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[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 8 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Friends 4Ever.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
John Bunyan stood before judicial authorities in January 1661 and was found guilty of violating the Religion Act of 1592. The somewhat archaic law was birthed under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Its purpose was to imprison persons who failed to attend services in the Church of England, participated in unlawful religious meetings, and preached without a state-sanctioned license.
Laws like these had been hushed during the English Commonwealth—the years between 1649 (the execution of King Charles I) and 1660 (the restoration of the English monarchy under Charles II). England, as well as Scotland and Ireland, had been a republic then and it’s Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, was a steady Puritan who favored ecclesiastical independence from the established Church of England.
But the year was now 1661 and Cromwell was dead. The pendulum had swung back to the English crown and its Anglicanism. Bunyan, a tinker who had converted during the years of the Commonwealth, was now a known preacher and a member of the Bedford Free Church (a nonconformist Protestant congregation). He continued to preach openly despite the new political climate and was thus imprisoned in 1661. Bunyan entered the Bedford County Jail with a three-month prison sentence; he remained there for 12 long years.
No doubt, these were difficult years for Bunyan. Somewhere amid the turmoil, he closes his eyes and dreams a dream. In his mind, he encounters a man named Christian, a pilgrim on his way to the celestial city. The story is captured in his book, The Pilgrim’s Progress. And in many ways, the famed allegory is the story of Bunyan’s own pilgrimage (as well as the journey of all Christians en route to their heavenly home).If the sinless Savior desired community in a time of suffering, how much more do we need friends?
The Pilgrim’s Progress is packed with riveting twists and turns as the protagonist faces one foe after another. A standing feature of the book—one that actually distinguishes it from Pilgrim’s Progress Part 2—is the lone ranger nature of Christian’s battles. The first chapter of the narrative shows him leaving home, and for the next four chapters—with the exception of some helpful wayfarers—he travels and toils alone.
Surely the author sensed his character’s need for a friend. If so, chapter five of the book is Bunyan’s remedy to Christian’s loneliness. For there we meet Faithful, a valiant pilgrim with whom Christian shares brotherly affection and pleasant conversation.1 But their fellowship is short lived. Faithful is martyred by the end of chapter seven and it seems as if Christian must return to his desolate road. But, having allowed his hero to taste the sweet communion of friendship, Bunyan is unwilling to leave Christian unaccompanied. So in comes the newly converted pilgrim, Hopeful.
In Hopeful, John Bunyan offers a picture of the friend who sticks closer than a brother (Psalm 18:24). Hopeful’s commitment to Christian seems to hang on something higher than his friend’s merit. Simply put, Hopeful loves Christian at his best and at his worst. For one, he recognizes the value of Christian’s guidance as they face the temptation of Demas and his silver mines.2 In another instance, it is Hopeful who keeps a disoriented Christian from drowning in the River of Death.3 In all, Hopeful’s friendship proves vital to Christian’s survival and eventual arrival home. This idea is well conveyed in their stay at Doubting Castle. There, Hopeful must convince Christian against suicide. An account follows.
At some point in their journey, the two wander onto the grounds of Doubting Castle. They are soon apprehended by a giant named Despair, the owner of the place. He imprisons them in his foul dungeon. Driven by the counsel of his callous wife, Diffidence, Giant Despair begins to beat and starve the men. In the end, he demands nothing short of their suicide. Bunyan writes:
So when morning came, the giant went to them in a surly manner as before. Seeing that they were sore from the previous day’s beating, he told them that since they were never likely to come out of that dungeon, the only way of escape would be to make an end of themselves, either with knife, rope, or poison. “For why” said he, “should you choose life, seeing it is attended with so much bitterness?”4
George Whitefield is said to have remarked of The Pilgrim’s Progress: “It smells of prison.”5 If the book gives the scent of prison, then Bunyan’s Doubting Castle is particularly pungent. The odors, sounds, and essence of the the Bedford County Jail seem infused into that particular chapter. Surely Bunyan’s prison cell was his Doubting Castle. Giant Despair was among his jailers. Did Bunyan feel beaten by his hand? Was cynical Diffidence a visitor? Did she whisper at times to Bunyan to “make an end of it?”
We are left here to speculation, but this much we know: to include the threat of despair and even the call of suicide among the perils of the Christian life is to write honestly. Indeed, John Bunyan’s imprisonment was the cause of tremendous suffering. His wife, Elizabeth, pregnant at the time of his confinement, soon miscarried her child.6 She and four other children, one blind (who also died during Bunyan’s imprisonment), were left to the charity of their Bedford church. The best Bunyan could do in providing for his family was to make and sell shoelaces from his cell. These were despairing years for the preacher. He writes the following in his book, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners:
Even with all the grace God gave me, I found myself just a man and I suffered many afflictions; the parting of my wife and poor children while I remain in prison has often been to me as if the very flesh was being ripped from my bones. Not only because I love my family so much and miss them but also because of the hardships and miseries that they must endure while I am absent from them especially my poor blind daughter who is nearer to my heart than all besides; O the thoughts of the hardships I thought my blind one might go under would break my heart to pieces…but that which helped me in this temptation was the promise of Scripture.7
Pastor Bunyan writes like a man who understood anguish well enough to know that it can seize even the most determined pilgrim. Christians get depressed too. And since depression increases the risk of suicide, that too can entice.
