John DonneI have an ancient poet to thank for my first book. During my mid-twenties, while serving as the editor of Campus Life magazine, I came across John Donne’s book Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.  I knew of Donne from fragments taught in high school—“No man is an island…”; “for whom the bell tolls…”—but I almost avoided opening the book, which could compete for a dullest-book-title award.  I’m glad I persevered.

Along with most people, I had often puzzled over the problem of pain.  Why would a loving, powerful God tolerate such suffering in the world?  I had read a number of books on the subject, but Donne’s words, something like a cross between the Book of Job and C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, leaped out at me.

John Donne had a right to question God.  As Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1623, he held one of the most eminent religious positions of the time.  In the midst of a terrible pandemic, he had buried many of his parishioners.  A third of London had died, and another third had fled to the countryside.  The great city was a virtual ghost town.  Even so, each week the survivors packed St. Paul’s, seeking words of comfort from one of Britain’s finest orators.

Suddenly, symptoms of illness appeared on Dean Donne’s own body. To his doctors it seemed a clear case of the bubonic plague.  For a month he lay sick, hearing the church bell toll for others and wondering if his death would be the next announced. Febrile, unable to consult his library, he managed to compose a series of meditations that described each stage of his illness.

John DonneDespite his weakened state, Donne’s writer’s instinct took over and he began a wrestling match with God.  How could you strike me down, God, when my flock needs me so desperately?  In my youth I was a sexual profligate—is this your way of cruelly nailing me to my bed?  Do you still heal people?  Or, do you enjoy watching us humans writhe in pain?  What message are you trying to get across to the world?  He agonized over questions like these, and scoured his memory of the Bible for answers.

As he wrote, Donne’s spiritual outlook wavered between sublime trust and paranoia.  In today’s term, he used a passive-aggressive approach with God, now demanding, now shyly retreating.  Sometimes he used the journal as a form of cognitive therapy, talking himself into faith when he had none, and into hope when he felt only despair.

John Donne's Devotions

Captivated by his insights, in my youthful enthusiasm I bought copies of his Devotions and gave them to my friends.  “Did you read it?” I asked time and again, only to get the sheepish reply, “I tried, really, but just couldn’t get past the language and old-fashioned syntax.”  Some of Donne’s sentences, after all, ran more than 200 words.

Aha, I thought, John Donne’s Devotions needs a new rendering.  He published his book a mere decade after the King James Bible, which now has scores of translations and paraphrases to aid the modern reader. So I modernized six of Donne’s meditations and sent my very first book proposal to the Religion Editor at Harper & Row Publishing.  I knew I would get his attention if I wrote on Campus Life stationery, because Harper was a major advertiser.

A few weeks later I received a rejection letter.  When I recovered from disappointment, I had a discussion with my boss at the time, Harold Myra.  He said, “Philip, rather than re-writing someone else’s, why don’t you write your own book on pain and suffering.”  So I did, and that is the origin of Where Is God When It Hurts.

Wearing a mask with John Donne's imageFlash forward almost fifty years.  By now I’ve written two dozen books, with some of them circling around the topic of pain and suffering.  Suddenly, a mysterious virus shows up that within a few months will affect nearly everyone on the planet.  Hospital corridors fill with patients; morgues overflow; stock markets tumble; conspiracy theories spread about vaccines and masks; one by one, countries go under lockdown.  A few instant-books appear with titles like God and COVID-19.  The world is desperately seeking answers to existential questions. But can content cranked out in a few weeks really contribute the insight we need at such a critical time?

Again I pick up John Donne’s book, and again I am struck by its pertinence.  In four centuries, medical science has changed so much as to be unrecognizable.  Donne was treated with bloodlettings and pigeons applied to his head and feet to draw away the vapors and humors.  The germ theory of disease had not been discovered. Yet Donne’s remonstrations with God could have been written yesterday. Published 400 years ago, his Devotions has never gone out of print. The book is so timeless that when the British newspaper The Guardian selected the 100 best nonfiction books of all time, Donne’s book ranked high on the list.

And so, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages, I decide to use the extra time provided by the shutdown to finish the project that I set aside long ago. I want to make this classic work more accessible in a new era.

