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Bunyan on Anxiety, Fear and Depression

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The following text is based on Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ (Updated Version, 2014, pps 134-140, and 349). Bunyan describes the destructive nature of anxiety and depression! He also shows that the answer is in the person who claims ‘illness’.

I will summarise Bunyan’s thoughts on neuroses (he knew their destructive power well before the name ‘neuroses’ came into being! All pastors in his day recognised the signs of emotional turmoil and woefulness).

On page 134 the reader is introduced to the wicked figure of a giant called Despair. All who came onto his land were taken to the dungeon in his castle. Today, we can easily see Bunyan referring to those who enter a place they should not be – in our day we call it ‘neuroses’ (wrongly named ‘mental illness’, because the problem is with emotions not the full gamut of mental activity).

Two of the main characters are caught by Giant Despair – Christian and his friend, Hopeful. They only wished to have a brief respite from their tasks and so slept on Giant Despair’s land. So many people today do the same thing; they want a bit of respite from this world and their troubles, but they go to the wrong place for comfort. In our day it is doctors, psychiatry and church counsellors, who mainly repeat secular theories rather than scripture. True counsel is given by God to the one giving counsel, at the time it is needed… it doesn’t take a long time, or clinical sessions. It just takes the sufferer to recognise that his problems arise from his own errors and perhaps even sins.

The giant drove the two towards his dark castle and threw them into “a very dark dungeon” (a dark state of mind). The two friends found it discomforting and stinking. Today, those who enter the world of depression and anxiety find no comfort in their misery. If anything the longer they stay neurotic the worse becomes their fate and mind. For believers this is devastating, because depression and anxiety/fear ruins faith and the ability to stay holy. Of course, those inside this dark place reject what I say – they tell me that despite their neuroses they are still faithful to the Lord. This is a delusion, for neuroses oppose godliness. And how can a man truly worship the Lord when his mind and heart are tarnished by dark thoughts and fear? God does not give us fear!

When people are caught by a life of despair they sink downwards. The longer they stay in their frame of mind the worse becomes their misery, until, at last, it becomes their lifestyle, which works against God’s demands. This is because neuroses are evidence of being on the wrong path, leading them away from God, not towards Him.

The men lay languishing in the dungeon for a long time, in complete darkness. (Page 135) – it is also how modern men speak of their neuroses – a time of darkness and woe. They were “far from friends and acquaintances” and “Christian’s sorrow multiplied in this place” because he realised they were in this place because of his wrong advice. Wrong choices make for increased distress.

Meanwhile the giant’s wife advised him to beat the two men without mercy. This the giant did, leaving them in a mess. This is how neuroses acts upon a person – they drive him to the floor. And as he becomes motionless because of the beating of his mind, friends and others slowly disappear – who wants to be with someone who constantly moans and groans of his failures, fears and woes?

Next night, the wife told her husband to tell the prisoners to commit suicide (page 136), which he did. How many, in the depths of neuroses, think of suicide? Perhaps they will attempt it, and some are successful. But, suicide is not the way out, it only leaves families and friends destroyed. They are left throughout their lives wondering if they had caused the death and blaming themselves for not helping more. And, as the suicide of king Saul proves, it was a penalty from God for his unholy life and attitude towards David. For the neurotic, suicide is the ‘easy way out’, but it leaves a trail of devastation in its wake. But, they listen to Giant Despair, who says “why should you choose to live, seeing life is filled with so much bitterness?” The bitterness is not because of life, but because it is how the sufferer wishes to view his condition! It is a chosen path.

Christian discussed possible suicide with Hopeful, saying that maybe they should kill themselves, because the life they now had was so miserable. Can you honestly think God approves of such talk? Christian’s friend, Hopeful, joined the discussion: “It is true that our present condition is dreadful, and death would be far more welcome to me than to live in this continual misery”. Then, he went on to say they must consider what the Lord said – “you shall commit no murder”. He rightly reasoned that to commit suicide was the crime of murder performed upon their own bodies: “we are forbidden to… kill ourselves.” (page 136)

Hopeful then reminds Christian that others were once caught by the giant, but had escaped. So, they must wait until God gives them an escape. Sadly, many enter so deeply into neuroses, they rarely escape… indeed, they do not really wish to, because once their safety net of misery has gone, it leaves them without an excuse to hand over responsibility for their lives to others… they prefer to be called ‘ill’ so as to avoid the onerous need to live life fully, whether or not it is happy all the time. The answer to neuroses is in our own hands. Only we can leave it aside.

