Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun, Which is my sin, though it were done before? Wilt Thou forgive those sins through which I run, And do them still, though still I do deplore? When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done, For I have more. Wilt Thou forgive that sin by which I have won Others to sin? and made my sin their door? Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun A year or two, but wallowed in a score? When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done, For I have more. I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun My last thread, I shall perish on the shore; Swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Sun Shall sine as it shines now, and heretofore; And, having done that, Thou hast done, I have no more.
A Hymn to God the Father John Donne, 1623
I enjoy studying the poetry of John Donne. https://www.biography.com/writer/john-donne Even though he lived 400 years ago, he wrote about very timeless and personal topics. Donne lived during a time of religious tumult and persecution. Born into a Catholic family, he later converted to Anglicanism and became a powerful preacher, as well as a poet, and lawyer. Throughout his life, he wrestled with deep theological questions of sin, guilt, redemption, and death. Yet he did so with wit, humor, and passion. The poem above, written during a long illness and near the end of his life, is filled with puns on his last name, Donne. Would God’s redemptive work ever be “done” in “Donne?” He struggles with the knowledge that his sins, having been forgiven, must be forgiven again and again. Does God never say, “Enough! I am done!?” What about stubborn sinful habits? What about sins that have led others to sin? What about last-minute, unconfessed sins?
The real question is, “How sufficient is God’s Grace?” Does God sprinkle out Grace sparingly on each sinful act, or does Christ’s blood cover All? Do our stubborn, habitual acts of rebellion pile up to a point where God cannot forgive? Having forgiven us once, twice, seventy times seven– is there a limit to His willingness to pour out Mercy? Theologically, the Bible is clear. The answer is a resounding, “NO.” God will not withhold His Grace from those who have sought it. God will never be “Done” with “Donne.” Nor will He be “done” with any of us who have chosen to follow Him. But in his all-too-human logic, Donne jokingly suggests that though God “hast” done/Donne, He “hast not” done/Donne. In other words, while Donne “belongs” to God– he has confessed his sins, and eagerly seeks to follow Christ, he still wrestles with fears that his small sinful acts prove that God does not fully “have” him– that He still lives separated from God.
But the final sin of the poem is fear– fear that somehow, at the last, Death will prevail, and Donne will “perish on the shore,” rather than be taken into Heaven. He pleads that Christ’s blood (“Thy Sun/Son”) will be sufficient; that God’s promise of eternal life will indeed hold true, and that the work of salvation is indeed “done.” In the end, the poet hopes that “Thou hast Donne.” And he must trust that God’s promises will hold, for “I have no more.” Donne cannot stop death, he cannot do anything to save himself from sin, but he can be “done” with worry and trust in “Thy Sun/Son.”
I am strangely encouraged by Donne’s poem. We all have moments of questioning and niggling doubts. And even though we “Know” the truth, our fears and emotions can play tricks on our mind. But Donne, even while putting such doubts and fears on paper, takes them to the Source of Hope. This is not a poem of accusation or despair. It is an honest and passionate desire to hear God’s calm assurance. And it is part of a long tradition that runs through the Bible. Jacob literally wrestled with an angel of the Lord (Gensis 32), Moses argued with God about going back to Egypt (Exodus 4), David questioned God (Psalm 10); even Jesus asked God, “Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27). But in our doubts and questions, God’s still, small voice echoes, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5), “My Grace is sufficient for you.” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and “Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39).
God’s work is ongoing, but it is also “done”– it is complete, whole, sufficient, and eternal. And even if we occasionally wonder and even question, we can choose to rest in His promises. Just as the poet concluded, if God “hast” done/Donne, “I have no more”– he needed to have no other fear of sin or sin of fear. And through Donne’s poetry, God’s assurance is being passed on– the work continues to be “Donne!”
