Tag Archives: spiritual pride

The River of Death

Now, I further saw, that between them and the gate was a river, but there was no bridge to go over: the river was very deep. At the sight, therefore, of this river, the Pilgrims were much stunned; but the men that went in with them said, You must go through, or you cannot come at the gate.

The Pilgrims then began to inquire if there was no other way to the gate; to which they answered, Yes; but there hath not any, save two, to wit, Enoch and Elijah, been permitted to tread that path since the foundation of the world, nor shall, until the last trumpet shall sound. The Pilgrims then, especially Christian, began to despond in their minds, and looked this way and that, but no way could be found by them by which they might escape the river. Then they asked the men if the waters were all of a depth. They said: No; yet they could not help them in that case; for, said they, you shall find it deeper or shallower as you believe in the King of the place.

They then addressed themselves to the water and, entering, Christian began to sink, and crying out to his good friend Hopeful, he said, I sink in deep waters; the billows go over my head, all his waves go over me! Selah.

Then said the other, Be of good cheer, my brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good. Then said Christian, Ah! my friend, the sorrows of death have compassed me about; I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey; and with that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see before him. Also here he in great measure lost his senses, so that he could neither remember nor orderly talk of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage. But all the words that he spoke still tended to discover that he had horror of mind, and heart fears that he should die in that river, and never obtain entrance in at the gate. Here also, as they that stood by perceived, he was much in the troublesome thoughts of the sins that he had committed, both since and before he began to be a pilgrim. It was also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of hobgoblins and evil spirits, for ever and anon he would intimate so much by words. Hopeful, therefore, here had much ado to keep his brother’s head above water; yea, sometimes he would be quite gone down, and then, ere a while, he would rise up again half dead. Hopeful also would endeavor to comfort him, saying, Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us: but Christian would answer, It is you, it is you they wait for; you have been Hopeful ever since I knew you. And so have you, said he to Christian. Ah! brother! said he, surely if I was right he would now arise to help me; but for my sins he has brought me into the snare, and has left me. Then said Hopeful, My brother, you have quite forgot the text, where it is said of the wicked, “There are no bands in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men. These troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters are no sign that God hath forsaken you; but are sent to try you, whether you will call to mind that which heretofore you have received of his goodness, and live upon him in your distresses.

Christian and Hopeful Crossing the RiverChristian and Hopeful are now nearing the end of their journey. They are within sight of the Celestial City, but one great barrier separates them from the Gate. They face a deep and foreboding river. The River represents death—the “last enemy” —and the pilgrims must cross it before they can gain entrance into the city.

“The last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

The river appears daunting and formidable. Christian and Hopeful are both stunned. They begin to despond when they see no way around it and no bridge to cross it; there is no way to escape death. When they ask if there is any other way to the Gate, they are told, “Yes”! But Scripture speaks of only two who did not die but were translated to glory: Enoch and Elijah.

So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him (Genesis 5:23–24).

By faith Enoch was taken away so that he did not see death, “and was not found, because God had taken him”; for before he was taken he had this testimony, that he pleased God (Hebrews 11:5).

Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven (2 Kings 2:11).

Apart from these two, only those who are alive at Christ’s second coming will not taste death:

Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed (1 Corinthians 15:51–52).

The pilgrims now realize that death is unavoidable. As they prepare to enter the water, they are encouraged and accompanied by the Shining Ones. Throughout the allegory the Shining Ones represent God’s work of grace in heart. In the country of Beulah these servants of the King walk and minister openly. They are sent to guide pilgrims in the final steps of the journey. The Shining Ones inform the pilgrims that the river will be shallow or deep depending on their faith. As the pilgrims enter the River, we see indeed that they experience death differently.

