Staying for the Best Things

I can't shake the scene of that little room where Passion and Patience sit waiting. The boys' sitter instructed them to stay still, to rest side by side, to hold out for what's best. What we come to find is a quest for pleasure so intense we're compelled to take note.

John Bunyan is telling that kind of story in The Pilgrim's Progress. He brings us along with Christian every step of the way and at this particular point Interpreter is our guide.

Interpreter leads Christian into a small room to observe two kids seated in parallel chairs. Passion is the restless one. He is discontent, perhaps huffing and puffing, frowning and squirming. Beside him is Patience. He's the one who keeps quiet. Bunyan implies his posture: feet straight in front of him, neatly squared up in the middle of the chair, hands folded in his lap (i.e., not the way my kids sit at the dinner table). The boys were plainly told they had to wait for the best things. The best things were coming to them, but wouldn't get there until early the next year. Passion can't stand this. We can tell by how he acts. He just wants it all now. Then someone walks in the room and dumps a bag of treasure at his feet. Aha! Passion jumps down from his chair and happily scoops up the goodies. Grinning, he looks over at Patience, still sitting quietly, and he laughs him to scorn.

But Christian continues to watch. He sees that Passion “quickly lavishe[s] all away” until he "had presently nothing left him but rags." Interpreter explains:

These two lads are figures: Passion, of the men of this world; and Patience, of the men of that which is to come; for as here thou seest, Passion will have all now this year, that is to say, in this world; so are the men of this world, they must have all their good things now, they cannot stay till next year, that is until the next world, for their portion of good. . . . But as thou sawest that he had quickly lavished all away, and had presently left him nothing but rags; so will it be with all such men at the end of this world.

Christian replies,

Now I see that Patience has the best wisdom, and that upon many accounts. First, because he stays for the best things. Second, and also because he will have the glory of his, when the other has nothing but rags.

How'd He Do That?

Bunyan leaves us to wonder how Patience's waiting actually looked. Sure, we understand the end. We get that he has the best wisdom. But how exactly did he wait? What did he think about while sitting in that chair? Watching Passion indulge in the treasure? Remembering the sitter's words? How was Patience, well, patient?

Answer: he was a Christian hedonist.

Now to be sure, it doesn't sound very hedonistic at first. Denying himself the bag of "treasure" tossed in front of him resembles more the tune of self-denial. But self-denial, for the Christian Hedonist, is not for the sake of self-denial.

Patience saw Passion dive into the mass of goodies, and he denied his impulse to do the same. He held back. And this is biblical, of course. The apostle Paul writes in Titus 2:11–12a, "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions." Paul says there are things in this world we're supposed to renounce, that is, deny. And the "self" in self-denial is composed of these things. That self is the old self, the one that was crucified with Jesus (Romans 6:6), the one in whom we no longer exist (Galatians 2:20). That is the self Patience denied, the self of ungodliness, worldly passions, and inferior pleasures.

"For the Best Things"

You see, this doesn’t end up as a negative enterprise. Remember how Bunyan says it. Patience sat quietly in his chair "because he stays for the best things." It appears that Patience realized he sat in that room with pleasures for which that bag of treasure could not satisfy. Denying the treasure didn't shrivel up his appetite. It was that his appetite was so big it shriveled up the treasure. Patience didn't bury his head in the sand either. He wasn't frantically shouting "No!" over and over. He simply kept his eyes on next year. He trusted what he was told. Passion could have done the same had he not been far too easily pleased.

We learn that Patience’s self-denial came from a craving for the superior pleasure. This is the self-denial of the Christian Hedonist. Patience wasn't merely holding back, he was looking forward. His resistance from that bag of transient treasure was actually his feasting in eternal joy. As Paul continues in Titus 2:12b–13, "training us. . . to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ."

What Bunyan means is that Patience halted the world's empty promises because he had something better ahead (namely, our Savior Jesus Christ).

Different and the Same

So we're different from Patience, and we're the same. We're different in that we're in a much sweeter spot than he was. He sat in that chair with the promise of better things (convincing enough) while we sit here, in the room of this world, with not only a promise, but also God's very Spirit living inside us. We have the active communication of himself through his word. We have the experience of being "in Christ" now, of being seated with him now in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). Our lives are hidden in him now (Colossians 3:3). We are brought to God now and enjoy his fellowship (1 Peter 3:18; 1 John 1:3).

But there is still more to come. Like Patience, what's better remains out in front. Learning again from Paul, we've not yet obtained the fullness of our portion. We're not yet perfect (Philippians 3:12). We are waiting, too. We are waiting for the consummation of God's great work, the revealing of our Lord Jesus and the final redemption of our bodies (1 Corinthians 1:7; Romans 8:23). So as wondrous at it is now, the "far better" is yet next year (Philippians 1:23).

And waiting like this is staying for the best things.

Illustration by Mike Wimmer, from The Pilgrim's Progress (Crossway, 2009).