Tag Archives: despair

A Key Called Promise

Well, on Saturday, about midnight, they began to pray, and continued in prayer till almost break of day.

Now a little before it was day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out in passionate speech: What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking Dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty. I have a Key in my bosom called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any Lock in Doubting Castle. Then said Hopeful, That’s good news; good Brother pluck it out of thy bosom and try.

Then Christian pulled it out of his bosom, and began to try at the Dungeon door, whose bolt (as he turned the Key) gave back, and the door flew open with ease, and Christian and Hopeful both came out. Then he went to the outward door that leads into the Castle-yard, and with his Key opened that door also. After he went to the iron Gate, for that must be opened too, but that Lock went very hard, yet the Key did open it. Then they thrust open the Gate to make their escape with speed; but that Gate as it opened made such a creaking, that it waked Giant Despair, who hastily rising to pursue his Prisoners, felt his limbs to fail, for his Fits took him again, so that he could by no means go after them. Then they went on, and came to the King’s High-way again, and so were safe, because they were out of his jurisdiction.

Now, when they were over the stile, they began to contrive with themselves what they should do at that stile to prevent those that should come after from falling into the hands of Giant Despair. So they consented to erect there a pillar, and to engrave upon the side thereof this sentence—”Over this stile is the way to Doubting Castle, which is kept by Giant Despair, who despises the King of the Celestial Country, and seeks to destroy his holy pilgrims.” Many, therefore, that followed after read what was written, and escaped the danger. This done, they sang as follows:

Out of the way we went, and then we found
What ’twas to tread upon forbidden ground;
And let them that come after have a care,
Lest heedlessness makes them, as we, to fare.
Lest they for trespassing his prisoners are,
Whose castle’s Doubting, and whose name’s Despair.

A Key Called PromiseChristian and Hopeful have now suffered the misery of Doubting Castle for almost four days. They were captured by Giant Despair on Wednesday morning. Now it is Saturday, almost midnight, and they begin to pray.

It is worth noting that the pilgrims’ escape from Doubting Castle begins with prayer. In his commentary on The Pilgrim’s Progress, William Mason explains:

What! Pray in the custody of Giant Despair, in the midst of Doubting Castle, and when their own folly brought them there too? Yes; mind this, ye pilgrims, ye are exhorted, “I will that men pray everywhere, without doubting” (1 Tim. 2:8). We can be in no place but God can hear, nor in any circumstance but God is able to deliver us from. And be assured, that when the spirit of prayer comes, deliverance is nigh at hand.

The pilgrims pray through the early morning of the Lord’s Day. It is on the Lord’s Day that they remember Christ—the day that Christ rose from the dead—the day the church gathers each week for prayer, fellowship, and the preaching of the Word. It is on the Lord’s Day that the light of the gospel again dawns in Christian’s thinking. Bunyan’s timing here is significant. It is a subtle reminder that we need to stay under the preaching of God’s Word and seek out the prayers of God’s people, even if (and especially if) we are in the bonds of doubt and despair.

Christian realizes that he has possessed the means of escape all along. He has a Key that will open any lock in Doubting Castle. The Key represents the “exceedingly great and precious promises” of the gospel—promises that are ours in Christ.

Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust (2 Peter 1:2–4).

It is the promise of eternal life and the assurance of salvation in Christ.

And this is the promise that He has promised us—eternal life (1 John 2:25).

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me, Silvanus, and Timothy—was not Yes and No, but in Him was Yes. For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us (2 Corinthians 1:19–20).

Christian keeps the Key in his bosom (close to his heart), where he also keeps his roll (assurance of salvation)—the roll he received at the cross. The darkness of doubting caused him to forget. Now as light dawns (the understanding and application of God’s Word), he remembers.

As Christian and Hopeful begin their escape, the door to their cell opens with ease. The Key also opens the door to the castle yard. But the Iron Gate that bars their exit from Doubting Castle is stubborn. We read: “that Lock went very hard.” In the original text to The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan describes the lock as opening “damnable hard.” His choice of words is strong to show the grave danger of Doubting Castle. To remain imprisoned is to place the soul in eternal peril.