Christian is in great turmoil. His pride has long been his greatest obstacle, and even in death, his thoughts are of himself. He remembers his sins and ponders his failings. He begins to sink and cry out in distress. His words are taken from the laments of David:

Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls;
All Your waves and billows have gone over me.
(Psalm 42:7)

Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
Where there is no standing;
I have come into deep waters,
Where the floods overflow me.
(Psalm 69:1–2)

Deliver me out of the mire,
And let me not sink;
Let me be delivered from those who hate me,
And out of the deep waters.
Let not the floodwater overflow me,
Nor let the deep swallow me up;
And let not the pit shut its mouth on me.
(Psalm 69:14–15)

When the waves of death surrounded me,
The floods of ungodliness made me afraid.
The sorrows of Sheol surrounded me;
The snares of death confronted me.
(2 Samuel 22:5–6)

The pains of death surrounded me,
And the pangs of Sheol laid hold of me;
I found trouble and sorrow.
(Psalm 116:3)

For Christian, death is a great trial. Doubts that he believed were long past, flood his soul again.  Fears engulf him—fears he will never make it to the Celestial City. The foes he faced earlier in the Valley of the Shadow of Death (that had all but vanished in the country of Beulah) now return and seek to pull him under.

But Hopeful is full of hope. He finds the river much shallower and, unlike Christian, walks across with firm footing. He keeps his head above the waves and sees the Gate when Christian is unable. Once again, it is God’s kindness that Christian and Hopeful walk together. Hopeful’s thoughts are of Christ. Even in death, Hopeful encourages his brother and points him to the Savior and to the promise of eternal life. Hopeful reminds Christian of Scripture and tells him that even the trial he is facing in death is an indication of God’s grace at work. Unlike the wicked who will be cast away, Christian is concerned for his soul, distressed by his doubts, and troubled by his sin.

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
My steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the boastful,
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For there are no pangs in their death,
But their strength is firm.
They are not in trouble as other men,
Nor are they plagued like other men.
(Psalm 73:2–5)

It is a mark of grace that Christian is not in anguish over the loss of this world. Rather, he grieves his lack of faith and holiness.

Every true pilgrim who sets out for the Celestial City will complete the journey. God will do everything necessary to bring us home to glory.

being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

But our awareness of His grace as we near the end of life and experience death will be strengthened or weakened by our faith, as we “believe in the King of the place.” We must exercise our faith now. We must learn to walk by faith, not by sight, and be grateful for every circumstance and providence that keeps us pointed to Christ and oriented toward eternity. This requires a radical shift in our thinking. Too often we value what profits us little and spurn what God can use for our good. It is a paradox that what we consider to be an advantage in this life can actually hinder us (if it distracts us from trusting in Christ). And what we consider to be a disadvantage in this life can actually help us (if it makes us more mindful of our need for Christ). What this world most prizes—status, privilege, wealth, youth and vigor—are things that bind us to this life. Sadly, they can prevent us from looking to Christ and yearning for the life to come. But what the world most fears—hardship, illness, poverty, old age and frailty—are things that cause us to grow weary of this life. Thankfully, they can serve us, if they teach us to value Christ and yearn more for the life to come.

Those most at home in this world will have the hardest time leaving it. It is difficult to face death when you are clinging tenaciously to the world. Those least encumbered by the world will have an easier time leaving it. When we realize that Christ and His promises—which for now are unseen (seen only with the eyes of faith)—are more real and more valuable than anything the world can offer, then we can greet death not as an enemy but as an entrance to glory.

The River

Lord, we pray for those now crossing
Through the River, death’s cold tide.
Help them through its flowing current,
Bring them safe on Canaan’s side.

(from A Prayer for Pilgrims)

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 ©2019 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV) ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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.

Led Astray by Vain-Confidence

He, therefore, that went before, (Vain-confidence by name), not seeing the way before him, fell into a deep pit, which was on purpose there made, by the Prince of those grounds, to catch vain-glorious fools withal, and was dashed in pieces with his fall.

Now Christian and his fellow heard him fall. So they called to know the matter, but there was none to answer, only they heard a groaning. Then said Hopeful, Where are we now? Then was his fellow silent, as mistrusting that he had led him out of the way; and now it began to rain, and thunder, and lighten in a very dreadful manner; and the water rose amain.

Then Hopeful groaned in himself, saying, Oh, that I had kept on my way!

