Now I saw in my dream, that just as they had ended this talk they drew near to a very miry slough, that was in the midst of the plain; and they, being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog. The name of the slough was Despond. Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt; and Christian, because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire.
PLI. Then said Pliable; Ah! neighbour Christian, where are you now?
CHR. Truly, said Christian, I do not know.
PLI. At this Pliable began to be offended, and angrily said to his fellow, Is this the happiness you have told me all this while of? If we have such ill speed at our first setting out, what may we expect betwixt this and our journey’s end? May I get out again with my life, you shall possess the brave country alone for me. And, with that, he gave a desperate struggle or two, and got out of the mire on that side of the slough which was next to his own house: so away he went, and Christian saw him no more.
Wherefore Christian was left to tumble in the Slough of Despond alone: but still he endeavoured to struggle to that side of the slough that was still further from his own house, and next to the wicket-gate; the which he did, but could not get out, because of the burden that was upon his back:
Being heedless, both Christian and Pliable fell into the Slough of Despond, or as we might now say, the Swamp of Despair. Despondence is from the Latin despondere, which means “to give up”, specifically ones heart or soul. This is more than a state of dismay but rather a state without hope. This is a state many people find themselves in. Here, Christian finds himself in despondence very early in his walk on the Way to the King. Though he started out with high hopes, he fell into troubles and lost hope. Pliable, and later the World, points this out. He is weak. He is easily brought low.
Despair is an easy thing to fall into and a difficult thing to get off of you. Under a cloud like the Slough, the weight of worthlessness hangs on like muck, clinging closer than a garment. Its weight is additional to the burden on Christian’s back, and it lasts longer than the time Christian was stuck in it. Such burdens are difficult to bear. They come in the form of slothfulness, regret, shame, uselessness, guilt, hate, jealousy, withholding love, worthlessness, fear. These leave a person in a state of despondence that, on our own, we cannot get out of.
I am not sure when such a weight began, but I can remember specific instances. I remember when I was very young and having little thoughts creep into the back of my mind, thoughts that said, “You are not good enough, and you will never be good enough.” These thoughts came into my mind and then I started to repeat them to myself. I remember repeating the phrases like, “You are terrible, and you are not going to heaven.” I thought if I told myself them enough, I would be good enough for God. How crazy is that? Those thoughts are not where it ended. In the spring of 2009, I began to notice that the Holy Spirit worked in my life. One night, I recognized that tug and began living actively as a Christian, though I had been baptized long before. But after that, new thoughts began to darken my mind. These thoughts said, “There is no Heaven. There is no Hell. There’s nothing after this. It doesn’t matter if you die.” These went on for months before they stopped, and they only stopped after a lot of prayer.
Unfortunately, these are not the only nor the last times these thoughts came. In fact, these moments of despair find their way into my life on a regular basis, and they weigh me down in ways I cannot describe, at least not well. They come and they go and I know they might come again. I know this is tempting from Satan. What am I to do?
A hymn that has been circling in my mind for weeks now is “Before the Throne of God”. While I know that I am redeemed, I often feel mired in my own worthlessness. This is not every day, but it is not infrequent. I feel Satan creeping over me and tempting me to despair, feeding me with the thoughts of hopelessness. He wants me to be stuck under the weight of my inadequacy. I feel that weight in my fingers when I try to write, in my head as I try to see, in my heart as I try to feel. I am numb as the thoughts of inadequacy seep into me. I feel crushed. I feel without hope. I recognized that most would tell me I am depressed, but I know that word is not correct. Melancholy is not quite right either. This is a spiritual battle (Eph. 6:10-18). The burden of my sin weighs me down and I fall in. I am in the Slough of Despond.
but I beheld in my dream, that a man came to him, whose name was Help, and asked him, What he did there?
CHR. Sir, said Christian, I was bid go this way by a man called Evangelist, who directed me also to yonder gate, that I might escape the wrath to come; and as I was going thither I fell in here.
HELP. But why did not you look for the steps?
CHR. Fear followed me so hard, that I fled the next way, and fell in.