Christian had learned earlier in the allegory at the House of the Interpreter about the strong bonds of despair. The Man in the Iron Cage was hopelessly imprisoned by his own doubts and fears. He had once professed faith and claimed the promises of God, yet sin had so ruined him that he could no longer believe that God could save him. In our lowest moments it is easier to believe that God will extend grace to others than to us. Though sin has ravaged the world, we feel the sin that has ravaged our own hearts the deepest. When we examine our hearts under the piercing light of God’s Law, we know ourselves to be “the chief of sinners.”

When doubt lays hold, and when Christ is not in view, we can have the hardest time believing that someone like us can be saved. Even when we take hold of the Key, the Lock can be stubborn. Yet the promise of the gospel will indeed open it. We need to heed the words of hope, keep turning the key in the lock, and press forward until the gate is thrust open.

This scene in The Pilgrim’s Progress comes from Bunyan’s own experience. In Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, he describes his own “three or four days” in Doubting Castle and how he was able to escape:

At another time, though just before I was pretty well and savory in my spirit, yet suddenly there fell upon me a great cloud of darkness, which did so hide from me the things of God and Christ, that I was as if I had never seen or known them in my life; I was also so overrun in my soul, with a senseless, heartless frame of spirit, that I could not feel my soul to move or stir after grace and life by Christ; I was as if my loins were broken, or as if my hands and feet had been tied or bound with chains. At this time also I felt some weakness to seize ‘upon’ my outward man, which made still the other affliction the more heavy and uncomfortable ‘to me.’

After I had been in this condition some three or four days, as I was sitting by the fire, I suddenly felt this word to sound in my heart, I must go to Jesus; at this my former darkness and atheism fled away, and the blessed things of heaven were set within my view. While I was on this sudden thus overtaken with surprise, Wife, said I, is there ever such a scripture, I must go to Jesus? she said she could not tell, therefore I sat musing still to see if I could remember such a place; I had not sat above two or three minutes but that came bolting in upon me, “And to an innumerable company of angels,” and withal, Hebrews the twelfth, about the mount Sion was set before mine eyes (vv 22-24).

Then with joy I told my wife, O now I know, I know! But that night was a good night to me, I never had but few better; I longed for the company of some of God’s people that I might have imparted unto them what God had showed me. Christ was a precious Christ to my soul that night; I could scarce lie in my bed for joy, and peace, and triumph, through Christ; this great glory did not continue upon me until morning, yet that twelfth of the author to the Hebrews (Heb. 12:22, 23) was a blessed scripture to me for many days together after this.

[Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, par. 261–263]

Bunyan found freedom by remembering the words of Scripture:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel (Hebrews 12:22–24).

He knew in his heart: “I must go to Jesus!” Christ was precious to him.

We must look to Christ if we are to escape from Doubting Castle. If we lose sight of Christ or depend upon anything but Him for help, Despair will find us again. Cheever observes:

Alas! alas! how many ways there are of getting into this gloomy prison! Oh, if Christ be not always with the soul, or if at any time it go astray from him, or if its reliance be on anything whatever but his mercy, his blood, his grace, then is it near the gloom of this dungeon; then may Giant Despair be heard walking in his grounds, and verily the echo of his footsteps oftentimes falls upon the soul before the grim form rises on the vision. And some who have once entered the castle have stayed there a great while, because they have tried many other means of escape, than by the blood of Christ; because they have used picklocks, and penances, and stratagems, and the help of friends outside the castle, but not the key of Promise, or that not aright, not throwing themselves on the Savior alone for pardon, peace, and justification. A man who gets into difficulty through sin, will never get out by self-righteousness; nor are past sins, nor the burden of them, to be ever removed by present morality; nothing but faith, nothing but the precious blood of Christ, can take away sin, can remove the stain of it, can deliver the soul from its condemnation (from Lectures on The Pilgrim’s Progress by G.B. Cheever).

