In this essay, Editor-at-Large Philip Yancey, author of Where Is God When It Hurts? and Disappointment with God, reflects on how his life and work have been changed by John Donne’s meditation on, and experience of, suffering. This is the second in a series of essays produced for CHRISTIANITY TODAY on how contemporary Christian writers have been influenced by the classic authors. These essays will be published in book form as The Reality and the Vision (Word).

No matter where I start, I usually end up writing about pain. My friends have suggested various reasons for this phenomenon: a deep psychological scar from childhood that has not yet come to light, or perhaps an additional melancholy chromosome. I do not know.

“How can I write about anything else?” is the best explanation I can come up with for my fixation. Is there a more fundamental fact of human existence? I was born in pain, and I offered up, as my first announcement of life, a wail. I will very likely die in pain as well. Between those brackets of pain I live out my life, traveling from the one toward the other.

Before writing the book Where Is God When It Hurts? I spent a month in a library exploring what other people had written about pain. Books about “the problem of pain” filled five long shelves. While browsing, I came across a remarkable book, written 366 years ago, that has changed forever the way I think about pain: John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. The great Elizabethan poet and preacher wrote it in bed, convinced he was dying of bubonic plague. It is trenchant and inquiring without being blasphemous, profound without being abstract or impersonal. It combines the raw humanity of modern treatises with the reverent sagacity of the ...

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