Pilgrim’s Progress Gives Us Hope for Breaking Cycles of Sin
In part two, Christiana's journey is much easier than Christian's. The question is why?
This article was adapted from episode four of The Way to Glory.
Do you have a boring testimony, one that can’t compare to the man in your Bible study who was saved out of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll? Or have you noticed how the same types of faith stories seem to become books?
Often people believe the quieter entrances into Christianity—growing up in a faith-filled home, being taught the Scriptures, formative years spent in a healthy church—simply aren’t interesting. At times, those with “boring” testimonies may wonder if they’re really saved or if their faith matters as much as the faith of Christians converted from R-rated lives. Their PG-testimony feels shallow, so they wonder if their beliefs run shallow, too.
Readers of The Pilgrim’s Progress can feel this way about the journey of Christiana, Christian’s wife, and their sons. These characters seem to come by faithfulness more easily in Part 2 than Christian did in Part 1. They walk paths a bit less rocky, lacking the action and intrigue that keeps readers entertained in the first half. But Christiana’s story is not a boring one; rather, her journey methodically and patiently fashions a link of generational faithfulness, just as Christian’s journey has broken chains of generational sin.
Dr. Joel R. Beeke joined us this week on The Way to Glory to discuss the differences in Christian and Christiana, specifically in terms of Christiana’s relationship with Great Heart, who plays the role of a pastor, counselor, and friend. Dr. Beeke is president and professor of systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, a pastor of Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has written, co-authored, or edited 100 books including A Puritan Theology, Living for the Glory of God: An Introduction to Calvinism, and Meet the Puritans.
Beeke’s love for The Pilgrim’s Progress started in childhood when his father read the book aloud to their family every Sunday night. He didn’t just read, Beeke says, but rather he pastored them through the story—allowing his children to interrupt with questions and taking time to explain various characters, events, and themes in gentle ways.
In this, Beeke’s father was much like the kind and courageous Great Heart.
"Great Heart is a stand-in for a pastor, spiritual mentor, or spiritual friend,” Beeke says. “He’s someone who has enough space in his heart to make room for other people. He goes out of his way to make sure that those people are doing okay.
“What I really love about him is his other-centeredness. Jesus says that a pastor is someone who loves his sheep so much he's willing to lay down his life for them. And that's what Mr. Great Heart seems to be.”
As their journey winds near Doubting Castle, Great Heart leads Christiana’s four sons and Old Mr. Honest in an attack against Giant Despair and Diffidence. The band of pilgrims gather their courage to defeat this darkness because they are inspired by Great Heart’s admonishment to eliminate despair and doubt before any other unsuspecting victims, much like Christian and Hopeful, are enslaved in its chains. With that sense of purpose, they brazenly knock on the castle door.
"It is I, Great-heart, one of the King of the Celestial Country's conductors of pilgrims to their place; and I demand of thee that thou open thy gates for my entrance; prepare thyself also to fight, for I am come to take away thy head, and to demolish Doubting Castle."
Now, Giant Despair, because he was a giant, thought no man could overcome him; and again thought he, "Since heretofore I have made a conquest of angels, shall Great-heart make me afraid?" So he harnessed himself with his armor, and went out. He had a cap of steel upon his head, a breastplate of fire girded to him, and he came out in iron shoes, with a great club in his hand. Then these six men made up to him, and beset him behind
Beeke examines the spiritual metaphor in the text: “Your pastor is supposed to help you fight your doubts and fears and cling to God's promises. They help set their people free through faithful preaching, teaching, shepherding, and pastoral guidance, like Mr. Great Heart.”
Great Heart acts as Christiana’s friend and protector, offering her physical defense and spiritual guidance, all while eliminating or lessening many of her trials before she can even acknowledge them. He equips their group to go on the offensive, just as we often must do in the Christian walk. And he cares not only for her family, but for others around them as well, as we see in Great Heart bringing Old Mr. Honest along in the battle.
When Diffidence, the giantess, came up to help him, old Mr. Honest cut her down at one blow. Then they fought for their lives, and Giant Despair was brought down to the ground, but was very loath to die. He struggled hard, and had, as they say, as many lives as a cat; but Great-heart was his death, for he left him not till he had severed his head from his shoulders.
Old Mr. Honest kills Diffidence. Great Heart kills Giant Despair. And the band of victors takes to destroying Doubting Castle so that the pilgrims who come behind them will not face captivity.
Patterns of Faithfulness
Then they fell to demolishing Doubting Castle, and that, you know, might with ease be done, since Giant Despair was dead. They were seven days in destroying of that; and in it of pilgrims, they found one Mr. Despondency, almost starved to death, and one Much-afraid, his daughter: these two they saved alive. But it would have made you wonder to have seen the dead bodies that lay here and there in the castle-yard, and how full of dead men's bones the dungeon was.
While this battle scene pulses with vibrancy and excitement, much of Christiana’s journey is far quieter. She has had the privilege of spiritual mentorship—of being led and loved by Great Heart as she pursues a faithful life. Because of this, she avoids many of the difficulties Christian experiences, and she does not drown in guilt when she errs. Perhaps Great Heart’s greatest aid to Christiana is his counsel and care that remind her that she belongs to God, grace abounds, and she is victorious because of Jesus.
Genuine pastoring, shepherding, and counseling alter the lives of believers in transformative, God-glorifying ways. When pastors and mature Christians take on the role of caring greatly for those around them and choose to live as though this life is not meant to be experienced individually but communally, hearts are strengthened and those deep bonds begin to echo the Trinity. Because of the love of God, untethered by time, goodness and faithfulness burrow into the soil, waiting to bloom in the generations to come.
While many of us may not be pastors, we all have people in our lives in need of care and counsel. We may be parents, teachers, managers, co-workers, colleagues, friends, or neighbors. In every relationship, we have the opportunity to live as Great Heart—full of the knowledge of God, convinced of the his sufficiency, and intent on speaking and serving in such a way that, as far as it depends on us, generations to come will be blessed and not cursed.
These relationships often seem small and perhaps even boring. Explaining Bible stories as our children smack Goldfish, praying with our friends, and lingering in the front yard to talk to a neighbor all feel more tiresome and tedious rather than triumphant. But the beauty of living pastorally isn’t in the huge moments, for very rarely will we get to storm the doors of Doubting Castle with others. Beauty is seen in faithfully walking alongside people as love and care incarnate, just like Great Heart—and just like Jesus.
Whether your story is one of transgressive glitz and glamour or pastoral care and lifelong, mundane faithfulness, you can emulate Great Heart by encouraging others, testifying to the truth, and cultivating relationships. Patterns of faithfulness may feel rote or unimportant, but those disciplines—reading Scripture, praying, serving, worshiping—provide opportunities to invite others into our lives. And when the time comes to destroy doubt, diffidence, and despair, those patterns of love and care have prepared us to gather our group and fight together.
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.