Poetry, Pain, and the Power to See

Why Words Matter at Desiring God

Staff Devotional at Desiring God | Minneapolis

This talk was triggered yesterday in the gathering with the BCS seminary guys because of Ryan’s question about poetry. He said, “You like poetry and you think poetry is important. I don’t have a poetic bone in my body. What should I do? And does it matter?” And I totally did not expect that question. So I’ve just been thinking about it ever since then. Does this matter? Should I even bother? Is this so peripheral that it doesn’t matter? I’m going to talk about that.

Joining the Head and the Heart

I woke up this morning feeling guilty about that. I wake up feeling guilty every morning, but it’s always different. And I thought, “Okay Lord, is my worry about this a word from you? And the reason is very simple to explain why I was feeling guilty about it. It seems like it’s not the cross. Someone might say, “Paul said that he decided to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified, and you’re talking about poetry?” So you might be able to see why my heart would say, “Really? Is that close enough to the center to help long term?” And as I processed, it really does relate. I hope you feel that before we’re done. So that’s where it came from with some of the struggles.

Desiring God is the name of this ministry. God, the second word in our name, is the ultimate reality of the universe, and he has contours to his character and his being. He is one thing and not another thing. Everything you say about him might not be the case. It’s possible to say false things about God and true things about God. He has edges. He’s not that, he is this, and we have a vision. It’s summed up in the Desiring God Affirmation of Faith. So knowing really matters to us. Thinking rightly about God really matters. God is a reality. So thinking matters, that’s one word.

And desiring is also all about what’s going on inside our hearts, our souls, our minds. We care here massively about how our hearts respond to God, this reality. Thinking about him matters to us. His contours matter. Drawing a portrait of him so he’s recognizable to people rather than being mush matters. It’s not whatever you want. But over here, this ministry, with all of its resources and all of its efforts, is built on the assumption that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. So emotions really matter and that’s why poetry and language and the things you say and do that awaken emotion matter. There’s the connection with our name.

Awakening Passion

The aim of the ministry is that we exist to spread a passion. How do passions happen? Do they just get manipulated? How do you create one? Where do they come from? Some things you read and they leave you passionless, other things you read and you’re vibrating at the end — you can hardly stand that it is so powerful and so helpful. What’s the difference? I think this is the role of poetry. Let me begin with the definition because this is broader than maybe you think it is. I’m really talking, first, about a way of looking at the world, and then, I’m talking about a way of speaking.

Here’s my definition of poetry: poetry is an effort to share a moving experience by using language that is chosen and structured differently from ordinary prose. That’s really basic. It’s an effort to share — and by that I mean, get my experience into your experience so that you taste something of what I saw or felt when I saw a sunset, or saw a child, or lost a child, or whatever — so that I can help you taste, deep down, something of what I’m tasting. I don’t like the idea that you’re just standing there looking at me with a blank face and I’m happy as can be or I’m brokenhearted and nothing is happening for you. How do you help it happen? That’s what you do to a thousand people when you preach or one person when you want some empathy.

It’s an effort to share a moving experience by using language that is chosen and structured. You’re choosing the words you choose and you’re structuring them differently than if you’re just writing a memo as soon as you can and getting the email off as soon as you can, as though you’re just communicating a fact about a meeting at three o’clock. That’s not poetry. But if you paused and you wanted to awaken a certain feeling about that meeting at three o’clock, you’d give it some thought. You would think, “What could I say? What might help get them here and get them here in a certain feeling?” That would move towards poetry. That’s my definition of it.

Here’s what Jonathan Edwards says:

The duty of singing praises to God seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned why we should express ourselves to God in verse rather than prose.

He’s addressing poetry here. Here’s why Edwards thinks poetry matters. He continues:

There’s no other reason that can be assigned as to why we should express ourselves to God in verse rather than prose (and do it with music) but only that such is our nature and frame these things have a tendency to move our affections.

Now, for that to have the dynamite white it should, you have to realize the thesis statement of the book, *Religious Affections. Edwards says, “True religion consists very much in the affections,” which means there is no true Christianity without affections. So if singing and versification or poetic use of language tends to awaken authentic spiritual affections, it is massively important because that’s what true religion consists in.

