“A man came to him whose name was Help.”
–The Pilgrim’s Progress
“Thou art my Help and my Deliverer, O Lord.”
Like the question that came to Elijah when he was in the exact same spot, “What doest thou hear?” were the words that came to Christian while wallowing and foundering on the far edge of the Slough of Despond. They were uttered by the man called Help. Humiliatingly the answer came, “I fell in here.” “But why did you not look for the steps?” Then he gave him a hand, pulled him out, set him on sound ground and sent him on The Way again. Steps there were, dotting the way across the slough. But almost no one who went to the Celestial City arrived there without falling and wallowing a bit in that slough. Those steps are often missed, even by those with surest tread. They are the promises of forgiveness and God’s ready acceptance of the forgiven ones through faith in Christ. Help is one of the servants of Prince Emmanuel. Evangelist was one of those servants. Goodwill is another; Interpreter another, Greatheart also, and many more. The apostle tells us that “God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, after that…helps” (I Cor. 12:28). “There are diversities of gifts,” and “helps” among them. No one need be nominated, elected or ordained to be a help; for helps are to be found of every age, sex and class in the church. “I commend unto you Phebe, our sister, who is a deaconess of the church which is at Cenchrea…for she hath been a helper of many, and of myself also. Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my helpers in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 16:1-3). Help is a name and a gift which belongs to many children of the King. The first occurrence of the word in Scripture is in connection with the first woman, whom the Lord made a help, not a helpmeet, nor a helpmate (slang), but a help, a companion meet, i.e., fit, suitable for man. That man is blessed who has in his wife a help suitable for him. That young man will be blessed who seeks his future wife from God and prays that she may bear woman’s first divine name.
That notorious Slough of Despond is a Dead Sea of sin, constantly fed from the sewers of the City of Destruction and of the Town of Depravity, and from the filth and defilements brought up at self-examination before every communion. “This miry slough,” explained Mr. Help, “is such a place as cannot be mended.” It is the depression where “the scum and filth” which continually oozes from conviction of sin, “and therefore it is called the Slough of Despond, for still, as the sinner is awakened by his lost condition, there arise in his soul many fears and doubts and discouraging apprehensions, all which flow together and settle in this place.” This accounts for the badness of the ground. Such is the allegory. But a clearer explanation is to be found in the autobiography, Grace Abounding, by a man who not only met with that slough in his path, but had a Slough of Despond which he always carried about with him in his own mind. “But my original and inward pollution,” he recorded in his autobiography, “that, that was my plague and affliction, that I saw at a dreadful rate, always putting forth itself within me! That I had the guilt of—to amazement! By reason of that, I was more loathsome in mine own eyes than a toad, and I thought I was so in God’s eyes, too. Sin and corruption, I said, would as naturally bubble out of my heart, as water would bubble out of a fountain. I thought now that everyone had a better heart than I had. I could have changed hearts with anybody. I thought none but the devil himself could equal…me for inward wickedness and pollution of mind. I fell, therefore, at the sight of my own vileness, deeply into despair; for I concluded that this condition I was in could not stand with a state of grace. Sure, thought I, I am forsaken of God. Sure I am given up to the devil and to a reprobate mind…and now I was sorry that God had made me, for I feared I was a reprobate.” Thus the Slough of Despond was the man’s own personal experience. As he wrote in his preface to The Holy War:
Let no man, then, count me a fable maker,
Nor make my name and credit a partaker
Of their derision: what is here in view,
Of mine own knowledge I dare say is true.
Not only Christian, but his wife, Christiana, knew that slough. It was much worse a place when she went through it. The reason was that though the King’s surveyors and laborers did all they could to make the place good, the project was sabotaged by infiltrators pretending to be the King’s laborers who added dirt and dung instead of stones, so that no amount of drainage or fill ever worked. Here it was that the beautiful young woman, Mercy, helped Christiana with her boys to get staggeringly over the slough.
Then there was chicken-hearted Mr. Fearing, a good man, for the root of the matter was in him, and he had given up his favorite, Canadian, brand of cigarettes, Craven. Still, he was always shaking, shrinking, wringing his hands and afraid he would never get to where he desired to go. He was not like Mr. Sloth who never ventured out of bed because, as he would say, “there’s a lion in the streets.” But rather, although Mr. Fearing felt there was a lion behind every bush, he pressed on, albeit exclaiming, “I’ll never make it.” Still, as we said, he had the root of the matter in him. That puts him in the right church and the right pew, doesn’t it? This recommendation is true, coming from none other than one who knew him best, Old Honest. When he came to that slough, he lay by it for about a month, making no attempt to enter and cross, even when offered many a helping hand. Then, too, he would not attempt the way of the steps: they made him feel like a trespasser. He actually lay there that long? That’s what we said, and how he came to do so is interesting. He fell. It’s true. He fell and just lay where he fell roaring in fear. Someone tossed a straw in his way; he stumbled over it and—you guessed it—fell flat on his face! That’s the story of his life. He also made it rough for other pilgrims, for his horrified yelling made their skin crawl as they made it through the slough. But then one sunshiny morning when slough-tide was low and the steps dry and sharply outlined all across, Mr. Fearing got over, no one knows how, and he himself could hardly believe it.
Now of course Pliable and Christian were soon both in the bog. They wallowed there for a time, but the one man sank deeper because of the burden on his back, while the other, having no such burden, scrambled out on that side closest to his own house. His only worry was, If I ever “get out again with my life, you shall possess the brave Country alone for me!” You see, it is not enough to be pliable. One must also be firm, assiduous, persevering.
Pliable came to a rather humiliating end; he got safely enough to his house and his neighbors came to visit him. Some called his a wise man for turning back. The lord mayor of the city had warned him in the first place, “Ye shall not go very far away!” Some called him a fool for jeopardizing himself with Christian. Others mocked him, calling him coward. “Here,” they said, “is a man who began, but fizzled out for a few difficulties.” But Pliable was with the “in-crowd” once and wanted back “in” again. So he “sat sneaking among them.” Gradually, he accumulated more confidence, until he was again one of them. Only one thing more remained to complete the penance imposed for full acceptance among them. He had criticized Obstinate for giving Christian the back. Now he does the same; and exchanging tales with his sophisticated cronies, they all together, began to deride Christian behind his back. In this way, Pliable paid for acceptance once more with God-despising companions by joining their reviling, and despising the people of God whom he had forsaken. Pliable’s end is more to be dreaded than any Slough of Despond.
It was not the fault of Evangelist that any of these mentioned fell into the slough. Yet some preachers are not only always in the slough themselves, but continually push others in, while they never help them out. Better the preacher like Help who enables the pilgrim to sing, “He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. He hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God.”
Originally Published in:
Vol. 29 No. 7 November 1969