Online Conversation | Life, Death, Poetry, & Peace with Philip Yancey

Life has changed dramatically in the 400 years since John Donne wrote his Devotions. Yet despite the advances of the intervening centuries, we find that, like Donne, we are still subject to sickness and death. We still long for comfort. We still want to know what God is saying to us.

Philip Yancey found surprisingly relevant answers to those perennial questions in the works of John Donne. “Nothing had prepared me for his raw account of confrontations with God,” says Yancey, who has updated the great poet’s work for modern readers in his book UNDONE: A Modern Rendering of John Donne’s Devotions.

We hosted an Online Conversation with Philip Yancey on March 15 to discuss Donne’s timeless insights on life, death, poetry, and peace.

Thank you to our sponsors, Ambassador William and Mrs. Mary Hudson and Scott and Cindy Anderson, and to our co-host, Rabbit Room, for their support of this event!  

Online Conversation | Philip Yancey | March 15, 2024

Cherie Harder: Welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with author Philip Yancey on “Life, Death, Poetry, and Peace.” I’d also like to thank our friends at the Rabbit Room who are co-sponsoring today’s program. We always love working with you all and really appreciate it. And I add my thanks as well to our sponsors for this event, Ambassador William and Mrs. Mary Hudson, and Mr. and Mrs. Scott and Cindy Anderson. We so appreciate your support.

And we’re delighted that so many of you have registered for today’s Online Conversation. I believe we have nearly 2,100 registrants joining us today. And we just appreciate the honor of your time and attention. I’d like to especially welcome our more than 300 first-time registrants, as well as our nearly 200 international guests from at least 33 different countries that we know of, ranging from Albania and Australia to Uganda and the UAE. So thank you for joining us from across the miles and across the time zones. And if you haven’t done so already, drop us a note in the chat box letting us know where you’re joining us from.

If you are one of those first-time guests or are otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith, and to offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so, and to come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope that you’ll get a small taste of that from our discussion today.

It may not seem intuitive that the journal entries of a sickened poet from 400 years ago would offer relevant wisdom to our own time on death, suffering, and finding peace, but that is precisely the case that our guest today makes. His new work Undone: A Modern Rendering of John Donne’s Devotions adapts the poet and priest John Donne’s chronicle of his own struggle with disease and mortality during the epidemic of bubonic plague that decimated London, killing a third of its citizens. Convinced he was dying, Donne wrestled with God in print as well as in person, and documented his fears, prayers, and hopes in a passionate, often anguished, argument with God, a journal that he entitled Devotions, which later came to be listed by The Guardian as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time.

While life in general and medical care in particular has changed dramatically since Donne’s time, we’re still all subject to sickness and death, and we need wisdom and a guide for the journey. So we’re so pleased to welcome our guest today, Philip Yancey, who has helped map the territory through his own writing and reintroduce the timeless wisdom of a sure guide to our own time. Philip is one of the most prolific, influential, widely read, best-selling, wise, challenging, and beloved authors in the world. His more than 25 books have been published in over 50 languages worldwide, with more than 17 million currently in print. His works include 13 Gold Medallion Award winners, including Where Is God When It Hurts?, In His Image, and Disappointment with God, and two of his works have won the ECPA Christian Book of the Year award, including The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace? While he has written on a broad range of topics for an array of publications, including Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Evening Post, Publishers Weekly, The Atlantic, Christian Century, and National Wildlife, he has also repeatedly returned throughout his works to the topics of grace and suffering. His newest release, Undone, explores both themes through his creative rendering of John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.

Philip, welcome.

Philip Yancey: Thank you very much, Cherie. And you’ve mentioned the whole title there. I think they had a contest in John Donne’s day. Let’s find the most boring title possible: Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.

Cherie Harder: [Laughs.] I think they kind of liked long, lengthy titles back then.

Philip Yancey: Right? But, yeah, and he produced a book that has never been out of print for 400 years. That’s worth celebrating.

Cherie Harder: Absolutely. So I wanted to ask, why did you write this? How did you discover Donne’s Devotions? Why did you find them so very powerful? And what led to this project where you essentially tried to provide a new rendering and wording of his journal?

Philip Yancey: It was a long time ago I began my career as a journalist. I worked for a magazine called Campus Life, and as you mentioned, I freelanced for a bunch of other magazines, including Reader’s Digest. I did a series of columns that they called “Drama in Real Life.” And they tend to be tragedy stories. A young man who was attacked by a grizzly bear. Two children who watched their father die as he was in a snow cave on Mount Rainier. Just one tragedy after another. And I would interview these people, the survivors, and say, “Tell me what was going on. What was it like? What did you learn? Give me the facts.” And again and again they would say, “You know, the worst part for me was the church. I’m lying in a hospital bed and I’m just trying to recover. I’m trying to get well. And these various people come from the church with these ideas. One person would say, ‘You know, you must have done something terribly wrong because God is punishing you.’ And the next person would say, ‘No, it’s not God, it’s the devil. The devil is attacking you.’ And the next person would say, ‘No, it is God causing this. But it’s not because God’s punishing you. It’s because you’ve been chosen to specially represent how to handle suffering to other people.'” And these people are just lying there trying to get well. And I’m a young journalist. I don’t know what in the world to say, how to answer that question, what did I think.