Why Poetry?

Now, here’s a little story and a little background just to take you with me on this journey. This is a quote I printed out from my journal from last year when I was on leave. Here it is:

I said to Noël last night, as we were going to sleep and I was holding in my hand the collection of final poems just published by Harold Bloom called Till I End My Song, “Is there anything in your life like this?”

I have loved poetry since I was in the 11th grade. I love to read it and love to write it. I have drifted from it for seasons but returned again and again, often more passionate about it than before. This amazes me. I have changed in so many ways between the age of 17 and 65, but this remains. I love to write, not bare factual writing or bare argument, though I believe in facts and arguments. They are essential. But I want to be moved when I read and I want to move people when I write. I want deep parts of them to be awakened to the greatest realities.

I don’t want to merely impart information or get information. I want to feel, not with the body, but with the soul, the wonder, or horror, or glory of the things of God. That inclines me to poetry over and over again. It inclines me to read it and write it. In writing, I awake as often as in reading, but the combination is important. Is this sense of poetry what Solomon sought (and this relates to something we were talking about with the BCS guys yesterday) when it says in Ecclesiastes 12:10, “The preacher sought to find words of delight and uprightly, he wrote words of truth.” He sought to find words of delight. He sought them. He sought words that do more than inform. There is light delight and there is weighty delight. There is clever use of words, puns and the like, and there is the surprising turn of phrase that pleases as it penetrates the deep places.

There are apples of gold in settings of silver (Proverbs 25:11). There are double edged sword thrusts that divide soul and spirit (Hebrews 4:12). As I was thinking about the worth of poetry, this thought came to mind: poetry is not the answer, but it is a greater part of the answer than 95% of what we do with our time.

In other words, I don’t think this talk right now is the remedy for the world like Japan or whatever. It’s not the remedy for the world, it’s just a greater part of the remedy than 95% of what we do. Woe to me if I think souls are saved by me or them becoming poetic, but few are damned by it. And of the thousand things we fill our days with, this could be more useful to the glory of God than what we do most of the time.

A Book of Inspired Poetry

Let me talk about the Bible for a minute because I want to know whether I’m just going off with my personal bent or whether this has some biblical warrant. Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective has a chapter on poetry and the Christian life. And in it he says:

At least a third of the Bible is written in poetic form. Its prevalence shows that God wants people to understand and enjoy it.

That seems right to me. It’s very strange that the God of the universe would inspire one-third of his holy book in poetic form. I’m looking at it right here. For example, Proverbs, if you see the way it’s written, has all this structure. When you write in parallels, you have to give thought to what you’re saying. There’s a first half and a second half. They have to have some kind of balance. They have to either repeat or add or alter. You have to think about it.

I mentioned this yesterday. The book of Lamentations is the most structured book in the Bible, and it’s the most explosive book in the Bible emotionally because it is written as a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem, and the horrors that are happening in Jerusalem are beyond description, beyond poetic description. So if you’re a man who loves Jerusalem and you see her, and let’s say one of the towns that just lost 10,000 people is gone just like that, and you’re there kneeling over and you’re looking for your child and you see a little hand coming up from under a concrete slab, what do you do? You don’t write a poem that day. You just fall down and weep and weep and weep. And then you think of how many thousands are under this rubble, and you weep. And that goes on for days. And then under God’s inspiration, you want to record this. This is Lamentations. You want to record Jerusalem destroyed. What do you do?

The Structure of Sorrow

There are five chapters in Lamentations. Chapter one, chapter two, and chapter four have 22 stanzas each. Each stanza begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter three is even more structured. It’s the center of the book. There are five chapters and chapter three is at the center. And at the center of that is the line “great is thy faithfulness,” which is a song we love to see. It says, “Great is thy faithfulness,” and, “Your mercies are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22–24), and these women are boiling their children and eating them because they’re starving.

