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.

Reflection

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.

Prayer

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.

 

 

 

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37 responses to “A Time to Fear”

  1. Lynda Doty says:

    Years ago you told me in an email not to worry about the government but to do the things of God. That God is in control and we are to follow Him. In somewhat of a form of these words only yours were much better and deeper. It has stuck with me and it allowed me to not be crushed in the sad times we are in. So I work for those who are oppressed and love those that are in need. God will take care of the rest. It truly seems this would be a great time for Jesus to return before even the elect can not stand. May we all sparkle in smolification!! I love that word picture it is full of joy and hope!! Thank you Philip.

  2. Scott Sage says:

    Phillip, What great ideas you always have! I am so thankful that you have made John Donne’s journal reflections available as I agree that they are indeed relevant to our modern pandemic, and relevant to our understanding where our foundation really is. Del Tackett’s question of do I really believe that what I really believe is really true rings in my ears as I pray and delve into His Word during this tiime. It also reminded me of Joni Eareckson Tada’s quote, “Earth provides my one chance to give my Savior a “sacrifice of praise,” demonstrating to the heavenlies that Jesus Christ is supremely worthy of my loyalty and love (Heb. 13:15),” that I read in an article she wrote entitled, Turning Evil on Its Head.

  3. Ann Topping says:

    A friend just sent me this blog posting! Absolutely wonder-full!!!
    Question? Are you updating all of Donnie’s “Devotions” in modern English? Because if you were, I would certainly buy that book! And today, as a result of reading this blog, subscribed to your monthly blog posts! Thanks for your reflections! They’re always insightful and helpful in my Christian walk

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Yes, a complete paraphrase will be published by April, with the title A Companion in Crisis. If you’ve subscribed to the blog posts, you’ll get a notice of how to order it. Thanks!

  4. Tim Meagher says:

    Dear Philip,

    Thank you for this historical perspective. It is calming to know that such trials have taken place on a larger scale in the past. No doubt if they had the advantages of modern medicine back then, the plague may not have run its course! Still the sufferings and reflections of those affected have their value over time as we know it!

    Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from history about thinking that the “end” was/is near, but nonetheless didn’t happen like many asserted and expected. I think it changes our game plan for the future – if Jesus doesn’t come as soon as many expect, our great, great grand-children might be picking up the pieces from our generation. Are we doing our best to pass on an enduring legacy of trusting God when it seems like the only answer is for Jesus to come and clean up the mess for us?

  5. Linda Sommer says:

    Oh, Phillip, your sharing of John Donne’s mediations are so poignant. Too often Christians think they are betraying God if they’re afraid. That is is the time when we can cry out to God to be with us in our fear and He’s right there leading us on.
    Thank you for your willingness to question and not think you have all the answers. So refreshing!

  6. John Grant says:

    Philip
    I can never understand the fear of dying.
    Beautiful to see the ones that look forward to walking the streets of gold and being greeted by the heavenly host especially Jesus. In preaching so many have been taught to fear the judgment day instead of looking forward to it.
    I recommend we listen and believe more that the preaching, but more of the songs we sing and the lessons they bring and that will change our thinking.

  7. Lorraine GregoryY says:

    I am in stage 4 cancer, and thankful that regular prescribed doses of an opioid continue to control pain at present.
    When l lose my independence and if pain becomes uncontrollable, l plan to end my life. I saw my mother suffering, and do not wish to put my children through that.
    I praise God for His loving mercy, and l rest assured of His forgiveness through the death and resurrection of His dear Son Jesus Christ.
    May He give you continuing strength in your wonderful ministry, Philip.

  8. “Indeed, you have arranged that if we fear you, we need not fear anything else. ”

    –Like a dear friend, this quote from your piece…are words that heal the soul. There is nothing so refreshing as truth spoken simply.

  9. Debra says:

    I thank you for these words, so timely for me today that it is as if the Lord speaks through you at this time. I am reading of the Israelites with Moses, receiving the ten commandments, and the people stood far off from God, imploring Moses to intercede for them. Today I am so grateful for Jesus, Who brings me close to God in relationship. So your words about fear, and still drawing near speak volumes.

  10. Steve Kamerick says:

    Hello Philip, interesting wisdom in these words, fear and love, as well as boldness and release. They are not opposed in this setting but meant to be fulfilling of a person’s deepest commitment to which even John Donne could consider but not be fully aware of until the calling of God was plainly clear.
    David certainly learned about it while His Son Solomon could write about it and somehow lose the very wisdom he was gifted with at the end. Perhaps that is the reason God found it unnecessary to reveal the loss of his soul to the lust of his damaged heart.
    In these troubled times I find it hard not to consider your thoughts for this month. Thank you for your help.

  11. Jeanne Porter says:

    What a blessing and encouragment in these ‘last days’ you are Mr. Phillip Yancey!

  12. Sandra Hansen says:

    As a nurse, I often sit with men and women who fear death, diagnosis and even meeting God. Mostly, we fear a lack of control… but if I fear and love God more honestly, I will find Him to be all He claims to be.

  13. Jana Walczuk says:

    You have outdone yourself Philip! I will return to this often. Praising God for your voice😇

  14. Verdell Davis says:

    Philip, I faithfully read everything you write, and learn and teach from all of it. I carry with me from you “I begin with the premise of a good and loving God as the first principle of the universe”. Thank you for this newest from John Donne, and your reflections – I need it for this stage of life I am in.
    Verdell Davis Krisher

  15. Rodolfo says:

    Como siempre extraordinario en contenido, significado y aplicación a mi vida.
    Gracias Philip Yancey.

