That Terrible Dungeon of Doubt

I recently began listening to the audio book version of one of the greatest Christian books ever written, titled “The Pilgrim’s Progress” by the English Baptist minister John Bunyan (d. 1688). This beautiful work of allegory was first published in 1687, but was written over a span of 12 years when Bunyan was imprisoned from 1660 to 1672. He began his work while in the country jail of Bedfordshir, England, for violating of the “Conventicle Act.” This was an act established by the Church of England that prohibited the holding of religious services outside the authority of the established (official) church.  Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most read books in the history of publishing. It has been translated into 200 languages and over the past 250 years, it has never been out of print. The fact that Bunyan’s story has been so widely read should indicate to us something of its attraction and importance. The story of a man named Christian journeying TO faith and onward IN faith on the wonderful and dangerous path of life in Christ is one of great fascination, as Bunyan writes with such detail and clarity on the many trials that the believer will face as he journey’s toward the “celestial kingdom”.

Bunyan is a pastor, and so he writes with a shepherd’s heart to those who have “ears to hear.”  There is a particular part in the story that really captivated my attention, when the man Christian and his traveling companion Hopeful encounter a brutal Giant named Despair, who rules over Doubting Castle. While on the journey and weary from their travels, Christian and Hopeful leave a rough section of the King’s Highway to walk upon what looks like an easier route named “By-Path Meadow.” When a storm forces them to spend the night there, they are captured by the evil giant. This giant named Despair is an unscrupulous being who often has fits of anger and rage, so he imprisons the two travelers in his terrible dungeon of Doubt, where they are beaten mercilessly and starved, in hopes they will give up and take their own lives in crushing despair. But these two beleaguered souls do not give in to the despair of doubt; instead, they pray.  And in the midst of their troubled and desperate prayers, Christian remembers that he has a key called Promise. Here is the scene:

Now a little before it was day, good Christian, as one half amazed, broke out in passionate speech: What a fool, said he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking Dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty. I have a Key in my bosom called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any Lock in Doubting Castle. Then said Hopeful, That’s good news; good Brother pluck it out of your bosom and try.

 Then Christian pulled it out of his bosom, and began to try at the Dungeon door, whose bolt (as he turned the Key) gave back, and the door flew open with ease, and Christian and Hopeful both came out. Then he went to the outward door that leads into the Castle-yard, and with his Key opened that door also. After he went to the Iron Gate, for that must be opened too, but that Lock went hard, yet the Key did open it. Then they thrust open the Gate to make their escape with speed; but that Gate as it opened made such a creaking, that it awakened Giant Despair, who hastily rising to pursue his Prisoners, felt his limbs to fail, for his Fits took him again, so that he could by no means go after them. Then they went on, and came to the King’s High-way again, and so were safe, because they were out of his jurisdiction.

This scene in Bunyan’s story reminded me so much of what many believers face today on the path of the Christian life. The giant of despair captures us and casts us into a dungeon of doubt. Our lives have not progressed in the way we desired and fear has had its way with us more times than we can count. Our children or parents have made life hard, perhaps our church has not lived up to our expectations, and our daily life “feels” like more dungeon than meadow.  We have faced health issues, financial challenges, and goals have gone unfulfilled. And the worst part of our despair is what seems to be the lack of growth in our faith in Christ. The process and path of sanctification is a slow one, and it seems that so many others are growing while we have become stagnant. These troubles we face “capture” us, like that pitiless giant, causing us to despair and then finding ourselves in a stinking dungeon of doubt. As much as we would like to deny this is true, I would say it’s a bigger problem than we know. So what’s the answer?

Bunyan tells us just how Christian and Hopeful escape that dungeon: with the Key of Promise. Brothers and sisters, if you are doubtful today, open the Word of God and take hold of the key of promise! If you are in despair and your heart is heavy with burdens or concerns, turn to the infallible Word of God and take hold of the key of promise. If you’ve taken an easier path but found it to be deadly to your soul, turn again to the right path of Christian faith and walk upon steady ground. Read and hear just how God has promised you hope, joy, and life everlasting if you would only believe Him. Yes, you will face troubles, but you will not face them alone or without the resources to guide you along the way. Your unbelief has put you in a dungeon, so escape it with believing God’s promises to love you and keep you until the day of Christ. Believe Philippians 1:6 and 1 Thessalonians 4:23-24 (read them now!)  Set your heart on the promises of Romans 8:31-39 and John 14:1-3 and Proverbs 3:5-6 (read these too!). The promises of God are the key to unlocking the gates of doubt that we find ourselves trapped behind. If you fight despair with certainty of God’s truth, then you will not fear that terrible dungeon doubt. The light of Christ will shine in that darkness and lead you out into a path of peace and security. Believe God’s promises and find your way back onto the Kings Highway.


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