How do you structure that chapter? It’s 66 stanzas, and not only does each stanza begin with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, but each of the three lines in each stanza begins with that same letter. It’s the most tightly structured chapter in the Bible. And then chapter five, at the end, has 22 lines, but not 22 letters. Nothing is accidental in this book. It is like saying, “I have emotions here. They are the biggest, deepest, strongest, most horrible, most wonderful emotions I’ve ever known in my life. I must record this and I will hem myself in as tightly as I can to do it.” Isn’t that strange?

And I said to the guys yesterday, a river runs deeper when there are banks. It’s like a gorge that pushes in on a fjord. You’ve seen some of these pictures of Norway, and you can see that mountain is coming down from about 3000 feet up to the edge of this water. And judging by the angle, I think it’s going another 10,000 feet down. This is deep water. And that’s because they’re banks and they’re not moving. If the water’s going to get through here, it’s going to go deeper, not wider. And that’s the way emotions are, it seems like, when it comes to the best poetry. You say, “I’m going to force you, pain, and I’m going to force you, joy, into this mold.” It is so counterintuitive to contemporary 21st-century spontaneity.

We think if you’re going to be authentic in your emotions you must be spontaneous. We think, “Don’t read me a prayer, just let it come from your heart — from the top of your head or the bottom of your heart.” What you usually get when that happens is jargon, tried and true. People just say, “Lead, guide, and direct us, O Lord God. Lead, guide, and direct us, God.” I mean, thousands of times you hear that from spontaneous prayer by the deacons at the Lord’s table. Someone says, “Brother James, you pray for the bread.” And they pray, “Thank you, God. We’re glad to be here this morning and to have the opportunity to worship you. And we pray you lead, guide, and direct pastor, and thank you for your many blessings. Amen.” That’s spontaneity? Give me a break. That is pure rut. And we call it spontaneous. It’s not.

What we’ve got to do if we want language to do what Lamentation does is wrestle and struggle with it. I think the Bible invites us to join in this.

Adding Impact to Language

The Bible is filled with every manner of literary device to add impact to language. It has acrostics, alliteration, analogies, anthropomorphisms, assonance, cadence, chiasms, consonants, dialogue, hyperbole, irony, metaphor, meter, onomatopoeia, paradox, parallelism, repetition, rhyme, satire, and simile. They’re all there and more. And it seems to me that God invites us to join him in the creativity of his eloquence when he says:

To make an apt answer is a joy to a man,
     and a word in season, how good it is! (Proverbs 15:23).

Or Proverbs 15:11 says:

A word fitly spoken
     is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.

Or Proverbs 26:7 says:

Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless,
     is a proverb in the mouth of fools.

You have to know what you’re talking about. If you use a proverb and it doesn’t make any sense, it’s just like legs that don’t work. Colossians 3:17 says:

Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

In other words, give thought to the aptness and seasonable-ness and fitness and timing and appropriateness of your words. And here I just immediately feel the clawings of warnings at the back of my mind, lest I turn DG into people who sound artificial, as if we all have become little artists and we’re all going to outdo one another in cleverness. Don’t go there. This is either natural or it’s artifice and we don’t want artifice. If you listen to a preacher and you’re constantly conscious of his clever statements and clever turns of phrase, something’s amiss. There’s just something weird. That’s a warning that I don’t want us to go there.

The Discipline of the Lord

I have my Bible open to Proverbs 3:11–12 because of my devotions yesterday. This will be the closest thing to application to your lives. It’s where all of you are from time to time. I’m at Proverbs 3:11–12. I’m going to read it and make an application. Then I’m going to read a poem that John Donne wrote about it. I’m getting mixed up. Here’s the passage:

My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
     or be weary of his reproof . . .

God disciplines us as his children — hear the word “son”, hear the word “God”, and hear the word “discipline” — and he doesn’t want us to react angrily. I don’t like people who commend anger toward God. I don’t like that. It’s a bad idea. We may get angry with God, but we should repent after we’re done. God can handle it, that’s true. But don’t despise the discipline of the Lord or be weary of his reproof. Being weary at this reproof means it goes on a long time and you get tired of it. You might think, “It’s gone on long enough, Lord. I’m tired of it.” Don’t go there, don’t go there. There are those two amazing warnings, the response of feeling anger at God’s discipline and just being fed up with it, thinking, “It’s just too long, like a lifetime.” The reason we shouldn’t be fed up and angry is that it says:

For the Lord reproves him whom he loves . . .

