A Triptik for Pilgrims

I peer at the little collection of pills in my hand. This is when the harsh reality of age really hits me. Every day, it’s either the mirror or the pills—and sometimes both—competing to drive home the truth that I am officially a target of AARP’s marketing campaign. I am of an age that my doctor’s recommendations to be on daily medication need to be taken seriously. 

Several years ago, I was informed my blood pressure should be regulated, and not long after that came the advice that a daily low dose of aspirin would be to my benefit. And as my joints and muscles have “matured”, occasionally I ease discomfort with anti-inflammatory meds.

I do these things because, if I don’t, I make my bodily systems an easy target for disease or attack. God being in complete control and all things being equal, my body, like all human bodies, ages and decays. (Can I hear an “Amen”?) This earthly tent is falling apart. It’s no surprise: it’s a condition of the fall. My spiritual rebirth doesn’t end it, deter it, or delay it. God has measured out the years and days and hours and minutes, down to the second, for me to live, and my compliance or non-compliance will not change his determination from before the foundation of the world, yet my compliance or non-compliance is a divinely determined part of God’s working out his plan from the foundation of the world.

What I do affects my growth and the quality of my living. If I don’t take my prescribed medications, it’s a mere few days before I feel the effects. The signs manifest ever so slightly, at first persistent mild headaches, or it may feel as though my heart is racing. In time, I will experience shortness of breath and dizziness in the mornings. Ultimately, my body will not have the safeguards in place to prevent its parts from malfunctioning, causing problems that could lead to death.

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

Simply, I make myself an easy target.

My spiritual constitution can fall under a similar threat. I start off feeling pretty good about my spiritual health. A few days of missing prayer or time in God’s Word isn’t really part of the plan, but I’m robust in my knowledge and faithfulness—I’m good! The days of reduced intake inadvertently stack up. Soon, the nourishing meal of worship and fellowship with believers is not always as appealing as the world’s allurements, and I easily convince myself a little indulgence won’t hurt, even if it means I miss church. And then a little more, and a little more. Pretty soon, I’m stuck in silence when someone asks what the Lord has been teaching me this week as if I’ve been caught napping during an important announcement.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress (1), John Bunyan recounts the story of a man who possesses the treasure of the kingdom, eternal life, but who finds himself impoverished in spirit in this life because he neglected to prepare for the dangers of the journey ahead of him.

Christian, our pilgrim bound for the Celestial City, tells a woeful saga to his companion as they travel. Little Faith was a “good man” from the town of Sincerity whose destination is the same as theirs but who stumbled and muddled his way around obstacles and through perils, until this moment in the narrative when he stops to rest at the very questionable sidestreet labeled Deadman’s Lane. Being that Deadman’s Lane connects the path to Broad-way Gate, the way that leads to death (Matthew 7:13), it is an unauthorized stopping place for pilgrims and certainly no place for rest. 

Little Faith should have been aware of this; warning signs have dotted the landscape along the way and gracious reminders have been given by fellow faithful pilgrims. Christian received rest and refreshment at the Palace Beautiful, where he found encouragement and discovered more about the King of the Celestial City, this benevolent ruler’s love for his disciples, and how to wear and use the armor needed for the dangerous journey ahead. He was warned that the enemy would try to deceive and divert him and make him weak for the trip. And now, on this byway, rogues prowl these streets looking for unsuspecting travelers to rob and abuse—rogues who do the dirty work for their evil captain, Apollyon.

Just as our traveler awakes from his nap and recommences his journey, says Christian, ruffians come down from the broad way. Their names are Faint-heart, Mistrust, and Guilt, and they have their easy target in their sights. His face, writes Bunyan, “looked as white as a clout”, which for years I took to reflect a linguistic quirk that turned the word “clout” into “cloud” over years of usage. But a study of dictionaries from the time reveals that a clout is a piece of white cloth used by archers for target practice (Webster Dictionary, 1828). Little Faith quite literally flashed his inability to stand against these highwaymen more effectively than if he had waved a flag of surrender.

Faint-heart demands his purse, and because Little Faith was too slow in delivering it, Mistrust advances and plunges his hand into the poor man’s pocket and steals it. “Thieves! Thieves!” cries Little Faith, but Guilt bashes him with a club until he falls to the ground bleeding. They would have finished him off if it weren’t for the sound of other travelers coming along the path, so they ran away with all of Little Faith’s spending money.

