The Bible is a book of contrasts. It is filled with stories about man’s stubborn propensity to settle for the good over the best, to take the easy road rather than the difficult, to walk in darkness instead of in the light. Even though we read time and time again in the Scriptures that God demands perfection, righteousness, and holiness of those who call Him “Lord,” we seem to have convinced ourselves that being just a little bit better than everyone else is close enough. We readily admit that we will never reach the goal in this life, so we slow down, becoming lackadaisical and comfortable with our imperfection, taking comfort in the fact that “Jesus is our perfection.”
While it is certainly true that in Christ we are made new and perfect, we must not stop here. The sanctification process is just that—a process. There may be days and weeks and months (perhaps years) where we feel like we are stuck in the proverbial rut. Nothing seems to shake us out of our spiritual slumber as we sleep-walk through the routine and rigors of our daily life, wondering what it all means. We know we should be praying, we know we should be reading the Bible, we know we should be doing any number of things; we simply choose not to. Instead, we wait for God to send a holy lightning bolt from heaven to re-energize us; or, at the very least, we wait for the man, “whose name is Help,” to pull us out of our “slough of despond.”
In the beginning of The Pilgrim’s Progress, soon after leaving his home at the bidding of Evangelist, Christian meets Obstinate and Pliable. Obstinate, being true to his name, leaves the group almost as quickly as he came. Pliable on the other hand, likes what Christian has to say and desires to travel with him to learn more. However, when the two fall into the Slough of Despond (because they were “heedless”), Pliable quickly decides that the journey is not worth it and gets out, heading back home to his old life. As Christian struggles through the slough alone, he is aided by a man named Help, who tells him that the slough is actually where “the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run.” Furthermore, Help tells him that “as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together and settle in this place: and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.”
In other words, John Bunyan is telling his readers that the Slough of Despond is nothing more than the accumulation of all of the unworthiness of man when confronted by a Worthy and Holy God, Who demands perfection. The brokenness of man, when contrasted with the fullness of God, is nothing more than a pit of mud and filth. Bunyan indicates that many, like Pliable, will find the slough too difficult to cross and not worth the effort, while others, like Christian, will embrace the slough because it is difficult to cross. For some, the slough is a reason to turn back, for others it is a reason to press forward. Either way, it is not a place to stay.
In Luke 7, Jesus is invited to the house of Simon, a Pharisee. When a woman—a “known sinner”—learns of Jesus’ presence in the Pharisee’s house, she comes in weeping and cleans Jesus’ feet with her tears and her hair and anoints them with perfume. Simon is appalled at Jesus’ willingness to let this sinful woman touch Him, saying to himself: “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.” Knowing this, Jesus answers Simon with a parable:
“A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.” Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:39-47).
The contrast between Simon and the sinful woman is stark. Jesus exposes Simon’s hypocrisy as one who “loves little.” The sinful woman—not unfamiliar with the Slough of Despond—throws herself at the feet of Perfection, weeping over her own imperfection. The woman relies on the worthiness of the dinner Guest, while the Pharisee relies on his own sense of self-worth and righteousness. Simon, like Pliable, is offended and disgusted by the slough, while the woman will gladly crawl through it just to wash the feet of the Man on the other side. Acknowledging Simon to be correct, Jesus confirms that “her sins are many,” but because of this, forgiveness is that much sweeter to her and therefore she loves the Forgiver more. Simon, standing by and judging the whole affair based on his own standard of self-righteousness and pretended piety, unwittingly becomes the object lesson of one who has been forgiven little.