So I started looking around, and I found this book by John Donne, and it just blew my mind. Because 400 years ago, he thought he was dying. And he, as a last will and testament, wrote this book that has, frankly, answered so many of my questions. And I started buying copies and giving them to my friends and saying, “You should read this book, you should read this book.” And then later I would say, “Well, what did you think? Did you read it?” “Well, a little bit.” “How much?” “Oh, a couple pages maybe.” “Come on. This is a great book. You got to read this book. Why not?” And they would say, “Well, it’s pretty hard to get into.” Because he used some pretty long sentences. I counted, one of them was 234 words. The language was 400 years old, and some of the science and medicine was just kind of crazy. The state-of-the-art medicine in that time: you applied pigeons to a person’s mouth to draw away the evil vapors. Or you would take blood. You know, how they would bleed people when of all times you need more blood.

So I decided even then—that was over 40 years ago, Cherie—I would like to take the best of that book that John Donne wrote, trim it a little bit, take out some of the outdated science and medicine, and then as carefully as possible, not doing, you know, anything too radical to John Donne’s great work, but just make it a little more accessible, breaking it up a little bit, trimming some portions, correcting some things that he got wrong—because he wasn’t really using his references as he’s lying in bed there and he got some Scripture references wrong. So it was a bold move. And I started it 40 years ago and couldn’t get it published. And my boss at the time, Harold Meira, said, “Well, why don’t you write your own book on pain?” And I did. That was my first book, Where is God When It Hurts? When the pandemic happened in 2020, I thought, I’m watching these books come out after three days or, you know, 60 days, books on God and the pandemic. And why would we try to invent something new when there was this great classic work? And so I picked up that project—I hadn’t worked on, I hadn’t thought about for more than 40 years—and did a modern rendering, trying to keep the very best of John Donne and just making it a little more accessible for our time.

Cherie Harder: You know, you mentioned it was 40 years ago when you first discovered him. And I think probably most of us have had the experience where there’s a book that we loved when we were younger and we read it when we were older, and it affects us quite differently. And just, you know, thinking about your own experience, you discovered Donne when you were young. It seems like you’ve had really kind of an incredible adulthood of mountaintop experiences, both in terms of just your own professional success, but also I believe I read that you’ve climbed every 14,000-foot peak in Colorado. So quite literally, mountaintop experiences. And then recently you received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. How do you read Donne differently now than when you first discovered him 40 years ago?

Philip Yancey: Well, I guess I feel I’m a companion of his now, and I can understand some of those passages in a different way. For example, one of the most famous passages that I learned about in high school was “for whom the bell tolls.” In those days, if you were close to death, often the church bell would toll for you to alert others to care for you. When you died, a different bell would toll. And when you were buried, at your funeral, a third bell would toll. So John Donne was the dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the largest church in England. So there’s a bell tolling all the time, practically, in those plague years, because a third of London died during that period. So he’s lying in bed, and he would hear these bells. And he started wondering, “Huh, I wonder who that is. I wonder if that’s a neighbor of mine or one of my parishioners. I wonder— oh. I wonder if it’s me. Maybe it’s the bell announcing death. And my doctors haven’t told me.” And he’d start getting a little paranoid.

And then he came up with that wonderful passage about “no man is an island.” And what happened was, as he’s lying there, he realizes he’s been focusing on himself all this time. “Poor me. Why would God do this? I was healthy. London needs me. What a time for me to get sick, in the middle of a plague.” He’s wrestling with those things and wrestling with God, and then suddenly he realizes because he hears that bell, “Hmm, I’ve been so focused on myself, I haven’t thought, what if it’s not me? What if it is my neighbor? What if it—.” And he changes his prayers from being so self-absorbed, where he’s concerned about his own state, to where he starts thinking of other people around him.

And I found that, in Parkinson’s, I was just blitzed with people who would give me these big fat books, exercises to do, and things to learn and things to look out for and things to expect, many of which have not come true yet. But it made me much more aware of others who are disabled. People say, I’ve heard people say that, especially a neurological disease—anything from the neck up—people don’t know how to handle. I mean, if you’re limping, they can ask you what happened. If you’re in a knee brace or something. But if you’ve got a disease that makes you have tremors or dementia, you know, we just feel uncomfortable. We don’t know how to handle those kind of things. And it made me so much more sensitive. And that was just one of the lessons that I learned from John Donne, that it’s easy to fall into this kind of pity trap of, “oh no, poor me.” And actually what we should be doing is using what we learn about ourselves and applying it to other people. There are people around us that we could be helping. And as he realized that while writing the book, his whole focus changed from himself to others. There was kind of a hinge in his writing.

