The Slough of Despond – what is it?


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Matthew 11:27-29

28 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.


The Slough of Despond is a bog in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Wikipedia paraphrases the Slough in this way: “the Swamp of Despair.” It is a place that can deter pilgrims from reaching the strait gate that leads to eternal life, by overwhelming them with guilt and despair when they are being convicted of sin and judgement. Here is the passage from the book.  

 

Christian still endeavored to struggle to the side of the slough that was farthest from his own house, Wikimedia, Public Domain.

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The Pilgrim’s Progress

In the similitude of a Dream

[Use the bar at the end of the excerpt to center the excerpt for reading.]

{10} As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted
on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that
place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream.  I dreamed,
and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain
place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and
a great burden upon his back.  [Isa. 64:6; Luke 14:33; Ps. 38:4;
Hab. 2:2; Acts 16:30,31] I looked, and saw him open the book,
and read therein; and, as he read, he wept, and trembled; and, not
being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry,
saying, "What shall I do?"  [Acts 2:37]

{11} In this plight, therefore, he went home and refrained himself
as long as he could, that his wife and children should not perceive
his distress; but he could not be silent long, because that his
trouble increased.  Wherefore at length he brake his mind to his
wife and children; and thus he began to talk to them:  O my dear
wife, said he, and you the children of my bowels, I, your dear
friend, am in myself undone by reason of a burden that lieth hard
upon me; moreover, I am for certain informed that this our city
will be burned with fire from heaven; in which fearful overthrow,
both myself, with thee my wife, and you my sweet babes, shall
miserably come to ruin, except (the which yet I see not) some way
of escape can be found, whereby we may be delivered.  At this his
relations were sore amazed; not for that they believed that what
he had said to them was true, but because they thought that some
frenzy distemper had got into his head; therefore, it drawing
towards night, and they hoping that sleep might settle his brains,
with all haste they got him to bed.  But the night was as troublesome
to him as the day; wherefore, instead of sleeping, he spent it in
sighs and tears.  So, when the morning was come, they would know
how he did.  He told them, Worse and worse:  he also set to talking
to them again; but they began to be hardened.  They also thought
to drive away his distemper by harsh and surly carriages to
him; sometimes they would deride, sometimes they would chide, and
sometimes they would quite neglect him.  Wherefore he began to
retire himself to his chamber, to pray for and pity them, and also
to condole his own misery; he would also walk solitarily in the
fields, sometimes reading, and sometimes praying:  and thus for
some days he spent his time.

{12} Now, I saw, upon a time, when he was walking in the fields,
that he was, as he was wont, reading in his book, and greatly
distressed in his mind; and, as he read, he burst out, as he had
done before, crying, "What shall I do to be saved?"

{13} I saw also that he looked this way and that way, as if he
would run; yet he stood still, because, as I perceived, he could
not tell which way to go.  I looked then, and saw a man named
Evangelist coming to him and asked, Wherefore dost thou cry?  [Job
33:23]

{14} He answered, Sir, I perceive by the book in my hand, that
I am condemned to die, and after that to come to judgement [Heb.
9:27]; and I find that I am not willing to do the first [Job 16:21],
nor able to do the second.  [Ezek. 22:14]

CHRISTIAN no sooner leaves the World but meets EVANGELIST, who
lovingly him greets With tidings of another:  and doth show Him
how to mount to that from this below.

{15} Then said Evangelist, Why not willing to die, since this life
is attended with so many evils?  The man answered, Because I fear
that this burden is upon my back will sink me lower than the grave,
and I shall fall into Tophet.  [Isa. 30:33] And, Sir, if I be not
fit to go to prison, I am not fit, I am sure, to go to judgement,
and from thence to execution; and the thoughts of these things make
me cry.

{16} Then said Evangelist, If this be thy condition, why standest
thou still?  He answered, Because I know not whither to go.  Then
he gave him a parchment roll, and there was written within, Flee
from the wrath to come.  [Matt. 3.7]

{17} The man therefore read it, and looking upon Evangelist
very carefully, said, Whither must I fly?  Then said Evangelist,
pointing with his finger over a very wide field, Do you see yonder
wicket-gate?  [Matt. 7:13,14] The man said, No.  Then said the other,
Do you see yonder shining light?  [Ps. 119:105; 2 Pet. 1:19] He
said, I think I do.  Then said Evangelist, Keep that light in your
eye, and go up directly thereto:  so shalt thou see the gate; at
which, when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt
do.

