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Beware the Flatterer

So they went on and Ignorance followed. They went then till they came at a place where they saw a way put itself into their way, and seemed withal to lie as straight as the way which they should go: and here they knew not which of the two to take, for both seemed straight before them; therefore, here they stood still to consider. And as they were thinking about the way, behold a man, black of flesh, but covered with a very light robe, came to them, and asked them why they stood there. They answered they were going to the Celestial City, but knew not which of these ways to take. Follow me, said the man, it is thither that I am going. So they followed him in the way that but now came into the road, which by degrees turned, and turned them so from the city that they desired to go to, that, in little time, their faces were turned away from it; yet they followed him. But by and by, before they were aware, he led them both within the compass of a net, in which they were both so entangled that they knew not what to do; and with that the white robe fell off the black man’s back. Then they saw where they were. Wherefore, there they lay crying some time, for they could not get themselves out.

Christian: Then said Christian to his fellow, Now do I see myself in error. Did not the Shepherds bid us beware of the flatterers? As is the saying of the wise man, so we have found it this day. A man that flatters his neighbor, spreads a net for his feet.

Hopeful: They also gave us a note of directions about the way, for our more sure finding thereof; but therein we have also forgotten to read, and have not kept ourselves from the paths of the destroyer. Here David was wiser than we; for, said he, “Concerning the works of men, by the word of thy lips, I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer.” Thus they lay bewailing themselves in the net. At last they espied a Shining One coming towards them with a whip of small cord in his hand. When he was come to the place where they were, he asked them whence they came, and what they did there. They told him that they were poor pilgrims going to Zion, but were led out of their way by a black man, clothed in white, who bid us, said they, follow him, for he was going thither too. Then said he with the whip, It is Flatterer, a false apostle, that has transformed himself into an angel of light. So he rent the net, and let the men out. Then said he to them, Follow me, that I may set you in your way again. So he led them back to the way which they had left to follow the Flatterer. Then he asked them, saying, Where did you lie the last night? They said, With the Shepherds upon the Delectable Mountains. He asked them then if they had not of those Shepherds a note of direction for the way. They answered, Yes. But did you, said he, when you were at a stand, pluck out and read your note? They answered, No. He asked them, Why? They said, they forgot. He asked, moreover, if the Shepherds did not bid them beware of the Flatterer? They answered, Yes, but we did not imagine, said they, that this fine-spoken man had been he.

Then I saw in my dream that he commanded them to lie down; which, when they did, he chastised them sore, to teach them the good way wherein they should walk; and as he chastised them he said, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten; be zealous, therefore, and repent.” This done, he bid them go on their way, and take good heed to the other directions of the shepherds. So they thanked him for all his kindness, and went softly along the right way, singing—

Come hither, you that walk along the way;
See how the pilgrims fare that go astray.
They catched are in an entangling net,
‘Cause they good counsel lightly did forget:
‘Tis true they rescued were, but yet you see,
They’re scourged to boot. Let this your caution be.

 The Flatterer's Net

It is to our great shame that sins which have caused us to stumble in the past are too often the same sins that trip us up in the present. Even when we receive the benefit of sound teaching and firm warning, we are slow to learn. Even with an abundance of knowledge and experience, we can too easily fall into the same errors and troubles that have previously slowed and hindered our journey. Christian discovered this to be true in his ongoing battle with spiritual pride.

We see the first evidences of pride in Christian’s life when he “caught a slip or two” going down into the Valley of Humiliation. In the Valley he faced Apollyon who accused him of being prideful. Apollyon said of Christian: “And when you talk of your journey, and of what you have heard and seen, you are inwardly desirous of vain-glory in all that you say or do.”Later at the Little Ascent Christian “vain-gloriously” smiled when he outpaced Faithful. His pride and over-confidence in himself as he ran past Faithful caused him to stumble and fall. He was not able to get up until Faithful came to help him. Still later, when the Way grew difficult, Christian encouraged Hopeful to follow him over the stile into By-Path Meadow. In pride, Christian turned aside, believing he could find an easier path. The path through the meadow appeared to be more pleasant and it seemed to lie parallel with the true path. But By-Path Meadow enticed the pilgrims away from the Way of true righteousness (found in Christ alone) and into the snares and pitfalls of self-righteousness and good intentions. The pilgrims were led further astray by Vain-Confidence, captured by Giant Despair, and imprisoned for a time in Doubting Castle.

Now the pilgrims again face the dilemma of two paths that seem to go the same direction. They are uncertain how to proceed until another traveler, finely dressed in a very light robe, tells them that he also is going to the Celestial City and encourages them to follow him.

