John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress has been my favorite book outside the Bible for several years now. When I was very young, my mother read a very faithful children’s version to me, and these memories are still vivid to me. Then in college, the “grown-man’s” version of Pilgrim’s Progress became for me a source of spiritual nourishment in seasons of struggle and discouragement. There was nothing like reading of Christian, straying off the path, grieving over his sin, and then being returned after chastening to the journey, to encourage me in dark days. But with all of the value I already placed on this book, I had never read this work as a pastor. And now, having been entrusted by God with the souls of his people, its reading was to me a sweeter encouragement than ever before. I particularly benefitted this time around from Part II of Pilgrim’s Progress, the story of Christian’s wife Christiana and their children making the journey to the Celestial City.
In the past, I have frankly been somewhat disgusted by how easy the journey was for this second group. The greatest difficulty they had, after all, was when that little twerp James got a stomach ache from eating the Enemy’s fruit. By the end of it, every son waited calmly for his summons to the Celestial City with his Proverbs 31 wife, none of them having known half the trials his father had. It all seemed a bit unfair. I recognized that this Part II was supposed to show the value of the community of believers over the rugged individual, and clearly I am all for a robust doctrine of the church. Still, this was a bit much to swallow. The gritty realism of the Chritsian life as seen in Part I was simply absent from Part II, and as I saw it, the blame for all of this could be laid squarely at the feet of one character: Mr. Great-heart, the heroic guide of the Pilgrim band. Without him, they would have truly entered the Kingdom of Heaven “through many tribulations.” But this guy was a one-man wrecking crew against the forces of sin and evil. Christian had to stare down Apollyon on his own, but this group of rag-tag pilgrims had a mighty knight to do their fighting for them. Christian is enslaved and beaten within an inch of his life by the Giant Despair in Doubting-Castle, but Great-heart hacks his head off without breaking a sweat. Christian had to learn to stay on the path the hard way, but Great-heart was constantly keeping the second group from harm.
It was not until I read the introduction of the book that Great-heart’s identity hit me like a splash of cold water: Bunyan, the imprisoned Gospel minister, was showing us what a Puritan pastor is supposed to look like. He fights for his people. He keeps them from wandering off. He leads them all the way up to the stormy banks of the Jordan, and watches their diminishing figure enter into the gates of the Celestial City. Of course they had an easier time of it than Christian. They had a pastor! Not some self-consumed businessman, not a bright but aloof Bible teacher, but a true servant-warrior, who slays the Giant Despair for his people with the Word. Who warns them of the dangers of the Valley of Humiliation and Vanity Fair. Who pours out his life not just for strapping pilgrims like Steadfast and Honest, but for the neediest pilgrims, Mr. Feeble-mind and Mr. Dispondency.
So should it be for my people. God grant us great hearts to take up the great task of guiding his precious pilgrims to the Celestial City.