{18} So I saw in my dream that the man began to run.

Now, he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children,
perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put
his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life!  life!  eternal
life!  [Luke 14:26] So he looked not behind him, but fled towards
the middle of the plain.  [Gen. 19:17]

{19} The neighbours also came out to see him run [Jer. 20:10];
and, as he ran, some mocked, others threatened, and some cried
after him to return; and, among those that did so, there were two
that resolved to fetch him back by force.  The name of the one was
Obstinate and the name of the other Pliable.  Now, by this time,
the man was got a good distance from them; but, however, they were
resolved to pursue him, which they did, and in a little time they
overtook him.  Then said the man, Neighbours, wherefore are ye come?
They said, To persuade you to go back with us.  But he said, That
can by no means be; you dwell, said he, in the City of Destruction,
the place also where I was born:  I see it to be so; and, dying
there, sooner or later, you will sink lower than the grave, into
a place that burns with fire and brimstone:  be content, good
neighbours, and go along with me.

{20} OBSTINATE. What!  said Obstinate, and leave our friends and our
comforts behind us?

CHRISTIAN. Yes, said Christian, for that was his name, because that ALL
which you shall forsake is not worthy to be compared with a little
of that which I am seeking to enjoy [2 Cor. 4:18]; and, if you
will go along with me, and hold it, you shall fare as I myself;
for there, where I go, is enough and to spare.  [Luke 15:17] Come
away, and prove my words.

{21} OBSTINATE. What are the things you seek, since you leave all the
world to find them?

CHRISTIAN. I seek an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth
not away [1 Pet. 1:4], and it is laid up in heaven, and safe there
[Heb. 11:16], to be bestowed, at the time appointed, on them that
diligently seek it.  Read it so, if you will, in my book.

OBSTINATE. Tush!  said Obstinate, away with your book; will you go back
with us or no?

CHRISTIAN. No, not I, said the other, because I have laid my hand to the
plough.  [Luke 9:62]

{22} OBSTINATE. Come, then, neighbour Pliable, let us turn again,
and go home without him; there is a company of these crazy-headed
coxcombs, that, when they take a fancy by the end, are wiser in
their own eyes than seven men that can render a reason.  [Prov.
26:16]

PLIABLE. Then said Pliable, Don't revile; if what the good Christian
says is true, the things he looks after are better than ours:  my
heart inclines to go with my neighbour.

OBSTINATE. What!  more fools still!  Be ruled by me, and go back; who
knows whither such a brain-sick fellow will lead you?  Go back, go
back, and be wise.

{23} CHRISTIAN. Nay, but do thou come with thy neighbour, Pliable; there
are such things to be had which I spoke of, and many more glorious
besides.  If you believe not me, read here in this book; and for
the truth of what is expressed therein, behold, all is confirmed
by the blood of Him that made it.  [Heb. 9:17-22; 13:20]

PLIABLE. Well, neighbour Obstinate, said Pliable, I begin to come to a
point; I intend to go along with this good man, and to cast in my
lot with him:  but, my good companion, do you know the way to this
desired place?

{24} CHRISTIAN. I am directed by a man, whose name is Evangelist, to
speed me to a little gate that is before us, where we shall receive
instructions about the way.

PLIABLE. Come, then, good neighbour, let us be going.  Then they went
both together.

OBSTINATE. And I will go back to my place, said Obstinate; I will be no
companion of such misled, fantastical fellows.

{25} Now, I saw in my dream, that when Obstinate was gone back,
Christian and Pliable went talking over the plain; and thus they
began their discourse.

{26} CHRISTIAN. Come, neighbour Pliable, how do you do?  I am glad you
are persuaded to go along with me.  Had even Obstinate himself
but felt what I have felt of the powers and terrors of what is yet
unseen, he would not thus lightly have given us the back.