*Warning– The following poem is a work of fiction. The first part of this post is meant to reflect emotions that may be associated with depression and suicide. The represent things I have heard, and some things I have said…
Do not ask me, “How are things going?” Things go on around me. Things happen at me. Things are not going– of if they are, I am not going with them…
Do not ask me, “Are you ok?” I will say, “Sure, everything’s fine.” Not because it is; not because I am, and Not because I care whether you believe me. It is what I will say because it gives you permission To feel good about asking, without actually having to Share the pain and fog and futility of my honest answer.
Do not ask me, “How are you doing?” I am not doing– not much of anything. I live surrounded by unfinished tasks– Stacks of unwashed dishes and piles of dirty laundry; Unpaid bills and unopened mail. I forget to eat or brush my teeth; I have trouble finding the energy to remember how to Smile, use polite words, look up, function…
Do not ask, “How are you?” For I am not…
How do I pray for someone like this? How do I pray AS someone like this?
Depression is devious and deadly. It impacts thousands of lives, and takes thousands of lives each day. It is easy enough for me to say, “Snap out of it!”, or to blame the person who chooses to think and act negatively. After all, attitude is a choice. We choose to look at the positive or negative in life, and no one else can choose for us what to think or how to feel.
What we can choose– all of us– is to turn our focus on God and away from the negative. I cannot rescue someone else from their own emotional demons; I cannot save myself with “positive” thoughts. I CAN cry out to the one who loves me more than I love myself– even on my best days–that HE would transform my thinking, and bring light into the darkness of those who cannot see past the fog and mire of their own gloom.
And I can stop asking the surface questions– “How are you?”– prying and digging without being prepared for the raw ooze and festering pus that comes with honesty. Those questions may be well-meant, but they often come without context or conviction. They can become a polite way of skirting the obvious– we EXPECT the reassurance that everything is fine; and when it isn’t, we feel obligated to come up with a quick cure for a problem we haven’t fully diagnosed.
Depression is scary– both for those who experience it and those who encounter it in someone else. Ignoring it, covering it up, or trying to force it into the background doesn’t help. Nor does it help to wallow in it, trying to micro-manage it or hyper-spiritualize it.
The same God who listened to Elijah begging to die just after his momentous victory over 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19: 1-14); the same God who listened to David in exile, Jonah from the belly of the whale, Moses in the midst of rebellion and exhaustion, and Job from the ash heap– He listens to us in our weariness, our grief, our confusion, and our depression. This is the same God who Himself experienced the agony of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42), and expressed a soul “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”
If you are struggling with depression, even if you question whether God is listening, you can still pray. God will never ask, “Are you ok?”– He already knows. Moreover, He already knows the best that He has for you.
If someone you know is struggling with depression, PRAY! But don’t stop there. When Elijah was depressed, God sent food and water. When Moses was struggling with the entire nation of Israel in the wilderness, God sent food and water– and wisdom from Moses’ father-in-law. Practical help, positive reminders, and consistent care DOES make a difference. I cannot begin to tell how many times a random smile or compliment has helped stem the tide for me. Someone I haven’t seen in awhile who doesn’t just jump in asking how I’m doing, or how I’m feeling, but instead comments that it is good to see me–someone who admits that they have struggled, and found grace and healing– someone whose primary goal is not to “check up on me,” or “fix me,” but rather to interact and connect and to be “present” with me.
Losing someone to suicide is horribly painful, and it is tempting to carry a load of guilt and unanswered/unanswerable questions. PRAY! And then PRAY some more! God won’t send easy answers; He won’t take away the pain of loss; though He will provide healing and grace. But God will do as He has promised– to BE with us, no matter what, and to give us a peace that passes all understanding. God never punished the people in the Bible for feeling depressed, or for crying out in despair. God didn’t tell them to “Snap out of it,” or to “Get over it.” But neither did He coddle it. He did not rescue those, like King Saul, who fell on their own swords rather than falling on their knees.
Please pray– but don’t ignore practical help. Even simple steps, like taking a shower, paying attention to sleeping, eating, and drinking habits, making sure you move/exercise/stretch throughout the day, can help. Ask for and accept help– true help–and beware of asking for “substitute” help that will enable you to continue with unhealthy thinking and behavior.