Christ alone can save us! Only He provides the promise of escape from the iron bars of doubt and the fierce blows of despair. Every method of our own devising is insufficient:

  • picklocks (making excuses, rationalizing sin, trying to forget the past and move on)
  • penances (doing good things or punishing ourselves to make up for the bad things)
  • stratagems (making a new start, moving to a new location, trying a new diet, exercise, medication, meditation, …)
  • help of friends (support groups, therapy, counseling, encouragements from others)

Though strategies may have their place and the help of friends is welcome, they can never give us what we truly need. They cannot save us when we sin against God and others. They cannot free us from guilt when we go astray. They cannot supply the grace we need to forgive ourselves and others who sin against us. Only Christ, through His saving work on the cross, can bring us grace and mercy and forgiveness. Only in Him can we find freedom from guilt and condemnation. Only in Him can we escape doubt and despair and find peace with God. We must remember the promise of the gospel and flee to Christ!

As Christian and Hopeful hasten to leave the castle, the loud creaking of the Gate arouses the giant. But when the giant attempts to pursue his prisoners, he falls into a seizure and cannot reclaim them. In the light of day, he has no strength. Despair cannot endure where there is clear understanding and diligent application of God’s Word.

Once the pilgrims make it back to the King’s Highway, safely out of reach of Giant Despair, they place a monument near the stile where they had crossed over into By-Path Meadow. They want to warn those would follow after them on the journey. Our experiences, even our struggles and failures, can be useful to others, to warn them of danger and encourage them to keep to the Way. In time Christian’s own family, Christiana and her children, will find this monument during their own journey in Part II of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Doubting Castle

Lord, we pray for those imprisoned
By Despair, who lie in grief;
Locked in Doubting Castle’s dungeon,
Stripped of hope and its relief.
Father help them to remember
In Thy promise is the key;
Now unlock the door that bars them,
In the Gospel, set them free.

(from “A Prayer for Pilgrims” by Ken Puls)

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 ©2018 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

The Misery of Doubting Castle

Now, night being come again, and the Giant and his wife being in bed, she asked him concerning the prisoners, and if they had taken his counsel. To which he replied, They are sturdy rogues, they choose rather to bear all hardship, than to make away themselves. Then said she, Take them into the castle-yard tomorrow, and show them the bones and skulls of those that you have already dispatched, and make them believe, ere a week comes to an end, you also will tear them in pieces, as you have done to their fellows before them.

So when the morning was come, the Giant goes to them again, and takes them into the castle-yard, and shows them, as his wife had bidden him. These, said he, were pilgrims as you are, once, and they trespassed in my grounds, as you have done; and when I thought fit, I tore them in pieces, and so, within ten days, I will do you. Go, get you down to your den again; and with that he beat them all the way thither. They lay, therefore, all day on Saturday in a lamentable case, as before. Now, when night was come, and when Mrs. Diffidence and her husband, the Giant, were got to bed, they began to renew their discourse of their prisoners; and withal the old Giant wondered, that he could neither by his blows nor his counsel bring them to an end. And with that his wife replied, I fear, said she, that they live in hope that some will come to relieve them, or that they have picklocks about them, by the means of which they hope to escape. And do you say so, my dear? said the Giant; I will, therefore, search them in the morning.

Doubting CastleDespite Hopeful’s reassurance, the darkness returns. Night comes again and Christian and Hopeful still remain in the oppressive bonds of Doubting Castle. It seems that there is no end to their captivity.

The ongoing misery of Doubting Castle reveals the weight of depression that can linger and lie even upon true believers. Doubts can be persistent. Discouragements can increase. Misgivings can reemerge and reinforce, like iron bars holding us down. Even more mature believers are not immune. Christian was more seasoned in his pilgrimage than Hopeful. Yet Christian’s suffering was more severe. It was Hopeful who served his older brother by speaking words of encouragement. Bunyan himself often experienced times of severe depression. He confessed in the conclusion of his autobiography:

I have wondered much at this one thing, that though God doth visit my soul with never so blessed a discovery of himself, yet I have found again, that such hours have attended me afterwards, that I have been in my spirits so filled with darkness, that I could not so much as once conceive what that God and that comfort was with which I have been refreshed. [Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, par. 3 in the Conclusion]