Undone: A Modern Rendering of John Donne's Devotions

I am brutally selective as I work, slashing anything that requires detailed explanations of old science or Greek mythology.  I choose only parts that seem to have an immediate relevance.  And, wincing all the way, I do my best to tame Donne’s wild, witty, complicated writing style into something that modern readers can absorb.  The academics may howl in protest.  But there’s a chance that many readers may find comfort from the results of such a project.

After I complete the editorial work, in an effort to speed up the snail-like process of publishing, my assistant Joannie Barth scrambles to self-publish an edition titled A Companion in Crisis.  Soon, however, the crisis of COVID-19 is overtaken by other crises, some human-caused (wars, climate change) and some “natural” (hurricanes, diseases).

And now, just this month, our friends at Rabbit Room Press have brought out a beautiful new edition, titled Undone, that we hope will introduce many readers to the remarkable life and work of John Donne.  Click here if you’d like more information about the new release.

Happy 400th anniversary, Dean Donne.

Oh, yes, there’s one humorous postscript to my first attempt at a book, five decades ago, when I submitted a few samples of John Donne redone. The rejection letter from Harper & Row consisted of three short paragraphs.  The first reported that editors had carefully considered my proposal.  The third invited me to send along any other book ideas I might have. The middle paragraph said, “This is an important magazine source, so try to make it sound anguished and personal.”

I re-read that sentence several times, unsure of its meaning.  Doesn’t any rejection sound anguished and personal?  Then I realized what had happened: in the days of dictation, the editor’s secretary had typed his verbal aside to her in the body of the letter!  The sentence was meant for the secretary, not for me.

I waited ten years before showing that editor his rejection letter.  I’m sure he tossed in bed many nights wondering what else he had dictated that inadvertently made its way into letters—perhaps instructions like “Tell that jerk to quit pestering me, but try to make it sound nice…”



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32 responses to “John Donne Redone”

  1. Berwyn says:

    My copy of Undone (clever title) just arrived, and I’m exited to read it.

    How gratifying it must be for you to complete and finish this book after all these years. And to have written so many amazing books before resuming this one. Congratulations.

  2. Kevin says:

    Reading and responding from Vellore, India not far from where Dr. Brand served our Lord and the world for many years.
    Thank you for digging deeply into His Word and into his words so that those words can call to us any where in the world.
    P. S. … I was blessed to ride a bike from a family home to the area of his loving place of sacrifice to leprosy patients deep in South Louisiana along the MS River. “Pain: The gift nobody wants” changed everything.

  3. Emma Agola says:

    As an English language major in college in East Africa almost 30 years ago, I avoided John Donne, including the cliff notes, like the plague. I wondered how any work written in hieroglyphics, cause that’s what it felt like reading Donne, made it to the so called top 100 works of English literature. I never imagined his work would be so insightful and timeless.
    If ever a blog was timely, it was this one. It came as I was grappling with pain & existential questions relating to it. I can’t wait to read Undone. I happened to click on this blog just after I had received news of a tragic accident in Kenya that had killed a missionary couple from Michigan (Dave & Joy Mueller), along with a young nurse practitioner, all of whom had dedicated their lives to doing the kind of great commission work that you describe in Vanishing Grace, which I’m currently listening reading. I did not know these people personally, yet I was so devastated by the news. I felt like “the side” had been let down. As if this wasn’t enough, 18 people were killed in a mass shooting in Maine that night. All this, against the backdrop of the war in Israel. I have sought to understand pain, thinking perhaps, if I do so, then it won’t be so devastating; that I won’t hurt like I did when my brother died of brain cancer in the middle of the pandemic, in a sharply politically divided world. For me, reading Disappointed with God, & The Jesus I never knew & What good is God, put things in perspective; helped to point out to me that God was & still is & will always be. They helped me overcome a state of disillusionment & apathy. Yet, when events unfold like they did last week, the swiftness with which my spirit breaks is surprising to me. In the face of pain, I still find myself questioning God, questioning my faith; asking the age old question- why do such horrible things happen to such innocent or good people. Where is God when the world becomes drunk (as we say in an old African saying). I think one of your books has a title like “Where is God when it Hurts?” Perhaps this should be my next read, along with the books on grace (I think there are a few different ones right?) I’m wondering if Undone is structured in devotional format so I can use it for moments like these when one’s spirit needs some first-aid encouragement.
    Thank you for sharing about your recent health news. If I could say or do more for you besides keeping you in prayer, I would get and send you a book by Philip Yancey to uplift your spirits. Alas, you have probably read it already :).

