of the Interpreter and at Hill Difficulty that the Way can be hard and hazardous. Evangelist warned him that the Way is dangerous and those who follow Christ must endure suffering. When the Way becomes difficult, Christian feels entitled to an easier way. He and Hopeful complain and grumble like Israel in the wilderness.
Now when the people complained, it displeased the Lord… (Numbers 11:1).
And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who complain against Me? I have heard the complaints which the children of Israel make against Me” (Number 14:26–27).
And they become discouraged.
Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way (Number 21:4).
We must remember that, though God’s Way can be perilous, it is perfect. His Word is a trusted, proven guide. We must read it and follow it every step of the way. We can trust the Lord to be our shield and strength through every danger and difficulty.
As for God, His way is perfect;
The word of the Lord is proven;
He is a shield to all who trust in Him.
Christian finds a path that is “according to” his wish rather than staying on the path that is marked out by God’s Word. Hopeful sees the potential danger and asks: “But how if this path should lead us out of the way?” Christian, however, persuades him that the path is safe. They cross over the stile and for a time their journey is easier. They even encounter a traveler on the path who assures them that he also is on the way to the Celestial Gate. But this traveler’s name is Vain-Confidence and soon Christian and Hopeful lose sight of him and find themselves lost in the darkness.
A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
See TOC for more posts from this commentary
The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary ©2017 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.