Giant Despair and his wife, Diffidence devise their plans in the dark, at night, when there is no light. Diffidence (lack of trust or unbelief) will always send us Despair to bludgeon and abuse us. Diffidence plots and directs; Despair carries out her cruel designs. He does her bidding. Diffidence tells her husband: “Take them into the castle-yard tomorrow, and show them the bones and skulls of those that you have already dispatched, and make them believe, ere a week comes to an end, you also will tear them in pieces, as you have done to their fellows before them.” The castle-yard represents the lives of those shattered by sin and devastated by despair. It is the hopelessness of a fallen world that has been blinded to the truth of God’s Word and the ruin of those who have strayed from the Way and denied the faith. Diffidence is sure that the sight of such brokenness and failure will extinguish whatever resolve the pilgrims may yet possess.

Despair would tear our lives apart and leave us in ruins. It would beat us down with troubles, trials, and tribulations. Its rage seems relentless with no way of escape. In the end, it would destroy us and leave us for dead. But God has different designs. He allows hardship to persist that we might endure:

You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 2:3).

He would have us glory in tribulation that it might bring us to hope.

And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Romans 5:3–5).

He would have us cry out to Him in faith that we might be delivered from oppression.

O Lord my God, in You I put my trust;
Save me from all those who persecute me;
And deliver me,
Lest they tear me like a lion,
Rending me in pieces, while there is none to deliver.
(Psalm 7:1–2)

Giant Despair is confounded at the perseverance of the pilgrims. Diffidence fears that they may yet hope of escape. She suggests that they may, in fact, possess the means to escape. Giant Despair intents to search them in the morning.  In the next post, we will see how the pilgrims indeed are able to escape the misery of Doubting Castle.

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 ©2018 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Hopeful’s Reassurance

Hopeful: Indeed, our present condition is dreadful, and death would be far more welcome to me than thus for ever to abide; but yet, let us consider, the Lord of the country to which we are going has said, You shall do no murder: no, not to another man’s person; much more, then, are we forbidden to take his counsel to kill ourselves. Besides, he that kills another, can but commit murder upon his body; but for one to kill himself is to kill body and soul at once. And, moreover, my brother, you talk of ease in the grave; but have you forgotten the hell, for certain the murderers go? “For no murderer has eternal life,” &c. And let us consider, again, that all the law is not in the hand of Giant Despair. Others, so far as I can understand, have been taken by him, as well as we; and yet have escaped out of his hand. Who knows, but the God that made the world may cause that Giant Despair may die? or that, at some time or other, he may forget to lock us in? or that he may, in a short time, have another of his fits before us, and may lose the use of his limbs? and if ever that should come to pass again, for my part, I am resolved to pluck up the heart of a man, and to try my utmost to get from under his hand. I was a fool that I did not try to do it before; but, however, my brother, let us be patient, and endure a while. The time may come that may give us a happy release; but let us not be our own murderers. With these words Hopeful at present did moderate the mind of his brother; so they continued together (in the dark) that day, in their sad and doleful condition.

Well, towards evening, the Giant goes down into the dungeon again, to see if his prisoners had taken his counsel; but when he came there he found them alive; and truly, alive was all; for now, what for want of bread and water, and by reason of the wounds they received when he beat them, they could do little but breathe. But, I say, he found them alive; at which he fell into a grievous rage, and told them that, seeing they had disobeyed his counsel, it should be worse with them than if they had never been born.

At this they trembled greatly, and I think that Christian fell into a swoon; but, coming a little to himself again, they renewed their discourse about the Giant’s counsel; and whether yet they had best to take it or no. Now Christian again seemed to be for doing it, but Hopeful made his second reply as follows:

Hopeful: My brother, said he, do you not remember how valiant you have been heretofore? Apollyon could not crush you, nor could all that you did hear, or see, or feel, in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. What hardship, terror, and amazement have you already gone through! And are you now nothing but fear! You see that I am in the dungeon with you, a far weaker man by nature than you are; also, this Giant has wounded me as well as you, and has also cut off the bread and water from my mouth; and with you I mourn without the light. But let us exercise a little more patience; remember how you played the man at Vanity Fair, and was neither afraid of the chain, nor cage, nor yet of bloody death. Wherefore let us (at least to avoid the shame, that becomes not a Christian to be found in) bear up with patience as well as we can.

