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Bunyan Characters First Series: 3. PLIABLE

By Alexander Whyte


      'He hath not root in himself.'--Our Lord.

      With one stroke of His pencil our Lord gives us this Flaxman-like outline of one of his well-known hearers. And then John Bunyan takes up that so expressive profile, and puts flesh and blood into it, till it becomes the well-known Pliable of The Pilgrim's Progress. We call the text a parable, but our Lord's parables are all portraits--portraits and groups of portraits, rather than ordinary parables. Our Lord knew this man quite well who had no root in himself. Our Lord had crowds of such men always running after Him, and He threw off this rapid portrait from hundreds of men and women who caused discredit to fall on His name and His work, and burdened His heart continually. And John Bunyan, with all his genius, could never have given us such speaking likenesses as that of Pliable and Temporary and Talkative, unless he had had scores of them in his own congregation.

      Our Lord's short preliminary description of Pliable goes, like all His descriptions, to the very bottom of the whole matter. Our Lord in this passage is like one of those masterly artists who begin their portrait-painting with the study of anatomy. All the great artists in this walk build up their best portraits from the inside of their subjects. He hath not root in himself, says our Lord, and we need no more than that to be told us to foresee how all his outside religion will end. 'Without self-knowledge,' says one of the greatest students of the human heart that ever lived, 'you have no real root in yourselves. Real self-knowledge is the root of all real religious knowledge. It is a deceit and a mischief to think that the Christian doctrines can either be understood or aright accepted by any outward means. It is just in proportion as we search our own hearts and understand our own nature that we shall ever feel what a blessing the removal of sin will be; redemption, pardon, sanctification, are all otherwise mere words without meaning or power to us. God speaks to us first in our own hearts.' Happily for us our Lord has annotated His own text and has told us that an honest heart is the alone root of all true religion. Honest, that is, with itself, and with God and man about itself. As David says in his so honest psalm, 'Behold, Thou desirest truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part Thou shalt make me to know wisdom.' And, indeed, all the preachers and writers in Scripture, and all Scriptural preachers and writers outside of Scripture, are at one in this: that all true wisdom begins at home, and that it all begins at the heart. And they all teach us that he is the wisest of men who has the worst opinion of his own heart, as he is the foolishest of men who does not know his own heart to be the worst heart that ever any man was cursed with in this world. 'Here is wisdom': not to know the number of the beast, but to know his mark, and to read it written so indelibly in our own heart.

      And where this first and best of all wisdom is not, there, in our Lord's words, there is no deepness of earth, no root, and no fruit. And any religion that most men have is of this outside, shallow, rootless description. This was all the religion that poor Pliable ever had. This poor creature had a certain slight root of something that looked like religion for a short season, but even that slight root was all outside of himself. His root, what he had of a root, was all in Christian's companionship and impassioned appeals, and then in those impressive passages of Scripture that Christian read to him. At your first attention to these things you would think that no possible root could be better planted than in the Bible and in earnest preaching. But even the Bible, and, much more, the best preaching, is all really outside of a man till true religion once gets its piercing roots down into himself. We have perhaps all heard of men, and men of no small eminence, who were brought up to believe the teaching of the Bible and the pulpit, but who, when some of their inherited and external ideas about some things connected with the Bible began to be shaken, straightway felt as if all the grounds of their faith were shaken, and all the roots of their faith pulled up. But where that happened, all that was because such men's religion was all rooted outside of themselves; in the best things outside of themselves, indeed, but because, in our Lord's words, their religion was rooted in something outside of themselves and not inside, they were by and by offended, and threw off their faith. There is another well-known class of men all whose religion is rooted in their church, and in their church not as a member of the body of Christ, but as a social institution set up in this world. They believe in their church. They worship their church. They suffer and make sacrifices for their church. They are proud of the size and the income of their church; her past contendings and sufferings, and present dangers, all endear their church to their heart. But if tribulation and persecution arise, that is to say, if anything arises to vex or thwart or disappoint them with their church, they incontinently pull up their roots and their religion with it, and transplant both to any other church that for the time better pleases them, or to no church at all. Others, again, have all their religiosity rooted in their family life. Their religion is all made up of domestic sentiment. They love their earthly home with that supreme satisfaction and that all-absorbing affection that truly religious men entertain for their heavenly home. And thus it is that when anything happens to disturb or break up their earthly home their rootless religiosity goes with it. Other men's religion, again, and all their interest in it, is rooted in their shop; you can make them anything or nothing in religion, according as you do or do not do business in their shop. Companionship, also, accounts for the fluctuations of many men's, and almost all women's, religious lives. If they happen to fall in with godly lovers and friends, they are sincerely godly with them; but if their companions are indifferent or hostile to true religion, they gradually fall into the same temper and attitude. We sometimes see students destined for the Christian ministry also with all their religion so without root in themselves that a session in an unsympathetic class, a sceptical book, sometimes just a sneer or a scoff, will wither all the promise of their coming service. And so on through the whole of human life. He that hath not the root of the matter in himself dureth for a while, but by and by, for one reason or another, he is sure to be offended.