The giant again visited them in the dungeon and was furious that they were both still alive. The devil WANTS people with neuroses/’mental illness’ to commit suicide – it gives him immense pleasure. The neurotic life does NOT come from God, because such a life is opposite to the life promised to believers if they obey. Christian again voiced the possibility of killing themselves. But, Hopeful again had good answers (page 138).

Hopeful reminded his friend that he had put up with so many trials and tribulations in life to this point – why ruin it all by killing yourself? “Are you now nothing but a bundle of fears?... let us bear up with patience.”

That night the giant’s wife advised him to take the two men into the courtyard next morning, to see the bones of all the men he had killed. He should then tell the friends that in two weeks’ time he would drag them out again to tear them limb from limb... let them stew in their fears for fourteen days and they should then kill themselves at the thought of being dismembered. This the giant duly did, and then beat them all the way back to the dungeon. This is how depression and anxiety/fear ruins lives. They drag people down to the gutter, so the person cannot see the sun or take in fresh air. They can only moan and groan about their lot in life and can only see despair. Thus, the things of God and Christ’s promises seem far away.

At bedtime the wife again prompted the giant to do the final deed if the prisoners refused to kill themselves. But, late that night, the two men began to pray. At last, they came back, away from facing their fate, to looking to the Lord! (Page 139). When they had finished, just before dawn, Christian suddenly exclaimed his idiocy! “What a fool I have been to lie in a stinking dungeon like this, when I could just as well walk free!” He remembered he had a key to open almost any door! God often answers prayer in the most interesting ways.

This is what all Christian neurotics need to know (and all who claim to have ANY ‘mental illness’) – their salvation gives them the key to escape evil and self-chosen woes! The key is simply true faith and a denial of self and worry. At first they struggled to get the key to work – and any Christian who has lived a life of misery will have a similar experience because they have almost lost their ability to trust in God. The key finally opened the dungeon door and they escaped. Then, they had to open the door in the castle walls – but it creaked loudly and the giant came running. He would not have them free! Today, after possibly years of neuroses or some other claimed ‘illness’ men try to escape their habit, but when it seems too tough to do so, they give up and find solace once again in their ‘illness’. It is just too much effort to escape their misery! However, as the giant ran towards them he was overcome by his epilepsy and fell in a heap. When a prisoner of ‘mental illness’ truly wishes to escape his misery, the Giant Despair will not hold him!

Christian wrote a song about their escape, and one line reads “What it meant to tread forbidden ground”… for so-called neuroses and most ‘mental illnesses’ are forbidden by God as a means of respite from our worries and fears. The escaped prisoners went on until they got to the Delectable Mountains with all their delights. These are made available to ALL whom God has chosen! But, some fall by the wayside and instead enter land they should not walk into. It is then that Giant Despair captures them and takes them down a very dark path to a dungeon where their miseries multiply.

As they enjoyed the Delectable Mountains, the two men asked some shepherds if they were heading towards the Celestial City. They confirmed that it was – to those who actually reached it! Their words implied that for people of faith and staunch belief the journey was easy and short, but hard for those with little faith. How true this is when we come to neuroses and ‘mental illnesses’. Christian asked the shepherds if the path to the City was safe or dangerous. They replied, “Safe for those for whom it is to be safe, but transgressors undoubtedly fall along the way” (quoting Hosea 14:9). The two friends had already fallen during their journey and suffered the consequences. All who are tempted to fall into a ‘mental’ (emotional) malady also fall into spiritual disarray, giving themselves many problems and misery.