Locked in Doubting CastleIn the depths of Doubting Castle, cruelly abused by the schemes of Giant Despair and his wife Diffidence, Christian has reached the point of despairing even of life itself. But in his misery, he has a tremendous advantage. He is not on the journey alone. He has Hopeful as a companion. And Hopeful comes to his aid with counsel and encouragement.

Hopeful begins by pointing Christian to God and His Word. Our hope, if it is to hold, must be anchored in the commands and promises of Scripture.

For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope (Romans 15:4).

1) Hopeful reminds Christian of who God is. He is Creator of heaven and earth. He is in control, not the giants who have them pinned down.

2) Hopeful reminds Christian of what God has said. God commands: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Murder, including suicide, the taking of one’s own life, is contrary to God and truth. It plays into Satan’s design, who from the beginning has sought to mar and destroy God’s creation.

You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it (John 8:44).

Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him (1 John 3:15).

3) And Hopeful reminds Christian that they must resist Despair. Giant Despair trembles at the light. He is vulnerable and can lose his strength and leave off his vigilance. God may yet provide His pilgrims an opportunity for escape. They must be patient and endure.

It is worth noting in Bunyan’s story that the pilgrims do not find immediate relief. The darkness remains. Resolve and good counsel do not free them. For a time, their endurance and will to press on only brings about increased suffering. When the giant rages, Bunyan describes Christian as falling to a swoon.

Bunyan himself experienced bouts of depression where he “swooned” as Christian did. He describes such a time in Grace Abounding:

At another time, though just before I was pretty well and savory in my spirit, yet suddenly there fell upon me a great cloud of darkness, which did so hide from me the things of God and Christ, that I was as if I had never seen or known them in my life; I was also so overrun in my soul, with a senseless, heartless frame of spirit, that I could not feel my soul to move or stir after grace and life by Christ; I was as if my loins were broken, or as if my hands and feet had been tied or bound with chains. At this time also I felt some weakness to seize ‘upon’ my outward man, which made still the other affliction the more heavy and uncomfortable ‘to me.’ [Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, par. 261]

But Hopeful again reassures Christian with truth. He reminds his brother of the difficulties and dangers that he has already endured by God’s grace.  He reminds him of his valiant stand for the gospel at Vanity Fair, a testimony that served in part to lead Hopeful to Christ. And he exhorts him not to bring shame upon himself, but to “bear up with patience.”

How great is our need for a companion such as Hopeful—a brother or sister who will stay near us in times of distress, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer” (Romans 12:12). And there are many opportunities for us to be Hopeful and help others around us cling to truth. Mason says in his commentary on The Pilgrim’s Progress:

Here is the blessing of a hopeful companion; here is excellent counsel. Let vain professors say what they may against looking back to past experiences, it is most certainly good and right so to do; not to encourage present sloth and presumption, but to excite fresh confidence of hope in the Lord. We have David’s example, and Paul’s word to encourage us to this, “The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine” (1 Sam. 17:37); and says Paul, “We had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9)—(Mason).

Christian endures the dungeon because he has Hopeful as a companion. Bunyan’s message in this portion of The Pilgrim’s Progress is clear. It is to our great advantage, even to the preserving of our lives, that we walk together in this journey, and that we make an effort to comfort and encourage one another along the way. (This is a theme that Bunyan explores in much greater depth in Part 2 of The Pilgrim’s Progress with the account of Christian’s family, Christiana and her children, and their companions as they travel to the Celestial City.)

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.

