I can remember only a handful of times when a book made me cry. I’d be reading away, minding my own business when, without warning, the author grabs hold of my heart-strings and just yanks.
I teared up at the end of A Prayer for Owen Meany. I was choked up a few times during my most recent read-through of The Chronicles of Narnia. I ugly-cried at four distinct points during Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But I was most surprised at how moved I was, the first time I read Volume 2 of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Bunyan’s allegory of the Christian life, written in a dank English prison cell, is one of the most widely-read books of all time. His protagonist, Christian, faces all sorts of trials and temptations on his journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, to Zion where the Great King dwells. While many have read the first volume recounting Christian’s trials, fewer have experienced the second volume, which details how Christian’s wife, Christiana, and his four sons found themselves on pilgrimage as well.
I was assigned both parts of The Pilgrim’s Progress as part of a seminary class, and it was during this assigned reading of the book that I discovered an all-too-familiar character: Mr. Fearing.
A Most Troublesome Pilgrim
Great-heart, who serves as Christiana’s escort throughout most of her journey tells the story of Mr. Fearing, a pilgrim who was “always afraid that he should come short of whither he had a desire to go.” As his name suggests, Mr. Fearing was often fearful of the dangers ahead, though what worried him most was that he would be refused entrance to the Celestial City. Every time Fearing came to a friendly house or refuge, he dared not knock because he never felt worthy to do so. Often, Great-heart recounts, Fearing would stand aside to let others go ahead of him, while he remained just outside the threshold, terrified of being turned away until he practically had to be pulled inside by his friends.
Yet, as Great-heart continues the story, the reader learns that Mr. Fearing’s doubts were met time and again by the mercy of the Master. Provision was made for his needs, and encouragements were patiently offered to minister to his heart. When Fearing faced the threat of lions or the persecutions of Vanity Fair, he was not swayed. As Great-heart put it, “his trouble was not about such things as those; his fear was about his acceptance at last” (emphasis mine). Even the Valley of Humiliation was a comfort to Fearing, who “cared not how mean he was, so he might be happy at last.”
When Mr. Fearing came to the great River separating this world from the world to come, he feared that he might drown, and “never see that Face with comfort, that he had come so many miles to behold.” Yet, in the mercy of the Lord of Zion, the water level was lower than e’er Great-heart had seen it before, and Fearing was welcomed into his rest.
“Some must pipe, and some must weep…”
It’s important to note Great-heart’s final statement on Mr. Fearing here. He says:
I never had doubt about him, he was a man of choice spirit, only he was always kept very low, and that made his life so burdensome to himself, and so troublesome to others. He was above many, tender to Sin; he was so afraid of doing injuries to others, that he often would deny himself of that which was lawful, because he would not offend… The wise God will have it so, some must pipe, and some must weep: Now Mr. Fearing was one that played upon this bass… The first string that the musician usually touches, is the bass, when he intends to put all in tune; God also plays upon this string first, when he sets the soul in tune for himself. Only here was the imperfection of Mr. Fearing, he could play upon no other musick [sic] but this, till towards his latter end.
What moved me to tears as I read this account was that I recognized Mr. Fearing. Point of fact, I was (and sometimes still am) Fearing.
I’m so aware of how far I fall short, how easily I can offend others, how forgetful I am of God’s mercies. Yet time and again, Jesus extends mercy and grace to me, reminding me of His promises in the pages of Scripture never to leave or forsake me, to be with me always, to hold me forever in His hand. I am comforted by the assurance that nothing in all creation can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus my Lord.
Yet still, I tremble sometimes. Still, I stiffen as I hear the black dogs baying, those terrible accusations from the corners telling me that God can’t really love me unconditionally, that I need to measure up and get my act together to be acceptable before Him.
Yet the Gospel remains true: that I deserved God’s righteous wrath for my rebellion against Him, but in His great mercy, He offered me grace through the blood-sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus. He reaches out His nail-scarred hands and pulls me over the threshold into salvation. He rescues fearful men and women like me.
In the end, it’s not my self-regard or positive thinking that overcomes my Fearing tendencies. It’s the hope, the assurance, that He is faithful and will not let me drown.