Finding Forgiveness With John Donne
† A Hymn To God The Father
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more…
Wilt thou forgive that sin 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 wallow'd 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;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more…
This poem of lament and confession comes from the pastoral heart of John Donne. He was born in 1572 to a Catholic family in London some 55 years after Martin Luther had posted his 95 protesting abuses of the Catholic Church. He lived through the two reigns of Elizabeth and James I, and later abandoned his Catholic family tradition to become an Anglican Protestant, eventually becoming the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Although not as well-known, he is Shakespeare’s equal in his mastery of language, and he left us with such well-known phrases as “No man is an island…,” “More than kisses, letters mingle souls…” and “therefore, never send to know for who the bell tolls,: it tolls for thee.”
Donne lived in a time when there was no separation of church and state, between religion and politics. Thus, asking theological questions with settled political answers was a dangerous thing. As a pastor, poet, and preacher, however, Donne presses forward with courage to ask the deeper questions of a sinner before a holy God, and because of it, centuries later, we are blessed. In this poem, he strikes a tone that many of us are familiar with — shuffling between devotion to God and the doubting of salvation. We join with him as he anguishes over “a guarantee that his trust in Christ will not prove to have been misplaced.” We glimpse a man who is wrestling with his sin and with a holy God, and who wants to know — like any self-recognized sinner — is my sin forgivable?
It is ironic that a poem titled with praise to God and affection the Father, actually is full of brazen and doubting questions. One scholar observes, “Donne has written a hymn that does not set out to praise God so much as engage him in a debate.” Notice how the problem and persistence of sin are front and center throughout. Different kinds of sin are presented to the reader: original sin inherited from Adam, repeated sins that so easily entangle, sins that cause others to sin, sins that were overcome by repentance for a season but have now reappeared, and even a doubting of God’s forgiveness at the end of life. The questions in this poem go something like this: Will you forgive me for being Adam’s child? Will you forgive me for being a doorway to sin? Will you forgive me for being persistent? Will you forgive me for doubting salvation at death?
Like Paul who desperately asks, “Who shall rescue me from this body of death?” so Donne, after asking his doubting questions, turns to find an answer in Jesus Christ. The answers to these questions we all ask in our more quiet moments lies in the grace and the tender mercy of Christ; not in the inherit goodness, which we think we possess apart from God.
Donne is starting at ground zero by focusing not on what he has actually done against God (of which there is plenty), but what he in his nature wants to do. He tells us it was his sin, “though it were done before.” How could it be his sin, yet it was done before? It is a poetic way of speaking on original sin. He will later ask for forgiveness about the things he does, but he begins by asking forgiveness for his desire to sin. In other words, it is not only his sinful actions but also his sinful desires that are in question. Could God forgive him for his natural desire to sin? Could God forgive him not only because he sins, but because he is a sinner?
Donne is in tune with what Scripture teaches about our fallen sinful nature. We sin because we naturally inherit a desire to sin. Just as we individually inherit traits from our physical parents, so all of humanity has inherited a trait from our original parents, Adam and Eve. Or put another way, we are born with the roots of our tree sinful, and so without some sort of transplant the fruit will be rotten as we grow up. It is our nature that must be changed, and only the Spirit of God can reach down and dig up the rotten roots of our wintry hearts so that we can experience the vibrant spring of Christ-like transformation.
Theologians sometimes refer to humanities fallenness as the doctrine of total depravity. The Bible speaks of our predicament as Adam’s sinful children often: David in Psalm 51 says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me…” and Galatians 5:19-21 lists various acts that come from our sinful nature. Jesus taught us, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander…” and Paul reminds us that “…sin entered the world through one man (Adam), and death through sin. In this way, death came to all people because all sinned. According to Romans 5, it is the curse of Adam we all inherit. Yes, we can be forgiven for this, and even better have our very nature changed so our desires are to love, serve and obey God. How many of us would marvel watching a rushing river impossibly change its direction? God does the miraculous work of making the river of our sin flow the opposite way toward obedience and His glory. Repentance as an act of worship is an integral part of this miracle.
Donne has the courage to face up to an all too often ignored reality in our culture, the fact that we are sinners by nature. He wants to know if God deal with that? Yes! God’s grace is powerful enough not only to forgive us for our sins, but to change our nature into that of Himself — that is, Jesus Christ, who, on our behalf, not only died a death that should have been ours, but lived a life of obedience to the Father that can be ours as well by faith in Him. Donne was not afraid to plumb the depths’ of his humanity — in all its glory of being made in the image of God and in all its sinful wickedness as a fallen child of Adam.