And we may say, “It doesn’t feel like love.” Yeah, that’s why he’s teaching us. Of course, it doesn’t. He’s teaching us how to experience it. He loves us. Now so far, this is not new to me and not especially fresh to me, but the next phrase is life-changing if it hits you deep enough. It says:

As a father the son in whom he delights.

Huh? He delights? While he’s disciplining me because he disapproves of what I’ve done? It’s because he sees imperfections in me that need sanctifying. He sees rough edges that need knocking off. He sees dross that needs burning out. And he’s delighting in this? I thought when you spank a child, it’s the moment when you don’t delight in him. Other times you delight in him, like when you pick him up and you hug him and say, “Good job!” When you’re spanking him, you say, “Don’t do that anymore. That’s not the way to behave.” What is this then? The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.

Delight and Disapproval

Here’s the application. Some of you are more wired this way than others, and please take heed if you are. All of us are wired like this sometimes. Sometimes we think that if we saw God while he was disciplining us, we would see him and his hands would be folded and he would be rolling his eyes. And we’ve all got a sense of this. Culturally, this communicates disapproval. Or we could do other things that communicate, “How many thousands of times are you going to do that?” The eyes roll. Now, those things communicate what I would call contempt. The word contempt means, to your teenager or your five year old, “You disgust me. I’m sick of you.” Now, that’s not what I sense in the word delight here (Proverbs 3:12).

God is not pleased with my pride, my selfishness, and whatever it is in me that needs to be burned away — my fear, my greed, my covetousness, my lust. Whatever he sees in me, he disapproves of it, and he’s going to use whatever it takes to burn it out of me. But we must somehow see him with a different kind of countenance than the rolling of the eyes and the “You disgust me” look, because he’s a father who delights in us.

I’ve been really trying to own that. It’s one thing to say that, and it’s another thing to get up in the morning and believe it when you’re prone to always feel guilty. I often think, “The Father must be displeased because of whatever.” You don’t have to have any reason at all. Sometimes there are just bad feelings in your brain or head or heart or stomach or wherever. So what do you do?

Eyes That Never Despise

I read this from John Donne. It’s just a little phrase. This is from a blog from some weeks ago. He died in 1631.

Though Thou with clouds of anger do disguise
Thy face, yet through that mask I know those eyes,
     Which, though they turn away sometimes,
          They never will despise.

Oh, that’s good. That is so good. Let me read it again:

Though Thou with clouds of anger do disguise
Thy face, yet through that mask I know those eyes,
     Which, though they turn away sometimes,
          They never will despise.

That came so close to what I was feeling that the effect of those four lines of poetry had a big wallop. He worked hard on that poem — disguise, eyes, despise, sometimes. There are broken lines and different features to this that didn’t come in a moment. And the fact that he would give effort to find a way to say that tells me he’s wrestled with some of what I wrestle with. He must have or he wouldn’t have written it like that. He has a God who’s angry at him and not despising him. Angry and not despising. That is what I’m saying. He’s spanking us and he’s not contemptuous. His hands are not on his hip, and his eyes are not rolling.

And yet, it’s something like, “Son, don’t do that anymore. I love you. I’m not going to let you do that.” You feel the tone of voice that says, “My son, I love you. I delight in you. You’re on the way to becoming like me.”

Poetry Resources

I should have said to Ryan yesterday, “Here are a couple of books.” He said, “I don’t have a poetic bone in my body. What should I do?” This is a collective volume of Christian poetry for the last thousand years. It’s called [A Sacrifice of Praise]. It may be out of print now, I don’t know. But put it on your bedside table and just take a taste every night for one or two minutes. That’s what I do. That’s one resource — A Sacrifice of Praise.

And then the Poet Laureate of America five years ago was Ted Kooser. He’s an old Kooser of a guy. I love his picture. It just looks like he doesn’t have any teeth. I love this book. It’s called the Poetry Home Repair Manual. It’s just about poetry. And I just love it, I could hardly put it down. It’s another resource.

