Pilgrim's Progress Isn't Safe, But It's Good
How unsettling literature teaches us to confront pain and suffering—at any age.
This article was adapted from episode five of The Way to Glory.
Malevolent giants, abusive captors, and danger on the road to heaven don’t project a “safe for the whole family” vibe. But The Pilgrim’s Progress has found its way into the hearts of children for centuries.
According to Karl Bastian, founder of Kidology.org, a children’s ministry that counts a graphic novel adaptation of The Pilgrim’s Progress among their many resources, Christian’s journey merely reflects the reality of the Christian life: “We don’t need to hide reality from children.”
Karl joins us on our latest episode of The Way to Glory. Karl saw firsthand that difficult things happen to people every day. When he was 12, his newborn sister died of a rare brain disease. Tragedy inevitably waits for us as we progress through life. Therefore, Karl believes, we must prepare children from a young age to respond to setbacks, obstacles, and tragedies with faithfulness. And The Pilgrim’s Progress, with all of its imaginative adventures and cast of characters, does just that.
If children can relate to anything, it’s nap time (though the thought of a wanted nap may be a different story). At one point on Christian’s journey, he falls asleep in the daytime, just like a child.
He at last fell into a slumber, and thence into a fast sleep, which detained him in that place until it was almost night. And in his sleep, his roll fell out of his hand. Now, as he was sleeping, there came one to him, and awaked him, saying, "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise" (Proverbs 6:6).
After Christian awakes, he meets two men—Timorous and Mistrust. They frighten him with tales of their dangerous journey.
Now, when he was got up to the top of the hill, there came two men running to meet him; the name of the one was Timorous, and of the other, Mistrust; to whom Christian said, “Sirs, what's the matter? You run the wrong way.”
Timorous answered, that they were going to the City of Zion, and had got up that difficult place; but, said he, the further we go, the more danger we meet with; wherefore we turned, and are going back again.
Yes, said Mistrust, for just before us lie a couple of lions in the way, whether sleeping or waking we know not, and we could not think, if we came within reach, but they would presently pull us in pieces.
Then, said Christian, You make me afraid, but whither shall I fly to be safe? If I go back to mine own country, that is prepared for fire and brimstone, and I shall certainly perish there. If I can get to the Celestial City, I am sure to be in safety there. I must venture. To go back is nothing but death; to go forward is fear of death, and life-everlasting beyond it. I will yet go forward.
In spite of his fear, Christian decides that he cannot let his newfound terror halt his pursuit of the Celestial City. Seeking to comfort and encourage himself, Christian reaches for his roll, only to realize that it fell out during his nap.
So Mistrust and Tomorous ran down the hill; and Christian went on his way. But thinking again of what he heard from the men, he felt in his bosom for his roll, that he might read therein, and be comforted; but he felt, and found it not. Then was Christian in great distress, and knew not what to do; for he wanted that which used to relieve him, and that which should have been his pass into the Celestial City.
Conviction washes over Christian.
He wept; and often times he chided himself for being so foolish as to fall asleep in that place.
The day begins to slip further away as Christian backtracks in order to recover his roll. Finally, he makes his way to the gate of the City, where the porter asks what took him so long.
Christian said, “I would have been here sooner. But that Wretched Man that I am I slept in the arbor that stands on the hillside nay. I would have been here much sooner, but that in my sleep. I lost my evidence and came without it to the brow of the Hill. And then feeling for it and not finding it. I was forced with sorrow of heart to go back to the place where I slept my sleep where I found it and now I am here.”
Bunyan was not trying to emphasize here the perils of napping (and not just because that’s a lesson no parent would willingly teach a child).
Karl explains how God has orchestrated a life full of good works for each of us, and when we’re sidetracked, we can miss out on some of those good works and their related joys. When Karl teaches this part to children, he ties a rope at the top of a stage then walks the room, zigzagging at times to represent missteps and sin—detours we may take in our lives. When the length of rope runs out, it’s only stretched about 75 percent as far as it could have if he had not been sidetracked.
And, of course, the kids understand. All around them, they see that sin disrupts peace and joy. They have experienced many versions of its unpleasantness—from sin requiring forgiveness to tragedy flooding them with grief.
We are often tempted to avoid discussing the difficult parts of life. We want a faith that leans heavily on the joy and peace God offers, and we long to quickly flip past the pages of Scripture that promise us trials are coming. But our ignorance leads only to pain, and the same is true for our children. While we cannot expect them to understand every shade of darkness from a young age, we have a responsibility to explain the tragedies, trials, and temptations abundant in this life. We do this simply: just as we begin by teaching the gospel in its simplest form, as our children grow we build on foundational truths and early explanations.
Part of this process is making space for children’s emotions. We can affirm, as Jesus did when he comforted the hurting, that tears are allowed, fear is not shameful, and yes, pain hurts. Perhaps in acknowledging the difficulties of this life in all its forms, we may find both children and ourselves far more capable of holding fast to the hope of eternity.
The Way to Glory is produced by CT Creative Studio in partnership with our sponsor Revelation Media and their upcoming movie, The Pilgrim's Progress, in theaters Easter weekend.
Posted May 8, 2021