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Pilgrim’s Progress: You Can’t Make it Alone

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress,
a classic of Christian spirituality,
has often been viewed as the archetypal
struggle of the solitary Christian
toward the goal of salvation. It is
that, to be sure, but to see it that way
may miss an equally important insight.
No one makes the journey alone.

John Bunyan was a Puritan who
lived amidst the contentious and conflicted society of seventeenth-century
England. He was a tinker–an itinerant
worker who repaired pots, kettles,
pans, etc.; the name of his trade has
come down to us in the phrase “tinkering
around.” He was not uneducated,
but he was not widely read. Instead, he
immersed himself in the English Bible
and popular books of religious devotion
and in observing the mores and geography
of the Bedfordshire area where he
lived and worked. The powerful influence
of the Bible and his acute sensitivity
to nature are evident on ever y page
of Pilgrim’s Progress.

Bunyan was also what we would
call today a “lay preacher” or more
odiously a “jack-leg preacher.” In
1660 he was jailed for three months
because he didn’t have a license to
preach; the sentence went on for twelve
years more because he refused to promise
he would stop preaching if he were
Pilgrim’s Progress is the story of a man who
makes it only through the intervention of
others. Christian never gets back on the path
by himself. He finds his way only by relying
on others, who embody God’s grace and

During this imprisonment he
wrote Grace Abounding to the Chief of
, which is often viewed as the
greatest of the English spiritual autobiographies.

Released in 1672, Bunyan was
thrown in prison again three years
later, and during the second imprisonment
he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress–another
in the long line of literary masterpieces
produced from prison. Part
I was first published in 1678; Part II
was issued in 1684. It became the most
widely read book in the English language,
second only to the Bible, and is
sometimes called the first novel in English.
It has been translated into more
than a hundred languages. The English
colonists to North America generally
owned only two books–the Bible
and Pilgrim’s Progress–and they literally
read Pilgrim’s Progress to pieces.
Very few first editions of it survive, and
they are extremely rare and expensive.
The book’s influence extends well into
the twentieth century. U.S. troops in
World War II received copies of Pilgrim’s
as standard issue.
John Bunyan
John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, sons of a
Presbyterian minister, identified the
hills and valleys of their upstate New
York home with the sites described in
Pilgrim’s Progress. That may tell us a
few things about American foreign policy
and the activities of the CIA during
the 1950s, but that’s beyond the scope
of this essay.

Two immediate obstacles confront the
contemporary reader of Pilgrim’s Progress.
One is the title. “Progress” in seventeenth-century England meant “a journey,” not
a process of improvement. The latter
notion of “progress” gradually emerged
from the Enlightenment and especially
the nineteenth century with its view of
history as the unfolding and triumph of
beneficent forces–human reason, science,
democracy, capitalism, and the like.
The second problem is that Pilgrim’s Progress
is an extended allegory, written as
a description of one of Bunyan’s dreams.
Nothing is designed to be something in
itself but as a symbol of something
else. Nevertheless, Bunyan’s use of
narrative and his superb prose style
make the story vivid and, in a sense,

At the heart of Pilgrim’s
is the question
that was posed to the
apostle Paul by his jailer:
“What must I do to
be saved?” Modern or
post-modern culture
asks the question in
somewhat different
ways: “How can I
find happiness?
How can I find
health? How can I
find fulfillment?”
In one way or another, the jailer’s
question and the
place where he asked
it resound across
the centuries. In the
midst of a prison, in
the experience of being lost and trapped,
how can we be free?
What must we do to
be saved?

I am going to address
that question
by asking two other
questions. To each of
these I am going to suggest
from Pilgrim’s Progress,
from my work
with alcoholics and addicts, and from my own pilgrimage
or journey, especially the last few

Can people change?

This is one of the most important and
enduring questions of human existence.
It appears implicitly or explicitly in virtually every work of literature.
It lies at the heart of modern psychology
and psychotherapy, modern social
science (especially criminology), philosophy,
and theology. It is as old as the
question of the ancient prophet: “Can
the leopard change his spots?” It is the
central issue in every helping profession
in the modern world, which has
to operate under the assumption that
human behavior–if not human character–can be altered and
even transformed. It is
the primary issue in the
notion of conversion–the
redirection and rebirth
of the human self.

The answer, I believe,
is ambiguous:
yes and no.