Later, the shepherds showed the two friends all the wondrous things given by God to those who are faithful (page 142). These things are for every person chosen by God to be saved! Why wander into the wrong place and stay there, suffering? The answers are NOT in your own minds or the hands of psychiatry, but in your spirit, which is kept safe by the Holy Spirit within.

In the final chapter (p349) showing how believers died and then entered the Celestial City, Bunyan writes of Mr Despondency and his daughter. Mr Despondency says:

“You know how my daughter and I have acted and how difficult and problematic we have been for all of you. My will and my daughter’s are that our depression and mindless fears would not be passed on to anyone when we leave, for I know that after my death these evils will offer themselves to others.”

Mr Despondency then adds that their behaviour (depression and anxiety/fear) was a remnant that stayed with them for life, spoiling their own lives and the lives of those around them. He said that the depression and fears they left behind would “walk about like ghosts seeking to (affect others with their sin)… don’t let them do it. Instead, shut the doors on them”! Thus, Bunyan gives the truth about those with neuroses – they are crippling conditions brought on by inviting them into our lives. When we do, the effects on everyone around us are bad, making life a misery, especially for spouses and close family. It is very clear from his words that neuroses are brought on by inviting them into our lives… just as I have taught for five decades. In the story, once Mr Despondency started to cross the River of Death, only then did he see, for the first time, the error of his ways, and said “Farewell night! Welcome day!” And his loved daughter crossed with him, singing happily.

I urge all who suffer neuroses of any kind – kick them out the door! Don’t let them rule your life any longer! Don’t wait until you reach death’s door to hand over your life, in gladness and truth, to God. Those with neuroses do not see the sun shining above them, nor do their thoughts encourage them with praise and joy. Instead, like Mr Despondency and his daughter, they will remain in the dark shadows of life. You might be saved, but your salvation demands that you cast off all evil thoughts that neuroses always bring, otherwise your entire life is a mirage, and a rejection of what God promises. And that brings His Name into disrepute.

Listen to Bunyan if you won’t listen to me. But, above all, listen to the Holy Spirit, Who is always within to help. If you don’t, it shows one thing – that your feelings come before God’s commands, and the darkness brought by sin is more powerful to you than the light and sun given to believers. Don’t settle for what is far less… embrace truth happily and don’t allow your sinful neuroses bring God into disrepute.

We are left in no doubt by Bunyan that in his medieval times depression, fear and anxiety were known to exist, but that the answer was within. These answers were ’unlocked’ by faith, with the aid of friends, relatives and pastors. At that time there were no psychiatrists or psychologists, no church counsellors, and no years of self-torture to get to the truth.

In his day if you did not work you did not eat, so died. This means that if anyone had what we now call ‘neuroses’ or ‘mental illness’, their symptoms would not be tolerated. They would be given good counsel by their pastor or some other wise person, and that was that. They had to work to earn a living with their mind problems still plaguing them! They either got rid of them, or they gave up… only to die because they could not eat.

Bunyan would not have accepted the lies quoted by modern sufferers or those who supposedly ‘treat’ them! Fear, anxiety and depression were seen as emotional baggage that drags a man down. They have no purpose and no good about them. Note that Mr Despondency and his daughter realised this only when they were about to die! They sincerely wished that the same emotional problems did not affect anyone else, because they make sufferers difficult to live with. That is what he admitted! He said his ‘symptoms’ were simply mindless – of no value.

If you have such symptoms don’t hang on to them. I have heard from many who claim that they could not get rid of their symptoms, so it is cruel to suggest they can! No, those who say it are still in the dungeon of Giant Despair! They have chosen the wrong way out of daily life, so stay incarcerated in a dungeon of their own choice. They have the key that will free them – genuine faith and trust. But, they prefer to stay locked up, or to die. The remedy is as simple as it sounds – walk away from the dungeon! What makes it hard is NOT the symptoms, but the will to be responsible for one’s own thoughts, words and actions. If you are in this kind of misery – please listen. It is what God expects. 

© September 2020

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Bible Theology Ministries - PO Box 415, Swansea, SA5 8YH
United Kingdom