John Bunyan's own experience enters deeply into these terrible pages. In composing these terrible pages, Bunyan writes straight and bold out of his own heart and conscience. The black and bitter essence of a whole black and bitter volume is crushed into these four or five bitter pages. Last week I went over Grace Abounding again, and marked the passages in which its author describes his own experiences of doubt, diffidence, and despair, till I gave over counting the passages, they are so many. I had intended to illustrate the passage before us to-night out of the kindred materials that I knew were so abundant in Bunyan's terrible autobiography, but I had to give up that idea. It would have taken two or three lectures to itself to tell all that Bunyan suffered all his life long from an easily-wounded spirit. The whole book is just Giant Despair and his dungeon, with a gleam here and there of that sunshiny weather that threw the giant into one of his fits, in which he always lost for the time the use of his limbs. Return often, my brethren, to that masterpiece, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. I have read it a hundred times, but last week it was as fresh and powerful and consoling as ever to my sin-wounded spirit.
Let me select some of the incidents that offer occasion for a comment or two.
1. And, in the first place, take notice, and lay well to heart, how sudden, and almost instantaneous, is the fall of Christian and Hopeful from the very gate of heaven to the very gate of hell. All the Sabbath and the Monday and the Tuesday before that fatal Wednesday, the two pilgrims had walked with great delight on the banks of a very pleasant river; that river, in fact, which David the King called the river of God, and John, the river of the water of life. They drank also of the water of the river, which was pleasant and enlivening to their weary spirits. On either side of the river was there a meadow curiously beautified with lilies, and it was green all the year long. In this meadow they lay down and slept, for here they might lie down and sleep safely. When they awoke they gathered again of the fruits of the trees, and drank again of the water of the river, and then lay down again to sleep. Thus they did several days and nights. Now, could you have believed it that two such men as our pilgrims were could be in the enjoyment of all that the first half of the week, and then by their own doing should be in Giant Despair's deepest dungeon before the end of the same week? And yet so it was. And all that is written for the solemn warning of those who are at any time in great enlargement and refreshment and joy in their spiritual life. It is intended for all those who are at any time revelling in a season of revival: those, for example, who are just come home from Keswick or Dunblane, as well as for all those who at home have just made the discovery of some great master of the spiritual life, and who are almost beside themselves with their delight in their divine author. If they are new beginners they will not take this warning well, nor will even all old pilgrims lay it aright to heart; but there it is as plain as the plainest, simplest, and most practical writer in our language could put it.
Behold ye how these crystal streams do glide To comfort pilgrims by the highway side; The meadows green, besides their fragrant smell, Yield dainties for them: And he that can tell What pleasant fruits, yea leaves, these trees do yield, Will soon sell all that he may buy this field.
Thus the two pilgrims sang: only, adds our author in a parenthesis, they were not, as yet, at their journey's end.
2. 'Now, I beheld in my dream that they had not journeyed far when the river and the way for a time parted. At which the two pilgrims were not a little sorry.' The two pilgrims could not perhaps be expected to break forth into dancing and singing at the parting of the river and the way, even though they had recollected at that moment what the brother of the Lord says about our counting it all joy when we fall into divers temptations. But it would not have been too much to expect from such experienced pilgrims as they by this time were, that they should have suspected and checked and commanded their sorrow. They should have said something like this to one another: Well, it would have been very pleasant had it been our King's will and way with us that we should have finished the rest of our pilgrimage among the apples and the lilies and on the soft and fragrant bank of the river; but we believe that it must in some as yet hidden way be better for us that the river and our road should part from one another at least for a season. Come, brother, and let us go on till we find out our Master's deep and loving mind. But, instead of saying that, Christian and Hopeful soon became like the children of Israel as they journeyed from Mount Hor, their soul was much discouraged because of the way. And always as they went on they wished for a softer and a better way. And it was so that they very soon came to the very thing they so much wished for. For, what is that on the left hand of the hard road but a stile, and over the stile a meadow as soft to the feet as the meadow of lilies itself? ''Tis just according to my wish,' said Christian; 'here is the easiest going. Come, good Hopeful, and let us go over.' Hopeful: 'But how if the path should lead us out of the way?' 'That's not like,' said the other; 'look, doth it not go along by the wayside?' So Hopeful, being persuaded by his fellow, went after him over the stile.
Call to mind, all you who are delivered and restored pilgrims, that same stile that once seduced you. To keep that stile ever before you is at once a safe and a seemly occupation of mind for any one who has made your mistakes and come through your chastisements. Christian's eyes all his after-days filled with tears, and he turned away his face and blushed scarlet, as often as he suddenly came upon any opening in a wall at all like that opening he here persuaded Hopeful to climb through. It is too much to expect that those who are just mounting the stile, and have just caught sight of the smooth path beyond it, will let themselves be pulled back into the hard and narrow way by any persuasion of ours. Christian put down Hopeful's objection till Hopeful broke out bitterly when the thunder was roaring over his head and he was wading about among the dark waters: 'Oh that I had kept myself in my way!' Are you a little sorry to-night that the river and the way are parting in your life? Is your soul discouraged in you because of the soreness of the way? And as you go do you still wish for some better way than the strait way? And have you just espied a stile on the left hand of your narrow and flinty path, and on looking over it is there a pleasant meadow? And does your companion point out to your satisfaction, and, almost to your good conscience, that the soft road runs right along the hard road, only over the stile and outside the fence? Then, good-bye. For it is all over with you. We shall meet you again, please God; but when we meet you again, your mind and memory will be full of shame and remorse and suffering enough to keep you in songs of repentance for all the rest of your life on earth. Farewell!
The Pilgrims now, to gratify the flesh, Will seek its ease; but oh! how they afresh Do thereby plunge themselves new grieves into: Who seek to please the flesh themselves undo.