Cherie Harder: One of the things you mentioned—I think it might have been in the introduction you wrote to our Reading—we excerpted your Devotionsis that you believe that Donne would have been, if he could basically time travel to our time, he’d be shocked at how little attention we pay and how much we try to avoid thinking about sin, death, and the afterlife. Why do we pay so little attention to these things? And what do we lose as a result?

Philip Yancey: Well, that sounds like a good book: three things we don’t pay attention to. Nobody wants to think about sin, you know? So we’ll just forget that one. Death, we make it as distant from us as possible. You know, we put people away in specialty places, intensive care units and things like that. And we’re only allowed to go in and see them at odd hours now and then. And if you go around and ask people—and I’ve done this—I would almost guess a majority of people in the United States have never actually seen a person die—the moment when they stop breathing, the heart stops beating, and they depart. Afterlife—you just don’t see much talk about heaven. In fact, if people try to do that, then they get this “oh, pie in the sky, by and by. You people, you’re just fantasizing, imagining.” But heaven, the afterlife, is really important on justice issues. So many of the spirituals that were written by slaves, enslaved people in the South, talk about Beulah Land, crossing the river, because their life was so bad here. The only hope they had in a good God would be if God could hold out something that was better, that was worth their believing and trusting. 

Because I’ve written about pain, I’m invited to some pretty terrible places. The worst one for me was Sandy Hook, Newtown, Connecticut, the elementary school where 20 children and then six staff members were slaughtered. And I went there just a week or so after the event, and they asked me to do two area-wide meetings there, 1,000 people in each one, including parents who had kissed their children goodbye that morning and then went back later in the day to see their blood-covered bodies and identified them. And the afterlife means a lot to them. And I could stand in front of them and say, “I know you grieve. I promise you, God grieves more. I know you’re upset about what happens on this earth. I promise you, God is more upset. God has promised to do something about it someday. And we know how God treats children because Jesus was here.” And I just went through some of the scenes of Jesus with children.

And when you have a life that is fine, relatively pain-free, successful, educated, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the afterlife. But if you are on a slave ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, knowing that you may be the next one to die because many people did die in that passage, or if you are a parent who loses a three-year-old, the afterlife takes on more significance than we tend to give it these days. 

Cherie Harder: You know, I mentioned in the introduction, that theme of suffering and death and pain has been in some ways a vocational area of focus for you. [You] just sort of keep coming back to it. And you wrote that when you were reading Donne and then decided to kind of do a new rendering, you—I’ll quote you—you “sought to extract from his literary masterpiece universal truths on how to live and how to die.” So I wanted to ask you about what gold you extracted. What did you extract from his writings on how to live and how to die?

Philip Yancey: Several things jump to my mind right away. One of them is a passage that he gave about fear. He worked through various fears: you know, fearing the doctors out in the hallway, murmuring so that he wouldn’t hear them. And of course, that just makes you more paranoid. And he feared pain. And he feared what would happen to his children if he died. His wife had already preceded him. So he was a widower. And he lists all these different fears. And then he talks about fearing God, and he goes through the Bible, as he often does, and kind of explicates what that fear, a proper fear of God, looks like. It’s not terror like you’d have in a horror movie. It’s a very different kind of awe and distance but also trust. And he kind of toys with that. And then he finally concludes, I’ve really got two choices. I could either fear God or fear everything else. And so I’m going to go with God. I’m going to trust God and direct all of my concerns in a very direct and intimate way to God in prayer. I’m going to be a fearer of God. That’s one.

Closely related to that is another one. And that is that it’s easy for us to think that when something bad happens to us, God is trying to punish us or give us a message. It’s just kind of intuitive. Even insurance companies, you know, when a tornado hits a town, they talk about an “act of God,” you know, actually in the contract. And we could talk about that if you want to. But what I’ve learned is that God is on the side of the sufferer, not the one causing it. Not the one on the opposite side. God is on the side of the sufferer. And that’s so important. When I go to places like Virginia Tech or Columbine in my backyard here in Colorado or various places and talk about pain and suffering, it’s just an important point to get across. And I know that’s true because God gave us a face. God showed us what God is like in human form. And if you just go through the Gospels and follow Jesus around, how did he respond to a widow who had just lost her only son, or even a Roman soldier whose servant had fallen ill? Jesus always responded with comfort, compassion, understanding, and healing. And so it’s important to start there. God desires that we flourish. God desires that we be well. And when we’re sick, when we’re suffering, God is on our side wanting us to get through that.

Cherie Harder: It does seem like you have been called into some of the most awful, grievous situations to offer words of wisdom and comfort. You mentioned earlier, just the horror of Sandy Hook. And, you know, I’ve also noticed a different kind of situation and one that actually reflects a little bit of John Donne’s life, where Donne had, you know, quite a colorful background. A fairly promiscuous youth, had written all sorts of kind of racy, randy poetry, was blackballed and thrown in prison by his father-in-law, and seemed to kind of have gotten his act together in a sense, in that he had converted to Anglicanism, had become the dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, had thrown himself into caring for others. And it’s at that point that he’s struck by illness. At the point where it seems like his entire life had built up to a point where, you know, this was what he was made for. I can think of a few friends that I have that sense of. And I notice you actually entitled one of your chapters, “What to Make of It?” And so it may be an unfair question, but I wanted to ask you, what do you make of that? And what did Donne make of it as well?