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Thank you for this detailed account of sadness and tragedy. That’s much like what John Donne faced when he wrote this book. Yes, it is in a once-a-day devotional format. May it offer you some of the peace and comfort I’ve received from it.


  4. Hooray! I’m excited to read this work and grateful you didn’t give up on the idea.
    Thank you for continuing to invest in your craft and calling; it makes a difference in real lives, including mine.

  5. Betty Smith says:

    This sounds like another book for life lived well, even in the midst of illness and loss. I look forward to it. My son-in-law, age 29, has aggressive cancer that he is fighting. After removing his colon and appendix, plus 3 months of chemo, he is now still fighting with a different chemo. It has been very difficult and my daughter and he are bravely fighting on.
    I loved your visit to our Los Alamos United Church long ago. Irene tells me about your ski trips. I am sorry you have Parkinsons. My Uncle had it and found that yoga helped.

    WHAT IS SO AMAZING ABOUT GRACE turned my faith around and I enjoy many of your books. Your memior proves God can bring great good out of pain.
    Thank you for deeply sharing.

  6. Lee Ann says:

    Wonderful blog post. I followed the link to Rabbit Room and ordered a copy of your new book. Thank you for sharing the story of how it came to be.

  7. Lynda Mathers says:

    I have your book “A companion in crisis” which was published by DLT last year, which I have wallowed in. Is this the same as John Donne Redone? Or is this quite different?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Consider “A Companion in Crisis” an early draft of “Undone.” Mainly, we wanted to get it published during the pandemic. My rendering/paraphrase of Donne’s work is the same in the two books; “Undone” adds more of my personal reflections.


  8. Peter Reece says:

    I always benefit from your blogs. This one in particular! I’m looking forward to getting a copy of your book.

    May God bless your work Philip.

  9. Dan Huff says:

    Phillip: Enjoyed reading your memories of writing Undone. Look forward to reading it in the near future. Keep up the good work!!

  10. Kathryn Taylor says:

    Are you publishing Undone in eBook format?

  11. Bertha says:

    I enjoy his books very much, I have most of his books published in Spanish. Watching for Undone on spanish.

  12. Doug Ross says:

    Great blog, Phillip! An editor at Harper who didn’t read letters before he signed them…well he has been well paid for that. Watching for Undone on Kindle. I’ve pretty much
    Limited my reading to e-books.

  13. David Bannon says:

    To my fellow readers: IS SOME OLD ENGLISH DUDE WORTH THE TROUBLE? Yes. I own a copy and am enriched each time I open its pages. “Yeah, yeah!” a dear friend of mine complains. “But who cares if you can’t understand it?” She would be right if this were the 17th-century tome, but UNDONE spares us the learning curve (and frustration). Yancey’s unique take on Donne’s Devotions is as contemporary as anything we might find browsing a bookstore. In an age that has turned “authenticity” into a marketing gimmick, this fresh, new approach to Donne’s heart-wrenching meditations is timeless in a way that few snappy titles can match. Yet Yancey never gets in the way. With unerring insight and crisp, relevant writing, he gives us pure John Donne — as authentic and modern as ever.

  14. Susan Reading says:


    You have become one of my “Soul Survivors” ! ! You are, without a doubt, my
    favorite Christian author. I sooo appreciate your life-long search for a deeper
    faith and the way you so graciously share with us your questions/ponderings
    to which I, among millions, can relate.

    Right now I am reading your book “Prayer Does It Make Any Difference?” one
    chapter (or less) a day so as to take it slow… Your style of writing really “speaks”
    to me – so honest, fresh, and clear ! !

    I was sorry to hear about your Parkinson’s and do pray comfort and peace as
    you journey on with new challenges to your faith.

