John Bunyan is best known as the author of Pilgrim’s Progress; however, he has left behind a far greater treasure than any of his books, sermons, or achievements. Perhaps the greatest gift that John Bunyan left to us was the incredible story of his joy in his sufferings for the Gospel.
To understand the legacy that he has imprinted upon the pages of history, let us first briefly highlight Bunyan’s life.
Born into a poor and illiterate family in 1628, Bunyan seemed to be destined for an ordinary and uninteresting life in Bedford, England. However, John Bunyan would lead anything but an ordinary and uninteresting life. Not only would he be the first person in his family to learn to read and write, but he would have almost 60 published works by the end of his 60 years of life.
The Bunyan family was not religious, and neither was John, at least in the beginning. During his early years, John Bunyan was known as a rebellious youth who caused a great deal of trouble in his community. Later in life Bunyan would say, describing himself as a youth, “I had few equals, especially considering my years . . . for cursing, swearing, lying, and blaspheming the holy name of God.”
However, through a series of tragic and miraculous events, including the death of his mother and sister, and his own near-death encounter while serving in the army, Bunyan’s attitude towards God would drastically change.
God sovereignly used a number of incidents to cause Bunyan to come to saving faith, the foremost being his marriage to a devout Puritan woman, with whom he had four children. After his conversion, Bunyan became involved as a member, and then a deacon at Bedford church. During his time at the church John grew in his passion for God, Scripture, and for preaching. However, this time was not without its trials, as his wife died, leaving him behind with four children to care for. Bunyan then soon remarried to a young woman named Elizabeth.
At this time there was much political and religious unrest in England, and the Parliament had begun to persecute the Puritans and restrict their freedom to preach. Only licensed ministers were legally able to preach in public. The threat of banishment, imprisonment, and even death faced those who would defy the Anglican Church’s authority.
The threat of persecution did little, however, to stop John Bunyan. Determined to do what he believed God had gifted and called him to do, Bunyan continued to boldly preach the Word of God to the people of Bedford.
On November 12th, 1660 as Bunyan was praying, he was abruptly interrupted by the local magistrates and arrested. Bunyan was then given an ultimatum: stop preaching, or go to jail. Bunyan replied that he firmly believed in his calling to preach the gospel and call people to, “forsake their sins, and close in with Christ, lest [they] miserably perish.”
There were immediate and tragic consequences to Bunyan’s resolve. Upon news of his arrest, John’s second wife, Elizabeth, went into early labor, and her child died. This was only to be the beginning of the suffering that was to come. When Bunyan was finally given a trial, he continued to hold strongly to his convictions about preaching the Word. Bunyan was found guilty and indicted by the accusation that he was:
“devilishly and perniciously abstaining from coming to [an Anglican] church to hear divine service, and for being a common upholder of several unlawful meetings and conventicles to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom, contrary to the laws of our sovereign lord the king.”
And with that, John Bunyan began his 12-year imprisonment.
All Bunyan had to do to be reunited with his family was agree stop preaching. This was no easy decision for Bunyan to make, especially given the fact that he would be unable to provide for his wife and four children. It would have been easy to cave-in to the pressure, and to justify the desire to be with his family, but Bunyan was unwavering in his commitment.
He spoke of this difficult time candidly:
The parting with my wife and poor children hath oft been to me in this place as the pulling the flesh from my bones … also because I should have often brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries and wants that my poor family was like to meet with, should I be taken from them, especially my poor blind child [Mary], who lay nearer to my heart than all I had besides; O the thoughts of the hardships I thought my blind one might go under, would break my heart to pieces.
He was willing to sacrifice his family, his freedom, and even his life for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel. Bunyan refused to give up the calling to which he had been called, to preach the truth of the Gospel to the world.
Bunyan’s time in chains would prove to be the testing ground for his faith and the refining fire that would bring him ever closer to Christ. John wrote his Prison Meditations as he reflected on the growth of his faith that these hardships produced:
I am, indeed in prison now
In body, but my mind
Is free to study Christ, and how
Unto me he is kind.
For though men keep my outward man
Within their locks and bars,
Yet by the faith of Christ I can
Mount higher than the stars.
Their fetters cannot spirits tame,
Nor tie up God from me;
My faith and hope they cannot lame,
Above them I shall be.
How can this be? How can Bunyan write so joyfully about such a tragic time in his life? Of course the answer is the source of his joy, Christ. Bunyan’s attitude is so similar to that of the apostles in Acts who, upon being imprisoned and beaten, “[began] rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).
Not only did Bunyan find comfort in suffering for Christ, but even his understanding of Scripture deepened immensely during this time. His soul was awakened to God’s Word as it had never been before.
Writing of this wonderful time he wrote:
I never had in all my life so great an inlet into the Word of God as now. Those scriptures that I saw nothing in before are made, in this place and state, to shine upon me. Sometimes, when I have been in the savour of them, I have been able to laugh at destruction, and to fear neither the horse nor his rider. I have had sweet sights of the forgiveness of my sins in this place, and of my being with Jesus in another world.
Bunyan had truly found joy in the midst of suffering.
Of the nearly 60 books and manuscripts that John wrote throughout his life, a dozen of them were written during his time in jail. The most famous of these was, of course, Pilgrim’s Progress. This impactful book is simply one of many evidences in John’s life of the incredible fruit that came from his suffering.
Although the authorities had tried to silence John Bunyan by keeping him locked away, the message and truth from his writings and from his testimony could not possibly be contained.
John Bunyan was a faithful pastor, father, husband, and slave of Christ, and his life still challenges us today.
(1) Bunyan’s life challenges us to be committed to an unwavering proclamation of God’s Word. Are you willing to sacrifice your family, your freedom, your comfort, and even your life for the proclamation of the Gospel? For most of us today living in America, we may never have to face that kind of persecution. For many, being ridiculed, mocked, and called a ‘bigot’ is about as bad as it gets. But are we even willing to suffer through that?
Christians today are constantly pressured by our culture to be more ‘open-minded’, to compromise Biblical truths, and to make the Bible’s message less offensive to those who don’t agree with it. Jesus himself promises that there would be persecution to those who follow him, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Are you willing to stand firm in your commitment to God’s Word as John Bunyan did?
(2) Bunyan’s life challenges us to be joyful in the midst of suffering. There may not be a better Scripture than James 1:2–4 in addressing this issue,
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
For the Christian, suffering and trials should not only be expected, but they should be welcomed. The transforming and sanctifying effect of suffering cannot be denied, especially in the life of Bunyan. To end, I’ll leave you with a quote from John Piper as he reflected on the life of John Bunyan:
I come to John Bunyan with a growing sense that suffering is a normal and useful and essential element in Christian life and ministry. It not only weans us off the world and teaches us to live on God, as 2 Corinthians 1:9 says, but also makes ministers more able to strengthen the church and makes missionaries more able to reach the nations with the Gospel of the grace of God. (Source)