Christian biographies can be very encouraging reads for believers. They testify of God’s grace in the life of his people. John Piper has written multiple biographies that can be found on the Desiring God website. I found his biography of John Bunyan to very helpful. It is a sobering and edifying call to endure suffering. This biography of Bunyan might better be called an essay—he delivered this talk on Bunyan at the Bethlehem Pastor’s Conference in 1999 under the title To Live Upon God That Is Invisible: Suffering and Service in the Life of John Bunyan.
Piper begins by confronting the reality of suffering in the world today. There simply is no getting around the presence of tribulation in the world. Those who honestly look at the circumstances of the world will have to deal with pain. Then he tells the story of John Bunyan. Bunyan was born near Bedford, England on November 30, 1628.
This was a time of great trouble in England as the Parliament was in conflict with the monarchy. King Charles I and Bishop Laud stood opposed to the reformations called for by the Puritans. Eventually, Civil War began in 1642 and Parliament took authority over the monarchy in 1645. The Westminster Divines finalized the Westminster Confession in 1646 and King Charles was beheaded in 1649. But, in 1660 the monarchy was restored when Charles II ascended to the throne. It was in this same year that John Bunyan was thrown in prison. In 1662, all ministers of the Church of England were mandated to strictly follow the Book of Common Prayer, which resulted in the ejection of 2,000 Puritan pastors. In this tumultuous time, Bunyan knew great suffering.
Having set the context, Piper backtracks to tell of Bunyan’s early years. Bunyan received a poor man’s education as a boy. He suffered heartache early losing both his sister and his mother. He was drafted into the army at 16 and tells a sobering story that a soldier once took his place in battle only to get shot and die. Soon, he married and had four children (Mary, Elizabeth, John, and Thomas). Mary—his oldest child—was blind at birth. Bunyan read through two books on religion that his wife had. He would wrestle with doubt and the question of assurance for some time. Finally, upon becoming convinced of the righteousness of Christ was his, he devoted himself to a life of ministry. He began preaching in 1655.
After ten years of marriage, his wife died. He got remarried only to be thrown in prison a year afterwards, leaving his second wife with four children to care for. He was in prison for 12 years before being released in 1672. He served for nearly 16 years after that until going to be with the Lord in 1688.
Needless to say, Bunyan knew suffering. But, did his suffering serve any purpose? Is suffering simply a reality that we must deal with in broken world? Or is there something going on in suffering that serves a greater purpose? Piper distills five principles from the suffering of John Bunyan that can serve as peaceful meditations for those in the fire of affliction:
First, Bunyan’s Suffering Confirmed Him in His Calling as a Writer, Especially for the Afflicted Church. The Pilgrim’s Progress serves as case and point. This work displays the vision of a man who knew affliction. In reference to this work, George Whitefield said, “ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross.” What a sweet reminder to those who are suffering—God will use the furnace of affliction to fire diamonds for the church.
Second, Bunyan’s Suffering Deepened His Love for His Flock and Gave His Pastoral Labor the Fragrance of Eternity. Bunyan’s suffering kept his eyes on eternity. It reminded him that his flock would suffer as well. Having tasted the bitterness that this world so often brings, his heart was able to resonate with those whom he would shepherd to the Celestial City.
Third, Bunyan’s Suffering Opened His Understanding to the Truth That the Christian Life Is Hard and That Following Jesus Means Having the Wind in Your Face. Piper relays an excellent quote from Bunyan on the call of Christ to true discipleship: “Following of me is not like following of some other masters. The wind sits always on my face and the foaming rage of the sea of this world, and the proud and lofty waves thereof do continually beat upon the sides of the bark or ship that myself, my cause, and my followers are in; he therefore that will not run hazards, and that is afraid to venture a drowning, let him not set foot into this vessel.” One of the most important truths for modern evangelicals—especially young one’s living in the West—to grasp is that the Christian life is no walk in the park. Christ himself says in Matthew 7:14, “the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Suffering, though painful, can help us to that end.
Fourth, Bunyan’s Sufferings Strengthened His Assurance That God Is Sovereign over All the Afflictions of His People and Will Bring Them Safely Home. Bunyan knew that his God was sovereign over his suffering. He believed that this very truth would help ground and settle those who went through many sorrows in this world. God not only appoints who will suffer, but he opens the eyes of those who suffer so that they can see more of his beauty and glory in the midst of their trials.
Fifth, Bunyan’s Suffering Deepened in Him a Confidence in the Bible as the Word of God and a Passion for Biblical Exposition as the Key to Perseverance. Suffers cling to the Bible—Bunyan did so. He said that it was in prison that the word of God rushed into his soul more vigorously than ever before. Here is encouragement as we walk through suffering—the Word of the Living God will be our treasure. May it be said of us what Spurgeon said of Bunyan: ‘Why, this man is a living Bible!’ Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him.”