Lessons on Life & Suffering from John Donne / David L. Allen, PhD

July 11, 2014

by Dr. David L. Allen
Dean of the School of Theology
Professor of Preaching
Director of the Center for Expository Preaching
George W. Truett Chair of Pastoral Ministry
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

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“God never uses a man greatly until he hurts him deeply.”

So said A. W. Tozer. Few men can attest to this truth like John Donne, the 17th century English preacher, poet, and Dean of St. Paul’s Church in London from 1621 until his death in 1631. Today, Donne is more known for his poetry than for his preaching, but he was a master of both.

Donne’s life was pockmarked with pain. When Donne was four years old, his father died suddenly, leaving him and two other siblings to be reared by their mother. In 1593, Donne’s younger brother Henry died of a fever in prison after being arrested for giving sanctuary to a Catholic priest.

Donne secretly married the daughter of Thomas More in 1601, an unpopular move that landed him in jail! In 1606, Donne and his wife lived in a small house which he referred to as a “hospital” and a “prison.” She died in 1617.

Following the British defeat of the Spanish Armada, England retaliated with raids on Spain. In 1596, England conducted the famous raid on Cadiz, a Spanish port on the Atlantic Coast. Fifty-three merchant vessels and warships were sunk at port, and the town was virtually destroyed. Among the English expedition was a 24 year-old John Donne.

What must have gone through the mind of the young Donne as he heard the booming cannon; the air rancorous with smoke from burning ships; the cries of men clinging for life to any wooden shard in the water; we shall never know for Donne never wrote about it. He must have heard the peal of church bells incessantly ringing the alarm by day, and with lesser pace at night, ringing out the knell of those who perished.

Twenty-eight years later, John Donne lay in bed in London, his body racked with pain from what may have been malarial fever contracted during his exploits in Spain many years earlier. He had suffered sporadic sickness since that time. Confined to his bed of pain for weeks, Donne wrote the little book Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, which was published in 1624, but fell into obscurity not long afterward.

Periodically, Donne’s pen would halt as he listened to the ringing of the church bells, chiming the sad news that another soul had passed from this life to the next. Then the poet’s pen moved again, gifting us all with this precious pearl of prose:

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.
. . .
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

No, it was not the brilliant mind of Earnest Hemingway that originally conjured the title for his famous book For Whom the Bell Tolls. It was a preacher nailed to his bed of pain and suffering.

When I was in London a few years back, I toured the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral. Tomorrow, our group from Southwestern Baptist Seminary will tour St. Paul’s, and once again, I will pause before the monument of white marble — the statue of John Donne.

During the last few weeks of his life, as he had done so many times previously, Donne lay on his bed in pain as his life ebbed away. The church employed a carver to design a monument for their Dean. Donne posed for him in the posture of death as a living cadaver, hands folded, eyes closed, and a winding sheet wrapped around him. After his death, it was mounted over his funeral urn. His face wears a serene expression that ironically contrasts with the suffering Donne endured in life.

Donne wrote and preached as much or more about pain and death than any of his contemporaries. But in spite of all he suffered, he was well acquainted with 1 John 3:1-2, as is evidenced by the following words from one of his later sermons:

Our last day is our first day; our Saturday is our Sunday; our eve is our holy day; our sunsetting is our morning; the day of our death is the firstday of our eternal life. The next day after that . . . comes that day that shall show me to myself. Here I never saw God too. . . . Here I have one faculty enlightened, and another left in darkness; mine understanding sometimes cleared, my will at the same time perverted. There I shall be all light, no shadow upon me; my soul invested in the light of joy, and my body in the light of glory.[1]

[1] Philip Yancey, “John Donne: As He Lay Dying,” Reality and the Vision, ed. Philip Yancey (Dallas: Word, 1990), 185-86. See also the biography by John Stubbs, John Donne: The Reformed Soul (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006), 445-74.

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