Clyde Kilby was my literature teacher, and he’s one of the big reasons probably why I am moved the way I am. Clyde Kilby is with the Lord now and was my literature teacher at Wheaton. He came to First Covenant Church here in 1976 while I was still at Bethel, and he gave a talk. Everything I have ever written is our website, I think. It’s a wonderful resource to me. I said to Josh the other day, I just love finding what I’ve written at DG. I don’t know where it is at home, but I can find it there. So I printed this article out.

Ten Resolutions for Mental Health

I’m going to do for you what he did for me. I’ll read these and then we’ll be done with my part. He gave a talk on something like “Poetry and Life”, and he wrote a book called Poetry and Life. He was from Tennessee and had a southern accent, and he would walk into class and give devotions before he got into the romantic literature stuff. His devotions often came from the Old Testament. I remember the series that came from Job 38–39 about the animals and the ostrich that is given stupidity by God so that she’ll step on her egg — that sort of thing. And he would read it, effuse about it, laugh out loud at the world of nature, pray, and get into poetry. And I would sit there thinking, this man is so in touch with so much that I’m oblivious to. I just want to listen. I just want to absorb. He walks through the day and he sees what I don’t see. That’s what I mean by the poetic heart.

You walk into a room and you see things, and everything is analogical. It’s an analogy for other realities, deeper realities than just fluorescent light. Who likes fluorescent light? But we like the light. So what does that mean? There’s light like that, but it could be better. There are things like that. Your mind is always moving from reality to reality toward God. But he closed that talk with 10 pieces of counsel for mental health, and I’m going to read them to you and we’ll be done.

  1. At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me.

  2. Instead of the accustomed idea of a mindless and endless evolutionary change to which we can neither add nor subtract, I shall suppose the universe guided by an Intelligence which, as Aristotle said of Greek drama, requires a beginning, a middle, and an end. I think this will save me from the cynicism expressed by Bertrand Russell before his death when he said: “There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendor, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.”

  3. I shall not fall into the falsehood that this day, or any day, is merely another ambiguous and plodding twenty-four hours, but rather a unique event, filled, if I so wish, with worthy potentialities. I shall not be fool enough to suppose that trouble and pain are wholly evil parentheses in my existence, but just as likely ladders to be climbed toward moral and spiritual manhood.

  4. I shall not turn my life into a thin, straight line which prefers abstractions to reality. I shall know what I am doing when I abstract, which of course I shall often have to do.

  5. I shall not demean my own uniqueness by envy of others. I shall stop boring into myself to discover what psychological or social categories I might belong to. Mostly I shall simply forget about myself and do my work.

  6. I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence.

  7. I shall sometimes look back at the freshness of vision I had in childhood and try, at least for a little while, to be, in the words of Lewis Carroll, the “child of the pure unclouded brow, and dreaming eyes of wonder.”

  8. I shall follow Darwin’s advice and turn frequently to imaginative things such as good literature and good music, preferably, as Lewis suggests, an old book and timeless music.

  9. I shall not allow the devilish onrush of this century to usurp all my energies but will instead, as Charles Williams suggested, “fulfill the moment as the moment.” I shall try to live well just now because the only time that exists is now.

  10. Even if I turn out to be wrong, I shall bet my life on the assumption that this world is not idiotic, neither run by an absentee landlord, but that today, this very day, some stroke is being added to the cosmic canvas that in due course I shall understand with joy as a stroke made by the architect who calls himself Alpha and Omega.

A Poetic Heart

You can feel the kind of thing I mean by mental health and the poetic heart. And it has everything to do with the cross of Jesus because without somebody saying it well, we probably wouldn’t have seen it. And he bought us so that we could enjoy him that way.

Any brief questions or comments before we pray? This is not a pressure to be a poet. This is the pressure to have a poetic eye and heart. Very few people are called to craft words that way. If you try, your wife will like it, but maybe nobody else, which is worth it, maybe. I think families should do that sort of thing for each other. I wrote a poem for my boys every birthday, and a poem for Noël every Mother’s Day, every Valentine’s Day, anniversary, and every Christmas.