Philip Yancey: Yeah, Donne and I may be a little different on that point. Calvinism was brand new in Donne’s day. He was attracted and also a little repelled by it. He just was trying to figure out, is God really doing all of these things? John Calvin would say God is there with every bird that falls from the branch. You know, God is behind everything that happens in the world. And John wasn’t quite sure about that. And I guess what I have learned, Cherie, is we can’t figure that out. There are opportunities in the Bible where God has a perfect chance to explain the problem of evil, and he doesn’t. If anybody deserved an answer, it was Job, you know? Not just Job. Jeremiah. Jonah. David. You know, so many of the Psalms: why is this happening? How long are you going to wait? When are you going to act, God? And here’s Job, this righteous man who had done nothing wrong, and at the end, God appears, gives him this long speech, longest speech by God in the Bible. And yet he ignores the question of why it happened. It’s as if he said, “Job, there’s no way you can understand that. You know, let me tell you what it’s like to run the universe.” And he gives a beautiful, poetic description of what it’s like to run the universe. But he’s basically saying, “Job, you can’t handle that information.”

And Jesus, the same thing. The Pharisees and the disciples would try to pin down, why was this man born blind? What is this person being punished for? And Jesus never answered that question. He always just ignored it, as if to say, as God did with Job, “You can’t handle that. Let me worry about that. That’s my job. My job is to run the universe, not your job.” And I guess I just would say, people torment themselves: why did a tornado hit this house and not that house? Why did the three-year-old neighbor on my left come down with a blood disease, and not the three-year-old neighbor on my right? You can drive yourself crazy trying to figure that out. And we can’t. We can’t. God says, “That’s for me to worry about. I will make all things new one day. You have a choice of either trusting me or not trusting me.” And that’s kind of where John Donne ended up when he decided, “Okay, I’m going to fear God in the appropriate way rather than fear everything else, because otherwise you can just drive yourself crazy trying to figure out why did this happen? Why did this happen? We don’t really get an answer for that in the Bible. Believe me, I’ve looked at every passage over and over again. We just get a challenge to trust that God knows what he’s doing and that all things will be well someday. Romans 8 is a beautiful description of that whole process.

But what to make of it? I can’t answer that. And John Donne and even Job decided “I can’t either.”

Cherie Harder: Makes sense. So one of the interesting things you did with Undone is you structured the book in a particular way and even gave instructions, or at least encouragement, about how it should be read, which was essentially reflectively, slowly, as a daily devotion, which is actually quite the opposite of how they were written, in that you talked about how Donne wrote it, you said “personal, heated, moody, bordering on unstable.” So I’m curious why you made the suggestion to read it in a particular way, at odds with the way it was written, and what we get out of that kind of deep, reflective reading.

Philip Yancey: Yes, in Donne’s day, not that many people could read, actually. I mean, reading was a privileged activity. And if you go back and read that kind of 400-year-old literature, you see how they valued words. And Donne was in the same era basically as Samuel Johnson and some of these people. You need to chew them. You can’t just swallow it all at once. And, Donne, for example, would just fill his meditations with Scripture references, which in those days were pretty common because people would hear it in church over and over. In our days, less common. And so one thing I wanted people to do was just slow down and take your time. If you don’t understand the Bible reference, then go back and look it up and see if you agree with Donne’s interpretation or why Donne mentioned it.

And the other thing is— the best time to read about suffering is not usually when you’re in the middle of it. If you’ve got a terrible case of Covid or whatever, that’s not the best time to say, “Oh, I think I’ll investigate the problem of evil and the problem of suffering.” The best thing to do is to, when you’re feeling pretty healthy and alert, that’s a good time to tackle some of these. There is no greater theological conundrum than the problem of suffering. So I was hoping my readers would just say, “I don’t have to swallow this all at once. I can just read three pages a day, basically, and think about it and digest it, and then maybe tomorrow we’ll build off of that. But I don’t have to absorb too much. I just have to really metabolize what I read today.”

Cherie Harder: In just a second, I’m going to turn this over to questions from our viewers. But first, I wanted to ask you about a passage of your renderings which argued that we should treat the dead with reverence and learn from them. You wrote that “meditating on the death of my brother should produce a better life in me. Indeed, it would be like a second death if I passed away with no one learning from the manner of my death. The death of others should catechize us to death.” What does it mean to be catechized to death? And how does one learn from the death of others?

Philip Yancey: Cherie, if I remember correctly, I think you had Lydia Dugdale on one of these Conversations.

Cherie Harder: That’s right.

