The Key That Unlocks Despair

(Photo by Selma Komisky)


The Key That Unlocks Despair
A Discussion On Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

By Selma Komisky

Recently, the death of some precious pastors by suicide due to depression has caused mental health to be in the daily news and become a much-needed conversation in church congregations. I’d like to believe those beloved pastors paved the way to shine a bright light on these mental health issues they advocated themselves. These pastors have not been the only pastors to have gone through the struggle of depression. John Bunyan was a Puritan preacher from England in the 1600s. Much acquainted with suffering, he wrestled with a variety of types of mental illness and struggled with a serious case of depression. He was unwilling to denounce his Christian faith and calling in ministry and was therefore imprisoned many years. It was while he was in jail, out of his own painful experiences, that the Lord gave him a dream. Bunyan began writing this powerful allegory during his imprisonment, which later became his book Pilgrim’s Progress.

In the Victorian era, they didn’t have a very good understanding of mental health. Previously, they viewed depression as a disorder rather than a disease. They also believed everyone can be cured from mental illness and it was commonplace to put someone in a public asylum. We know more now, and we see that mental disease is still crippling lives today. But, we still are not talking enough about the subject and still need to be educated on it. It’s important to note that all people struggle – church and the unchurched, pastors, men and women, teens, rich and poor, and people of all nationalities

When I fondly looked back through the pages of “Pilgrims Progress”, I saw some spiritual lessons through these characters of this fictional allegory that I wanted to share with you.

The plot of this story is about a man named Christian who is carrying a huge burden on his back, traveling on a path to escape the City of Destruction. He is searching for the Celestial City (heaven) in order to be free of this burden. Bunyan uses some creative spiritual analogies to psychologically speak to his reader through different colorful characters.

Sometimes we are burdened down with life, things we struggle with (maybe even secretly as we fear the stigma of what others might say if they knew we have a mental illness). So, we then deal with shame and guilt as a result.

Let’s take a look together at some of Bunyan’s creative illustrations.


Christian and his friend Pliable were eager to reach the Wicket Gate (Matthew 7:7; John 10:9). Full of zeal, they failed to pay attention where they were going, and both fell into this Swamp Of Despair (hopelessness) – a deep quick-sandy muddy pit. Once in this swamp, it was impossible to escape and Christian and Pliable were stuck. Christian was especially stuck because of the weight of his burden that bogged him down even more. Pliable complains and becomes angry at Christian and shifts blame. Somehow, Pliable manages to get out of the pit and deserts Christian in his emergency.

The Bible says in Psalm 40:1-3 (GNT):

“I waited patiently for the Lord’s help; then he listened to me and heard my cry. He pulled me out of a dangerous pit, out of the deadly quicksand. He set me safely on a rock and made me secure. He taught me to sing a new song, a song of praise to our God. Many who see this will take warning and will put their trust in the Lord.”

Lesson: We cannot pull ourselves out of despair on our own efforts and other people let us down like Pliable. Only God can deliver us. The character Help comes to Christian’s aid and gives him a hand to pull him out of that swamp. Just like Christian, we need to cry out for help to pull us out of the pit. In life, we will step into sticky circumstances and we need to seek help whether it be through therapy, counseling, a trusted friend, etc. Telling someone can help you get out of isolation. It’s okay to say you need help because we all struggle. Also, we need to be available to someone who may need a hand.

Remember Jesus Christ is the immovable and powerful Rock on which anyone can stand on or hold onto through good and bad times. God is full of Grace and gives us Hope! Just cry out to Him.

  1. The Giant Called Despair

Christian and Hopeful lost their way and went off route. Wearied and cast down, they tried to find a place to rest and fell asleep. However, they didn’t realize they trespassed on the grounds of the Doubting Castle and were awakened by a forceful giant named Despair who captures them and locks them in his dark, miserable dungeon. In great distress, abused and mistreated for four days, far away from society, they were beaten down with sorrow, fear, and doubt. Christian and Hopeful see no way out of this stronghold that is so horrible. When the prisoners are about to be killed by the giant, Christian suddenly remembers that he has a key called Promise that will open all the doors and gates of the castle and they escape back to the Holy Way.

The Bible says in Romans 5:5 (NIV):

“And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts thought the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

Romans 15:13 (NIV):

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”


Jesus is the key. Trust in His Promises. There is no giant too great that God is not greater, and God is a God of grace. Even though Christian went the wrong direction, he was able to go on the right path. In turn, God can get us back on the right path. His love is stronger than any darkness. We ourselves go through trials and fight big giants in our lives, but we must not isolate ourselves and get trapped. Instead, we need to run to Christ as our refuge. Keep on the path. Sometimes darkness can eclipse our sight and dull our remembrance of God’s promises, but like Christian, they are always at our disposal when we need them.


In the end of “Pilgrims Progress” (Spoiler alert), Doubting-Castle is torn down and Giant Despair is killed and then beheaded just like David when he killed Goliath. You see, we have victory in Christ.

The crucial moment in Christian’s life is when he comes to the cross in the Celestial City. We read the description: “his burden loosed from off his shoulders and fell from off his back!” Bunyan describes how salvation comes. It comes as a result of the atoning work of Christ and the exchange of our sin from our backs to His. Christ then clothes us with his righteousness. When we battle despair and giants that come into our lives and go through obstacles, know that we can look to Jesus our Deliverer.