Doomed by Diffidence

Now, Giant Despair had a wife, and her name was Diffidence. So when he was gone to bed, he told his wife what he had done; to wit, that he had taken a couple of prisoners and cast them into his dungeon, for trespassing on his grounds. Then he asked her also what he had best to do further to them. So she asked him what they were, whence they came, and whither they were bound; and he told her. Then she counselled him that when he arose in the morning he should beat them without any mercy. So, when he arose, he getteth him a grievous crab-tree cudgel, and goes down into the dungeon to them, and there first falls to rating of them as if they were dogs, although they never gave him a word of distaste. Then he falls upon them, and beats them fearfully, in such sort that they were not able to help themselves, or to turn them upon the floor. This done, he withdraws and leaves them there to condole their misery and to mourn under their distress. So all that day they spent the time in nothing but sighs and bitter lamentations. The next night, she, talking with her husband about them further, and understanding they were yet alive, did advise him to counsel them to make away themselves. So when morning was come, he goes to them in a surly manner as before, and perceiving them to be very sore with the stripes that he had given them the day before, he told them, that since they were never like to come out of that place, their only way would be forthwith to make an end of themselves, either with knife, halter, or poison, for why, said he, should you choose life, seeing it is attended with so much bitterness? But they desired him to let them go. With that he looked ugly upon them, and, rushing to them, had doubtless made an end of them himself, but that he fell into one of his fits, (for he sometimes, in sunshiny weather, fell into fits), and lost for a time the use of his hand; wherefore he withdrew, and left them as before, to consider what to do.

Then did the prisoners consult between themselves whether it was best to take his counsel or no; and thus they began to discourse—

Christian: Brother, said Christian, what shall we do? The life that we now live is miserable. For my part I know not whether is best, to live thus, or to die out of hand. “My soul chooses strangling rather than life” and the grave is more easy for me than this dungeon. Shall we be ruled by the Giant?

Doubting Castle

Christian and Hopeful lie imprisoned in Doubting Castle. They were overpowered by Giant Despair and forced into his dark dungeon. But despair is not the only struggle the pilgrims must face. Giant Despair has a wife and her name is Diffidence.

According to Mirriam-Webster, the term “diffidence” comes from a combination of the Latin verb fidere (to trust), and the prefix dis (the absence of). It is the opposite of “confidence” — con (with) and fidere (to trust). In modern usage “diffidence” means timidity or lack of confidence. It describes those who are hesitant and unsure of themselves. But in Bunyan’s day, the term had the broader meaning of distrust or lack of faith.

Scripture exhorts us to: “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13). As a mature believer, Christian should be “sound in faith” (Titus 2:2) and an example to younger believers like Hopeful. Yet Christian strayed and caused Hopeful to stray with him. Christian’s failure to walk and lead faithfully caused him to trespass on the grounds of Doubting Castle. Now locked away in its prison, he battles not only despair, but also distrust. His faith wanes; he falls into unbelief.

Despair is a cruel taskmaster. It beats us without mercy. It leaves us helpless, with nowhere to turn and no way out. Distrust is its crueler companion. It causes us to waver and question what we know to be true. It isolates us and casts suspicion over hopes for joy and salvation. It compounds our misery and can deceive us even to the point of thinking that life is no longer worth living. Christian loses sight of truth and despairs of life itself; he quotes from the book of Job:

So that my soul chooses strangling
And death rather than my body (Job 7:15).

Christian’s faith is shaken. He is on the verge of giving up. He asks Hopeful: “Shall we be ruled by the Giant?”

But this is a giant that cannot tolerate the light. He falls into a fit in “sunshiny weather.” Despair loses its strength in the light of God’s Word. Despair loses its grip when truth is brought to bear. Christian can be thankful that he is not facing this oppression alone. He has Hopeful for a companion. In the next post we will hear Hopeful’s answer and reassurance.

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.

