Death Can Only Make Me Better: Remembering Tim Keller (1950–2023)
Today Tim Keller entered the reward of his Master. In this special episode of Ask Pastor John, Tony Reinke shares a sermon clip from Dr. Keller on the joy of God in the face of cancer.
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God Loves Through Human Love: How Grace Breeds GenerosityBy David Briones — 1 year ago
What is “grace”?
Some people today define “grace” as “God’s riches at Christ’s expense.” Others gloss it as “unconditional gift” or “undeserved favor.” Still others prefer to see it as God’s favorable disposition toward his people. However, the word grace in the New Testament (Greek charis) simply means “gift.” The content of the gift is determined by its context. For example, the definition “God’s riches at Christ’s expense” makes perfect sense in the broader context of Ephesians 2:8.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
But does that same definition fit 2 Corinthians 12:9?
[Jesus] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made
perfect in weakness.”
What about 1 Corinthians 15:10?
By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
The more fitting definition of “grace” in these two passages in Corinthians seems to be “power.” Grace is God’s power manifested in Paul’s weakness in the first, and in his ability to work harder than others in the second.
Do We Give Grace?
What about 2 Corinthians 8:3–4? Do the glosses “unconditional gift,” “undeserved favor,” or “a favorable disposition” work here?
[The Macedonian believers] gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor [same word for grace] of taking part in the relief of the saints.”
Grace here is not the immaterial gift of salvation or spiritual power. Rather, grace is the material gift of money or resources.
That may surprise you. Have you ever described the act of giving money as the giving of “grace”? Paul clearly does in 2 Corinthians 8–9, not just once, but six times (8:4, 6, 7, 19; 9:8, 15). The money bag he carried from these predominantly Gentile churches to the poor saints in Jerusalem is, strangely enough, “grace.”
But what is even more surprising about 2 Corinthians 8–9 is how the material grace of humans is inextricably connected to the immaterial grace of God.
Grace as a Person
To motivate the Corinthians to contribute, Paul begins 2 Corinthians 8 by speaking about the grace of God. “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given” (2 Corinthians 8:1). He then expands the definition of this grace in 2 Corinthians 8:9: “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
Grace, in its chief manifestation, is the gift of a person (Titus 2:11–14), our incarnate, crucified, and ascended Savior. To receive all the benefits that this gift of grace achieved, we must, as Calvin argues, receive his person: “as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us” (Institutes, 3.1.1).
In 2 Corinthians 8:9, we find that the gift of Christ’s person is given to us in the gospel — he lowered himself, so that we, through his poverty, might become rich. And this gift comes from God. It is, after all, “the grace of God” (2 Corinthians 8:1).
“Christ’s self-giving love is the paradigm for human expressions of material grace toward others.”
I find it fascinating that when Paul wants to encourage human giving in the church, he placards the divine grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the fundamental expression of giving grace as he gives himself. Paul does this intentionally to teach the church that Christ’s self-giving love is the paradigm for all human expressions of material grace toward others.
Interestingly, the only two instances where the phrase “the grace of God” appears in 2 Corinthians 8–9 are when Paul speaks of God’s giving (2 Corinthians 8:1) and human giving (2 Corinthians 9:14: “the surpassing grace of God on you [Corinthians]”). What’s the connection? God’s divine gift of grace fuels the human giving of grace to others.
God’s Grace and Ours
Consider 2 Corinthians 9:7–8. After stating that “God loves a cheerful giver” (quoting Proverbs 22:8), Paul takes a step back to explain the source of one’s giving. “God is able to make all grace [divine grace] abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work [human grace].” Also, 2 Corinthians 9:11: “You will be enriched in every way [by God] to be generous in every way [toward others].” Divine grace propels human giving.
But why is this the case? Why does our human giving depend on God’s initial gift of grace? Because “all things are from him, through him, and to him. To him be the glory forever and ever” (Romans 11:36). As Paul asks the boastful Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive? Why then do you boast as if you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). The only appropriate response is, “Everything is a gift from God’s hand.”
David also declared, “All things come from you” (1 Chronicles 29.14). John the Baptist also affirms what David declared: “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27). James agrees: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).
But God always gives his grace to his people for a particular purpose. We see this in 2 Corinthians 9:8 above (indicated by “so that”) and 9:11 (indicated by “to be”). When people in the world give gifts, they determine the purpose of their gifts. But when God’s people steward God’s grace, the purpose of giving must align with God’s purposes.
Thanks Be to God
Why? Because our possessions are God’s. He’s the Giver and the owner of grace. We’re simply stewards who mediate his grace. In a sense, we’re co-owners, but God never relinquishes his divine right over our possessions.
This becomes evident when we discover who receives thanks for the gift that the Corinthians give to the Jerusalem saints. Paul writes,
You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!
“Ultimately, humans do not receive from, but through, other humans. The giver is God.”
