Talk is Blessed, Talk is Cheap (Or, Holiness is More than a Change in Vocabulary)

I continue to find gem after gem in my travels through Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Both the instructive and lively narrative portrayals of the Christian life (Christian’s rousing battle with Apollyon), and the conversations between the various virtues (Charity, Faithful), vices (Sloth, Pliable), and typical attitudes (Shame, Discontent) are rich in spiritual depth and comfort.

One such exchange comes during a part of the journey when Christian and Faithful run into one claiming to be on the road to the celestial city by the name of Talkative. Faithful is quite glad to have him join them and talk of spiritual things on the journey, which it seems that Talkative is quite eager to do:

TALKATIVE: That’s it that I said; for to talk of such things is most profitable; for by so doing a man may get knowledge of many things; as of the vanity of earthly things, and the benefit of things above. Thus in general; but more particularly, by this a man may learn the necessity of the new birth, the insufficiency of our works, the need of Christ’s righteousness, etc. Besides, by this a man may learn what it is to repent, to believe, to pray, to suffer, or the like: by this, also, a man may learn what are the great promises and consolations of the Gospel, to his own comfort. Farther, by this a man may learn to refute false opinions, to vindicate the truth, and also to instruct the ignorant.

FAITHFUL: All this is true; and glad am I to hear these things from you.

TALKATIVE: Alas! the want of this is the cause that so few understand the need of faith, and the necessity of a work of grace in their soul, in order to eternal life; but ignorantly live in the works of the law, by which a man can by no means obtain the kingdom of heaven.

Apparently Talkative knows his stuff. He clearly knows the benefits of wise speech about God. Many of us could profit from an eagerness to discuss and speak about God, theology, the Bible, and our own spiritual lives more often than we do. By it we are “may learn what are the great promises and consolations of the Gospel, to his own comfort. Farther, by this a man may learn to refute false opinions, to vindicate the truth, and also to instruct the ignorant.”

Can we imagine what our general outlook would be, the witness of our lives, or the state of our faith would be if we spent more time discussing God’s goodness and not the mere trivialities to which we devote most of our conversations? How much holier would we be if we were constantly calling to mind God’s faithfulness in the face of daily temptations? Wouldn’t our constant doubts and anxieties begin to shrink in front of our eyes, if we were constantly reminding each other of the magnitude of God’s power and the unshakeable character of his promises?

The benefits to frequent godly conversation are many and deep indeed. When we read on though, we find out that Bunyan is teaching us that along with the benefits of spending our time discussing God and the Gospel, there are dangers as well.

CHRISTIAN: That is, to them that have not a thorough acquaintance with him, for he is best abroad; near home he is ugly enough. Your saying that he is a pretty man, brings to my mind what I have observed in the work of a painter, whose pictures show best at a distance; but very near, more unpleasing.

FAITHFUL: But I am ready to think you do but jest, because you smiled.

CHRISTIAN: God forbid that I should jest (though I smiled) in this matter, or that I should accuse any falsely. I will give you a further discovery of him. This man is for any company, and for any talk; as he talketh now with you, so will he talk when he is on the ale-bench; and the more drink he hath in his crown, the more of these things he hath in his mouth. Religion hath no place in his heart, or house, or conversation; all he hath lieth in his tongue, and his religion is to make a noise therewith.

FAITHFUL: Say you so? Then am I in this man greatly deceived.

CHRISTIAN: Deceived! you may be sure of it. Remember the proverb, “They say, and do not;” but the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. Matt. 23:3; 1 Cor. 4:20. He talketh of prayer, of repentance, of faith, and of the new birth; but he knows but only to talk of them. I have been in his family, and have observed him both at home and abroad; and I know what I say of him is the truth. His house is as empty of religion as the white of an egg is of savor. There is there neither prayer, nor sign of repentance for sin; yea, the brute, in his kind, serves God far better than he. He is the very stain, reproach, and shame of religion to all that know him, Rom. 2:24,25; it can hardly have a good word in all that end of the town where he dwells, through him. Thus say the common people that know him, “A saint abroad, and a devil at home.” His poor family finds it so; he is such a churl, such a railer at, and so unreasonable with his servants, that they neither know how to do for or speak to him. Men that have any dealings with him say, It is better to deal with a Turk than with him, for fairer dealings they shall have at their hands. This Talkative (if it be possible) will go beyond them, defraud, beguile, and overreach them. Besides, he brings up his sons to follow his steps; and if he finds in any of them a foolish timorousness, (for so he calls the first appearance of a tender conscience,) he calls them fools and blockheads, and by no means will employ them is much, or speak to their commendation before others. For my part, I am of opinion that he has, by his wicked life, caused many to stumble and fall; and will be, if God prevents not, the ruin of many more.

FAITHFUL: Well, my brother, I am bound to believe you, not only because you say you know him, but also because, like a Christian, you make your reports of men. For I cannot think that you speak these things of ill-will, but because it is even so as you say.

CHRISTIAN: Had I known him no more than you, I might, perhaps, have thought of him as at the first you did; yea, had I received this report at their hands only that are enemies to religion, I should have thought it had been a slander-a lot that often falls from bad men’s mouths upon good men’s names and professions. But all these things, yea, and a great many more as bad, of my own knowledge, I can prove him guilty of. Besides, good men are ashamed of him; they can neither call him brother nor friend; the very naming of him among them makes them blush, if they know him.

