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3 minutes reading time (584 words)

A Lenten Pilgrimage

by Joel Hinck, Pastoral Intern  |  

I've been reading John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress during Lent this year. Written in 1678, the book is an allegorical description of the Christian life. The main character, named (appropriately enough) Christian, encounters a series of dangers, monsters, and peculiar characters, all of which represent aspects of the life of faith.

I came into the book a bit nervous—the notion of "progress," especially spiritual progress, can easily lead to an emphasis on works over grace, and pious judgmentalism of those who haven't "progressed" as far. As a Lutheran pastor friend once told me: "I'm not climbing up a ladder of moral progress. I'm realizing every day how much more I need Jesus than I thought." With that in mind, I've been pleased to find that The Pilgrim's Progress might just as well have been titled The Pilgrim's Rescue. The central character is quite spectacularly inept. He is easily discouraged, distracted, and turned off the narrow path. He is tricked, gets lost, forgets important items and information, and even at the very end, with the gates of heaven in sight, doubts God's presence and power. In other words, he's a lot like me. At every step along the way, Christian would be lost if it weren't for others stepping in and giving him aid. He recognizes this, admitting to another character that he is no better than one who has turned his back on God: "There is no betterment betwixt him and myself. It is true, he went back to his own house, but I also turned aside to go in the way of death."

The danger of pride also comes up. Christian faces Apollyon the Destroyer, a monstrous creature who attempts to turn Christian back from his journey and, failing that, to kill him. Apollyon lists all of Christians many failures, and then adds to them an accusation of pride, essentially saying, "you've made so many mistakes you barely deserve to keep breathing, much less believing that God loves you. And to top it all off, admit it--when you talk to others about your journey, you're just desiring glory for yourself." Christian's response is the only response any of us have: "All this is true, and much more which thou has left out; but the Prince whom I serve and honor is merciful, and ready to forgive."

In the end, Christian reaches his destination (the Celestial City) only by the support of a community of people who continually demonstrate God's grace and love for him. If the Christian life depended on our own strength, determination, and faith, Bunyan seems to be saying, none of us would make it very far. In fact, after Christian and a traveling companion are welcomed into the Celestial City, another character (named Ignorance) comes to the gates alone, putting confidence in his own acceptability, and he is denied entrance.

As I reflect on The Pilgrim's Progress this Lent, I feel moved to admit that, left to my own devices, I am just as hopeless and helpless as Christian. It is only in admitting that that I can recognize and be truly thankful for all the ways that God has not left me to my own devices but continues to meet me in my places of deepest failure with grace, strength, and love. May we continue to be strengthened on our journey by each other, and be quick to offer understanding and love to all those who God places on our path.
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