In his famous work, The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan very perceptively opens up an important issue for the people of God by explaining the dangers of spiritual lethargy, under the idea of ‘Enchanted Ground’.
Charles H. Spurgeon elaborated on this when he exhorted his congregation in New Park Street Chapel from the text, ‘Let us not sleep, as do others: but let us watch and be sober’ (1 Thessalonians 5:6).1 He was concerned about a lack of watchfulness and false contentment that leads to smugness and sluggishness, especially in older believers.
Enchanted Ground is where ‘the air naturally tended to make one drowsy’.2 It is a very dangerous place for the children of God, as it lies almost at the end of life’s journey. It contains, ‘an enchanted arbour, upon which if a man sits, or in which if a man sleeps, it is a question some say, whether he shall rise and wake again in this world’.
It is the place where professing believers are lulled to sleep, like the two fellows called ‘Heedless’ and ‘Too-bold’. Sadly, these two ‘sat down to rest themselves, and so fell asleep’.3
The Enchanted Ground is placed so near to Beulah Land (heaven) and so near to the end of their race that it feels as if they have already reached there, but not so! It is where people fall asleep spiritually, being overcome with drowsiness, perhaps never to awake.
Those most in danger are those who have been on Christian pilgrimage for many years and feel the weariness of the way. Bunyan wrote: ‘I then saw in my dream, that they went until they came into a certain country whose air naturally tended to make one drowsy, if he came a stranger into it.
‘And here Hopeful began to be very dull and heavy of sleep: wherefore he said unto Christian, I do now begin to grow so drowsy that I can scarcely hold open mine eyes; let us lie down here, and take one nap’.4
In this part of the dream, we have Christian and Hopeful entering the next stage of their journey to the Celestial City. Christian seems to understand at once that it is not wise to sleep here and that they should hasten on, but Hopeful finds the feeling of drowsiness rather attractive and wants to stay.
At this point, Christian retorts: ‘Do you not remember that one of the shepherds bid us beware of the Enchanted Ground’.5 It had been a caring and timely warning from the shepherd, as up ahead there was darkness, thorns and pitfalls, amidst the arbours and soft couches.
The people of God must always watch and pray. Are we asleep and at ease, rather than earnestly contending for the faith (Jude 3)? The New Testament speaks of times when the people of God were asleep, for example, in Gethsemane.
‘Then He came and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, Simon, are you sleeping? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak’ (Mark 13:37).
The five virgins in the parable ‘all slumbered and slept’ (Matthew 25:5). Because of their laziness they lost out and were shut out. They missed their opportunity to be at the marriage supper of the Lamb.
Paul exhorted the church in Thessalonica to be alert for the Second Coming: ‘Therefore let us not sleep, as do others: but let us watch and be sober’ (1 Thessalonians 5:6). This warning seems little heeded in many churches in the present day.
Enchanted Ground is a very dangerous place for the children of God, lying, as it does, almost at the end of life’s journey. Alexander Whyte noted: ‘Enchanted Ground is placed so nigh to the land Beulah and so near the end of their race; wherefore let pilgrims look to themselves lest they fall asleep till none can waken them’.6
Spurgeon understood the consequences of spiritual lethargy: when a man is asleep, he is insensible to dangers, inactive in escaping and insecure to violence and theft. The duty of the gospel minister is to point out every turning off the road to heaven and to warn any he suspects of being in danger of turning aside.
Enchanted Ground is more dangerous, in that it does not abound with lions, there are no dragons in it, and it has no dark woods or deep pitfalls. Yet more seeming pilgrims have been destroyed there than anywhere else. Not even in Doubting Castle, with all its bones, lie so many slain.
Spurgeon says, ‘Sleepy Christian, let me shout in thine ears, thou art sleeping while souls are being lost, sleeping while men are being damned, sleeping while hell is being peopled, sleeping while Christ is being dishonoured, while the devil is grinning at thy sleepy face … You will never catch the devil asleep; let not the devil catch you asleep’.7
We are most likely to sleep when well off materially, content socially and feeling satisfied spiritually. ‘It is quite true’, says Spurgeon, ‘that those who have been for years in grace are most in danger of slumbering.