In my work at The
Healing Place, a nationally
program of recovery for
homeless alcoholics and
addicts based in Louisville,
Kentucky, I have watched
women and men enter from
the streets. They are, as they
will later describe themselves,
“homeless, helpless,
and hopeless.” Physically
they are a wreck, wracked
by the disease of addiction
for which they will
never find a cure but for
which they can find a
treatment and recovery. Emotionally, they
are destitute–isolated
and isolating, fearful,
and distrustful. They
are hurt. The Healing
Place estimates that 85
percent are the victims
of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. Spiritually, they are
lost. They cannot relate to others. They
despise themselves. And they are furious
with God, who they believe is the
source of their suffering.

Within a few weeks, their color
improves. Within a few months, they
smile at you. Within several months,
they are helping others. And, by the
time they leave, most of them exude
the paradox of great energy and
amazing peace, what they call serenity. In talking about their experience,
nearly all of them sound two themes.
First, The Healing Place saved my life.
Second, before I came to The Healing
Place, I had no relationship to God.
Now I do.

A year later, two out
of three of them are still
sober. One has relapsed–either once or multiple
times–into alcohol or
drug use. The statistic of
two out of three is itself
astounding; it’s five times
the national average for
treatment programs.
Transformation is not “progress” in the
sense of gradually getting better but in
the experience of dealing with forces and
factors that threaten to undo us. It is not
a state of being or mind to be achieved,
protected, and defended, but a process
of repeatedly confronting temptation.

But the question of the one
person in three is excruciating. Why did this person
relapse? Why didn’t
this man or woman “get it”? If sobriety is a gift, why wasn’t it given to
them? Why didn’t they receive it?
This is ultimately a mystery, but
there are always at least a few answers.
The one most often cited is
that the relapsers don’t “work the program”–they don’t go to meetings, they
don’t talk to their sponsors, they don’t
practice meditation and prayer. Another
is that some simply ignore or forget
the character defects and behaviors
that got them into such a terrible situation
in the first place. But the most
compelling explanation to me is that
relapsers relapse by relying upon themselves,
believing that they are “bullet
proof” (the term most often used), believing
that they can make it on their
own. Self-reliance, once heralded by
Emerson as part of the genius of the
American character, is in fact their–and our–undoing. But the simple fact
remains : some make it, some don’t.
Some change, some do not change.
Which leads to a second question.

How do people change?

When I studied Pilgrim’s Progress with
students, I frequently posed the simple
question: when was Christian saved?
The question always provoked a lively
discussion. Some said it happened
when his name was changed to Christian.
Others maintained it happened
when he went through the narrow gate.
Others argued it happened when his
heavy load slipped from his shoulders
at the foot of the Cross. Still others said
it didn’t happen until he finally made it
to the Celestial City. Some wisely countered
that it never really happened until
Christian was reunited with his family
in Part II of Pilgrim’s Progress.

What the discussion underlined
and what is so frequently ignored is
what Bunyan saw so profoundly. Personality
change, the transformation of
character, the conversion of the self is
a process, a journey, a pilgrimage. It is
not “progress” in the sense of gradually
getting better but in the experience
of dealing with forces and factors that
threaten to undo us. It is not a state
of being or mind to be achieved, protected,
and defended. It’s a process of
confronting, shall we call them, temptations–Money-love, Envy, Deception,
Pride, and all the other marvelous
and seductive characters that attempt
to waylay Christian on his journey.
What Bunyan wanted most to convey
was the process of how faith becomes real by becoming internalized within
oneself. But what he also succeeded in
doing was portraying the power of the
evil within us, our own impulses that
damage others and ourselves. Here is
how Bunyan describes it in one passage:

When [Christian] was come over
against the mouth of the burning
pit, one of the wicked ones
got behind him, and stepped up
softly to him, and whisperingly
suggested many grievous blasphemies
to him, which he verily
thought had proceeded from
his own mind.

Change is a process, not a goal to
be achieved. Change is less the alteration
of the external conditions of our
lives and more the internal shift of our
thinking, feelings, and behavior. And
how does this happen?

The beginning is the acknowledgment
that we cannot change ourselves
by ourselves. The first step of Alcoholics
Anonymous puts it this way: “We
admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.”
This is by far the most
difficult of all the twelve steps. Translate
it into different terms: I admit I am
powerless over work. It controls me, I
don’t control it. I admit that I am powerless
over my emotions. They control
me. I can’t control them. At the heart of
the sickness of addiction, at the heart
of the human malaise, is the quest for
control and power over our own thinking
and behavior, other people, and external

When confronted by difficulty and
even despair in the Slough of Despond,
how does Christian find his way? By
acknowledging his weakness and powerlessness.

And by asking for help.

Over and over again, in A A, at The
Healing Place, and in Pilgrim’s Progress,
the way out of despair is simply asking
for help. And the answer to that cry is
this: you are not alone.

