Doubting Castle & Giant Despair

After shunning the corrupting company of By-ends and avoiding the pit at Lucre Hill, the pilgrims Christian and Hopeful concluded the previous stage of their journey with the sight and warning of Lot’s wife. Now in this eighth stage, the pilgrims meet three settings: the River of Life, Doubting Castle, and the Delectable Mountains.

Rest by the River

We first read that Christian and Hopeful come to the beautiful river that strengthened their spirits and the lovely meadow beside it in which they rested for several days. For this imagery, Bunyan drew upon several biblical passages such as Psalm 23, Psalm 65, Ezekiel 47, and Revelation 22, and the allegory is of God’s grace and provision being likened to a river. Rivers, of course, were sources of life especially in the premodern world. Many ancient cities were built so that rivers ran directly through them, which provided for this city a drinking source, food from fishing, and transportation. Indeed, before the Romans transformed the world with their well-built roads, rivers were without a doubt the most efficient way of travel. It is no accident then that Scripture so frequently associates the life that God gives with a river.

I pray that we all know by personal experience this scene that Bunyan has set, for these are times of comfort, security, and peace. They are times when we feel most in communion with God, and we rejoice in the loving provision of our good Shepherd. Yet such experiences are not the Celestial City itself; therefore, they cannot last. Conferences and vacations can very often prove to be such life-giving times of rest in the mercies of the Father, yet they must come to an end. Praise the Lord for times of rest and retreat, but they are only beneficial so long as they strengthen us to continue along our journey, which is precisely what the pilgrims did. ‘So when they were disposed to go on, (for they were not yet at their Journey’s end), they eat and drank, and departed” (127).

Imprisoned by Despair

As the pilgrims continued their journey, they came upon a difficult patch of road that hurt their feet. “So the Soul of the Pilgrims were much discouraged, because of the way. Wherefore still as they went on, they wished for a better Way” (128). Bunyan is all too correct that times of peace, comfort, and rest are often immediately followed by trial and difficulty. The Christian ought to meet such trials with the knowledge that the Father is strengthening them through hardship, just as in weight-lifting strength can only be built by ever increasing the difficulty. Christian and Hopeful, however, did not prepare themselves with such reminders of God’s fatherly discipline. Instead, they began to wish for another way. They became discontent with God’s path and wanted another road. Such discontent, if left unchecked, will never end well. As one writer notes:

They should have said, It is true this way is not so pleasant as the meadow, but it is the Lord’s way, and the best doubtless, for us to travel in. A man speedily enters into temptation when he becomes discontented with God’s allotments; then Satan presents allurements, and from wishing for a better way, the soul goes into a worse. The discontented wish is father to a sinful will; ‘I wish for a better’ is followed by, ‘I will have a better,’ and so the soul goes astray.[1]

This is precisely what befell the pilgrims, for they came upon By-Path-Meadow and turned aside from their path because of its pleasant look. We should note that Hopeful, being the younger believer, raised his word of caution but was then persuaded to follow Christian’s lead. Let us mark well this high responsibility of walking in Christian maturity, for there will ever be younger believers who watch and learn from our conduct. Let us remember the words of Donne, “no man is an island,” and let us take care how we walk, knowing that if we venture off the path others very well might follow our lead.

Upon By-Path-Meadow, they briefly met a man named Vain-Confidence journeying toward the Celestial City by that field, yet their encouragement was dashed to pieces whenever Vain-Confidence fell into a pit and was himself dashed to pieces. So must be the inevitable end of all who trust in themselves, for only those humble enough to call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.

While then being caught in a storm, the pilgrims heard a Voice which told them to return to the path, that is, to repent of their sinful venture away from the Way. Yet the waters were so great that they were not able to make it back to the path. This may seem at first like the pilgrims were being denied repentance, yet pay attention to Bunyan’s exact wording, which is certainly not accidental: “Neither could they, with all the skill they had, get again to the Stile that night” (130). Even in their repentance, they were still walking after the manner of Vain-Confidence, for they were striving with all of their own skill rather than calling upon the Lord for deliverance and salvation.