Philip Yancey: Yes. And she wrote a wonderful book called The Art of Dying. She was a physician, is a physician, and she was in New York City at the most feverish part of Covid-19 with the refrigerator trucks and the morgues and all of that, and was seeing death every day. And she went back and described how, in John Donne’s time and even before then, in the Middle Ages and on until fairly recently, dying was one of the great moments of life. It sounds funny to say, but you didn’t put people away in warehouses or in specialty medicine places. Most people, by far the majority, died at home, and they would have almost a ceremony where they would bring in their friends and their family, and sometimes they would read the will and all that. But usually they were giving a blessing, kind of like the old kind of blessings that Abraham and Jacob and people like that got, where they would go through each of the children and say, “This is what I hope for you, and this is what I’ve learned from you.” And it was just one of those moments where everybody is solemn and attentive. And death is important and it’s scary and it involves a lot of mystery, but that kind of taming of the act of dying is something that we can learn from, as Lydia Dugdale says so well. We just don’t do dying very well. It sounds funny to say, but we don’t. We don’t consider it a kind of catechism.

And Donne’s devotions, because he thought he was dying, he probably was conceiving this. “This is everything that I’ve learned that’s important in life. I’m going to try to put together in this book and just leave it as my last contribution.” It turned out, fortunately, not to be his last. He didn’t die. It wasn’t the plague that he had. It was another illness. But, my goodness, we’ve gotten this gift from John Donne that has lasted and is studied in high schools and colleges all over the world 400 years later. It’s a remarkable achievement. And I’m just a servant trying to make it a little more accessible to other people.

Cherie Harder: So we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. And just as a reminder, you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question. And that helps give us an idea of what some of the more popular questions are. So our first question comes from Nathan James, and Nathan asks, “In Undone you explore the challenges and vulnerabilities faced by individuals in ministry, particularly pastors. Given the evolving landscape of the Church and society, what do you believe are the most pressing issues pastors face today, and how can your book’s insights help them navigate these challenges?”

Philip Yancey: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think it depends on where your culture is. What did you say, something like 33 countries are represented here [on this call]? And I would probably answer that question in South Africa very differently than I would answer it in Thailand or Australia or the United States. In the United States, the challenge we face is a dramatically changing culture. People talk about the rise of the “nones,” people who check off “no religion” when they’re asked in a poll. And of course we have ethical issues, gender issues, those kinds of things that are very heated. And we also have issues between the Church and state, you know, to what degree should Christians be involved in politics? And, you know, those issues. There are some countries where that doesn’t even enter in. It’s not part of the landscape, especially those with a very small minority Christian population. So I guess in a general way, I would say that, as I think it was Kierkegaard who said, “read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” you know, depending on where you are, the answer to that question could be quite different.

But in every case, what we’re called to do is represent a God of grace and forgiveness and love. That’s the most important thing. I went back last year and redid a book I wrote 25 years before, What’s So Amazing about Grace? And I did that because I’m concerned about the vitriol in our own country, in my country, the United States. And Jesus was pretty clear about that. He was clear about his opinions, but he also said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And he lived that out. He did that. He prayed for them from the cross. And if you go back to the early Church, they didn’t win over the Roman Empire by voting. There was no voting. They won over the Roman Empire by people saying, “Huh, those Christians are different. When plague hits their town, they don’t run into the hills like I do. They stay and help not only their relatives, but my relatives as well, their enemies. And when we get rid of babies, we just leave them by the side of the road and they die. Christians don’t like this. They pick them up and nurse them back to health. I like what they do better than what I do. I want what they’ve got.” And no matter where you are in the world, that is true. And we’re talking about this health situation, that’s one thing that we as Christians— there’s a whole long tradition of Christians being involved in health services, so that in sub-Saharan Africa, even today, more than half of the medical care is given by missions, by hospitals that were formed by missions. And that’s been true in India and many other countries as well. So we should be the kind of people who are first attuned to the issues of the day in that culture, and yet at the same time, to show how different we are in a way that makes people say, “I want what they’ve got.”

Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from an anonymous attendee who asked, “What are some of the parallels you see between Donne’s time and our postmodern age in terms of perspective and worldview?”

Philip Yancey: Yes. Donne was living at a crucial time in science. Ptolemy and Copernicus, these theories were brand new. Donne called them the “new physic.” And he was pretty bold. He liked science. And a lot of preachers were saying, “This is heresy. The Earth doesn’t revolve around the sun. The sun revolves around the Earth. We’re the center of the universe.” And they were wrong. And you have to be careful. There are many, many times— I learned early on in my life that not everyone who claims to speak for God actually does. And that’s one of the areas, the area of science, where the Church has made some pretty serious stumbles over the years. Because that area, actually, of science and materialism— there wasn’t much atheism in Donne’s day, but there was a lot of viewing religion as kind of nice for other people, but I don’t really need it. You know, there was that attitude. However, it was quite different because there was a foundation of a loving God is running the universe. I think almost everybody would have agreed with that. And they had not yet done the explorations that exposed them to people who saw the world completely differently, for example, the Chinese or devout Hindus in India. You know, a few explorers had gone there, but you didn’t meet people like that on a regular basis. In the United States, of course, we’re a diverse place, and in my own lifetime I’ve seen mosques and Hindu temples and all sorts of different worldviews being implanted in our country, and we need to come to terms with them. And we need to find out a good way to communicate with them. 

