[first published in the monthly congregational Notes for February, 2020.]
If you have never read John Bunyan’s classic book, The Pilgrim’s Progress (or if you have previously only read a shortened children’s version a long time ago) why not make a “February Resolution” to read it this year? I doubt you will regret it and there should still be plenty of copies in local libraries, and perhaps even audio copies of professional readings to listen to. The story is an allegory and narrates the journey of a man who travels from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, via the Cross. As he goes, the man, originally called Graceless but soon renamed Christian, meets many challenges. Some of these come from the nature of the journey, some come from companions who eventually proved false and some represent spiritual battles and challenges that he must face from within. In all these, Bunyan shows great insight.
On one occasion, Christian, dressed in the Armour of God described in Eph 6:11ff, finds that his path takes him through a place called the Valley of Humiliation. Not long after entering it, he was attacked by the demon Apollyon, who aim was to force Christian to return to the City of Destruction in shameful defeat or kill him if he would not go back.
A fierce battle followed during which Apollyon taunts Christian with his weakness, failures, doubts and fears, and questions God’s goodness and love for allowing him to face these struggles. Christian bravely uses his Shield of Faith (Eph 6:16), but still receives some serious wounds which weaken him. The battle rages for over half a day, and Christian is exhausted, falling to the ground at one point, losing his sword. It seems over, but to quote Bunyan, “… as God would have it, while Apollyon was fetching his last blow, thereby to make a full end of this good man, Christian nimbly reached out his hand for his sword, and caught it, saying, Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise, (Mic. 7:8); and with that gave him a deadly thrust, which made him give back, as one that had received his mortal wound. Christian perceiving that, made at him again, saying, Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors, through Him that loved us. (Rom. 8:37). And with that Apollyon spread forth his dragon wings, and sped away, so that Christian saw him no more. (James 4:7).
This battle was not Christian’s last. Bunyan’s purpose was twofold. Yes, faith gave Christian his defence but it was ultimately the Sword, the Bible, that caused Apollyon to flee, and God was over the battle and gave Christian the strength for victory.
We must take the same lessons. Satan’s attacks will not always be of the same sort but they all have the same aim: the destruction of our Christian commitment. Sometimes his temptations are subtle; we do not see them coming until they are upon us. We must be prepared for ambush! Sometimes, especially if we are confident that we have good spiritual momentum in ourselves, we will find that he uses our strength against us (Prov 16:12, 1Cor 10:12)! Sometimes we just seem to be under attack for no reason other than that he hates us. Well, in every case, let temptation make us hate sin more!
Though Satan is strong, Christ is stronger and no-one can snatch us out of the Father’s hand (Jn 10:27-29). At times we may be down (even by our own folly) but we will never be “out”. We may not always understand why some temptations come and not others, but in every case our response must be the same: take God at His word, resist and wait, holding to the promises of God! No trial is ever enjoyable, but the fruits of faithfulness are a great blessing (see 1 Pet 1:6-9 & Heb 12:11).