PLIABLE. Come, neighbour Christian, since there are none but us two
here, tell me now further what the things are, and how to be enjoyed,
whither we are going.

{27} CHRISTIAN. I can better conceive of them with my mind, than speak
of them with my tongue.  God's things unspeakable:  but yet, since
you are desirous to know, I will read of them in my book.

PLIABLE. And do you think that the words of your book are certainly
true?

CHRISTIAN. Yes, verily; for it was made by Him that cannot lie.  [Titus
1:2]

PLIABLE. Well said; what things are they?

CHRISTIAN. There is an endless kingdom to be inhabited, and everlasting
life to be given us, that we may inhabit that kingdom for ever.
[Isa. 45:17; John 10:28,29]

PLIABLE. Well said; and what else?

CHRISTIAN. There are crowns and glory to be given us, and garments that
will make us shine like the sun in the firmament of heaven.  [2
Tim.  4:8; Rev. 3:4; Matt. 13:43]

PLIABLE. This is very pleasant; and what else?

CHRISTIAN. There shall be no more crying, nor Sorrow:  for He that is
owner of the place will wipe all tears from our eyes.  [Isa. 25.6-8;
Rev. 7:17, 21:4]

{28} PLIABLE. And what company shall we have there?

CHRISTIAN. There we shall be with seraphims and cherubims, creatures that
will dazzle your eyes to look on them.  [Isa. 6:2] There also you
shall meet with thousands and ten thousands that have gone before
us to that place; none of them are hurtful, but loving and holy;
every one walking in the sight of God, and standing in his presence
with acceptance for ever.  [1 Thess. 4:16,17; Rev. 5:11] In a
word, there we shall see the elders with their golden crowns [Rev.
4:4], there we shall see the holy virgins with their golden harps
[Rev. 14:1-5], there we shall see men that by the world were cut
in pieces, burnt in flames, eaten of beasts, drowned in the seas,
for the love that they bare to the Lord of the place, all well, and
clothed with immortality as with a garment.  [John 12:25; 2 Cor.
5:4]

PLIABLE. The hearing of this is enough to ravish one's heart.  But are
these things to be enjoyed?  How shall we get to be sharers thereof?

CHRISTIAN. The Lord, the Governor of the country, hath recorded that in
this book; the substance of which is, If we be truly willing to
have it, he will bestow it upon us freely.

PLIABLE. Well, my good companion, glad am I to hear of these things:
come on, let us mend our pace.

CHRISTIAN. I cannot go so fast as I would, by reason of this burden that
is on my back.

{29} 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.

{30} PLIABLE. Then said Pliable; Ah!  neighbour Christian, where are
you now?

CHRISTIAN. Truly, said Christian, I do not know.

PLIABLE. 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.

{31} 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:  but I beheld in my dream, that
a man came to him, whose name was Help, and asked him, What he did
there?

CHRISTIAN. 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.

{32} HELP. But why did not you look for the steps?

CHRISTIAN. 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]

{33} 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.

{34} 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.

{35} 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]

{36} Now, I saw in my dream, that by this time Pliable was got home
to his house again, so that his neighbours came to visit him; and
some of them called him wise man for coming back, and some called
him fool for hazarding himself with Christian:  others again did mock
at his cowardliness; saying, Surely, since you began to venture, I
would not have been so base to have given out for a few difficulties.
So Pliable sat sneaking among them.  But at last he got more
confidence, and then they all turned their tales, and began to
deride poor Christian behind his back.  And thus much concerning
Pliable.
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12 thoughts on “The Slough of Despond – what is it?

  1. I read this with my sons when they were teenagers and loved it but rereading it here makes me realize how many details I’ve forgotten. I’d love to read it with my grandchildren but I can tell the language will be a tough slog. It’s amazing how abbreviated English has become. I was reading Rip Van Winkle with my third grade grandson and it was slow because I had to stop and explain so many archaic words. I know we read the same story in fourth or fifth grade and I had no trouble understanding it on my own. In a way I wish this could be rewritten in more modern language because the story is so good but the other part of me would hate to see all that beautiful language destroyed.

    Liked by 1 person

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