[Simon] is rather surprised that Jesus should tolerate this show of emotion from so tainted a source; Jesus, by means of a parable concerning two debtors, shows that in the depths of her love and devotion she has shown herself considerably superior to Simon… [Simon] attributes Jesus’ failure to denounce the woman for what she is to a defect in His spiritual insight. The important point of the parable of the two debtors is that the woman’s action does not earn forgiveness for her; it is rather the spontaneous devotion of one who is conscious of being forgiven already.1
But does this mean that Simon—also a debtor to Jesus—was every bit as forgiven as the woman, just that he needed “less” forgiveness? This would seem to be the opposite side of what Jesus is teaching in the parable. Simon readily understood himself to be the debtor owing fifty denarii—believing that his own debt of sin to God was much smaller than the woman’s—and he understood the woman to be the one owing five hundred. With His parable, Jesus is not teaching that Simon’s debt was any less than the woman’s, but He is allowing Simon to render judgment with his own standard of righteousness. Simon certainly believed that his own debt of sin was much smaller than the debt of the woman. By answering Jesus’ parable correctly, Simon effectively renders judgment upon himself. “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:2).
Simon’s sin of self-righteousness is not an isolated case though. Later in Luke (Chapter 18), we read of a similar story where Jesus tells of a tax collector (the “known sinner” of this parable) and a Pharisee going into the Temple to pray. The Pharisee thanked God for his own righteousness while the tax collector beat upon his breast asking God to forgive him. Luke tells us that Jesus was giving this parable to a group of people who, like Simon, “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt” (v. 9). Jesus concludes His parable this way: “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14).
Again, we see this attitude of self-righteousness in Jesus’ very own disciples (Luke 22). As they are gathered together in the upper room to share in their final Passover meal, Jesus reveals to them that one of them will betray Him. “Behold, the hand of the one betraying Me is with Mine on the table. For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!” (v. 21-22). The immediate reaction is one of concern, as the disciples begin to “discuss among themselves which one of them it might be who was going to do this thing” (v. 23). Knowing themselves to be sinners, the disciples each wonder for a brief moment if perhaps they will be the one to betray Jesus. But the attitude of self-righteous wins out, even in this dark scenario. The very next verse informs us that “there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest” (v. 24). Notice how their discussion quickly turned from each thinking of himself as a potential betrayer to which one of them was the greatest. The attitude of self-righteousness, when left unchecked, can quickly turn a penitent sinner into a great boaster, easily forgetting from where he has come.
I believe that part of the reason that modern Christianity is in such a sad state is because we have become like Simon and the disciples—forgetting from where we have come. We look at ourselves as compared to those around us and determine that we are in need of “little forgiveness.” We pride ourselves as ones who can skillfully avoid the slough, when in reality we have become rather accustomed to living in it. Supposing our debt to be somewhere in the fifty or sixty range, we slide further and further into bankruptcy with each passing day, as we grade ourselves (and others) on the humanistic curve of self-worth. Our despondency is not the result of thinking too little of ourselves, but of thinking too much of ourselves. Immediately after humbling ourselves as unworthy of the grace given to us, we are right back to scheming and dreaming of how much God owes us and how proud He must be of us. We forget that even though others may not regard us as a prostitute or a betrayer, we do in fact prostitute our Lord and betray Him each and every day of our lives. The only difference between us and them is that we are actively trying to hide and suppress it.
As we reflect on the year that lies behind us and look forward to the one ahead, let us remember our position in life. We can (and should) rejoice in the cosmic good news that Jesus paid it all. It is true that if we are in Christ we are no more enemies of God, but friends (John 15:15), but this does not mean that we no longer sin and do not deny Christ just as strongly and as often as the outspoken unbeliever. If we want to make a real New Year’s resolution this year might I suggest this one: That God would convict us of our wickedness and apathy, showing us that not only have we been forgiven, but that we are beingforgiven. The Gospel is not a one-time admission ticket, it is a lifetime membership. We continue to need the Gospel every single minute of our existence. The Gospel not only saves us, it is saving us. Let us always be mindful of what the Shepherd tells Christian when he is asked how far it is to the Celestial City: “Too far for any but those that shall get there indeed.” We can’t get there on our own; it is too far away. And until we can see ourselves in the “known sinners” that we encounter every day, we will continue to be weak and ineffective in our witness and our God-given mission of being “salt and light.” May the coming year be remembered as the year that the Church of Jesus Christ stopped trusting in its own self-righteousness and awoke from its slumber in the slough. May God bless you and your family as you seek Him in the new year.
- F.F. Bruce (Ed.), New International Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979), 1199. [↩]