I heard an interesting— it wasn’t a sermon. It was a service at Willow Creek Church in the Chicago area back in its heyday when it was really thriving, and they had arranged for a Hindu and a Muslim and a Buddhist and a Christian on a panel, and they asked them various questions. One of the questions was the theory of suffering, the problem of suffering, and each one had an answer from their own tradition. So the Buddhists said, “Well, suffering is really, it’s more an attitude of mine. It’s wrong thinking. And if we just got our thinking straightened out, then we really wouldn’t have this problem in the same degree.” The Hindu and Muslim were fairly close in that the Muslim said—they are hyper-Calvinists, in a way—”God arranges everything. So if you fall sick, God is doing that to you to teach you something.” And then the Hindu said, “You’re paying for your sins. Maybe you did something several incarnations ago, and it may take you hundreds and maybe thousands of incarnations to work out. So if you are born with a birth defect, that’s because of something you did in a prior life. And then the Christian came along, one of the pastors of the church and said, “We don’t believe that God is happy about suffering on this planet. We don’t believe that’s God’s desire, and we follow Jesus by trying to be people of healing and people of comfort and compassion. And we also believe that God will one day redeem our creation in a different way, so that there is no more problem of suffering.”

And when I listen to the various ones, I thought, “Yeah, I think that’s right.” There’s something that can be good about suffering. I mean, what John Donne taught us, what he learned and what many people learn. When you ask people, “At what time did you grow most spiritually?” about 80 percent of the time they say, “When I was going through hard times. When I was going through a suffering either in my family or personally.” So God can redeem the bad things that happened, but God isn’t pleased with them, and God has promised to heal them, to correct them. Again, Romans 8: he talks about how the whole creation is groaning in travail, and we ourselves, who have the Spirit of God, we groan. We’re not exempt from that. You don’t get a pass when you become a Christian from the problem of pain. Not at all. But at the end of that chapter, he says, “but the foundation is that nothing can separate us from God’s love,” and God will indeed stitch together the universe as it should be.

So that’s the Christian hope. It is a kind of hope. And it takes faith. But compared to some of the others, as I reflected on it, I thought, yeah, that sounds right to me. And that reflects reality.

Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Darlene Runyon. And Darlene says, “You say that God is on the side of the sufferer. What is your take of those that Jesus did not heal or rescue, like John the Baptizer, who he did not heal? There are those in our circles who have died and not been healed.”

Philip Yancey: Sure. I think it’s clear that Jesus’ main mission in coming to earth was not to change the physical laws governing our planet. He did heal people. He healed every time he was asked. And there were several, a couple of events, at least, where it seemed to be mass healings. A lot of people lined up. Interestingly, in at least one of those occasions, he would leave that crowd and get into a boat and go across the lake to get away from these people so he could pray alone at night. Turned out they followed him, and he had to face them again pretty soon. But presumably Jesus could have said, “Okay, enough of this one-on-one stuff. I’m going to just wave my arm and everybody on my right will be instantly healed, and then I’ll wave it this way and everybody will be instantly healed on my left.” He didn’t do that. His healings were quite different. John calls them signs. His goal, apparently, was not to change the anatomy of our bodies, or the number of viruses and bacteria in the world. That was not Jesus’ goal. His goal was to show what God is like or what we should be like. And he did express very clearly that God is a God of compassion and healing and comfort, and God wants us to be well. That’s clear.

But he was more interested in the way that we live, not the way that we get sick or the way that we die. And there’s an interesting story in the Gospels about the man who is lowered. They took off a roof and lowered this paralyzed man down. And the man had been paralyzed for years. And Jesus asked him an interesting question. First, one of the Pharisees said, “Who do you think you are? You say you can forgive sin.” And Jesus said, “Well, which is easier? To say, ‘take up your bed and walk.’ Or ‘your sins are forgiven you.'” And actually, when I thought about that, I thought, for the person who somehow was involved in the design of the human body, healing a withered hand or healing legs that don’t work, that’s no problem. That’s pretty easy. But for a God who has given us human dignity and freedom, the freedom even to reject God, that’s a hard thing, to say, “Your sins are forgiven you. What are you going to do about that? I can’t reach in and change your will. I can’t reach in and change the person that you are. All I can do is kind of present things and it’s up to you.” So in some ways, I think it was easier for Jesus to heal the physical bodies that he came across than his primary mission, which is to change the soul, to change the nature of who we are so that we could be connected with God and live in a different way than other people have lived throughout the history.

Cherie Harder: So Petra Barrientos asks, she says, “I work in hospice care as a Christian, and for years I have been guided by a statement I heard you make on a Trinity Forum Conversation: ‘avoid toxic positivity.’ How can we walk alongside a person suffering and dying without reverting to ‘God has this’? Does Donne’s experience help figure that out?”

