Notes and Commentary on
The Pilgrim's Progress
by Ken Puls
35. Hill Difficulty
I beheld, then, that they all went on till they came to the foot of the Hill Difficulty; at the bottom of which was a spring. There were also in the same place two other ways besides that which came straight from the gate; one turned to the left hand, and the other to the right, at the bottom of the hill; but the narrow way lay right up the hill, and the name of the going up the side of the hill is called Difficulty. Christian now went to the spring, and drank thereof, to refresh himself, and then began to go up the hill, saying—
"The hill, though high, I covet to ascend,
The difficulty will not me offend;
For I perceive the way to life lies here.
Come, pluck up heart, let's neither faint nor fear;
Better, though difficult, the right way to go,
Than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe."
The other two also came to the foot of the hill; but when they saw that the hill was steep and high, and that there were two other ways to go, and supposing also that these two ways might meet again, with that up which Christian went, on the other side of the hill, therefore they were resolved to go in those ways. Now the name of one of these ways was Danger, and the name of the other Destruction. So the one took the way which is called Danger, which led him into a great wood, and the other took directly up the way to Destruction, which led him into a wide field, full of dark mountains, where he stumbled and fell, and rose no more.
"Shall they who wrong begin yet rightly end?
Shall they at all have safety for their friend?
No, no; in headstrong manner they set out,
And headlong will they fall at last no doubt."
I looked, then, after Christian, to see him go up the hill, where I perceived he fell from running to going, and from going to clambering upon his hands and his knees, because of the steepness of the place. Now, about the midway to the top of the hill was a Pleasant Arbor, made by the Lord of the hill for the refreshing of weary travelers.
Notes and Commentary
Now in the course of the journey, difficulty arises, and Formalist and Hypocrisy prove that they are indeed pretenders in the Way. They were quite willing to accompany Christian, boasting of their impressive outward piety, as long as the Way did not present any obstacles. Like Pliable, who forsook his brief pilgrimage at the Slough, Formalist and Hypocrisy are unwilling to continue with Christian when they come to Hill Difficulty.
Bunyan notes that at the bottom of the hill was a spring. Both the hill and the spring come from the hand of God. Our loving Father providentially places difficulties and trials in our path, desiring that we go up them and not try to avoid them. In His mercy and goodness, He also provides along the Way all we need to make it up and over our troubles. Before Christian addresses himself to begin climbing, he takes refreshment at the Spring. This imagery comes from the prophet Isaiah, who speaks of a refreshing spring as he describes God's care of His people in the midst of affliction;
They shall neither hunger nor thirst,
Neither heat nor sun shall strike them;
For He who has mercy on them will lead them,
Even by the springs of water He will guide them.
The Spring is a testimony to the goodness of God in all He brings us through. No matter how steep or high our own difficulties may seem, we can trust that God will work through it all to our good and sanctification.
When Formalist and Hypocrisy come to the hill, they are immediately struck by how high and steep it appears. They quickly lose heart, failing to see the goodness of God, and begin exploring alternatives. They see two other paths at the bottom of the hill that seem to offer a way out. They wrongly assume that they can take one of the easier paths, thus avoiding the difficulty, and still reach Mount Zion. The two ways are named Destruction and Danger. These two paths are deceptive, for they appear to simply go around the hill and join back to the Way on the other side. Formalist goes down one path and Hypocrisy the other. The one who takes the way of Danger is soon lost in a Great Wood. The other, who follows Destruction, comes to a wide field full of dark mountains. Bunyan explains these dark mountains in his exposition of Ephesians 3:18-19, The Saint's Knowledge of Christ's Love. He warns:
There are heights also that build up themselves in us, which are not but to be taken notice of: Yea, there are a many of them, and they place themselves directly so, that if possible they may keep the saving knowledge of God out of our hearts. These high things therefore are said to exalt themselves against the knowledge of God; and do ofttimes more plague, afflict, and frighten Christian men and women, than anything besides. It is from these that our faith and spiritual understanding of God and his Christ is opposed and contradicted; and from these also that we are so inclinable to swerve from right doctrine into destructive opinions. 'Tis from these that we are so easily persuaded to call into question our former experience of the goodness of God towards us, and from these that our minds are so often clouded and darkened that we cannot see afar off. These would betray us into the hands of fallen angels and men, nor should we by any means help or deliver ourselves, were it not for one that is higher. These are the dark mountains at which our feet would certainly stumble, and upon which we should fall, were it not for one who can leap and skip over these mountains of division, and come to us.
The dark mountains in the path of Destruction represent the false doctrines and unsound opinions that lead people to wrong conclusions about God's character and providence. Formalist and Hypocrisy simply could not conceive that God would place such an obstacle of difficulty in their path. They believed that ones such as they, with such fine professions of faith and outward obedience, should have a smooth path to heaven. They wrongly associated ease in this life with God's favor and blessing. They misunderstood God's gracious and sanctifying purposes in bringing us through difficulty that He might show Himself strong in the midst of our weaknesses. Their understanding was so darkened that they missed entirely the goodness of God manifest in the Spring. They by-passed its refreshment and went instead into Danger and Destruction. Proverbs 14:12 warns: "There is a way that seems right to man, but its end is the way of death." This proves to be the end of Formalist and Hypocrisy. We must be careful in the face of difficulty not to question God's goodness, but rather trust Him and give Him glory, as Jeremiah tells us:
Give glory to the LORD your God
Before He causes darkness,
And before your feet stumble
On the dark mountains,
And while you are looking for light,
He turns it into the shadow of death
And makes it dense darkness.
Though Formalist and Hypocrisy had forsaken the Way of difficulty, Christian, now refreshed by the Spring, proceeds to go up it. It is worth noting that as Christian begins to go up the hill, knowing that his trial is from the hand of God, his troubles do not get easier. He begins with great energy and enthusiasm to overcome the hill, running the first part of the Way. His running, however, soon becomes going, and going to crawling on his hands and knees. Often when we face difficulty, rather than trying to avoid it, it only becomes steeper and seemingly more impossible to overcome. In those times we must trust the loving God who has set the hill in our Way and keep going as He enables us.
God's goodness does not abandon Christian in the midst of his trouble. About midway to the top of the hill Christian finds a pleasant Arbor. This Arbor represents a Word of Grace, a truth or promise of Scripture applied to our present situation. This Word can come in many ways: from a sermon or lesson we hear at church, from our own reading in the Bible, from sound books that teach us God's Word, or from a word of encouragement spoken by a brother or sister in Christ. God uses many means to bring us to His Word and apply it to our hearts. Next time we consider more thoroughly the Arbor and how Christian unwarily turns this gracious provision of God into a hindrance on the Way.
Continue Reading 36. A Pleasant Arbor
Return to 34. A Coat of Rags
Read and Follow "A Guide to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress" on the blog: Hill Difficulty