A Guide to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress

Notes and Commentary

by Ken Puls

on John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress

Part Two

Steps through the Slough

14. Look Well to the Steps

Now my old friend proceeded, and said, “But when Christiana came up to the Slough of Despond, she began to be at a stand: ‘For,’ said she, 'this is the place in which my dear husband had like to have been smothered with mud.’ She perceived also, that notwithstanding the command of the King to make this place for pilgrims good, yet it was rather worse than formerly.” So I asked if that was true? “Yes,” said the old gentleman, “too true. For that many there be that pretend to be the King's laborers, and that say they are for mending the King’s highway, that bring din and dung instead of stones, and so mar instead of mending. Here Christiana therefore, with her boys, did make a stand. But said Mercy, ‘Come, let us venture, only let us be wary.’ Then they looked well to the steps, and made a shift to get staggeringly over.

“Yet Christiana had like to have been in, and that not once nor twice. Now they had no sooner got over, but they thought they heard words that said unto them, ‘Blessed is she that believes; for there shall be a performance of those things that have been told her from the Lord.’

“Then they went on again. And said Mercy to Christiana, ‘Had I as good ground to hope for a loving reception at the wicket gate as you, I think no Slough of Despond would discourage me.’

“‘Well,’ said the other, ‘you know your sore, and I know mine, and, good friend, we shall all have enough evil before we come at our journey’s end. For can it be imagined, that the people that design to attain such excellent glories as we do, and that are so envied that happiness as we are, but that we shall meet with what fears and scares, with what troubles and afflictions, they can possibly assault us with that hate us?’”


Notes and Commentary

Not far into their journey, Christiana and Mercy come to the Slough of Despond. It was here in Part 1 of The Pilgrim’s Progress that Christian and Pliable “being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog.”

The Slough is a miry swamp “in the midst of the plain” that lies near the City of Destruction. Its ground can be unstable and treacherous. It represents the horrifying awareness of how evil and vile sin truly is. Those who come under conviction of sin, who are seeking to flee the Destruction of sin, can easily tumble in and become mired in the depth of their own guilt and shame.

Because the Slough is vast, it is unavoidable. Those who flee the city seeking the Way of life must find a way across. If we are to go to the cross and truly appreciate the work of redemption that Christ accomplished on our behalf, we must confront the dreadfulness of our sin. The guilt and shame we feel as God’s Spirit convicts us, serves to turn us away from sin and compels us to flee to Christ. It impresses upon us our great need for a Savior.

When Christiana approaches the Slough, she is “at a stand.” She is hesitant and fearful of venturing further. She remembers that it was here that Christian began to sink because of his burden. But she also feels the weight of her own guilt. The shame of how she treated her husband begins to overwhelm her.

Both Christian and Christiana had a companion as they set out on their journey. Pliable accompanied Christian until they fell into the Slough. Pliable was intrigued by the promise of rewards and heaven, but he had no sense of his sinfulness or need of salvation. When he was confronted with the guilt and filthiness of his sin, he was offended and abandoned Christian. Mercy now accompanies Christiana. Mercy has a deep sense of her sin and unworthiness. She is also compassionate and cares for the well-being of others. Though Christiana struggles to go forward, Mercy encourages her, “Come, let us venture, only let us be wary.”

As they make their way across the Slough, Bunyan highlights two lessons for crossing successfully. First, they “looked well to the steps.” The steps represent the sure and precious promises of God. We can walk on good ground when we stand upon the truth of His Word.

For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us (1 Corinthians 15:20).

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).

Though the King commanded that the Slough be mended so pilgrims could walk on good ground, Christiana and Mercy find it to be even worse than before. Faithful laborers (pastors and teachers) place solid stepping stones along the Way to encourage pilgrims to press on to the cross. But there are many pretenders to the faith who claim to be the King’s laborers who do much harm with their hypocrisy and false teaching. They “bring din and dung instead of stones, and so mar instead of mending.” If we are successfully to cross the Slough, we must heed the faithful preaching and teaching of true gospel ministers and “look well to the steps.”

Second, in crossing the Slough, “they made a shift to get staggeringly over.” To “make a shift” means to put forth an effort in the face of difficulty or adversity. Christiana and Mercy were diligent and determined in their attempt. Their crossing involved human responsibility as well as God’s sovereignty. They “looked well to the steps.” They listened to God’s Word as it was preached and taught. They studied God’s Word so they could learn to discern truth from error. And they obeyed God’s Word. They were careful in their walk, though their efforts were frail and imperfect (they got “staggeringly” over). They kept to the steps, not finding their own way, or standing upon their own efforts, but anchoring their hope in God (believing that He will sovereignly fulfill all He has promised in His Word).

As they complete their crossing of the Slough, Christiana and Mercy hear the words spoken by Elizabeth to Mary before the birth of Jesus:

Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45).

Bunyan once again highlights the value of Christian friendship and walking the journey together. Both Christiana and Mercy are an encouragement to each other. Christiana has Mercy to help her find the steps and hold her up when she nearly falls in the Slough.

Unless the Lord had been my help,
My soul would soon have settled in silence.
If I say, “My foot slips,”
Your mercy, O Lord, will hold me up.
In the multitude of my anxieties within me,
Your comforts delight my soul.
(Psalm 94:17–19)

Though our sins may be dark and threatening, we acknowledge and confess our sins, God is merciful and ready to forgive.

Bow down Your ear, O Lord, hear me;
For I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am holy;
You are my God;
Save Your servant who trusts in You!
Be merciful to me, O Lord,
For I cry to You all day long.
Rejoice the soul of Your servant,
For to You, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive,
And abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You.
(Psalm 86:1–5)

From the outset of the journey, Christiana’s confidence that she will be received by her King has strengthened Mercy’s faith and given her courage. Mercy has only known Christiana a short time and doesn’t yet understand the depth of Christiana’s regrets or her hesitation at the Slough. Mercy reasons: “Had I as good ground to hope for a loving reception at the wicket gate as you, I think no Slough of Despond would discourage me.” But Christiana understands that the journey has just begun. Many trials still lie ahead. Though Mercy found courage to cross the Slough, she is hesitant to approach the Gate, fearing she may be rejected. Soon Mercy will need Christiana’s encouragement. Christiana responds: “You know your sore, and I know mine.” Each has their own struggles where their conscience is tender. Earlier Secret taught Christiana that the bitter must come before the sweet. She tells Mercy, “we shall all have enough evil before we come at our journey’s end.” They must face many “fears and scares” and endure many “troubles and afflictions” before they come to their journey’s end. But in God’s kindness, they are not walking alone.


The Slough of Despond

    Lord, we pray for those now sinking,
         Doubting in the mire of sin,
      Though alone they vainly struggle,
         Help can bring them out again.
      Father, send Your precious Spirit,
         Lift them up on solid ground,
      Point them to each Gospel promise
         That their hope may soon abound.

(from "A Prayer for Pilgrims" by Ken Puls)

Continue Reading 15. Knocking at the Gate

Return to 13. Tears in a Bottle


The text for The Pilgrim's Progress
and images used are public domain
Notes and Commentary for Part II ©2014, 2021–2022 Ken Puls

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

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