FAITHFUL: Well, I see that saying and doing are two things, and hereafter I shall better observe this distinction.

CHRISTIAN: They are two things indeed, and are as diverse as are the soul and the body; for, as the body without the soul is but a dead carcass, so saying, if it be alone, is but a dead carcass also. The soul of religion is the practical part. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” James 1:27; see also verses 22-26. This, Talkative is not aware of; he thinks that hearing and saying will make a good Christian; and thus he deceiveth his own soul. Hearing is but as the sowing of the seed; talking is not sufficient to prove that fruit is indeed in the heart and life. And let us assure ourselves, that at the day of doom men shall be judged according to their fruits. Matt. 13:23. It will not be said then, Did you believe? but, Were you doers, or talkers only? and accordingly shall they be judged. The end of the world is compared to our harvest, Matt. 13:30 and you know men at harvest regard nothing but fruit. Not that any thing can be accepted that is not of faith; but I speak this to show you how insignificant the profession of Talkative will be at that day.

This is the danger Bunyan warns us of: apparently Talkative is just that–all talk and no action. In this passage Christian instructs Faithful in the difference between saying and doing. It’s an easy one for us to forget.  It’s easy to feel like having the right answers makes us righteous. It’s easy to feel like being able to distinguish properly between justification and sanctification means that we’ve been justified and sanctified. It’s easy to think that condemning sin with our mouths means we’ve cut it out of our lives. It’s easy to think that because we can discourse about the Trinity, we’re actually engaged in the life of the Triune God.

Bunyan reminds us that while it’s important for pilgrims on the way to discuss the beautiful things of God, we must not be satisfied with mere discussion. The Christian life is one of active participation. We must practice Christianity as well as speak of it. Faith that truly is worth the name, is one that results in a changed life, not merely a different vocabulary.

Talking about God is a great thing as long as it encourages us to talk to God; to move from conversation about the Christian life, to participation in a real Christian life.

Soli Deo Gloria

Where is True Peace Found?

I’ve begun my second attempt through John Bunyan’s spiritual classic, Pilgrim’s Progress this week in my attempt to find more theologically-rich devotional literature. (The first was an unfortunately broken off in college due to my immaturity.) I’m pleased to say that I have been thoroughly blessed by it. It’s easy to see why Charles Spurgeon confessed that, “Next to the Bible, the book I value most is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.” The allegory is riddled with biblical quotations and wisdom designed to illustrate the pilgrimage of the Christina through the current world on to glory.

Bunyan does this by telling a dream-vision he has of the pilgrimage of Christian, an everyman character, who is on a journey from his home-town “the City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City.” His journey is provoked by his reading of a book that causes him great distress and anguish about his spiritual state.  On the way he is met by various characters such as Worldly-Wise Man and Evangelist who give him varied instructions as to ease his turmoil. Eventually after a foolish detour in the direction of the village of Morality on the advice of Worldly-Wise Man that lands him in great peril, he takes Evangelist’s advice and heads down the narrow road that leads to life and his true journey begins.

Burdens Released

Christian is committed and so he makes great headway for a while, but from the very start of his journey he is weighed down by a burden, a pack that hinders his progress. The pack symbolizes the spiritual weight of his sins, the anxiety and fear of judgment, the encumberance of great guilt and shame. He suffers with it despite his best efforts as well as the godly counsel of those good characters such as Evangelist and Interpreter who open the truth to him and he receives no respite until he catches a vision of something glorious:

Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which Christian was to go, was fenced on either side with a wall, and that wall was called Salvation. Isaiah 26:1. Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back. He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more. 

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 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. Zech. 12:10. Now as he stood looking and weeping, behold, three Shining Ones came to him, and saluted him with, “Peace be to thee.” So the first said to him, “Thy sins be forgiven thee,” Mark 2:5; the second stripped him of his rags, and clothed him with change of raiment, Zech. 3:4; the third also set a mark on his forehead, Eph. 1:13, and gave him a roll with a seal upon it, which he bid him look on as he ran, and that he should give it in at the celestial gate: so they went their way. Then Christian gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing,

“Thus far did I come laden with my sin,
Nor could aught ease the grief that I was in,
Till I came hither. What a place is this!
Must here be the beginning of my bliss?
Must here the burden fall from off my back?
Must here the strings that bound it to me crack?
Blest cross! blest sepulchre! blest rather be
The Man that there was put to shame for me!”

So many of us suffer the burdens of guilt and shame. We walk day in and day out bearing a great burden, an inexpressible anxiety and grief that doesn’t seem to dissipate no matter how many self-help books we read, mantras we chant, or health-goals we set and meet.

Christian found the true source of peace: “Blest cross! blest sepulchre! blest rather be/The Man that there was put to shame for me!” In Christ all of our sins, our shames, our hurts are taken, destroyed on the cross with him, buried in the sepulchre with him, and in him we rise again to new life, freedom, joy and hope. In him we find true peace.

Soli Deo Gloria