Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Dear Struggling Christian: Three Testimonies from Prison

Here are the stories of three men, each of whom had his doubts, his struggles, and his triumphs. The first is John Bunyan, who wrote the immortal The Pilgrim’s Progress in 1670 during one of the two occasions on which he was imprisoned for his faith.

This book has been translated into two hundred languages and has been read by millions, having never gone out of print since its first publication. It traces the journey of the man Christian from the beginning of his search all the way to his goal—the Celestial City. He is told to keep his eye on the light and not allow himself to be distracted or waylaid. Along the way he encounters several interesting characters, who either help him in his journey or try to prevent him from reaching the Celestial City: Evangelist, the Interpreter, the Formalist, Hypocrisy, Timorous, Legality, Worldly Wiseman, Mr. Sagacity, Lord Hate-good, Pliable, and a few more. He stops and learns valuable lessons at the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair, Hill Difficult, House Beautiful, Doubting Castle, the Enchanted Grove—you get the picture, even if you haven’t read the book.

Bunyan did not write much in the way of hymns, but the one he did write is “He Who Would Valiant Be,” and each stanza ends with the words “to be a pilgrim.”

Exactly one hundred years after Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Newton was born. He was never imprisoned for his faith, but he imprisoned others because he had no faith. He became part of the slave trade as the captain of a slave ship, even though he had personally experienced the horror of being abused, flogged, and enslaved. Caught in a terrible storm, trying to steer his ship to safety, he cried out to Christ to save him. He then dedicated the rest of his life to two pastorates, and his influence in history is undisputed. He was part of the Evangelical Awakening, and his impact on William Wilberforce to fight the slave trade is a remarkable story.

The best known among the many hymns he wrote is “Amazing Grace.” One of the stanzas begins, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear / and grace my fears relieved.” It is the grace of God that prompts the right kind of fear and brings the right kind of peace. The story of Newton is that of a man who cast doubt to the wind and held firm to the precious knowledge of the grace of Jesus Christ.

One of Newton’s parishioners was William Cowper; in fact, Cowper was his music director. Cowper was not imprisoned, nor did he imprison anyone, but he lived as a prisoner of his own mental torment in repeated bouts of depression. His story reads like a roller-coaster ride to the Celestial City, more often in the Slough of Despond than in the Enchanted Grove. Newton touched Cowper’s life, and together they compiled the famed hymnbook Olney Hymns: In Three Parts. Cowper’s best-known hymn is “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” in which one stanza reads, Blind unbelief is sure to err And scan His work in vain; God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain.

If you have struggled with some aspect of Christianity and still struggle, don’t think you are alone. Others have traveled the same road and have eventually found their way back to joy in their relationship with God. God has the best GPS system. He will bring you back onto the right road, like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress. God’s grace along the way will teach you what to fear and what to embrace as you put your trust in him to one day make it all plain to you. Yes, fellow pilgrim, there are challenges to our belief. Yes, there are dark nights of the soul. Yes, there are questions that may haunt us until we see Jesus face-to-face. But the light of Jesus Christ will carry you through and put your feet on the solid ground of truth and hope. He has done it for others; he will do it for you. And one day you will hear him say to you, “Well done! Well done!”