Christian: Who could have thought that this path should have led us out of the way?

Hopeful: I was afraid on it at the very first, and therefore gave you that gentle caution. I would have spoken plainer, but that you are older than I.

Vain-ConfidenceIn the last post Christian and Hopeful strayed into By-Path Meadow. When God’s Way became difficult, they sought a more comfortable course. In his self-confidence, Christian believed he could find a better way. And so he led Hopeful over the stile and into what appeared to be a more pleasant yet parallel path.

At first it seemed as if they had made the right choice. The meadow was a welcome relief and the way was easier. They fell in behind another traveler who assured them that he also was on his way to the Celestial Gate. But as night came they realized their error. They were walking into great peril. They were trusting in themselves rather than God, and the one they now followed was Vain-Confidence.

We are warned in Scripture not to lean on our own understanding, but to trust in God to guide us in the Way.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths.
(Proverbs 3:5–6)

When we think ourselves to be wiser than God and forsake His Word to devise our own way, there can only be one end.

Pride goes before destruction,
And a haughty spirit before a fall.
(Proverbs 6:18)

We see several examples of pride leading to a fall in Scripture: King Saul (1 Samuel 15), Jezebel (2 Kings 9), and Haman (Esther 7). Jesus asked the Pharisees, the prideful religious leaders of His day: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into the ditch?” (Luke 6:39).

Vain-Confidence is not a trustworthy guide. He is unable to see the way before him. Lost in the darkness, he falls “into a deep pit” and is “dashed in pieces with his fall.” Christian and Hopeful hear him fall and try calling out to him, but there is no answer.

Hopeful then asks Christian, “Where are we now?” But Christian also has no answer. He comes to the fearful realization that he is responsible for their present danger. The error is his and he has led Hopeful out of the way.

For the leaders of this people cause them to err,
And those who are led by them are destroyed.
(Isaiah 9:16)

Just as the pilgrims realize the danger they are in, their trouble worsens. It begins to rain and thunder. The water rises “amain” (quickly, in haste without warning). Hopeful laments: “O that I had kept on my way!” When Christian first suggested that they enter the meadow, Hopeful was hesitant to object. Now he regrets not speaking more plainly, when he feared that Christian was making a mistake. He should have had the courage to offer correction, even though Christian was an older brother in Christ. Though Christian made the greater error, Hopeful accepts some of the blame for their present troubles.

Though Christian’s error is obvious, he is still surprised that his plan did not work the way he had hoped. He asks: “Who could have thought that this path should have led us out of the way?” The answer is he should have thought so, but he was not careful, and was blinded by his own pride, and lead astray by vain confidence.

The dangers faced by Christian and Hopeful are a warning to us to flee from pride and vain-confidence. Scripture warns us:

Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:12).

We must not seek our own way or think we can find a better way. We must learn to trust God and walk in His ways, even when His Way is difficult.

David exhorts us in the psalms:

Commit your way to the Lord,
Trust also in Him,
And He shall bring it to pass.
(Psalm 37:5)

And he prays, as we should pray:

Show me Your ways, O Lord;
Teach me Your paths.
Lead me in Your truth and teach me,
For You are the God of my salvation;
On You I wait all the day.
(Psalm 25:4–5)

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.

By-Path Meadow

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.

 

By-Path MeadowAfter 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?
(Jeremiah 17:9)

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.
(Proverbs 14:12)

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.
(Psalm 18:30)

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.

A Little Ascent

Now, as Christian went on his way, he came to a little ascent, which was cast up on purpose that pilgrims might see before them. Up there, therefore, Christian went, and looking forward, he saw Faithful before him, upon his journey. Then said Christian aloud, “Ho! ho! So-ho! stay, and I will be your companion!” At that, Faithful looked behind him; to whom Christian cried again, “Stay, stay, till I come up to you!” But Faithful answered, “No, I am upon my life, and the avenger of blood is behind me.”