An Ounce of Prevention

If I disregard the protection my blood pressure medication affords me or neglect the exercise of regular dosages or leave it in places where it would get lost or stolen, I am making my heart an easy target for stroke or attack because of weakened and malfunctioning systems. When we disregard the value of the graces the Lord has provided, or fail to put on the spiritual armor available to every believer, or neglect the benefits in growth and maturity accessible through the body of Christ, the church, then we make ourselves easy targets for the side-of-the-road attacks from the fiends of temptation, affliction, and sin. 

It’s not uncommon for Christians to fall into low places in their walk through this life. In Peter, we are exhorted to “Be sober-minded; be watchful” (1 Peter 5:8). The journey is full of both valleys and mountaintops, and in both, the “adversary prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Bunyan’s story resonates with all of us: whether in the shadowy depths of the Valley of Humiliation or the soaring joy of the Delectable Mountains, “the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” (v. 9). Sketchy and deceptive characters will be among those we meet, like Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Mr. Formality, and the Flatterer. Some of us may know better the despair of Doubting Castle, others the persecution of Vanity Fair, and still others the bitter betrayal and false assurance on the Hill of Legality. 

Thankfully, we are not alone. The King has sent faithful companions, and shepherds and guides, such as Good-will, Evangelist, and the fair maidens in charge of the Palace Beautiful. He himself snatches us from the clutches of the enemy. Were it not for the King being the securer of Little Faith’s jewels and certificate (Matthew 6:19-21), Little Faith himself would have been lost forever. 

I can be stripped of courage and strength of heart and not able to stand for the truth, cut down to a posture of timidity and hesitancy. I can be made doubtful and suspicious of God’s good intentions when repeatedly depleted of my store of Christly confidence and assurance in his promises. Guilt and shame shake me to the core, and fear and agitation eat away at my awareness of who I am in Christ. Paralyzed with troubles, trials, and temptations, I face an impoverished pilgrimage, unable to draw from what I no longer have: boldness in the truth, confidence in his trustworthiness, comfort in my identity with my Savior. What a witness to a mocking world, what an ineffective servant in his kingdom. I’ve buried my talents instead of investing them and growing in faith, gifts, and graces. I’ve neglected to “guard the good deposit entrusted to me” (2 Timothy 1:14). 

Affliction: It Feels So Good to Hurt So Much

My response to being depleted of spiritual strength is often like Little Faith’s. You see, though he still retained the most precious of gifts—the jewels that marked him as a man blessed, a recipient of the riches of heaven, a child of the king, things that “might have been great comfort to him,” because his eyes were trained on the misery he experienced, “he forgot it a great part of the rest of the journey. And when at any time it came into his mind, and he began to be comforted therewith, then would fresh thoughts of his loss come again upon him; and those thoughts would swallow up all,” Christian said, adding that Little Faith continued the remainder of his journey “with nothing but doleful and bitter complaints, telling all about his loss to all that overtook him, where he was robbed, and how; who they were that did it, and what he lost; how he was wounded, and that he hardly escaped with life.”

What a thrill it is when I get to tell my story, when all eyes are on me and every breathless recounting is received with oohs and ahhs. How sorrowful people are for me when I share how poor and pitiful this trial has made me. They really appreciate my vulnerability and authenticity. It’s a good look for my platform, especially when I relate how much I helped myself out of that pit of despair by a good self-talking to and a reminder that I could rise from the ashes with a good wash of my hair. Or something like that.

The Bride Eyes Not Her Garment (2)

In our allegory, the enemy’s intent is to prove Little Faith’s impotence. Relying upon our own strength, we give in to sin’s temptations and demands. Christian’s companion, Hopeful, opines that Little Faith’s trouble was that he didn’t fight back! “Why did not Little Faith pluck up a greater heart? He might, methinks, have stood one brush with them!” but Christian reminds him that the enemy is stronger and more cunning, and he commands vast armies that do his wretched bidding—abusing and tormenting pilgrims. 

Courage is not in ourselves, but in our Deliverer. Our potency is Christ’s promises, but how many times have I puffed myself up, so sure I have stored up within me enough goodness, enough godliness, enough boldness to defeat any temptation or trial, only to be left deflated and defeated when my enemy comes to steal the divine graces I’ve been given to journey in this life?

