Pilgrim’s Progress, Page 2:
At this his Relations were sore amazed; not for that they believed that what he had said to them was true, but because they thought that some frenzy distemper had got into his head; therefore, it drawing towards night, and they hoping that sleep might settle his brains, with all haste they got him to bed. But the night was as troublesome to him as the day; wherefore, instead of sleeping, he spent it in sighs and tears. So, when the morning was come, they would know how he did; He told them, “Worse and worse”: he also set to talking to them again; but they began to be hardened. They also thought to drive away his distemper by harsh and surly carriages to him; sometimes they would deride, sometimes they would chide, and sometimes they would quite neglect him: Wherefore he began to retire himself to his chamber, to pray for and pity them, and also to condole his own misery; he would also walk solitarily in the fields, sometimes reading, and sometimes praying: and thus for some days he spent his time.
The message of the first part of the true gospel – the reality of enormous sin and the certainty of destruction before God’s anger – was just as strange in 1680 as it is in 2008. We see this in the reaction to it by the man’s family.
We have a tendency to think that hellfire-and-brimstone preaching was pretty well the only act in town in those days. In fact, then (as now) the truth about sinful man was not common, and was rarely taken seriously where it was heard. This aspect of the man’s experience, which Bunyan very much intended to be a portrait of the typical, true conversion – shows that it was not common, but rare, even in a “Christian” culture, for someone to be so concerned about their soul that it should nearly incapacitate them with grief and despair.
The effect of this first part of the gospel on his newly awakened soul is worth looking at more closely. This burden finds its counterparts in Scripture, in the Psalms where sin and vanity are contemplated:
I am feeble and sore broken; I have roared by reason of the disquietness of my heart…my heart panteth, my strength faileth me: as for the light of mine eyes, it also is gone from me. My lovers and my friends stand aloof from my sore; and my kinsmen stand afar off.1
This effect is also seen in the lives of great Christians who lived before salvation became as “convenient” as it is today. A reading of just the first fifteen or so pages of David Brainerd’s journals (for example) is enough to show just how perfect a trap his soul was in, and how it distressed him.2 I would venture to say that David Brainerd had more spiritual understanding before his conversion than nearly every preacher of “the gospel” that I’ve heard in America in this young century.
1 Psalms 38 and 39.