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.

In Spirit and In Truth

In Spirit and In Truth

What is most important to you when you worship God? If you were to list those things that are really essential for you to participate in worship, what would they be? Is it a certain style of preaching? Is it a certain translation or version of the Bible? Is it a certain type of music? Is it a sense of reverence and awe? Is it a sense of excitement and praise? Of course it is important to be intentional and thoughtful about reading and preaching God’s Word. We should be careful and purposeful about our praying and singing. We want to respond to God in ways that are biblical and appropriate.

But worship is more than the external elements we engage in. It is more than the outward actions that occupy so much of our concern. In John 4:1-26 Jesus points us to something much deeper at the heart of worship.

The context of this passage may seem at first to be somewhat unusual for a discussion about worship. Jesus is passing through Samaria on His way to Galilee and He stops at Jacob’s well for a drink. There He encounters a women from Samaria and He draws her into a conversation by asking her to give Him a drink.

Read more sermon notes from “In Spirit and In Truth” (from the series “Thoughts on Worship”) delivered at Grace Baptist Church, May 17, 2015.

Listen online at Grace

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Find Out What Is Pleasing to the Lord

Pleasing to the Lord

In Ephesians 5:10 Paul exhorts us to “try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (ESV).

This verse is rendered different ways in our English translations of the Bible:

And find out what pleases the Lord… (NIV)
Proving what is well-pleasing to the Lord (ASV)
…trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. (NASB)
…finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. (NKJV)

The NRSV recasts the verse as a command:

Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. (NRSV)

The word for discern is a word that means “to prove, to find out or to test.” The word for pleasing means “acceptable or satisfying.” We are to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. In other words, we are to prove or seek out what is acceptable or satisfying to the Lord.

Trying to discern what is pleasing to the Lord is a primary pursuit for those who would follow Christ. If we know what pleases God, from the light and testimony of His Word, we will have a strong foundation for our lives. We will have a right focus that will keep us centered and on the right path. If we learn what is pleasing to God, we will find ultimate pleasure and purpose for ourselves. We were made for God. We were made to please Him.

So ask yourself:

What is it that pleases God?
What is it that brings Him delight?

In a recent Bible Study, I sought to provide some answers to these questions: 12 things that God delights in, according to His Word. The list is not exhaustive, but it highlights from the Bible what God has revealed about what gives Him pleasure and joy.

You can read / download the study here:
Find Out What Is Pleasing to the Lord

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Tornado Ride

This month marks a tragic anniversary for my home city. Forty years ago, on May 6, 1975, Omaha, Nebraska, was struck by a destructive tornado. I was thirteen then and remember the storm today, especially because it gave occasion for my first effort at writing a song.

On that day in 1975 I had arrived home from school when we heard the tornado sirens. My Mom was finishing the ironing and decided that she and my brother and I should take shelter. At the time she was not too concerned with the storm; she promptly put my brother and me to work cleaning when we reached the basement. My Dad, however, was out of town and worried about us. He knew we were in the tornado’s path, but he was not able to reach us.

We discovered later that the storm had been headed right for our house. We lived on Crown Pointe Ave, just up the hill from Orchard Park (I was attending Nathan Hale Junior High School). The tornado lifted near Benson Park and then went over our house. Though our house was spared, a large part of the city was devastated.

After seeing the damage done to the city, I imagined what it might have been like had the tornado hit our house like it did so many others. Imagination soon led to writing down the words of a song that I named Tornado Ride.

Below are the lyrics of the song and a recording that I made at the end of the summer of 1975 for my Dad (retrieved from an old cassette). It is the earliest recording I have of me singing and playing guitar.

Tornado Ride

Tornado Ride

Destruction and misery
Is all a tornado ever gave me

Tornados and twisters too
Kill and destroy are all they ever do
Tornados and twisters too
Better watch out when it’s coming through

Well, yesterday, everything was fine
And I was in school just wasting time
The bell finally rang and we got to go home
But we looked in the sky and black clouds did roam

Tornados and twisters too
Kill and destroy are all they ever do
Tornados and twisters too
Better watch out when it’s coming through

Well, I ran home as fast as I could
The weather was bad, not like it should
Sometimes it was hot and sometimes it was cold
In the sky a storm was clearly shown

When I got home, we ran down the stairs
Grabbed my radio, ‘cause we was mighty scared
Turned on the radio to hear what they’d say
But we ran and hid when it was coming our way

Tornados and twisters too
Kill and destroy are all they ever do
Tornados and twisters too
Better watch out when it’s coming through

Then all of a sudden we heard a loud sound
Looked up and saw the house come down
Then everything was calm, the tornado had passed
But we looked around and everything was smashed

Tornados and twisters too
Kill and destroy is all they ever do
Tornados and twisters too
Better watch out when it’s coming through

When I got up and saw all the rubble
Then I knew that we was really in trouble
So I looked around and started to shout
But I know it’s no use, so I climbed on out

Well, when I got out, the wind really blew
I needed help and didn’t know what to do
Along came the police and a rescue squad too
And the place was so wrecked it was hard to be true

Tornados and twisters too
Kill and destroy is all they ever do
Tornados and twisters too
Better watch out when it’s coming through

Well they took me to a motel and put me up for the night
And helped me all they could, ‘cause they knew I was in a fright
Then the next day we started to clean up
And find all we could in this terrible dump

Tornados and twisters too
Kill and destroy is all they ever do
Tornados and twisters too
Better watch out when it’s coming through

So my friends when it comes
You better go and hide
Unless you want to take a Tornado ride

Words and Music @1976 Kenneth Puls

I wrote the song early in May soon after the tornado struck and then shared it with my guitar teacher at one of my lessons. (I studied guitar with Leonard Mostek at his studio on Maple Street.) He liked it and entered me in an area talent show that summer called Show Wagon. I spent June of 1975 singing the song in several city parks in Omaha as part of Show Wagon.

Writing this song and having the opportunity to share with others was a defining moment for me. God used it in part to set the course of my life. Ten years after the tornado (after studying music theory and composition at the University of Nebraska at Omaha) I began what would be my life’s work, serving the church through music. For the past 30 years of ministry I have continued to write and arrange music, including many hymns and songs for worship. I am grateful for God’s protection in the storm in 1975, and grateful as well that through it I discovered an interest and joy in writing music. I have made it my aim to “praise the Lord as long as I live” (Psalm 146:2).

The cover art is from a charcoal drawing made by my daughter Anna Puls (2015). It includes the three TV towers at 72nd and Crown Pointe, not far from where I lived.

—Ken Puls