At this, Christian was somewhat moved, and putting to all his strength, he quickly got up with Faithful, and did also overrun him; so the last was first. Then did Christian vain-gloriously smile, because he had gotten the start of his brother; but not taking good heed to his feet, he suddenly stumbled and fell, and could not rise again until Faithful came up to help him.

Christian and FaithfulNow that Christian has made it through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and past the cave, he comes to yet another mercy of God. He finds a little ascent that was designed especially for the benefit of pilgrims. The little ascent represents encouragement along the Way, especially the encouragement we gain from seeing the faithfulness of God in the testimony and progress of other believers. The ascent was “cast up on purpose that pilgrims might see before them.” As Christian ascends and looks forward, he sees another pilgrim ahead of him. The sight of another pilgrim, after enduring the solitary struggles of the valley, is a balm to Christian’s soul. He is not alone in his journey. There is a brother walking the same path and Christian desires to be his companion.

Christian’s experience at the Little Ascent teaches two valuable lessons. Bunyan highlights both the delight and danger of walking with brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Delight of Christian Fellowship

The first lesson of the Little Ascent is the value of Christian fellowship. We can be greatly helped by those who walk with us along the Way, especially as we see God at work in their lives.

Earlier in the story Bunyan depicted the value of Christian fellowship in the church (a theme he explores more fully in Part 2 of The Pilgrim’s Progress). Christian enjoyed the benefits of discourse with the family at House Beautiful. Now, seeing Faithful up ahead on the path, Christian again longs for godly conversation.

Christian first learned of Faithful from the Porter when he left Palace Beautiful. He had heard Faithful’s voice quoting Scripture (Psalm 23) while in the valley. Even then Faithful’s confidence in God’s Word had given Christian strength to press on. Now Christian sees Faithful walking ahead. God had brought them both safely through.

Christian calls out and urges Faithful to wait. But Faithful had just endured the Valley of the Shadow of Death. He is still fearful of what he had left behind. He presses forward and will not stop. This does not discourage Christian, however. Christian understands Faithful’s fears, having also come through the valley and escaped its dangers. He has compassion for Faithful and is even more determined to gain his company. As Christian makes an effort to overtake Faithful, Bunyan teaches us a second lesson.

The Danger of Spiritual Pride

The second lesson of the Little Ascent is the danger of spiritual pride. Faithful has outpaced Christian. But when Christian makes an effort to catch up, he ends up running past him. Christian is not hindered by the lingering fears of Faithful. The chase is easy. The race is soon won. When Christian sees that he is now ahead of his brother he “vain-gloriously” smiles. The smile betrays sin in Christian’s heart. His heart is now overrun with spiritual pride.

Paul warns of pride in Philippians, even as he exhorts us to care for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Before he tells us: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4), he says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). The order of these verses is significant. If we concern ourselves with the interests of others, even rightly motivated, and we lack humility, we will be in danger of falling into spiritual pride.

This was not Christian’s first struggle against pride. Pride caused him to slip going down into the Valley of Humiliation. Pride was one of the sins that Apollyon observed in Christian and used to accuse him, saying, “you are inwardly desirous of vain-glory in all that you say or do.” Though Christian readily confessed his sin, telling Apollyon, “all this is true, and much more which you have left out,” he did not root out pride in just one valley. It overtakes him again here and sets him up for a fall.

We are warned in the book of Proverbs:

Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall.
(Proverbs 16:18)

We must guard against spiritual pride when we see it in ourselves. When we think we stand, when we think we are ahead, when we position ourselves to look better than others, we are in danger of falling. Christian fell when he saw himself advance further than Faithful. Christian failed to take heed to his steps and found himself unable to rise. But even in Christian’s failure we see the grace of God at work. Faithful came and raised him to his feet. Christian stumbled and was helped by the very one he thought he had bested.

The little ascent teaches us both the delight of walking with brothers and sisters in Christ and the danger of spiritual pride when we are tempted to compare ourselves to others and seek an advantage over others. May God grant us compassion and humility that we might learn to walk together in unity and love.

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind (1 Peter 3:8).

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 ©2015 Ken Puls
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy BIble, English Standard Version (ESV) ©2001 by Crossway.