  16. Marlene Campbell says:

    So did he die of the plague or recover?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Turns out Donne’s illness wasn’t the plague after all, but rather a fever like typhus. He did recover, and had a few more good years in the pulpit.

  17. William Reist says:

    Thank you for sharing these reflections of John Donne. Very timely! Can you tell us anything about the painting. Is it 17th C? Artist? etc.

  18. Ken Sanders says:

    Phillip, what a wonderful message.
    We all fear in this time of despair.

    Your clarity stares at fear in its face and gives me, us …. all of us … hope.

    In Christ alone,
    Ken

  19. Peter Olsson says:

    Frank focused on his slowest possible controlled breathing. As the hours blended into several hospital days and nights, the respirator’s rhythmic sound blended with remembered music of Samuel Butler’s soothing Adagio for Strings. Frank remembered quiet mountain scenes during Aspen vacations. The shimmering mountain slopes covered in Aspen tree leaves glinting in the evening sun. He recalled the poem he wrote for Eve those years ago.
    The night delights in your beauty
    That blends with her silent self
    The expanse from dark till dawn
    Allows songs of our love music
    Your smiling eyes have spoken…
    Now only God and I remember.
    Frank calmly welcomed the removal of the breathing tube. Eve drove him home from the hospital. Social distancing or even quarantines , would no longer be oppressive. Frank had found and owned a form of healing solitude. Nothing can take it away, not even COVID-19.

  20. Craig Sanders says:

    Deep deep well of wisdom.
    Beautiful.
    Thanks.

  21. Ralph says:

    Another scripture that comes to mind is Isaiah 8 where it says, “ You are not to say, ‘It is a conspiracy!’
    Regarding everything that this people call a conspiracy, And you are not to fear what they fear or be in dread of it. It is the Lord of armies whom you are to regard as holy. And He shall be your fear, And He shall be your dread.” But especially what follows: “Then He will become a SANCTUARY.” This is the passage referenced in I Peter when he urges the early Christians to be ready to give account for their faith. It seems that so much of the hysteria-driven rhetoric that’s been fueling the violence and anger we’ve witnessed recently is because these self-proclaimed “believers” in God have found anything to make themselves and others fearful but have forgotten that only the fear of God can make everything fall into place and, most importantly, allow us to be secure in Him.

  22. Anne says:

    Thank you for this good explanation of how the fear of the Lord and loving God travel together.

  23. Dr. James L. Hudgins, President Emeritus of SC Technical College System says:

    Phillip,
    I have read all of your books after receiving an autographed copy of The Jesus I Never Knew from the president of Columbia International University as a “gratuity” for consulting with them on their reaffirmation of their accreditation With SACS. I was President of the community college in Columbia, an officer at SACS, an chair of 20+ SACS accreditation teams. As a Phd graduate from Bob Jones University I had the same teen age years and 20’s with rigid funndamentalism; thus, I could identify with your writing. I now send your books as appropriate to friends, redeemed and unbelievers, according to their needs. Thank you for all you have contributed to my life.
    JIM

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Fascinating, Jim. I have a memoir coming out in October, Where the Light Fell, which has some stories you’ll likely identify with. –Philip

  24. Belinda Galvez says:

    Sir,
    Thank you so, so much for this.
    Keep safe and healthy, and may you continue ministering through your thoughts, words, and writings.
    Blessings all the more..

  25. Mary Turner says:

    Dear Phillip,
    How we appreciate your writings.
    I just gave a copy of ‘Where is God When it Hurts’ to a friend who has suffered long. She is finding it so helpful.

    “Fear that this sickness is your immediate correction and not merely an accident…..”. This I find very troubling. Is this still John Donne ? For three years we went to a Christian Reformed Church where the sovereignty of God was preached, ie: everything is controlled by God.
    How very troubling I find this doctrine. I recently had a total knee replacement. At three weeks all was going well. Then a cyst burst behind my same knee creating excruciating pain and set me back three weeks in rehabilitation. God ?
    Not as far as I’m concerned. A weakness in my body physiology.
    If God contols everything then what about the Holocaust ? What about suffering of aborted babies ? What about cancer in children ?
    It seems pointless to pray ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven’ if everything already happening is already His will.
    This is only the beginning of other doctrines they hold that deeply troubled me.
    Thank you for being a writer who questions becuse after 45 years of trying to follow Jesus, I still have huge questions about suffering and especially hell.
    Blessings,
    Mary Turner

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Calvinism was new in John Donne’s day, and he was ambivalent about their emphasis on God’s sovereignty. Many of his meditations struggle with the issue, as well as his guilt over his randy past. This selection on Fear shows the very fear/trust dilemma he lived with. I’m with you on the questioning!

  26. My mom died in August. She had a stroke after a surgery, then infection and covid. Her dying has brought grief like I have not known before, but also it has brought eternity closer. And the things that matter for eternity. The things that mattered before don’t seem to matter now. Fear of the process of death remains but not fear of eternity – Jesus is in eternity. And the most important thing is that all my people are there with me. I pray it is so!
    Thank you for this article.

  27. Helen G Brien says:

    Have followed Philip from the very beginning. He is stunning! Wise! Thoughtful!
    Helpful.

  28. Laura Warfel says:

    So needed this morning as the light enters this new day. As the soreness in my arm reminds me of the vaccine against our most recent invader. As my blood pressure borders on borderline yet again. As I think I can’t go on for one more day with all the pain and sadness surrounding me. God is here. God is bigger than all of this. Thank you for speaking the truth: God is bigger than our fear.

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