    May God bless you & keep you,
    – Susan Reading

  15. Evelette Fourniller says:

    Each blog is a new learning adventure. Thank you for sharing wisdom and inspiration that bless my life and those around me with whom I share.

  16. I read Donne’s Devotions while recovering from complications of shoulder replacement. I remember trying to concentrate on every word in his old English writing that pulsates still with his suffering. I was afraid I would forget how much he helped me then. And once again YOU did it! Your rendering of those passionate musings and pleadings, in “Undone” brought it into my world clearly and tangibly. I cannot thank you enough for your help in my suffering, as well as that of countless others. You like the master, Donne, write from the suffering gift God has given you. You are so right – there is always a purpose.❤️🙏

  17. Norman G. Raiford says:

    Thank you, Phil, for returning to your original inspiration to share John Donne’s struggles with us modern folks, many of whom can identify with his plight if not with his English. Also, thanks for sharing the humorous PS about “This is an important magazine source, so try to make it sound anguished and personal.” What a hoot! I can just imagine the editor’s “egg on the face” feeling! I do hope he sent you a “thank you” for bringing the faux pas to his attention.

  18. Laurie says:

    Your writing has been such a light and inspiration to me. What’s So Amazing About Grace was the first book of yours that I read after becoming a believer. Your insights and questions have grown my faith throughout the years. One of my dearest friends is battling a very aggressive form of Parkinson’s and I often find encouragement to pass on to her through your words (and God’s Word) stored up in my heart. I can’t wait to read this book. Praying blessings on you.

  19. Martin Young says:

    Philip….I started with What’s So Amazing About Grace, a gift from my wife for “beach reading.” I have gifted over a dozen copies to others. I have them all (I think). ..I started UNDONE last night (10/26). My first reaction is…..I have cancer…this is the right book at the right time. I end my day with Grace Notes. I just keep going, year after year…(5, 7 years) Maybe it wasn’t the right time for UNDONE when you started…but…today is the right time for a lot of people. You are in good company with me. You, C S Lewis, Detrick Bonhoeffer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Thank You for being you. You have inspired me to a service of leading others in life application of Christianity.

  20. Deborah Work says:

    I am an avid follower of yours and am grateful for your honesty and sincerity, and your blessing of writing abilities from God. You have been a beacon of light through the darkness. Having just read through some links in this blog, I saw where someone had graphed the religious changes of our population. Being older, 76, I think one aspect which I feel had a huge impact on youth at the time I was a youth, and to my feeling, still does. Hollywood, it’s writers and actors subtly but hugely affected our thinking and morals. I say this because I know it’s taken me many years to overcome this influence and become totally committed to God.

  21. Thank you for delving into literature that I wouldn’t attempt to wade through and generously sharing wisdom I can digest. Your words have helped shape my faith. Thank you over and over and more.

  22. We find your books so thoughtful provoking. Thanks for these blogs, your YouTube sharing and personal appearances. May the Lord comfort and watch over you and your own health issues. Blessings. Bruce

  23. K.Terry Brown says:

    Brilliant and funny!

  24. Glenn Irvine says:

    Funny story! It made me laugh … a great start to the day. I will ask my library to get a copy of Undone for the community.

  25. Ralph E. says:

    Funny story about the secretary breaking that “fourth wall”!

    We lost my father-in-law last week. My wife has certainly shed tears of ache, but also comfort knowing her dad is in God’s presence. He had been immobile on his right side from a stroke almost 28 years ago, but lived to see his daughter marry and see his granddaughter grow. One of the last things he told my wife is that his prayers lately had been mainly been prayers of gratitude. That brings us great joy and comfort.

    On the subject of gratitude, where is the new edition available for “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” It’s about time I secure my copy!

    Grace to you, Philip


    • Philip Yancey says:

      Ache and comfort both–that’s John Donne in a nutshell. My condolences to you and your wife.

      As for the new edition of “What’s So Amazing About Grace,” it’s available on Amazon or several other places listed in the “Books” section of my website. Of course, we like patronizing real bookstores!


  26. TERESA BOWERS says:

    Sounds like a great book! Will it be available as a Kindle book?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I’m not sure when the publisher will bring out an ebook. I just recorded my part in the audio book they’re working on.

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