“O most gracious God,” wrote the eloquent sufferer, “on this sickbed I feel under your correction, and I taste of humiliation, but let me taste of consolation, too.”
John Donne, poet and priest, so wrote in one of his “devotions” in 1623. In Christianity Today over twenty years ago, Philip Yancey shared a brief edited, somewhat modernized, excerpt of Donne’s “Devotions.”
As Yancey explains, Donne had fallen seriously ill. Not unreasonably, he assumed he had contracted the bubonic plague, the scourge filling graves with masses of people during those dark days. The “Black Death” had made its presence unmistakable. London’s church bells tolled “dolefully,” and Donne wrote his famous poem, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” reminding his readers that the loss of anyone is a loss to us all. So, do not ask “for whom the bell tolls,” he penned, “it tolls for thee.”
In his “Devotions” (as Yancey shares them), Donne writes of all the blessings God has given.
“Nature reaches out her hand and offers corn, and wine, and oil, and milk; but it was you [God] who filled the hand of nature with such bounty.”
Donne thanks God for the blessings that come from fruitful labor, and he acknowledges that, no matter how hard and well the laborer has worked, it is God who guides and “gives the increase.”
He thanks the Lord for friends who “reach out their hands to support us,” even as he acknowledges, “but your hand supports the hand we lean on.”
I’m continually amazed at how suffering is used by some as Exhibit A against God, at the very same time as others, passing “through the fire,” eventually come out with faith strengthened and “tempered.”
On his sickbed, Donne writes, “Once this scourge has persuaded us that we are nothing of ourselves, may it also persuade us that you are all things unto us.”
In striking contrast to the verbal drizzle of those who promise health and wealth to the faithful, or to those whose “faith” is in consumer religion as long as it “meets their [most shallow] needs,” Donne reminds us that when God’s own Son on the cross “cried out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ you reached out your hand [Lord,] not to heal his sad soul, but to receive his holy soul.” And Jesus surrendered his soul to his Father in trust.
Donne would recover. His sickness was not the plague. But before he knew the certainty of the outcome, he was certain of his hope: “Whether you will bid my soul to stay in this body for some time, or meet you this day in paradise, I ask not.”
But he wrote his confidence: “I can have no greater proof of your mercy than to die in you and by that death be united in him who died for me.”
With Donne, we can be confident, not in ourselves but in our Lord all along the journey. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 6, God’s children have already experienced a death and resurrection. I’ve been reading theologian Thomas Long’s excellent book Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral. He urges us to remember that, just as the community of faith gathered at our baptisms as we were “buried with Christ by baptism into death” and then been raised to “walk in newness of life” as we begin our journey with our Lord, the community of faith will gather once again in faith and with singing as we are eventually “buried with Christ” again in “the sure confidence that [we] will be raised to new life.” And so Donne believed. And so we believe, as Long writes, “In the Christian faith, the dead are going somewhere. That is [literally] the gospel truth” and, though our relationship with them has changed, it has not ended.
If even death itself cannot cut us off from Christ and all who have died with him to be raised with him, how could we be severed from our Lord’s love and power even during the most difficult circumstances? Donne wrote during the unspeakable horror of the Black Plague, but his confidence was in the Author of life. Surely, even during terribly difficult times like, say, a pandemic, our Lord is the same Lord.
Following the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) is not even a little easy. But if we’ve already died with Christ and been raised, our faith is in God—not in luck or our own power or circumstances. We often need to be reminded, but it is nonetheless deeply true: easy lives and blessed lives are not the same thing.
Let’s give thanks and trust the Giver of all blessings. And not just our own faith will strengthened and affirmed. And not just our own lives will be blessed by that trust and gratitude.
You’re invited to visit my website, and I hope you’ll take a look there at my new “Focus on Faith” Podcast. At the website, just click on “Podcast.” Blessings!
Copyright 2020 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.