We are not alone

Let me try to illustrate this with an intensely
personal story.

I left Louisville in October 2003 for
treatment for alcoholism in Atlanta. Two
weeks earlier the news of my alcoholism
and the moral wreckage of my life had
broken in the local media and in national
publications–from the
Washington Post to the
Christian Century to
the Presbyterian Outlook.
When I left, I was
clinically depressed. I
was also overwhelmed
by shame and guilt. I
had pondered suicide
but pulled back, largely
because of my wife Mary and our children.
And I prayed as I had for more than
a year, multiple times each day, that God
and others would forgive me.

I eventually learned that one counselor
described me when I arrived
in Atlanta as having “toxic levels of
shame and guilt” and being “spiritually
bankrupt.” And yet, I continued to
pray–relentlessly, fervently, for God’s
forgiveness–as well as for Mary’s, for
our children’s, and for that of everyone
else I had hurt and whose trust I had
violated. Nothing, absolutely nothing,

In discouragement and despair, I
gave up and reduced my prayer to one
request: “Lord, open me up.” That was
my only prayer for more than a month.

Then on December 9, 2003, I had
an experience of God. It happened in
a most mundane setting. I was making
breakfast in the apartment I shared
with three other men. I was spreading
peanut butter on an English muffin.
Gradually but with intensity, I was
aware of a bright, white light around me. It did not last long. I heard no voices
or words except one in my head as
the light receded: “You are not alone.”

When I told the counselors and fellow
clients about the experience, one of
the counselors said, “Well, you finally
gave it up–the sin of pride. You have
been convinced that no one could be
worse than you, no one could be more
ashamed than you.” He later said that
he could date the turning point of my
treatment to that morning.
The awareness of God’s presence preceded
any sense in me of God’s forgiveness, which
came and is coming much more slowly and
gradually. And that, I think, is the way it
should be.

Another counselor–a Jewish man–told me
gruffly, “Okay, turn around and get on
with it,” which in fact is the root meaning
of conversion or change in the Hebrew
Scriptures: turning, going in a
new direction. Another
What is interesting
to me is that the
awareness of God’s
presence preceded
any sense in me of
God’s forgiveness,
which came and is
coming much more
slowly and gradually.
And that, I think, is
the way it should be.
The theologian Paul
Tillich once said that
what we fear most is that we will be forgotten–which is another way of saying
that our greatest fear is that we are entirely,
utterly alone. Another
A preacher recently told a story
about very young children who were
asked what they would do if they found
themselves in a dark room. One said,
“I’d try to find the light switch.” (That
would have been my answer.) Another
said, “I’d try to find the way out.” And
another said, “I’d try to find someone to
hold my hand.” Another
The last child had it right. You can
read Pilgrim’s Progress as the heroic
story of a man who makes it to the Celestial
City despite enormous and dangerous
threats to his life. He endures.
And there’s something to that reading.
But if you read a little more closely, you
will see it as the story of a man who
makes it only through the intervention
of others. Christian never gets back on
the path by himself. He finds his way
only by relying on others, who embody
God’s grace and protection.

So when The Healing Place encourages
its clients to ask for help, and
when Alcoholics Anonymous admonishes
members to call their sponsors or
anyone else in the program, they are
simultaneously saying two things. The first is a warning: “You can’t make it on
your own.” But second is an assurance:
“You can make it with the help of others
and with the kindness and love of

At the very end of his journey,
at the conclusion of his “progress,”
Christian and his friend Hopeful are
trying to cross the river to the Celestial City. Christian finds himself
sinking. Hopeful calls to him: “Be
of good cheer. Jesus Christ maketh
thee whole.” “And with that,” Bunyan writes, “Christian brake out wit h
a loud voice, ‘Oh, I see him again!
And he tells me ‘When thou passeth
through the waters, I will be with
thee, and through the rivers, they
shall not over flow thee.'”

Christian arrives, but not without
Hopeful’s help and God’s presence.
Christian discovers he is not alone. He’s
made it.

So, a ridiculously simple summary:

Can people change? Yes, but some do
and some don’t.

How do people change? By realizing
that they can’t make it on their own. By
asking for help.

And there’s at least one implication.
Our responsibility is to be there to
help. As the apostle Paul put it centuries
ago: “Bear one another’s burdens,
and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

John M. Mulder is a Presbyterian
minister, former vice
president for development
at The Healing Place, and
former president of Louisville
Presbyterian Theological
Seminary, both in Louisville,
Kentucky. A new edition of
Famous Conversions, which
he co-edited with Hugh T.
Kerr, is forthcoming from