Philip Yancey: That could only come from a person who works in a hospice. And my wife was a hospice chaplain, and she would run into this all the time. Part of it is our discomfort with people who are suffering. And we want to cover that up by just saying, “Oh, things are going to be better. You’re going to get well.” Well, actually, to get into a hospice, they have to determine that you’re probably not going to get well. A hospice is a place for people who usually have a terminal diagnosis of six months, or it varies from place to place. How do we avoid it? I guess I think the best way to avoid it is by being quiet. I go back to Job. You know, we talk about Job’s “friends,” but friends in quotes, because they weren’t very friendly. And yet they were at first when they came. They were so upset by what they saw in Job that they tore their clothes, put ashes on their head, and did not speak for seven days and seven nights. It’s only when they open their mouths that the problem started. And we know they were wrong in what they said. Some of it, in their case, it was mostly toxic negativity, but there was some toxic positivity as well. And I think that’s an important lesson. Jewish people have this practice based on the book of Job called “shiva,” “sitting shiva,” where they’ll sit with a mourning person after a death for seven days and seven nights and actually feed them, putting the food into their mouth, letting them know, “We’re here for you. We’re here for you.” But not talking.

And I learned something— I talked to a pastor here in Denver. He was a grief pastor. It was a large church, and they actually have a grief pastor who would spend most days in hospices and in hospitals. And he said, “I learned a lot about handling people going through grief from scuba diving.” “Oh, hello? Could you spell that out for me?” He said, “Yeah, in scuba diving you can go really low.” And he talked about, you know, 90-meter dives and things like that. “But when you do, the further depth you go, come up slower and slower and slower.” And he said, so often I’ve seen Christians in a hospital-type setting, and they want to have that cheerful, optimistic American spirit, you know. “Isn’t it time for you to get over that?” You know? “Shouldn’t you be smiling now? Don’t you know the joy of the Lord?” And this doesn’t really help. In fact, it can often hurt.

And so I’ve often thought of that scuba-diving analogy. When we’re called in a situation like that, often we do have to go pretty low. But, remember, the people that have been devastated, the people going through the trauma, they have to come up very slowly. And it’s up to us to be attentive and to be quiet, not to just fill the air with empty words, but to be quiet and listen and then gradually be with them at every stage, including these hard stages when they’re almost cursing God as Job almost did. Job would say, “Curse the day I was born. What a terrible mistake you made, God.” And his friends immediately jumped up and said, “Well, how could you say such a thing?” They should have just said, “Yeah, I can see why you feel that, Job.” Yeah. Great question. Thank you.

Cherie Harder: So Autumn Hanline asked, “The title of the conversation today included a reference to poetry. As you talk about John Donne, he processed suffering through the art of writing. What do you think the arts—poetry, fiction, painting, etc—provide to us in our grief and dying that reason perhaps cannot?”

Philip Yancey: Yeah, I’d say at least two things. First, we love stories. We remember stories. And I think of the Bible. The purpose of the Bible is to tell us truth, you know. But how does God do that? Well, there’s a lot of poetry, and there are a lot of stories. How did Jesus communicate great theological truth? He told stories, very simple stories, that anybody standing there could understand. So stories are the key way to get across truth and important things, and they kind of as, as Emily Dickinson said, they “tell it slant.”

And the other thing is that the beauty of art is that it approaches a different part of your brain. And it’s easy for us, when we’re dealing with ideas and theology, to give all the credit to the left brain over here and to outline things and to, you know—. When I look at what God did, when I read the Bible, or when I look at the world, the most obvious thing about the world, if I was a martian and just landed on planet Earth, and I’m sending notes home about what I found here, I would say this is a beautiful planet. It’s unbelievable. I’m sitting in Colorado. We had 36 inches of snow last night. The sight of the snow on those evergreens outside this window I’m looking at right now is more beautiful than anything I’ve seen in any art museum in the world. But God gave us beauty. And getting our ideas right is important, yeah. That’s what seminaries and colleges are all about. But let’s not forget that we were put on a beautiful planet and we were asked to communicate things that you can’t really communicate in outline form. Just look at the Bible and look at the way Jesus did things. Art approaches us in a different way. It kind of hits the heart first and then works its way to the mind. Whereas teaching starts with the mind and works down sometimes, and sometimes not, to the heart.

Cherie Harder: So a question from Toby Schaap and, Toby, apologies if I mangled your last name: “In what ways has God transformed you via suffering as you consider your life to this point?”

