A Time Out in Doubting Castle

There’s this novel called by John Bunyan called Pilgrim’s Progress, and a passage in it has been weighing on my mind fairly heavily recently. For a brief recap for those familiar (and a brief intro for those unfamiliar), Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegorical tale a man named Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. For two centuries after its original publication in 1678, it was the second-most published book just under the King James Bible. Even today, however, this nominal work has a powerful effect.

Doubting Castle: a Summary of the Scene

The scene that hasn’t left me since my second reading of Pilgrim’s Progress a couple of weeks ago is a dark one, so brace yourself. The protagonist Christian and his companion Hopeful are on their way to the Celestial City when, after trying to correct a wrong turn, they take refuge in what seems to be an abandoned castle. Little do they know that this castle is Doubting Castle, and it is home the Giant Despair, who captures them and shackles them in his dungeon.

The Giant Despair goes down to the dungeon to beat Christian and Hopeful with his staff. He beats them to an almost unrecognizable pulp and then leaves to let them heal just a little only to return the next day to do it again. Christian and Hopeful can’t do anything to defend themselves, and they can’t escape, so all they can look forward to is another beating from the Giant Despair.

After a couple of nights, the Giant’s wife Diffidence suggests that Christian and Hopeful kill themselves to escape the pain of Despair’s beatings, so the Giant gives his prisoners two knives. Christian picks his knife up and after much contemplation prepares to go through with it. Hopeful, however, steadies his friend’s hand and reminds him of all the times in the past that the Lord of the Celestial City has rescued them in the past and encourages him that He will do so once again. Hopeful then encourages Christian to be patient and pray, and Christian lowers his blade and falls to sleep.

He wakes up to the Giant Despair beating them again even harder because neither of them killed themselves. After he finishes, the Giant assures them that their destruction is coming soon, and if they wouldn’t take care of it themselves, he would. As the Giant walks back upstairs, Hopeful reminds Christian once again to remain patient and to keep praying. Christian does so, even though he still thinks it would be better to die at his own hand instead of the Giant’s staff.

The next morning, in the literal pit of Despair, Christian suddenly remembers that upon his initial exit of the City of Destruction, he was given the Key of Promise. He reckons that this Key will unlock any lock in Doubting Castle, including his shackles. Lo and behold, it does. Christian and Hopeful escape quickly and quietly just before the dawn of their last day and make it back to safety on the King’s Highway. Before they leave that spot, though, they leave a sign for future travelers urging them to not make the same mistake they did by staying in Doubting Castle.

Time Out: a Dark Night of the Soul

What the fictional characters Christian and Hopeful allegorically undergo is not unlike what every Christian goes through at some point or another. Maybe you’ve been in that dark pit before and have escaped, or maybe you’re still there. Maybe doubting God provides just enough refuge from the pressures and struggles of your reality, or maybe you know the bruises, scars, and whelps of Despair all too well. Maybe a shyness, modesty, or humility due to a lack of self-confidence (definition of diffidence) is keeping you content to stay in such a horrible dungeon, or even worse, making you second-guess the value of your own life.

Times like these are nothing new to the Christian faith; heck, times like these aren’t even new to Jesus himself. Early in his ministry, while he was in the desert, he was tempted to throw himself off a ledge. Later on, before his crucifixion, he prayed that he wouldn’t have to drink from the cup of God’s wrath.

Jesus isn’t the only one in Christianity to deal with this. Church fathers called this phenomenon dejection. In the 16th Century, St. John of the Cross wrote a poem called “The Dark Night of the Soul” which expressed the idea that getting lost in spiritual darkness is a sure-fire way to find the light of Jesus more quickly. There was even a hymn written in 1854 that called “Night, with Ebon Pinion“; the title means “Night with Black Wings,” and it describes Jesus’s last night alone and in the garden.

As I use the phrase “time out,” I use it with great reverence. I’m not saying that God is making us go through these periods as a form of punishment for anything that we’ve done. I’m simply using the phrase to show what it feels like: time away from everyone else…time without everyone else…time out of the light.

With this post, I only want to say this: be patient, keep praying, and hang in there. I’ll end with Hopeful’s words to Christian while in the pit:

“My brother,” said Hopeful, “rememberest thou not how valiant thou hast been heretofore? APOLLYON could not crush thee; nor could all that thou didst hear, or see, or feel, in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. What hardship, terror, and amazement, hast thou already gone through – and art thou now nothing but fear? Thou seest that I am in the dungeon with thee, a far weaker man by nature than thou art! Also, this Giant has wounded me as well as thee, and hath also cut off the bread and water from my mouth; and with thee I mourn without the light: but let us exercise a little more patience. Remember how thou playedst the man at Vanity Fair, and wast neither afraid of the chain nor cage, nor yet of bloody death; wherefore let us – at least to avoid the shame that becomes not a Christian to be found in – bear up with patience as well as we can.”

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