Pastors like Scott Sauls and Randy Alcorn have spoken candidly about their battles with depression and anxiety. In 2013, LifeWay Research Executive Director, Ed Stetzer wrote about Jim: an energetic, prayerful, and eager-to-serve congregant. Unbeknownst to many, Jim suffered from bipolar disorder. Refusing the use of his medication, he would withdraw for weeks at a time and read the Psalms in isolated despondence. One day, in this state, Giant Despair was particularly persuasive and Jim killed himself.
Major depression affects more than 16 million U.S. adults each year. While most of us may face an occasional bout of the blues, a person with clinical depression will suffer for weeks with symptoms strong enough to disrupt work, personal relationships, and daily activities. I know the story of a Christian woman who was overtaken by sadness, a lack of energy, a loss of interest in her usual activities, and thoughts of suicide following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—her sister had worked in the World Trade Center. Unable to “pull herself together,” the woman lost her job of 30 years and had to go on welfare. She described the need as adding to her feelings of worthlessness and shame.
Clinical depression like this one can occur alongside anxiety disorder. Eighteen percent of U.S. adults will experience a form of anxiety disorder this year.8 Among them is a Christian acquaintance who, as a result of childhood abuse, suffers from recurrent panic attacks. Severe panic attacks can be terrifying! They resemble a heart attack and often include a pounding heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweating, and a sense of detachment from self. As awful as this sounds, the primary crisis related to both depressive and anxiety disorders is suicidal thoughts and behaviors. And sadly, suicide is the 10th most common cause of death in the United States.
I am certified through Mental Health First Aid USA to provide initial help to people experiencing various mood disorders. My training emphasized the importance of community and friendship in times of depression and anxiety. For one, a person with clinical depression is more likely to seek professional help when encouraged by others. And the data shows that recovery from symptoms is quicker for those who feel supported by a loved one.9 God sets the lonely in families and friendship is a gift of grace (Psalm 68:6). Surely, every Christian needs a Hopeful when gripped by Giant Despair!
John Bunyan was kind to give Christian a hopeful friend—one who encourages him to keep living until the Key of Promise (a key able to unlock all doors in Doubting Castle) is found.10 Bunyan’s family was allowed to visit him in prison—likely, members of his church could do the same. Were some of these “Hopefuls” to Bunyan? Did they carry with them glimmers of light to blind the eyes of Despair and still his hand?11 Did their encouragement and prayers help point him to the Key of Promise?
It’s fascinating here to consider Gethsemane. Jesus’ soul was sorrowful to the point of death. He retreats—but not alone. He takes three friends with Him, and His request is that they remain awake and pray with Him. If the sinless Savior desired community in a time of suffering, how much more do we need friends? And surely this includes our pastors, elders, small group leaders, and those we tend to elevate and distance as more spiritual.
As a member of a church staff and a teacher of women, I have never stayed in Doubting Castle (to say so would be to minimize the torture of those who have), but I have strolled its grounds. I have known sudden and unexpected sadness, and my heart has pounded from the ache of anxiety. In these moments, I long for my Hopeful, a fellow pilgrim who will love me at my best and at my worst. A friend with whom I can be vulnerable and weak and not fear, because their love for me rests on the work of Someone greater than I. I’m thankful to share this level of candor with my husband but my soul yearns for more. I’m praying for friends who will receive me in my imperfection, knowing that another Person has been perfect on my behalf.
1. Bunyan, John, The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come. Ed., C.J. Lovik (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2009), 101–2.
2. Ibid, 152–6.
3. Ibid, 213–6.
4. Ibid, 163.
5. Piper, John, Preface, The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2014), xxv. Retrieved 5 May 2016 at http://document.desiringgod.org/the-pilgrim-s-progress-en.pdf?1446648353.
6. Ibid, xix.
7. The John Bunyan Story: The Torchlighters Heroes of the Faith. Documentary Special Feature. Produced by Christian History Institute. Distributed by Vision Video. Worcester, PA.
8. Mental Health First Aid USA, “Depression.” First Edition (Revised 2016). Original content, 2013 Mental Health Association of Maryland, the Missouri Department of Mental Health and the National Council for Behavioral Health, 31.
9. Ibid, 40–1.
10. Bunyan, John, The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come. Ed., C.J. Lovik (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2009), 165-6.
11. Ibid, 163.
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