John Bunyan and Pilgrim's Progress

Pilgrim’s Progress captured my imagination as a child after watching a shadow-puppet performance of the story on TV. A man called Christian leaves his home in despair longing to escape the disaster he knows is coming on his own city. After many twists and turns; including the Slough of Despond, Doubting Castle, and Vanity Fair, he arrives at the Celestial City.

Even if you only read a children’s edition of the story, I’m sure you will enjoy it. Written almost 350 years ago, it’s still a page-turner![1]

When I became a Christian I followed through on my love of Bunyan by reading his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Here, I learned two things about him. First, the hero of Pilgrim’s Progressis Bunyan himself, he is Christian, the central character. Second, he was prone to bouts of serious mental illness.

I was a young believer way back then, and I didn’t feel that I should attribute those kinds of illnesses to a spiritual giant like Bunyan so I kept my ‘diagnosis’ (such as it was) to myself. But since reading an account of my hero’s life by a Christian psychiatrist, Gaius Davies[2]I feel that I can go public. 

Davies confirms my early impressions. There were times when John Bunyan, man of God, persecuted for his faith, writer of spiritual classics, enormously popular preacher, was in serious psychological trouble. Davies lovingly dissects Bunyan’s writings and finds evidence of obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety, as well as depression.

These afflictions did not disable John Bunyan, they energised him to write and to preach. Davies says, "My view is that the struggles in his own spiritual life form the basis from which the content of Pilgrim’s Progress is drawn. Thus, I think that the Slough of despond, Giant Despair, and Doubting Castle are written out of his own experience of depression."

Like many people of his age, Bunyan felt that the law of God – passages like the Ten Commandments[3]- condemned him. The guilt this produced drove him half mad. Healing began when he realised that God’s mercy had triumphed over the law and that – through faith in Christ – he was forgiven and set free. New Testament passages like this became immensely important to him:

"Our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law." (Romans 3:27-28 - New Living Translation)

From a psychological perspective, the gospel is deeply liberating. Your guilt is gone, you are a child of God, you are free! You don’t get this by being a very good person, or by trying to compensate for your bad deeds with shiny good ones. Relax, you just receive mercy, forgiveness and a whole new life.

Bunyan – like many people today – struggled to accept the simplicity and generosity of God’s grace in the gospel. Forgiveness is a gift we receive, not a reward that we earn. But eventually he understood, and though his troubles were not over, he was well on his way to knowing peace in his heart.

Conversion was not the end of his illness, but his illness became a source of his effectiveness as a preacher and a writer. That is why Pilgrim’s Progressis so powerful. To quote Davies again, "Christians quite often believe it is somehow a denial of their faith to be depressed. Bunyan would not agree. His discussions of suicide in the passages about Doubting Castle are a model of how suicidal thoughts and depression can be countered to some extent by argument."

Christians suffer mental illness as much as anyone else. Our faith in Christ, the fellowship of believers and the company of friends all help pull us through those times. But we can, with faith, emerge closer to God and better equipped to see the darkness in other’s hearts.

Bunyan saw the darkness from the inside and that enabled him to become one of the most popular preachers of his age, introducing thousands to the heart’s ease that only the gospel can bring.

Anxiety, mania, despair, suicidal thoughts. Good counsel, smart psychology, recovery, and even triumph! Read Pilgrim’s Progress, it’s all there.

[1]A well-reviewed illustrated edition for children is ‘Dangerous journey, the story of Pilgrim’s Progress’, Erdmans, ISBN 978-0-8028-3619-9

[2]Genius, grief and grace, Gaius Davies, Christian Focus, ISBN 978 1 84550 359 8

[3]Exodus 20:1-18