HELP. Then said he, Give me thy hand: so he gave him his hand, and he drew him out, and set him upon sound ground, and bid him go on his way. [Ps. 40:2]
Then I stepped to him that plucked him out, and said, Sir, wherefore, since over this place is the way from the City of Destruction to yonder gate, is it that this plat is not mended, that poor travellers might go thither with more security? And he said unto me, This miry slough is such a place as cannot be mended; it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore it is called the Slough of Despond; for still, 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.
It is not the pleasure of the King that this place should remain so bad. [Isa. 35:3,4] His labourers also have, by the direction of His Majesty’s surveyors, been for above these sixteen hundred years employed about this patch of ground, if perhaps it might have been mended: yea, and to my knowledge, said he, here have been swallowed up at least twenty thousand cart-loads, yea, millions of wholesome instructions, that have at all seasons been brought from all places of the King’s dominions, and they that can tell, say they are the best materials to make good ground of the place; if so be, it might have been mended, but it is the Slough of Despond still, and so will be when they have done what they can.
True, there are, by the direction of the Law-giver, certain good and substantial steps, placed even through the very midst of this slough; but at such time as this place doth much spew out its filth, as it doth against change of weather, these steps are hardly seen; or, if they be, men, through the dizziness of their heads, step beside, and then they are bemired to purpose, notwithstanding the steps be there; but the ground is good when they are once got in at the gate. [1 Sam. 12:23]
Out of fear, I have let myself wander and fall into the Slough again. I do not always look for the steps first as I walk, but instead, I let myself mill about, not watching where my mind and heart go (or what they focus on), not keeping my eyes pressed forward on the prize to which Christ calls me. I let the burden of my sin weigh me down in spite of the fact God has taken it from me. I listen to the hellish things Satan whispers at me instead of trusting in the promises of God. I mire myself in the feelings of inadequacy and despondency rather than praise God for the talents, the tools, and the gifts He has given me and serve Him in those manners. Instead of looking to God, who is my strength, I rely on myself and fall into the familiar darkness of despair.
The walk of a Christian is one reliant of faith, trust, God. In recognizing the fallen nature, doubt creeps in and overwhelms the soul to the point of physical pain. Similarly, there are many things in this world that can drag us into the mire as well. Our shortcomings, failures, and wrongdoings present themselves before our eyes as if to say, “But did you forget about me? Surely you are not good enough.” And indeed, I am not. So what am I to do? Shall I remain mired in my despondency?
For I am about to fall, and my pain is ever with me.
I confess my iniquity; I am troubled by my sin.
O Lord, do not forsake me; be not far from me, O my God.
Come quickly to help me, O Lord my Savior.
~ Psalm 38:17-18 & 21-22 ~
It was not Christian who got himself out of the Slough. Though Pliable got out, he ended up going right back to the town he came from. He did not actually escape. The mire was still there, though he did not recognize it. Pliable was discouraged, so he turned back. He let the world convince him that following the Way was not worth the trouble. Christian had been told of the hope to hold onto, but he still fell into the Slough. Instead of getting out on his own, Christian needed Help. I fall into the Slough of Despond and I know it when I do. I know the hope I have to cling to, and yet I let go under the weight of the devil’s lies. But when I fall in, I know that not only can I not get out on my own, I will let myself stay there if I do not ask for help. It is not by our own strength that we succeed. Prayer is difficult during these times I find myself in, but pray is what I must do (Jam. 5:13).
As Christian was taken out of the mire by Help, we must ask God to help us in our times of need (Heb. 4:16). This is why we must look to the Savior, our ever-present help in times of trouble (Psa. 46:1). He is the One whose hand we grasp to lift us out of slough and onto solid ground (Psa. 40:1-4). God is our refuge and our strength (Psa. 62:1-12). He is always with us and will never forsake us (Deut. 31:6). And when we fall in into the Slough of Despond, God makes us clean. Though Satan will tempt us to despair, we must remember who made an end to our all sins (1 Pet. 5:7-10).
Those awful thoughts may continue to find their way into my head and heart, and maybe they will for you as well, but God is with us and He will sustain us in times of trouble. Despite what we may feel – despondency, inadequacy, hopeless, mired – God is faithful and loving, and He has saved us.
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer!
Blessings to you and yours,
Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which is to Come. Project Gutenberg. 2008.
“despondence.” The Online Etymology Dictionary. 2017. Accessed 14 May 2018.