Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Where Does My Faith Lie?

I thought I might just take this opportunity to share a favourite poem of mine - "A Hymn to God the Father" by John Donne:

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 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 ;
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.

To properly appreciate this poem, it is necessary to recognise that it was written while Donne was facing a life-threatening illness in 1623. Facing premature demise, Donne is forced to confront death face to face and perhaps more importantly, what lies beyond. What I love so much about this poem and the rest of Donne's work during this period is that he refuses to run away from these questions by offering simplistic answers. He does not deny his sense of confusion and doubt, but embraces them in the pursuit of deeper understanding.

In the first two stanzas Donne questions his identity as a Christian. He is acutely aware of the extent of his sin and the fact that even after so many years he still struggles. In this respect, what do his professions of faith really mean? He may profess that Jesus is Lord of his life, but behind these professions he asks himself whether he really considers Jesus to be Lord when his life does not reflect this? And if, after so many years he is struggling with the same sins, has he truly repented?

Donne realises that he can have no real confidence in his profession - it may be genuine, but he may be deceiving himself. This gives him reason to doubt his salvation, which he freely admits - he is worried that he shall "perish on the shore". This leads him to wrestle with God and demand a guarantee that he will saved from himself, notwithstanding his lack of belief and even his erroneous beliefs. This is reminiscent of Jacob wrestling with God and refusing to give up until he received God's blessing (Genesis 32:22-32). But it is not a blessing that Donne desires, but rather for God to swear by Himself that Donne will be preserved. This seems to reflect the story where God swears by Himself that Abraham will have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky (Genesis 22:15-18). God swears by himself as a sign of absolute guarantee to Abraham - nothing else is stable or consistent enough for which God may take an oath.

So, what does this poem say about my own relationship with God? I think that it means that God is bigger than my failings, my doubts and my misapprehensions about him. Perhaps one of my favourite verses in the Bible is 2 Timothy 2:13 in which we are told about Jesus:

If we are faithless,
he will remain faithful,
for he cannot disown himself.

And so, with this in mind, the object of my faith is further clarified:

I do not believe in myself, for my sins and struggles demonstrate that I am not a sure foundation.

I do not believe in my belief, for my faith ebbs and flows through periods of strengths and weaknesses - surely this demonstrates that my faith is not a sure foundation.

I do not believe in my beliefs, for I am fully aware of my biases and my ignorance - surely this demonstrates that my understanding is not a sure foundation.

I believe in Jesus, despite my unbelief - for He alone is my sure foundation.


emblazoned said...

You are a good writer and your work here carries poise and elegance as you examine a splendid piece from the past.

The final conclusion is convicting.

Jesus we need you.

David Castor said...

Thankyou for your kind words, Emblazoned.

I think that Donne shows a tremendous capacity to struggle with himself and with God, as well as truly rest in God's grace. I think it is so easy for someone to say that they have put their faith in God, when they are truly putting their faith in their own goodness, their own belief or their own doctrine. I wish that I could have the same kind of uneasy faith that Donne did.