‘Somehow, we get into the routine of religious observance; it is customary for us to go to the house of God, it is usual for us to belong to the church, and that of itself tends to make people sleepy. If we are always going along the same road, we are liable to sleep’.8
Robert Murray M’Cheyne speaks of the danger of believers leaving their first love (Revelation 2:4): they ‘lose their tender walking with God; they go out of the holiest and pray at a distance, with the curtain between. They lose their fervency, sweetness and fullness in the secret prayer…
‘Love to the brethren fades. United prayer is forsaken. Compassion for the unconverted is low and cold. Sin is unrebuked, though committed under their eyes [and] Christ is not confessed before men’.9
When in Enchanted Ground, Christian said to Hopeful, ‘To prevent drowsiness in this place, let us fall into good discourse’. ‘With all my heart,’ said Hopeful, and they began to talk of Jesus and ‘where God began with them’.10
As Spurgeon put it: ‘Then let me remind you that if you will look at interesting things you will not sleep; and how can you be kept awake in the enchanted ground better than by holding up your Saviour before your eyes?
‘There are some things, it is said, which will not let men shut their eyes if they are held before them. Jesus Christ crucified on Calvary is one of them. I never knew a Christian go to sleep at the foot of the cross; but he always said, “Sweet the moments, rich in blessing, which before the cross I spend”.’11
Our Lord exhorts perseverance: ‘he who overcomes, shall inherit all things and I will be his God and he shall be my son’ (Revelation 21:7). The emphasis is on our personal responsibility to ‘overcome’ and run to win; the people of God must work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
It is distressing to look at those trapped in Enchanted Ground. If we live there, we cannot expect to reach heaven’s shores; the moment a soul is saved, it has a course to run. Paul said, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
‘Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved his appearing’ (2 Timothy 4:7).
M’Cheyne says the words, ‘I have kept the faith’, ‘makes the difference between a peaceful and triumphal death bed. Paul held the beginning of his confidence to the end. Learn that perseverance in the faith is needful to a triumphant death bed’.12
Can we say that we have kept the faith, or are we asleep like the five virgins who lost out because ‘they all slumbered and slept’?
Enchanted Ground is a very dangerous place to be in. It is where professing believers are lulled to sleep and not seen again. ‘Sleeping here, there is no safety; for if you give way to your almost irresistible inclination, it becomes more irresistible, you are in imminent danger of the lethargy of spiritual death.
‘Wherefore, beware of spiritual indolence; it is a gradual, but fearful and powerful temptation. O beware of a lukewarm formality in your spiritual exercises, especially in prayer, family prayer and in secret prayer’.13
The people of God will stay safe when they walk by faith, awaiting the heavenly call to the holy city of God and the Lamb. ‘To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with me on my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne’ (Revelation 3:21).
All saints, and especially older ones, can be renewed in holy zeal and constant faith as they grasp afresh the promises of God. Then ‘they shall bring forth fruit in old age’ (Psalm 92:12-15).
Ian S. McNaughton
1 C. H. Spurgeon, Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1903), pp.185-196. Preached on sabbath morning, 3 February 1856 (No. 64) at New Park Street Chapel, Southwark.
2 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, c.1931), p.303.
3 Ibid. p.305.
4 Ibid. p.138.
5 Ibid. p.139.
6 Alexander Whyte, Bunyan Characters, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier, 1894), p.272f.
7 C. H. Spurgeon, Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress, pp.185, 192.
8 Ibid. p.195.
9 Robert Murray M’Cheyne, God makes a path (Belfast: Ambassador, 1997), pp.46-7.
10 Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, p.139.
11 Spurgeon, Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress, p.195.
12 M’Cheyne, God makes a path, p.49.
13 George B. Cheever, Lectures on the Pilgrim’s Progress (London: A. Fullerton, 1855), p.157.