COVID-19 is hardly the first pandemic to strike fear across the world. In the 17th century, the Black Death (bubonic plague) swept across Europe in waves. One of England’s greatest writers, John Donne, fell ill while serving as the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Though desperately wanting to bring comfort to his terrified city, Donne instead found himself confined to bed. His diagnosis bleak, he began a journal of his thoughts and emotions as he faced near-certain death. Struck by its relevance to our modern pandemic, I have updated John Donne’s Devotions in a modern paraphrase. This excerpt gives his reflections on fear.
I study the physician with the same diligence as he studies the disease. I notice that he’s scared, which scares me all the more. As he deliberates, I overtake him, I outrun him in his fear. Obviously, he’s trying to disguise his fear, which makes me even more anxious. Doctors know that patients’ fears will very likely hinder their efforts toward healing.
Just as damage to one organ can affect every vital sign in the body, so fear insinuates itself in every process of the mind. Likewise, as gas in the body can counterfeit any disease and seem like gout or gallstone, so fear will counterfeit any disease of the mind. What seems like love might be the suspicious fear of jealousy. What seems like courage in the face of danger might only be fear of losing face. A man who’s not afraid of a lion may be frightened by a cat.
What is it that I fear right now? Not death so much, but rather the progression of the disease. I would belie nature if I denied that fear, and I would belie God if I dreaded death. My weakness comes from nature; my strength comes from God.
I tell myself that not every chill is a plague, nor every shivering a stupor; neither is every fear a panic, nor every wish for relief a protest or a sign of despair. My physician doesn’t let fear impede his work. I must not let my own fear prevent me from receiving from him—or from God—the assistance and consolation that I need.
Fear can suffocate a relationship. Before he had the courage to address you directly, your servant Job said of you,
He is not a mere mortal like me that I might answer him,
that we might confront each other in court.
If only there were someone to mediate between us,
someone to bring us together,
someone to remove God’s rod from me,
so that his terror would frighten me no more.
Then I would speak up without fear of him,
but as it now stands with me, I cannot. (Job 9:32-35)
You command me both to speak to you and to fear you—don’t those two cancel each other out? Yet there is no contradiction in you, my God, my sun and my moon, who directs me as well in the night of adversity as in my day of prosperity. I must then speak to you at all times. When, then, must I fear you? At all times too.
Have you ever reproached a beggar for being troublesome? You gave us the parable of a judge who relented at last because of the tenacity of a client, in order to make the point that we should always pray and not give up (Luke 18:1-8). In another, you told of a man in bed at midnight who rouses himself to a pounding on the door, not because of friendship but because of his friend’s very audacity (Luke 11:5-8).
God is always available. Pray in your bed at midnight, and God will not say, I will listen to you tomorrow on your knees. Pray upon your knees, and God will not say, I will hear you at church on Sunday. Prayer is never out of season, for God never sleeps and is always present. But God, how can I freely converse with you, in all places at all hours, if I fear you? Dare I ask this question? There is more boldness in the question than in the answer. You welcome my approach though I fear you; I cannot make that approach except I fear you.
Indeed, you have arranged that if we fear you, we need not fear anything else. The Lord is my help and my salvation, whom shall I fear? (Psalm 27:1). Great enemies? No enemies are frightening to those who fear you. What about famine? The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing (Psalm 34:10). Never? Though that may be true for a time, conditions could worsen. Why should I fear when evil days come? asked David (Psalm 49:5). Even though his own sin had made the days evil, he feared them not. What about when the evil results in death? We need not fear even the sentence of death if we fear God.
Paradoxically, fear and joy go together. The women who first heard from an angel about the resurrection ran from the tomb on legs of fear and joy (Matthew 28:8 KJV). Love, too, coexists with fear. In many places we are called upon to fear God, and yet the underlying command is, You shall love the Lord your God; whoever does not both, does neither.
David and his son Solomon both affirmed that The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 1:7). A wise person, therefore, is never without fear. Although I pretend to no other measure of wisdom, I am rich in this, abundantly. I lie here possessed of fear, both that this sickness is your immediate correction and not merely an accident, and that it is a fearful thing to fall into your hands. Nevertheless, this fear preserves me from all undue fears, because you will never let me fall out of your hand that upholds me.
O God of all true sorrow and true joy too, of all fear and all hope too, as you have given me a repentance not to be repented of, so give me a fear of which I may not be afraid. Give me tender and sensitive emotions, so that as I joy with those who joy and mourn with those who mourn, may I also fear with those who fear. Meanwhile, since I’m perceiving my own danger through the fear of the doctor who has come to assist me, let me not shirk the necessary task of preparing myself for the worst, the passage out of this life.
Whether it be your pleasure to dispose of this body, this garment, by putting it to a further wearing in this world, or to lay it up in the common wardrobe, the grave, for the next world, glorify yourself in your choice now, and glorify it then, with the glory your Son has purchased for those who will partake in his resurrection. Amen.