Philip Yancey: I’m still in that process. I’ve had a— yeah, I’ve had a bunch of broken bones and some illnesses and normal stuff, but nothing chronic. I did have a life-changing automobile accident where it was a snowy day like today, and my vehicle went off a cliff and turned over and over five times. I was wearing a seatbelt. I ended up with a broken neck, and the doctor came in, when they finally got the x-rays, and said, “You have a comminuted fracture,” which means it’s a C3 vertebrae and there are a lot of little sharp pieces. And he said, “We have a jet standing by to fly you to Denver,” which was a few hundred miles away. “But if one of those pieces has actually punctured the artery that I’m looking at, then you won’t make it to Denver. So here’s a phone, call the people you love, and tell them goodbye.” And I lay there, strapped to a body board, kind of like John Donne’s, you know, couldn’t even rise, and thought through, what’s the most important [stuff] in life? First question, who do I love? Who am I going to call and tell goodbye? And then, if I do survive, what needs doing? What do I need to do? And I made some decisions. That’s when I decided to write a memoir, which I finally got around to publishing just a couple of years ago, called Where the Light Fell.

So I learned something there. And now I’m learning— I guess I’m learning how to grow old. Parkinson’s is— it’s not like cancer. And it’s not like some parts of growing old, but—. Because everything is controlled by your brain, it’s not like I’m losing my mind. It’s like I’m losing my body piece by piece. And I don’t know how it’s going to break out. I could have trouble with tremors. Some people have constipation. Some people have vision and hearing and swallowing problems. You never know, because everything is controlled by your neurons, and Parkinson’s starts eating away at the neurons.

But my wife came across a very, I think, a very good definition of health. She can’t even remember where she saw it. But it’s “health is the ability to adapt to life as it happens.” Health is the ability to adapt to life as it happens. And I, you know, I’ve often thought about how much growing old is like being young. So when you’re young, you learn to walk, but you fall down a lot. When you’re old, you can walk, but you fall down a lot. A lot of people have broken hips. When you’re young, you learn how to control your bowel and your—. You wear diapers. When you’re old, a lot of people wear diapers. And it’s like we return to a kind of infantile state. We slur speech, we forget things. And that takes a special kind of grace, especially in modern times, where so many people grow old. In John Donne’s time, 35 years old was the average time of death. So not that many people grew old. Now there are people, many people, who are a hundred years old. So we need to learn how to grow old in the right way. And I have a lot to learn about that. And Parkinson’s is just kind of speeding up that process a little bit for me.

Cherie Harder: Philip, thank you so much. And in just a minute, I want to ask you for the last word. But before that, a few things just to share with all of you who are watching. First, immediately after we conclude, you’ll see an opportunity to take a survey pop up. We really appreciate you taking this. We read all of these. We try to incorporate your suggestions to make these ever more valuable. And as a small thank-you and token of our appreciation, we will give you a code for a free Trinity Forum download of your choice. There’s actually quite a few Trinity Forum Readings that are very directly applicable to our conversation today, first and foremost being our “Devotions” reading that Philip Yancey wrote the introduction to, but also “Sacred and Profane Love,” which features the poetry of John Donne, “Wrestling with God” by Simone Weil, “Bulletins from Immortality” by Emily Dickinson, and “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl.

In addition, tomorrow we’ll be sending around an email which includes a video linked to today’s Online Conversation, as well as a number of further resources and related readings to help you go more deeply in the topic. So be on the lookout for that.

In addition, we want to invite all of you watching to become a member of the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who hope to advance Trinity Forum’s mission of cultivating, curating, and disseminating the best of Christian thought for the common good. There are a variety of benefits and advantages to being a member of the Trinity Forum Society. In addition to advancing this important mission, included among those is a subscription to our quarterly Readings, a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” curated list of reading recommendations, and as a special incentive gift, with your membership or your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Philip Yancey’s wonderful work, Undone.

In addition, if you would like to sponsor an Online Conversation, we would love to hear from you. Either email us or just let us know in the survey.

I’d also like to mention a few exciting events coming up for our Online Conversation schedule. Next week, we’ll be hosting Charlie Peacock and Andy Ashworth on their new book, and the title of that will be “What Matters Most.” On April 19th, we’ll be hosting John Inazu on “Learning to Disagree.” April 26th will feature Christian Wiman on his new book, Zero at the Bone. And May 3rd we’ll host John Mark Comer on his new work, Practicing the Way. And hope that you’ll join us for those various Online Conversations.

Finally, as promised, Philip, the last word is yours.

Philip Yancey: I go back to a phrase I learned from Dr. Paul Brand. I wrote three books with him—great surgeon, great Christian—and he was the one who discovered that virtually all of the abuse that people with leprosy endure is because they don’t feel pain. And this is what he said. He said, “A healthy body is not a body that feels no pain. Rather, it’s a body that attends to the pain of the weakest part.” And I think that’s what we’re called to do as Christians, and the Christian church has done a lot of that over the years. If you look around the world today, there are a lot of hurting people. There are hurting nations. There are people around us who are feeling pain in different ways. And our job is to attend to the pain of the weakest part. And if we do that, we’re following in the footsteps of Jesus, who did that when he was on earth.

Cherie Harder: Philip, thanks so much. It’s been a real joy to talk with you.

Philip Yancey: Thank you. Pleasure. Yeah, it was great.

Cherie Harder: And thank you to each of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.