Christian and Hopeful should have realized the risk in following the stranger. Though they have made much progress, the dangers along the Way have not diminished. They should have learned from experience, remembering the tragic result of following Vain Confidence. They should have listened more carefully to the Shepherds, following their “note of direction for the way” and heeding their warning: “beware the Flatterer.” But once again they are enticed to go astray. And now they face an even more subtle danger. The Flatterer is disguised. He seems to the pilgrims to be a “fine-spoken man.” But in truth, he is one who brings corruption and ruin with his words:

Those who do wickedly against the covenant he shall corrupt with flattery; but the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits (Daniel 11:32).

A lying tongue hates those who are crushed by it,
And a flattering mouth works ruin.
(Proverbs 26:28)

He deceives the hearts of the simple.

Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple (Romans 16:17–18).

He is “a false apostle, that has transformed himself into an angel of light.”

For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works (2 Corinthians 11:13–15).

Flattery is deceitful and insincere. It is darkness masquerading as light. It is a lie parading itself as truth. It coaxes us to think well of ourselves. It assures us that our sins are not as bad as they really are. It convinces us that our efforts are more noble than they really are. It gives us credit when no credit is due. Flattery can come from others who embellish the truth to gain our favor. Or worse, it can come from ourselves in the form of self-deception as we regard sin lightly and imagine ourselves to be better and wiser than we are. Flattery will lead us astray.

Though the way seems “to lie as straight as the way which they should go,” it begins to take subtle turns. Soon the pilgrims are going in the opposite direction, toward Destruction rather than the Celestial City. The change of direction happens slowly. Little by little they cease resting in Christ for their righteousness. And more and more they trust in themselves. Their own progress in the journey becomes a temptation to puff up their pride.

This is a real danger, especially for seasoned pilgrims who have achieved a measure of spiritual maturity. This is not rushing ahead with Vain Confidence, believing they can set a path to their own liking. This is being charmed and flattered for victory over past sins and trials. It is looking back at real progress in the journey and, instead of giving praise and thanks to God, declaring, “Look at me! See how far I’ve come!” Cheever warns:

A man eager after spiritual attainments does certainly seem to be in the high road to heaven; but if he makes those attainments, instead of Christ, his savior, then certainly his face is turned, and his feet are tending the other way. So we need to be upon our watch against anything and everything, though it should come to us in the shape of an angel of light, which would turn us from a sole reliance upon Christ, or tempt us to a high opinion of ourselves. A broken heart and a contrite spirit are, in the sight of God, of great price; but if any man thinks himself to have attained perfection, he is not very likely to be in the exercise of a broken heart or of a contrite spirit, nor indeed in the exercise of true faith in Christ for justification.

(from Lectures on The Pilgrim’s Progress by G.B. Cheever)

Eventually the Flatterer leads the pilgrims into a trap where they become ensnared in a net.

A man who flatters his neighbor
Spreads a net for his feet.
(Proverbs 29:5)

Sinful pride and self-righteousness will always be a snare that will cause us to stumble and fall.

How could Christian and Hopeful be fooled into following the Flatterer? Why did they not see through the disguise? They were vulnerable to deception because they failed to stay in God’s Word. They forgot to read the instructions given them by the Shepherds. Had they heeded Scripture, they could have sung with David:

Concerning the works of men,
By the word of Your lips,
I have kept away from the paths of the destroyer.
Uphold my steps in Your paths,
That my footsteps may not slip.
(Psalm 17:4–5)

Thankfully the pilgrims are not left ensnared in the net. They lament and repent of their sin of neglecting God’s Word and going astray. They see a Shining One coming “with a whip of small cord in his hand.” Earlier in the allegory, when the Shining Ones appeared to Christian at the cross, they represented the work of God in the heart of a sinner who is saved by grace. Here that work continues as a Shining One rends the net and free them. Cheever notes that the use of the whip represents: “the discipline of the good Spirit of the Lord with his children, when they in any manner go astray, and also the loving-kindness of the Lord, even in the chastisement of his people.”

God’s discipline is hard. The Shining One made them lie down and “chastised them sore” (Deuteronomy 25:2). But God’s discipline is a kindness and blessing that He brings to preserve us and prevent us from being destroyed by sin. It restores us to the good path and teaches us “the good way” in which we should walk (2 Chronicles 6:27). Discipline is a display of God’s love and a call for us to repent:

As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent (Revelation 3:19).

When the Shining One leads the two pilgrims back to the Way and chastises them, they are grateful. They “thanked him for all his kindness” and rejoiced with singing. Cheever concludes:

So were these two erring disciples, who had now insensibly been beguiled away from Christ and his righteousness, into flattering, delusive opinions of their own attainments, whipped back by the Shining One into the path of humility, faith, truth, and duty. So great is “the love of the Spirit,” so sweet and long-suffering the patience and the mercy of the Lord!

(from Lectures on The Pilgrim’s Progress by G.B. Cheever)

May God guard and watch over our steps that we might not go astray. And may He keep us from the net of the Flatterer and in the path of humility, resting in Christ alone as our one and only Savior.

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.