John Bunyan lived in a time of political turmoil. The Puritan Commonwealth, which ran the country following the overthrow of Charles I, had collapsed. The monarchy had been restored. And the new regime was not favourable to Christians who dissented from the authority of the established Church.
Bunyan was imprisoned for 12 years for refusing to conform to the Church of England and for preaching without a licence. During his years in prison, it is reputed that his blind daughter, Mary, brought him soup in a jug to supplement his meagre prison diet.
Bunyan faced immense suffering and difficulties. Yet throughout all these challenges he held fast to his faith in Christ and resisted the powers that sought to silence him. At the core of his faith was the cross of Christ, the place of total forgiveness and true renewal.
In his famous allegory of the Christian life, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan depicted his pilgrim, ‘Christian’, struggling as he carried a crushingly heavy burden. Then, as he wearily approached the cross:
“his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back; and began to tumble… Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, ‘He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death.’ Then he stood still a while, to look and to wonder; for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the Cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked therefore, and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks.”
Bunyan’s way with words
This beautiful piece of writing is a great example of Bunyan’s way with words. To be sure, some of his seventeenth-century language can seem a little strange to us today. But it is still understandable and – I believe – immensely powerful.
For me, the description of Christian as ‘lightsome’ evokes his joy quite brilliantly, especially as it contrasts so well with the severe, heavy burden which has just rolled away. The final sentence, with the ‘springs’ in Christian’s head sending ‘waters down his cheeks’ is a striking, poetic description of the tears that fell as he contemplated the cross and what this meant for him. This deep emotional response is appropriate for all those who have been set free from sin, shame and guilt, and who realise the immense cost Christ paid to make this possible.
Strengthened and sustained
One of the things that struck me most forcibly as I wrote my biography of Bunyan is the vein of suffering that ran through his life. Another thing is how God sustained him and strengthened him in suffering. In fact, in prison, he knew God in a deeper way, once declaring,
“Jesus Christ…was never more real or apparent than now; here I have seen him and felt him indeed.”
Moreover God used this suffering to strengthen others. Would he have ever written The Pilgrim’s Progress if he hadn’t spent these years in jail? Would he have had the time?
And would he have had the empathy for others which shines through the pages if his life had been all sunshine and no shadow? Personally I doubt it. The way of the cross is also the way of fruitfulness.
The way of the cross
We shouldn’t be surprised by this. Jesus accomplished his mission by the cross and calls on us take up our own cross daily and follow him. This is a call which will involve suffering. But it is also the way to know Christ and to know fruitfulness in our lives. In other words, the way of the cross is the way of the Christian life. There are no short cuts. The cross which is the source of joy and freedom is also the pattern for faithful Christian living.
Peter Morden is Tutor in Church History and Spirituality, and Chaplain, Spurgeon’s College in London. He is the author of John Bunyan: the People’s Pilgrim. Watch a brief video of Peter talking about his new book and view the interactive eBook.