Thus, all of these circumstances left the pilgrims in the prime position to be taken captive by Giant Despair and locked up within Doubting Castle. Preparation for this reading has been quite heavy upon my heart because our society seems very much to be imprisoned and beaten by despair. Even among Christians, anxiety and depression are skyrocketing. Such a debilitating despair not natural. I will not argue that there are not genuine cases of brain chemistry gone haywire, yet I think that the vast majority of cases are spiritually induced rather than physically. Indeed, I believe that Bunyan is right to link doubt, diffidence (by which Bunyan meant distrust rather than shyness, as it is defined today), and despair. Our society is decidedly post-truth, skeptical not simply of the very idea of God but of absolute truth itself. How can such doubt and distrust of reality not lead to despair? For Christians, being caught in despair is very often caused by sin, by diverging off of the narrow way. Proverbs 19:3 is right in saying, “When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the LORD.” We very often bring about our own suffering, yet then doubt and distrust God for it.

Bunyan spends a great deal of time showing how Giant Despair sought to break the will of the captured pilgrims and get them to end their own lives. Rightly did Bunyan declare elsewhere of despair: “it drives a man to the study of his own ruin, and brings him at last to be his own executioner.”[2] While we shall only make a few comments here, a frequent revisiting of this section would do most readers much good.

First, I think it important that Giant Despair sometimes fell into fits while the sun was shining. This is a poignant observation from Bunyan that many have discovered to be true. While the brightness of the sun is not likely to overthrown despair entirely, it very often does bring a period of relief. By His common grace upon mankind, simple sunshine can break through for a moment the clouds of the soul. I think this is probably because the beauty of the sun takes our mind off of ourselves for a moment.

Indeed, one chief characteristic of despair is that it turns our eyes morbidly inward. Again, “it drives a man to the study of his own ruin.” Given our society’s obsession with autonomy, sky-high depression rates are to be expected. We make ourselves into gods and, therefore, rage against ourselves whenever we bring ruin upon ourselves. For Christians, this despairing introspection can very often come from the common teaching that trials and afflictions are always the result of sin. Of course, sometimes they very well may be, as with Christian and Hopeful here. Yet sometimes the Father simply brings them upon us to grow us and mature, and in this case, an obsessive hunt for our lack of faith or zeal may very well lead it further into despair’s grip. J. I. Packer notes that the least effects of such thinking “will be arrested spiritual development–the emergence of a childish, grinning, irresponsible, self-absorbed breed of evangelical adults.” But the worst effects, he warns “will be morbid introspection, hysteria, mental breakdown and loss of faith…”[3] Sadly, there are few more concise descriptions of many evangelicals today.

The answer to despair is, therefore, to turn away from self and to cast our burdens upon the Lord. It is significant that only on Saturday at midnight did the pilgrims begin to pray. I agree that “perhaps the author selected Saturday and midnight for the precise time when the prisoners began to pray, in order to intimate that the preparation for the Lord’s day, which serious persons are reminded to make for its sacred services, are often the happy means of recovering those that have fallen into sin and despondency.”[4]

of course, preparation for the Lord’s Day can only pierce the clouds of despair if it lifts our eyes to the Lord Himself. The way that many treat the Lord’s Day will never lead to this. Many transfer the consumer mindset onto Sundays, primarily considering how they might be best served rather than upon how they might best spend the day in worship of God. Tragically, many churches cater to this mindset by structuring their service around what is likely to satisfy attendees rather than upon how God might best be glorified. Under the model, churches may still sing praise to God and open up His Word, yet we are the focus, not God.

Yet if we view the Lord’s Day, not primarily through the lens of how we might benefit from gathering with God’s people, but instead aiming to obey and glorify God as well as encourage and minister to our brothers and sisters, then despair’s grip is sure to be loosened, if not broken.