      So much, then,--not enough, nor good enough--for our Lord's swift stroke at the heart of His hearers. But let us now pass on to Pliable, as he so soon and so completely discovers himself to us under John Bunyan's so skilful hand. Look well at our author's speaking portrait of a well-known man in Bedford who had no root in himself, and who, as a consequence, was pliable to any influence, good or bad, that happened to come across him. 'Don't revile,' are the first words that come from Pliable's lips, and they are not unpromising words. Pliable is hurt with Obstinate's coarse abuse of the Christian life, till he is downright ashamed to be seen in his company. Pliable, at least, is a gentleman compared with Obstinate, and his gentlemanly feelings and his good manners make him at once take sides with Christian. Obstinate's foul tongue has almost made Pliable a Christian. And this finely-conceived scene on the plain outside the city gate is enacted over again every day among ourselves. Where men are in dead earnest about religion it always arouses the bad passions of bad men; and where earnest preachers and devoted workers are assailed with violence or with bad language, there is always enough love of fair play in the bystanders to compel them to take sides, for the time at least, with those who suffer for the truth. And we are sometimes too apt to count all that love of common fairness, and that hatred of foul play, as a sure sign of some sympathy with the hated truth itself. When an onlooker says 'Don't revile,' we are too ready to set down that expression of civility as at least the first beginning of true religion. But the religion of Jesus Christ cuts far deeper into the heart of man than to the dividing asunder of justice and injustice, civility and incivility, ribaldry and good manners. And it is always found in the long-run that the cross of Christ and its crucifixion of the human heart goes quite as hard with the gentlemanly-mannered man, the civil and urbane man, as it does with the man of bad behaviour and of brutish manners. 'Civil men,' says Thomas Goodwin, 'are this world's saints.' And poor Pliable was one of them. 'My heart really inclines to go with my neighbour,' said Pliable next. 'Yes,' he said, 'I begin to come to a point. I really think I will go along with this good man. Yes, I will cast in my lot with him. Come, good neighbour, let us be going.'

      The apocalyptic side of some men's imaginations is very easily worked upon. No kind of book sells better among those of our people who have no root in themselves than just picture-books about heaven. Our missionaries make use of lantern-slides to bring home the scenes in the Gospels to the dull minds of their village hearers, and with good success. And at home a magic-lantern filled with the splendours of the New Jerusalem would carry multitudes of rootless hearts quite captive for a time. 'Well said; and what else? This is excellent; and what else?' Christian could not tell Pliable fast enough about the glories of heaven. 'There we shall be with seraphim and cherubim, creatures that will dazzle your eyes to look on them. There also you shall meet with thousands and ten thousands who have gone before us to that place. Elders with golden crowns, and holy virgins with golden harps, and all clothed with immortality as with a garment.' 'The hearing of all this,' cried Pliable, 'is enough to ravish one's heart.' 'An overly faith,' says old Thomas Shepard, 'is easily wrought.'

      As if the text itself was not graphic enough, Bunyan's racy, humorous, pathetic style overflows the text and enriches the very margins of his pages, as every possessor of a good edition of The Pilgrim knows. 'Christian and Obstinate pull for Pliable's soul' is the eloquent summary set down on the side of the sufficiently eloquent page. As the picture of a man's soul being pulled for rises before my mind, I can think of no better companion picture to that of Pliable than that of poor, hard-beset Brodie of Brodie, as he lets us see the pull for his soul in the honest pages of his inward diary. Under the head of 'Pliable' in my Bunyan note-book I find a crowd of references to Brodie; and if only to illustrate our author's marginal note, I shall transcribe one or two of them. 'The writer of this diary desires to be cast down under the facileness and plausibleness of his nature, by which he labours to please men more than God, and whence it comes that the wicked speak good of him . . . The Lord pity the proneness of his heart to comply with the men who have the power . . . Lord, he is unsound and double in his heart, politically crafty, selfish, not savouring nor discerning the things of God . . . Let not self-love, wit, craft, and timorousness corrupt his mind, but indue him with fortitude, patience, steadfastness, tenderness, mortification . . . Shall I expose myself and my family to danger at this time? A grain of sound faith would solve all my questions.' 'Die Dom. I stayed at home, partly to decline the ill-will and rage of men and to decline observation.' Or, take another Sabbath-day entry: 'Die Dom. I stayed at home, because of the time, and the observation, and the Earl of Moray . . . Came to Cuttiehillock. I am neither cold nor hot. I am not rightly principled as to the time. I suspect that it is not all conscience that makes me conform, but wit, and to avoid suffering; Lord, deliver me from all this unsoundness of heart.' And after this miserable fashion do heaven and earth, duty and self-interest, the covenant and the crown pull for Lord Brodie's soul through 422 quarto pages. Brodie's diary is one of the most humiliating, heart-searching, and heart-instructing books I ever read. Let all public men tempted and afflicted with a facile, pliable, time-serving heart have honest Brodie at their elbow.

