Reading can be dangerous because a good book never leaves you unchanged.
That was certainly Christian’s experience in the famous story of his Progress away from his hometown, the City of Destruction, to the City of God, the Celestial City. Christian’s book was dangerous because it predicted the uncomfortable truth that his city would live up to its name. And Christian was certainly changed by his reading; he was terrified.
“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 certainly informed that this our city will be burnt 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.”
But Christian’s family did not react to this news the way he did.
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.
Christian, in his allegorical world, was reading the Bible. And he was experiencing what Jesus warned could happen to anyone who reads and obeys His book:
If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you (John 15:18–19).
Christian didn’t know it, but he was being chosen out of the world. He was about to be “not of the world,” to begin his journey to a new world.
The World Reacts
But all his wife and sweet babes knew was that the head of their home was crazy. They dismissed his warnings of coming destruction, and when he persisted, so did they. John Bunyan uses the full flavor of seventeenth century English prose to help the reader taste their response: Christian’s family “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.”
But why the surly carriages? Why not simply send Christian—in some padded carriage—to the City of Destruction Institutes for Mental Health?
Because of what Jesus says a bit earlier in John. The world, He says, hates Him for a reason: “Me it hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil” (John 7:7). Christian’s family knew that his talk had negative implications for them personally.
The “world” in the Gospel of John is a dark place. Despite the “Light which lighteth every man,” the world remains full of people who “love (agapaō) darkness rather than light.” Why? “Because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19). Like roaches in a kitchen corner, they don’t want to be exposed.
When God chooses people out of the world, as Jesus said, He’s implying that the people who are left don’t meet His perfect standards. And they sometimes respond indignantly by violating His standards still further—by hating the people upon whom God has shined His marvelous light.
You may never be called upon to stand in public opposition against an unjust war or same-sex marriage or some other prominent evil that your whole society is bent on pursuing. That’s probably what most Christians imagine when they picture being hated by the world. But you might get an angrily condescending look from your uncle when you tell him you will not go to see a movie that tries to entertain you with sins Jesus died to eradicate (1 John 3:8b). You might get shouted at by the seatmate you are evangelizing on an airplane. You might have to quit a job—and earn the intense anger of your former employer—because you refuse to participate in unethical business practices. For every Pliable you meet who tolerates diversity and celebrates your right to hold strange religious views, there may be three or four Obstinates who don’t see it that way.
How should Christians respond to such hatred? Jesus answers simply in John 15, “If the world hate you, ye know [the ESV renders this as a command: know] that it hated me before it hated you.” He picks up this theme again in the same paragraph. “All these things will they do unto you for my name’s sake, because they know not him that sent me. . . . He that hateth me hateth my Father also” (John 15:21, 23).
Christians should react to the world’s hatred by remembering that God is the true object of any vitriol or persecution they endure. Don’t be so arrogant as to think that you are worthy of Apollyon’s arrows, and don’t let Giant Despair get you discouraged either—you are not the real issue.
Or at least you shouldn’t be. The world isn’t always wrong; sometimes Christians really are distempered. They have either misread God’s instructions, misunderstood the situation to which they’re supposed to apply those instructions, or failed to carry out those instructions with love. Unfortunately, Christians sometimes deserve the world’s hatred. They are, as Peter said, only being “buffeted for their faults” (1Peter 2:20).
There is finally only one way to know whether the world is hating God or for some well-deserved reason merely hating you. In other words, there is only one way, ultimately, to know whether to stand fast or repent when the world thinks you’re crazy: keep reading Christian’s dangerous book.
This article originally appeared in BJU Press’ Modern Pilgrim. Used by permission.