Bitter and blaming, eyes on self instead of on Jesus the Deliverer, prideful even in shame instead of humble in inheritance. Five times in the story, Little Faith is referred to as a good man, yet his goodness did not protect or defend him. He became so much more fainthearted, mistrusting, and shamed, he couldn’t see that his treasure was secure, and he begged from other pilgrims instead of presenting his case before the Lord:

For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14–19)

“He travels ever closer to the glorious Celestial City, he is preserved by grace in trouble for which he is to blame, he has the fellowship of other pilgrims, he has the presence of the Holy Spirit, he has the knowledge that he is secure through the sovereignty of his Lord, yet he pushes this aside and concentrates upon his temporary setback! What a lost opportunity! He makes himself a curiosity instead of a testimony,” writes Dr. Barry Horner in his study guide on Pilgrim’s Progress. (3)

Are you like Little Faith? Do light momentary afflictions of this world cast an idolatrous gloom over the day by day renewal of your inner self? Has a sort of spiritual ambivalence made you captive to doubt, weighing down your arms so that you can’t raise a defense against the prowling lion?

Or perhaps, like I have often found when overcome with spiritual lethargy, you aren’t really sure there is a lion. I don’t see a lion; I just see all the obstacles piled in the path in front of me that keep me from enjoying my baubles here on earth, blaming others for my troubles and the glory that doesn’t come my way, caught up in the thorns of desire, hunger, and conflict that accompany spiritual ambivalence, looking to the things that are seen instead of the things that are unseen, oblivious to the eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Romans 11:33)

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight (Ephesians 1:7–8)

. . . having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. (Ephesians 1:18–21)

. . . that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, (Ephesians 3:16)

And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19)

To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27)

. . . that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:2–3)

We lose heart, despite such a great inheritance we have in Christ. We slide and bob and weave and sway with the truth, sidestepping into “almost-true” platitudes about our Deliverer, instead of clinging to the truth handed down from the apostles. The Corinthians were urged to grow up and stop acting like children, but we opt for complacency, confident in our sincerity and our skill at brand management. Pride goes before a fall; when guilt overwhelms us we often relive our predicament, looking to salvage any vestige of glory, and we miss the opportunity to embrace the crushed Savior on the tree and point to his glorious triumph over sin and death in our crushability.

The Means of Grace Measured Out for All

“The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials,” Peter writes in his second epistle (2:9), but there’s no need to wait until the trials begin to experience the means of grace the Lord provides to prepare us for them. He has given us all we need now, delivered to us upon the filling of the Holy Spirit. But as in all preventative medicine, the means only work when applied. 

Little Faith had faith, but faith is not perfected until we are glorified. God gives us new living hearts, but we still have to contend with the fallen tendencies of our fleshly nature. We will doubt, we will waver, we will forget who we are now in Christ. At these times, we cry out to God to help us in our unbelief. (Mark 9:24) He has fitted us with spiritual armor (Ephesians 6:10-18), but we must practice how to use it. He provides us graces to spend along the way of our journey—refreshment and encouragement among fellow pilgrims in the church, the body of Christ; in prayer striving for one another; through preaching of the Word training in righteousness, deepening our confidence in God’s benevolence and mercy, learning from biblical accounts how others came to rely on God over and over again, on a daily basis; access to the ordinances of the Lord’s supper and baptism—but our neglect draws a white clout over our souls. The exercise of these means cement our trust in Jesus and strengthen our wills to flee from sin and rest in Jesus alone. 

The life of a pilgrim with grace in his pocket is not easy. The road is not free from trials. But we won’t be an easy target for our enemies if we are safeguarded with the Lord’s provisions: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10).

Epistemological Humility

Bunyan doesn’t end the story with poor Little Faith bemoaning his losses. He continues with a dialogue between Hopeful and Christian that could be easily overlooked because of the lack of action. But it’s critical as a balance to the lesson just learned about our beleaguered traveler. It’s easy to judge the Little Faiths of the world and scold them for picking dangerous places to rest, not fighting back when set upon by temptations, or not holding onto their purse more tightly. It’s easy to forget our own battles with the enemy, how he slashes at us with precision, deceiving our hearts and manipulating our thoughts. Sometimes our confidence in our ability to vanquish that spiritual foe is actually a case of the enemy leaving us alone, already weakened by our own self-reliance, impressed with our own strengths, and ineffective for the kingdom.

None of us are excused from utilizing the graces given that will strengthen our faith, and all of us are prone to thinking much of our own abilities, but God has measured out our portions, including the faith we possess (Romans 12:3), and sometimes it is little. The Lord urges us to esteem others more highly than ourselves and to be ready with grace for those who are on the same journey but face different trials and temptations. It may seem obvious to us, but we are not omniscient and can’t see what battles others are fighting within or what conclusions they’ve come to about how best to give glory to God through obedience. 