Indeed, this prayer led to Christian finding the key called Promise that he had with him all the time, and it is by this key that they manage to escape from Despair’s dungeon. So must we cling to the promises of Scripture, yet a prayer from The Valley of Vision called “Divine Promises” may conclude this discussion far better than I ever could, and I would encourage any Christians presently battling despair or depression to pray slowly and meditatively through this prayer:

    Glorious Jehovah, My Covenant God,
    All thy promises in Christ Jesus are
        yea and amen, and all shall be fulfilled.
    Thou hast spoken them, and they shall be done,
        commanded, and they shall come to pass.
    Yet I have often doubted thee,
        have lived at times as if there were no God.
    Lord, forgive me that death in life,
        when I have found something apart from thee,
        when I have been content with ephemeral things.
    But through thy grace I have repented;
    Thou hast given me to read my pardon
        in the wounds of Jesus,
        and my soul doth trust in him, my God incarnate,
        the ground of my life, the spring of my hope.
    Teach me to be resigned to thy will,
        to delight in thy law,
        to have no will but thine,
        to believe that everything thou doest is for my good.
    Help me to leave my concerns in thy hands,
        for thou hast power over evil,
        and bringest from it an infinite progression of good,
        until thy purposes are fulfilled.
    Bless me with Abraham’s faith
        that staggers not at promises through unbelief.
    May I not instruct thee in my troubles,
        but glorify thee in my trials;
    Grant me a distinct advance in the divine life;
        May I reach a higher platform,
        leave the mists of doubt and fear in the valley,
        and climb to hill-tops of eternal security in Christ
            by simply believing he cannot lie,
            or turn from his purpose.
    Give me the confidence I ought to have in him
        who is worthy to be praised,
        and who is blessed for evermore.[5]

The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains

After leaving a sign to warn other pilgrims of the danger of treading into By-Path-Meadow, Christian and Hopeful journeyed on until they came to the Delectable Mountains and were soon met by four shepherds named Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere. Here the pilgrims were able to rest and refresh themselves. After repenting of sin and escaping despair, such seasons of renewed comfort and peace are often sure to follow. Remarking upon the names of the shepherds, one writer said: “Precious names! What is a pilgrim without knowledge? What is head-knowledge without heart-experience? And watchfulness and sincerity ought to attend us every step. When these graces are in us and abound, they make delectable mountains indeed.”[6]

After staying the night with the shepherds, the pilgrims were shown four wonders, which serve very much like the lessons given at Interpreter’s House to strengthen them upon the remainder of their journey.

First, they were taken to a hill called Error with a steep cliff over which many have fallen and been dashed to pieces at the bottom. They then point to the unburied bodies of Hymeneus and Philetus who serve as an example for others. This, of course, is a warning against falling into heretic doctrines.

Second, they ascended to the mountain of Caution, where they saw blind men groping about among tombs. There were explained to be men who never escaped Giant Despair until at last he gouged out their eyes and left them to live among the dead. This is the living death of those who abandon fully the hope of the gospel, those who finally allow their doubts and diffidence to prevail. As Hebrews 10:27 notes, only “a fearful expectation of judgment” remains upon them. At this sight, Christian and Hopeful rightly weep, knowing that such could have been their fate. So should all Christians weep at such a sight, knowing that we could easily have joined them apart from the marvelous grace of God.

Third, they were shown a door in the side of a hill, where they beheld the by-way to Hell into which went many who appeared to be pilgrims for some time, such as Judas, Esau, Alexander, and Ananias and Sapphira. At this sight, the pilgrims exclaimed: “We had need cry to the Strong for strength” (142), and so should all Christians.

Finally, the shepherds took them to a hill called Clear, where through a perspective-glass they were able to get a glimpse of the Celestial City. Yet their hands were too badly shaking from the previous sights to look steadily through it.

All of these wonders may indeed be shown to any Christian who dwells in the company of such shepherds as Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere. May we ever pursue to keep those graces, and may we heed the warnings and glories that they make known to us.

[1] The Works of John Bunyan Vol III, 133.

[2] The Works of John Bunyan Vol I, 92.

[3] J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 248.

[4] The Works of John Bunyan Vol. III, 142.

[5] Arthur Bennet, The Valley of Vision, 240-241.

[6] The Works of John Bunyan Vol. III, 144.

The edition cited is the Banner of Truth hardcover, which can be found here.


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