Because I want you to “do well.” I want you to “be ok.” I want you to be!
I heard the bells on Christmas day Their old familiar carols play; In music sweet the tones repeat, “There’s peace on earth, good will to men.” I thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom Had rolled along th’ unbroken song Of peace on earth, good will to men. And in despair I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said, “For hate is strong, and mocks the song Of peace on earth, good will to men.” Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor does He sleep, For Christ is here; His Spirit near Brings peace on earth, good will to men.” *When men repent and turn from sin The Prince of Peace then enters in, And grace imparts within their hearts His peace on earth, good will to men. O souls amid earth’s busy strife, The Word of God is light and life; Oh, hear His voice, make Him your choice, Hail peace on earth, good will to men. Then happy, singing on your way, Your world will change from night to day; Your heart will feel the message real, Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with alterations and *additional text by Harlan D. Sorrell.
Some Christmas Carols are the joyous outpouring of Christmas cheer, filled with the laughter of wonder of the season. Others are forged in pain and doubt that has been turned to the light of hope and renewal. Such is the story behind this hymn. http://suvcw.org/mollus/art005.ht
The famous American poet, H. W. Longfellow had lost his wife in a tragic fire just three years before he nearly lost his son in the horrors of the Civil War. When his son was severely wounded in battle, Longfellow went to the military hospital, and, when he could, he transported his son home, knowing the journey would be painful and the outcome might not be a happy one. (His son lived, but never recovered fully– see the article above.) As he sat with his wounded son over the Christmas season, he could hear the bustle and chatter, and the bells ringing from the church steeples, announcing the good news of Christmas. As his pain and bitterness churned, he wrote about it, and about how his heart was turned from bitterness to hope. (See the original poem here: https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Poetry/christmas_bells.htm
Christmas is a time of warmth and good cheer for many–the ringing of bells, the singing of merry tunes, the tinsel and glitter of decorations–but for others, it is a time of deep soul-searching. “My life is a mess. I have suffered greatly. There is no Peace On Earth!” Yet, the hope and promise of Christmas rings out greater than the darkness and the blast of gunfire, the angry outcries and the weeping of those in grief.
How can this be?
Christmas reminds us that our circumstances, though very real and very painful, are confined to this time and space. They are temporary– not in the sense that we will forget our pain or loss– but that we can still experience hope and joy and healing in their midst. “The Wrong shall fail”–there will still be evil in the world, injustice, hunger, abuse, sickness–wrong will still exist, but it does not have the power to define us, to enslave us and take away our ability to do good. “The Right, prevail”–God’s promise of Messiah (among several hundred other prophetic promises!) has been fulfilled. God is Faithful. God’s word endures. God’s Justice Will Be Done, and there will be “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.”
Christmas also reminds us that it is just in those very small things– the tolling of bells, being able to hug your child, to share memories of loved ones who are no longer here, being grateful for small gifts, giving a word of encouragement–that hope and joy are spread like ripples of water and echoes of sound. Christ’s birth was humble, but it was heralded with the hosts of angels from the highest heavens.
My prayer today is that we would listen for the true message of Christmas, and that we would echo and repeat the message– even if it seems that we are being drowned out by sirens and protests, or silenced by those who are hurting and cannot hear the sweetness in the music of the season.
Everything I thought I wanted
Was more important than
Spending time in prayer that day.
The noise of the radio in the background;
The daydreams and worries in my head-
That still small voice.
As the day passed by
My thoughts and actions
Nowhere to be found.
My worries and fears
UNTIL– I saw Your power in someone else’s life, giving ever increasing
My worries and fears–
(Nowhere to be found).
My thoughts and actions
As the day passed by.
That still small voice
The daydreams and worries in my head;
The noise of the radio in the background.
Spending time in prayer that day
Was more important than
Everything I thought I wanted.