John Bunyan lived a difficult life. He was born into poverty and clearly understood the meaning of suffering. His mother and sister died when he was thirteen; his father remarried immediately; he was drafted into the military while a teenager; his first child was born blind; and his first wife died after ten years of marriage leaving him with four small children.
Bunyan was a Baptist preacher who refused to stop preaching without an official license. He was arrested by a local magistrate in 1660 for preaching and evangelising and was imprisoned off and on for the next twelve years. During his period of confinement Bunyan eked out a living for his family by making shoe laces.
Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress while incarcerated. The central character, Christian, encounters many of the challenges faced by Bunyan himself. The writing is allegorical which means the story is one in which the literal, physical level of action is intended as a picture of something else.
Having been released of his burden following a vision of the cross and the empty tomb Christian embarks on a perilous journey in search of the Celestial City. He is not alone. He is joined by Faithful who loyally accompanies Christian until he is executed in the town of Vanity for the crime of disrespecting the local Satan-worshipping religion.
Christian enjoys moments of triumph, his hard won victory over Apollyon, a fierce monster with fish scales, bear feet and dragon wings; moments of struggle, negotiating a bog he falls into called the Slough of Despond; and moments of distress, being taken captive by the master of Doubting Castle, Giant Despair.
Christian and his new travel companion Hopeful are thrown into a dungeon. At his wife’s bidding the Giant Despair beats the pilgrims mercilessly and suggests that their only way of escape would be to kill themselves. Christian is gripped by uncertainty and says to his companion, “The life that we now live is miserable. For my part, I do not know whether it is best for us to live as we are, or to die at our own hand. My soul chooses strangling rather than life, and the grave appears more desirable than this dungeon. Shall we accept the Giant’s advice?”
Christian contemplates suicide. This came as a complete surprise. I wasn’t expecting suicide to feature so prominently. It does raise one important question. How is it possible for Christian to feel so beaten down that he would think of taking his life?
The reality is that the experience of despair is common to the Christian life. To be in despair means to be without a way out, to be overcome with hopelessness, to feel a crippling level of discouragement. We despair that we are repeat offenders, stumbling at the same obstacles, falling for the same lies; that we are seemingly powerless to deal with our weaknesses and failures; that we are so inept at hearing from God and knowing what He wants for our lives; that people are so indifferent towards God even disrespectful; that our way of life is falling apart and our values eroded; that our children and grandchildren will be denied the voice of reason and the word of life.
Christian is helped by wise counsel. His companion Hopeful rules out suicide; “for one to kill himself is to kill body and soul at once,” a more heinous sin than murder of another. It was generally accepted at that time that suicide would bar anyone from entering the heavenly Jerusalem.
And secondly, Christian remembers that he has the key called Promise that will open any door in Despair’s castle. He is reminded of the power of promise – the promise that his sins are forgiven, that God has not abandoned him, that God’s love never fails, that his deliverance is assured, that God is able to turn things around for his good.
Hope is the perfect antidote to despair. Christian author Max Lucado reflects on this thought.
“Despair—that feeling of hopelessness—is the enemy. It is when we despair that we make decisions that only make matters worse. We create addictions that only cause more trouble. The challenge is to give people enough hope so that they don’t give up.”