As he lay isolated and alone on his sick bed John Donne thought he was dying. And with good reason. The specter of bubonic plague haunted the streets of London striking down 1,000 persons per day. The year was 1623. Three waves of the plague swept through London at that time eventually killing one third of the population.
Donne had been appointed the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1621. Rather than fleeing the city as the plague ravished its citizens, he remained and devoted himself to preaching and ministering to his flock. Then disease caught up with him and nailed him to his bed. That’s when the wrestling began. With God. Although he had earned a Doctor of Divinity degree from Cambridge and served as a minister, questions and fears tormented him.
He was quarantined, too sick to work, so he filled the time with pondering and writing. Eventually he collected the outpouring of his wrestling and published it as Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. One of the first questions he proposed to God was the “why” question. Why did this plague happen? Had God sent it? Was it a judgment or punishment? And, if so, for what? Or, did it just come about as a natural event? After ruminating on this question, he concluded there was no satisfactory answer. Many others before him, including Job, had asked essentially the same question but did not receive an explanation from God.
"Resist all other forms of fear by embracing the one necessary fear"
Then Donne’s wrestling focused on fear. The rolodex in his mind flipped through verse after verse in the Bible exhorting him to refuse fear. As Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and later when he gave them the Ten Commandments, he admonished them not to fear. God’s message to Joshua was be strong and courageous and do not fear. David said he would fear no evil. The prophets repeatedly exhorted the people not to give in to fear reminding them that God was with them. In the face of invading armies God sent messengers who delivered His assurance, do not fear or be dismayed.
In our first two livestream sermons, Pastor Dan Jarms encouraged us by exploring the “fear nots” in Psalms 91 and 46.
But Donne was afraid. He was afraid of suffering and he was afraid of death. Although a believer, death remained an enemy. It was unknowable and that uncertainty produced fear.
Finally, Donne identified the antidote to fear — it is in fact another form of fear! That is to fear God. Resist all other forms of fear by embracing the one necessary fear. Another rolodex in his mind provided verse after verse equating fear of the Lord as essential for genuine faith and the prerequisite for wisdom. True believers are those who fear God. In fact, God has great goodness stored up for those who fear Him. The secret of the Lord is for those who fear Him, the angel of the Lord encamps around them, and they are blessed.
“Give me, O Lord, a fear of which I may not be afraid.”
How is the unbeliever identified? The one who does not fear God. The wicked have no fear of God before their eyes. God’s name is to be feared and there is wrath stored up for those who refuse. “But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God.” (Ecclesiastes 8:13)
Sometimes I think we have defanged verses exhorting us to fear God by explaining that “fear” in many contexts means “reverence.” And it does. But there are also warnings that make it clear the fear of the Lord is real fear. Being afraid. Jesus made this point when He said: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28) The writer of Hebrews focused on genuine fear when he said: “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Matthew 10:31) And “. . . . our God is a consuming fire.” (Matthew 12:29) These warnings are intended to move us from complacency or presumption to genuine repentance and belief.
Donne concluded God could cope with all the temporal exigencies provoking him to fear so long as his fear of the Lord was intact. Thus, he penned these paradoxical words: “Give me, O Lord, a fear of which I may not be afraid.”
When we are confronted with all the uncertainties in our world that cause us to fear, we, too, need to ask God to replace that fear with a healthy fear of Him so that we will not be afraid of everything else. A proper understanding of who God is and how He operates are the basis of genuine faith and the source of a proper fear of the Lord. This is the message that our world needs to hear right now. When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth he reminded them of a judgment day that was coming and said: “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men. . . .” (2 Corinthians 5:11) And that is what we need to do. May the Lord give us opportunities to explain the necessity of the one fear that will quell all the other fears.
"The lessons he learned from the crisis reaffirmed his belief in the resurrection of the body and produced a 'holy indifference' to death"
So, what happened to John Donne? Well, interestingly, he didn’t die during the plague. It turned out he hadn’t contracted bubonic plague, but another less deadly disease and he recovered. He was able to resume his ministry and he lived another eight years. But the lessons he learned from the crisis reaffirmed his belief in the resurrection of the body and produced a “holy indifference” to death. The Lord had answered his prayer. His fear of the Lord did replace his other fears.
Most of this information was gleaned from Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church.