Seventh Stage (Part 2): From the River of Life to Doubting Castle

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Christian and Hopeful leave the shores of the River of Life to continue their journey. Their feet begin to hurt, for the way grows rough and rugged. They wish for an easier path and see a meadow (Bypath Meadow) that runs parallel to the way. Christian persuades Hopeful to climb the fence and follow the path on the other side.

The path is easier at first. They follow a man ahead named Vain Confidence who tells them the path leads to the Celestial Gate. But when night falls, it gets so dark they cannot see. Vain Confidence falls into a pit. Then it storms so hard the path begins to flood! Despite their desperate efforts, they cannot find their way back to the stile. They take refuge under a small shelter and fall asleep.

It so happens that Bypath Meadow belongs to Giant Despair. As he strides his property that morning, he finds the pilgrims and accuses them of trespassing. He brings them to Doubting Castle and locks them in a dark, stinking dungeon. The next day, he beats them without mercy. When he finds them still in pain the next day, he recommends they commit suicide!

Christian considers Despair’s advice. He confesses, “I don’t know whether it is better to live like this or to die by our own hand.” Yet Hopeful encourages him. Perhaps Despair will die or forget to lock them in, or fall into a paralyzing fit that sometimes seizes him. He also reminds Christian what he has endured so far. “What hardship, terror, and amazement you have already gone through! Are you now nothing but a bundle of fears?”

The next morning, Despair takes them to the castle yard where he shows them the bones and skulls of other trespassing pilgrims. He threatens to tear them to pieces in ten days and beats them back to the dungeon. At midnight, they begin to pray.

Just before dawn, Christian realizes he has a key. “What a fool I have been to lie in a stinking dungeon like this, when I could just as well walk free! I have a key in my pocket next to my heart called Promise that will, I am sure, open any lock in Doubting Castle.”

The key opens the locks on the cell door, the castle door and the outer gate. The gate creaks and wakes Despair, who seizes up when he tries to chase them. The pilgrims hurry off his property back to the way. They erect a pillar near the stile warning what is on the other side.

Considering Depression

Bunyan bares his soul in this stage. The same depression that besets Christian almost certainly beset him. His life was filled with hardship. His mother and sister died when he was a boy; his best friend was killed fighting in civil war; his oldest daughter was born blind; his first wife died in childbirth. And all this happened by the time he was 30!

After this, he spent twelve years in prison for nothing more than leading worship services that weren’t authorized by the King. So it’s reasonable to assume he struggled with depression. Fortunately, we can draw encouragement from the same places he did.

First, there are God’s promises found in His Word. This is the key that opens the door to Christian’s cell. God promises to work all things out for our good (Romans 8:28) and that nothing will separate us from His love (Romans 8:39). These promises buoy our hearts when depression overwhelms us.

Second, there is the fellowship of the church. Hopeful helps Christian see beyond their present circumstances. He is strong when his brother is weak. Hence Scripture tells us to “not give up meeting together…but encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25). Other Christians lend us strength and support when we cannot stand on our own.

I’m not trying to sound trite or flippant. I’m not saying you should sprinkle “Jesus dust” on your problems to make them go away. Depression is a real condition that requires real treatment. If you struggle with crippling sadness, get help! There’s no shame in therapy or medication. Just remember that real, lasting peace only comes from Jesus.

Considering Going Astray

Bunyan makes a quick but profound observation in this stage. When the pilgrims are caught in the storm in Bypath Meadow, he observes, “Then I understood that it is easier to go out of the way when we are in it, than it is to go in when we are out.” In other words, it’s easier to leave the path than to get back on it.

Scripture is filled with such warnings not to fall away. When the Christian life gets hard, we can find ourselves longing for easier paths. Believers in other countries face disownment, discrimination and persecution. Though we face milder opposition in America, we are still beset by “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth” (Matthew 13:22).

This is the meaning of the person Vain Confidence. He says his path leads to the Celestial Gate, but instead it takes him to the pit. If we follow anyone or anything other than Jesus, it will only lead to destruction. Let us resist whatever lures us away from Him and keep our feet fixed on the path He sets for us!

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