Captured by Giant Despair

Neither could they, with all the skill they had, get again to the stile that night. Wherefore, at last, lighting under a little shelter, they sat down there until the daybreak; but, being weary, they fell asleep. Now there was, not far from the place where they lay, a castle called Doubting Castle, the owner whereof was Giant Despair; and it was in his grounds they now were sleeping: wherefore he, getting up in the morning early, and walking up and down in his fields, caught Christian and Hopeful asleep in his grounds. Then, with a grim and surly voice, he bid them awake; and asked them whence they were, and what they did in his grounds. They told him they were pilgrims, and that they had lost their way. Then said the Giant, You have this night trespassed on me, by trampling in and lying on my grounds, and therefore you must go along with me. So they were forced to go, because he was stronger than they. They also had but little to say, for they knew themselves in a fault. The Giant, therefore, drove them before him, and put them into his castle, into a very dark dungeon, nasty and stinking to the spirits of these two men. Here, then, they lay from Wednesday morning till Saturday night, without one bit of bread, or drop of drink, or light, or any to ask how they did; they were, therefore, here in evil case, and were far from friends and acquaintance. Now in this place Christian had double sorrow, because it was through his unadvised counsel that they were brought into this distress.

The pilgrims now, to gratify the flesh,
Will seek its ease; but oh! how they afresh
Do thereby plunge themselves new griefs into!
Who seek to please the flesh, themselves undo.

Giant Despair

Though Christian and Hopeful try “with all the skill they had” to return to the Way, they are unable. Wearied and cast down, they find a little shelter and fall asleep. Soon they discover that they are in great danger. They have trespassed on the grounds of Doubting Castle and are captured by Giant Despair.

The castle is a miserable, unforgiving place. It represents the doubts and fears of those beaten down by sin and overcome with guilt and sorrow. David describes such brokenness in the Psalms:

You know my reproach, my shame, and my dishonor;
My adversaries are all before You.
Reproach has broken my heart,
And I am full of heaviness;
(Psalm 69:19–20)

I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth;
I suffer Your terrors;
I am distraught.
Your fierce wrath has gone over me;
Your terrors have cut me off.
They came around me all day long like water;
They engulfed me altogether.
(Psalm 88:15–17)

The depth of such brokenness is portrayed in the allegory as a dungeon. The dungeon is a dark and unpleasant place, “nasty and stinking to the spirits of these two men.” Their sorrow is lingering and lonely. For four days they are confined without food or drink (to regain their strength) or light (to see and find a way out), or friends and acquaintances (to notice and take pity on them).

Loved one and friend You have put far from me,
And my acquaintances into darkness.
(Psalm 88:18)

Christian knew he had sinned and willfully wandered from the Way. His sorrow was deep in the meadow, when he realized his grave error. But now his pain is deeper. Though he had repented, sought forgiveness, and tried with great effort to make things right; he and Hopeful failed to return to the Way. Christian feels the weight of responsibility for their present distress. Earlier in the story he had grown weary on Hill Difficulty and had fallen asleep. He lost his roll (lost his comfort and assurance of salvation) and lost time retracing his steps to find it. Now Christian is again in a difficult place. He struggles with assurance. He is riddled with guilt, overwhelmed with doubts, and bound by despair. How can he be a Christian and stray so badly? His “unadvised counsel” has endangered not just himself, but a brother as well. Both he and Hopeful are overpowered, forced into Doubting Castle, and locked away in its very dark dungeon.

Christian’s misery echoes Bunyan’s own doubts of his salvation, expressed in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners:

But my original and inward pollution, that, that was my plague and my affliction; that, I say, at a dreadful rate, always putting forth itself within me; that I had the guilt of, to amazement; by reason of that, I was more loathsome in my own eyes than was a toad; and I thought I was so in God’s eyes too; sin and corruption, I said, would as naturally bubble out of my heart, as water would bubble out of a fountain. I thought now that everyone had a better heart than I had; I could have changed heart with anybody; I thought none but the devil himself could equalize me for inward wickedness and pollution of mind. I fell, therefore, at the sight of my own vileness, deeply into despair; for I concluded that this condition that I was in could not stand with a state of grace. Sure, thought I, I am forsaken of God; sure I am given up to the devil, and to a reprobate mind; and thus I continued a long while, even for some years together. [Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, par. 84]

Christian and Hopeful lie imprisoned in Doubting Castle because they were no longer looking to Christ and resting in His provision. They had looked to themselves to find an easier path. And even when they realized their error and sought to return to the Way, they failed, striving in their own efforts. “All the skill they had” was not sufficient to revive and restore them. It looks grim for the pilgrims, but their troubles are just beginning.

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.