      'Glad I am, my good companion,' said Pliable, after the passage about the cherubim and the seraphim, and the golden crowns and the golden harps, 'it ravishes my very heart to hear all this. Come on, let us mend our pace.' This is delightful, this is perfect. How often have we ourselves heard these very words of challenge and reproof from the pliable frequenters of emotional meetings, and from the emotional members of an emotional but rootless ministry. Come on, let us mend our pace! 'I am sorry to say,' replied the man with the burden on his back, 'that I cannot go so fast as I would.' 'Christian,' says Mr. Kerr Bain, 'has more to carry than Pliable has, as, indeed, he would still have if he were carrying nothing but himself; and he does have about him, besides, a few sobering thoughts as to the length and labour and some of the unforeseen chances of the way.' And as Dean Paget says in his profound and powerful sermon on 'The Disasters of Shallowness': 'Yes, but there is something else first; something else without which that inexpensive brightness, that easy hopefulness, is apt to be a frail resourceless growth, withering away when the sun is up and the hot winds of trial are sweeping over it. We must open our hearts to our religion; we must have the inward soil broken up, freely and deeply its roots must penetrate our inner being. We must take to ourselves in silence and in sincerity its words of judgment with its words of hope, its sternness with its encouragement, its denunciations with its promises, its requirements, with its offers, its absolute intolerance of sin with its inconceivable and divine long-suffering towards sinners.' But preaching like this would have frightened away poor Pliable. He would not have understood it, and what he did understand of it he would have hated with all his shallow heart.

      'Where are we now?' called Pliable to his companion, as they both went over head and ears into the Slough of Despond. 'Truly,' said Christian, 'I do not know.'--No work of man is perfect, not even the all-but-perfect Pilgrim's Progress. Christian was bound to fall sooner or later into a slough filled with his own despondency about himself, his past guilt, his present sinfulness, and his anxious future. But Pliable had not knowledge enough of himself to make him ever despond. He was always ready and able to mend his pace. He had no burden on his back, and therefore no doubt in his heart. But Christian had enough of both for any ten men, and it was Christian's overflowing despondency and doubt at this point of the road that suddenly filled his own slough, and, I suppose, overflowed into a slough for Pliable also. Had Pliable only had a genuine and original slough of his own to so sink and be bedaubed in, he would have got out of it at the right side of it, and been a tender-stepping pilgrim all his days.--'Is this the happiness you have told me all this while of? May I get out of this with my life, you may 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 his own house; so he went away, and Christian saw him no more. 'The side of the slough which was next his own house.' Let us close with that. Let us go home thinking about that. And in this trial of faith and patience, and in that, in this temptation to sin, and in that, in this actual transgression, and in that, let us always ask ourselves which is the side of the slough that is farthest away from our own house, and let us still struggle to that side of the slough, and it will all be well with us at the last.

      * LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH

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See Also:
   INTRODUCTORY
   1. EVANGELIST
   2. OBSTINATE
   3. PLIABLE
   4. HELP
   5. MR. WORLDLY-WISEMAN
   6. GOODWILL, THE GATEKEEPER
   7. THE INTERPRETER
   8. PASSION
   9. PATIENCE
   10. SIMPLE, SLOTH, AND PRESUMPTION
   11. THE THREE SHINING ONES AT THE CROSS
   12. FORMALIST AND HYPOCRISY
   13. TIMOROUS AND MISTRUST
   14. PRUDENCE
   15. CHARITY
   16. SHAME
   17. TALKATIVE
   18. JUDGE HATE-GOOD
   19. FAITHFUL IN VANITY FAIR
   20. BY-ENDS
   21. GIANT DESPAIR
   22. KNOWLEDGE
   23. EXPERIENCE
   24. WATCHFUL
   25. SINCERE

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