He was part of a 17th century group of poets sometimes referred to as the “Metaphysical Poets.” Among other things, it is a fancy way of saying his poems often begin by using reason but end in paradox. The title itself is an example of this. Did you notice the irony of a poem that boldly confronts God with doubting questions is gently and affectionately titled as, ‘A Hymn To God the Father?’ Is this poem a guilty sinner talking to a judge or an innocent child talking to his father? Can any of us relate to this paradox of how we might feel in our relationship with God and approach to Him? It is our embracing of Jesus Christ, the Father’s heaven sent Son, that makes all the difference in how we are able to relate to God (John 13:20).
The next question in the poem concerns the sins for which he deplores but still desires to do: “Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run, and do run still, though still I do deplore?” Even though he deplores it, he still finds himself running through it. A deer might know the lion waits for him away from the protection of the dense forest, yet it can still find the allure and pleasure of the open field dangerously drawing it toward peril once again. Paul expresses a sinner’s struggle in Romans 7: “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” Our sinful addictions are very real part of the human condition. Part of the Season of Lent is isolating these sins, “that so easily entangle us…” so that we might be aware of what weighs us down in our race toward the city “whose architect and builder is God (Heb. 11:10).” Worship always allows time to take stock of the entangling sins in our lives.
The first two sections of the poem both end with the intriguing phrase, “When thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more.” It is Donne’s poetic way of saying that even when God forgives what he has mentioned, He cannot be finished with the business of forgiveness because our poet has even more to sins to confess. This is the sobering and hard business of repentance emphasized during Lent. Every year we recognize that once again, in light of God’s purity and holiness, we have more to confess. The possibility of our continual confession can lead to discouragement. However, even while we are doing this often-unflattering self-examination, let us not lose heart. 1 John 1:9 give us the comforting words, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The bitter reality of our sin is sweetly diluted by the promise of forgiveness, but this cup of relief can only be raised to our lips through the process of lament and confession. Thanks and glory be to God that His grace, love and mercy are never less than our “have more” to confess.
Look back at the two questions he asks in the second paragraph. First, “Will thou forgive that sin which I have won other to…” Does it ever occur to us that our sin impacts beyond ourselves, and makes other people stumble on their pilgrim’s way? Sin is selfishness, and isn’t it ironic that we can be oblivious to how our sin harms others because we are so utterly focused on how it has made us feel. Do you and I ever stop to ask how our sin smooth’s the sinful path for others to walk in? David and Bathsheeba became doorways into sin for each other (Ps 51); Peter, through his misunderstanding of the Messiah, became a doorway for Jesus to turn away from His Father’s will (Mark 8), and Paul exhorts believers not to become a stumbling block to our brother (Rom. 14:3). Have we become a stumbling block to another through our greed, anger, lust, or quest for power? Donne regrets the ways in which he has become a doorway into sin for others? Does that give pause to some of our unbridled sins? Second, he asks about sins that have their seasons in his life; sins that even though overcome for a number of years, come back and find a place to nest for another score of years. Just when we think we have victory over a sin within our grasp, it comes back to gain a stronghold in our lives (Gen. 4:7). Donne needs forgiveness for that, and wonders: “Can God deliver?” Yes, indeed, God’s grace can cover us, for “he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” (Ps 103:14)
As we close our look at Donne’s penitential poem, let us savor and rejoice in the final paragraph. Our poet has dared (before God and us) to remember many of his sins and failures, and it has the potential to lead him to despair. Indeed, he wonders about the day of his death (“when I have spun my last thread”), — will he perish on the shore, not making it to heaven, not being ushered into God’s presence because of his sins? The last paragraph begins by acknowledging one last sin, a fear that God’s mercy might be one length to short. “I have a sin of fear,” he laments; but as the apostle John writes to us, “There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out all fear.” (1 John 4:18) That is why he can end on the hopeful note of “I fear no more.” Just as Ms. Charlotte Elliot would realize over two hundred years later as she wrote the hymn Just As I Am, Donne realizes that he has only one plea — the plea that the eternal Christ will shine brighter than the cursed combination of all his darkest days (John 1:5). The grace of God can, by faith in the gift of God’s own Son, bring forgiveness and healing to all of our lives. God’s self sustaining love in the Trinity and His mercy and grace have the final word for the sinner who humbles himself before His mighty hand (1 Pet. 5:6), and having done that He will have done it all.
Oh what a God of mercy,
In spite of all my sin;
When I returned on bended knee,
He took me back again;
God has given us so many ways of confessing, lamenting and repenting of our sin in worship. John Donne is a wonderful example of how we might use Christian poetry to help lead our people to worship a holy and merciful God. How can people receive forgiveness for that which they never confess? Who are we to take our pocketknife of modern sensibilities and whittle away one of God’s prescribed ways of dealing with sin, namely lamenting and confessing sin? Biblically acceptable worship must include prayers of lament and confession from those who want to worship according to God’s revealed pattern. Hymns, prayers, and poems such as the one above are tools God has provided us with to lament, confess and repent of our sin in worship.