J. C. Ryles writes:

“Our Lord has many weak children in his family, many dull pupils in his school, many raw soldiers in his army, many lame sheep in his flock.  Yet he bears with them all and casts none away. Happy is the Christian who has learned to do likewise with his brethren.”

We’re talking about epistemological humility—being mindful of what we know and don’t know. 

Many of the weak and those of little faith are tormented and abused by Satan. Little worries, ambivalence, paralysis cause them to be easy targets. We are not immune. Christian remembered the battle for the mind, the will, and the soul that he endured in the Valley of Humiliation. He extended grace toward Little Faith, as did Jesus with Thomas. Thomas had not been with the others when the Lord appeared to them, perhaps he had missed the blessing of being in assembly with his brethren, and he was doubtful about the resurrection. He could have spiraled downward as Little Faith did, but Jesus was patient, and Thomas cried out his confession to him. (John 20:24-29)

Could I be that person that the Lord will use to welcome, to strengthen, to encourage and esteem a sister or brother of weaker faith? Sadly, where fellow believers ought to provide encouragement and sustenance, instead we open up wounds, pour on salt, and douse them with vinegar, pretending not to be vulnerable to attack ourselves, judging another’s servant (Romans 14:4), crippling the weak further, and keeping them bound and unable to serve the king. 

The Welcome Mat of Humility

The backbone of the Christian life is paradoxically best manifested in the posture of humility. In Matthew’s gospel, the Lord highlights the greatest in the kingdom will be like little children. “Calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matthew 18:2–4)

This posture isn’t cool or hip. It will not provide riveting podcast material. But it is vital for the growth of individual faith, the strengthening of the body, and the duty we have to one another—as vital as setting out the welcome mat for those who are limping along the trail to the Celestial City, that they might not have to stop where ruffians roam.

This won’t be a pretty journey. It will, most of the time, look like a hot mess. But that’s only on the surface. Underneath, the Lord is using vulnerability and humility to bind us together. “He saves those who are crushed in spirit,” the psalmist writes (Ps 34:18), and Paul concurs and shares the divine purpose of it all: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

When we heed the Spirit and embrace a willingness to be least for the sake of one another’s esteem, when we remove ourselves as the stumbling block so others can be made stronger, when we forget appearances and see with Christ’s eyes how the deformed and the unexceptional are beautiful and worthy, then all the members of a body, the strong and the weak, grow in grace, learning to live in such harmony with one another that together with one voice we glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:5-6)

The world will crush us, but the world never wins that gambit, for we are ready to be crushed for Christ’s sake. The surpassing power of Christ strengthens us and emboldens us to stand fast against the devices of the enemy of the Kingdom. 

A Triptik for Pilgrims

Here are Bunyan’s suggestions for pilgrims passing through this alien land.

  1. Do not be reckless about this enemy. He is a hungry predator and we are no match for him. Prefer the absence of assaults.

Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that  is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:12–13)

2. Be fitted out for battle.

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Ephesians 6:13)

3. Do not overestimate your level of faith. Avoid being an easy target by skipping out on the means of grace or resting in dangerous territory.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:3)

4. Travel in a convey with the company of God. His presence is better than 10,000 warriors.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:4–5)

We may wander off the mapped route. The longer I travel through this land to “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16), the more I am aware of my straying feet. But God is faithful to alert me to the signs of waning spiritual health, and He stirs up truth and assurance in His promises, potent ministrations measured out through His means of grace. As diverse members of one body (Romans 12:3-8), we need one another to remain spiritually vigorous for the journey (Romans 12:9-21), drawing that strength from the Source of all Vital Life, Jesus.

We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. (2 Thessalonians 1:3)

Notes and Resources

  1. The text for The Pilgrim’s Progress and images used are public domain and a free e-text is available from Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/131/131-h/131-h.htm . For a faithful Modern English version, I would recommend the Bridge-Logos edition, available on Amazon.
  2. from “The Sands of Time Are Sinking” by Anne Ross Cundell Cousin
  3. Bunyan ministries. org: http://www.bunyanministries.org/pp_commentary/29%20_com%20_colorless_testimony_of_little-faith.pdf
  4. Another valuable resource: http://kenpulsmusic.com/pilgrimsprogress107.html 
  5. Main image by Vlad Bagacian on Unsplash

Main Photo by Katie Drazdauskaite on Unsplash

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