Why will humans direct their thanksgiving to God rather than to the human giver? Because, ultimately, humans do not receive from but through other humans. The final giver is God. He therefore deserves the final glory.
But does this mean that when I receive a gift from another human, I should never thank that person? Of course not. John Calvin’s Geneva Catechism #234 is helpful here. He writes,
Question: But are we not to feel grateful to men whenever they have conferred any kindness upon us?
Answer: Certainly we are; and were it only for the reason that God honors them by sending to us, through their hands, as rivulets [or streams], the blessings which flow from the inexhaustible fountain of his liberality. In this way, he [God] lays us under obligation to them, and wishes us to acknowledge it. He, therefore, who does not show himself grateful to them by so doing, proves himself to be ungrateful to God.
We thank God by thanking others, remembering that his gifts come from him but through others. And so our thanks should flow through others back to God — the Father of every good and perfect gift — as Paul does when he ends 2 Corinthians 9:15 by saying, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!”
More than Human Love
Recently, a close friend of mine bestowed on me a very generous gift. I was floored by his loving generosity toward me and my family, especially my mom. He loved my mom with an earnest love for widows.
But his love was no mere human love. It was divine. Not that my friend is God. But God loves through means. Ηe channeled his abundant love on us through this friend, allowing us to witness the beauty of divine and human grace for those in need. His act of generosity was simultaneously a gracious act of self-giving, and it immediately redirected my eyes and heart to the self-giving love of Christ. It was therefore more than fitting to turn to my friend and say, “I thank God for ‘the surpassing grace of God upon you’” (2 Corinthians 9:14).
Are Non-Christian Marriages Valid in God’s Eyes?By John Piper — 2 years ago
Are non-Christian marriages — the marriage of two non-Christians — legit in God’s eyes? It’s the question today from a listener named Steve. “Pastor John, thank you so much for your ministry,” he writes. “This podcast and a number of your books have had a large impact on my spiritual walk. Here’s my question: A coworker asked me if I thought God honored secular marriages. My gut reaction was yes. My coworker said no. He believes that if two parties don’t believe in God, then God is not in that marriage, and therefore God does not recognize the marriage. He went further to state that God does not even hear non-Christian prayers. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know how to respond or defend my opposition to his stance. Is there biblical backing for the legitimacy of secular marriages?”
This is one of those classic instances where disagreement precedes definition, or where conflict precedes clarification. So it’s an opportunity for me to get on my soapbox and plead with all Christians that we not engage in conflict or in debates where the terms of the conflict and the definitions in the debate are not clear.
Define Up Front
Arguing about words or phrases that are undefined is like a watchdog barking at shadows. It might scare away a burglar, but he also might scare away the fireman who’s here to save your house from burning down. An argument without clear definitions is like playing tennis with the net down and all the lines erased on the court. And you can argue till doomsday: “The serve was in!” “No, it wasn’t!” What good does that do to? That’s just crazy.
“What often happens when we insist on clear definitions is that problems begin to solve themselves.”
This is my plea: insist on definition and clarification before you disagree. For example, what does this person mean by saying, “God is not in the marriage”? What in the world does in mean? What does it mean when he says God does not recognize — or he said honor — the marriage? What does recognize mean? What does honor mean?
So what often happens when we insist on clear definitions is that problems begin to solve themselves. I’ve seen it over and over again. Often, the definitions themselves answer the questions you were debating. So I would encourage all Christians not to waste your time playing tennis without any lines on the court.
Marriages That Fall Short
So let me guess at the way this person’s mind might’ve been working, who asked this question about the validity of marriages between unbelievers. My guess is that he thinks something like this: Romans 14:23 says, “Whatever is not from faith is sin” (NASB). That’s pretty radical. Therefore, if faithless people marry, they are sinning. And since God disapproves of sin, he, therefore, disapproves of this marriage. And then the leap is made: and therefore it’s not a marriage. Well, maybe. But you’ve got to get a little bit of argument in there first.
So whether that’s the train of thought or whether there’s another one that I don’t know about, let me give several biblical reasons for why I think marriages between a man and a woman who make a promise of lifetime faithfulness to each other as husband and wife are, in fact, married. They have real marriages — even though they are not ideal. They’re not believing, they’re not rooted consciously in God’s purposes for marriage, and so they are disobedient and Christ-denying and fall short. I think that’s the way we should talk about these marriages — not that they’re not marriages.
“Marriages between an unbelieving man and woman are real marriages that fall short of God’s highest purpose.”
So, I don’t say they’re not married — which, by the way, I do say about so-called “marriages” between two men or two women or a person and an animal. That’s not marriage. It’s not marriage. There is no such thing as a marriage between two people of the same sex. Whatever the world calls those relationships, they’re not marriage. But marriages between an unbelieving man and an unbelieving woman are real marriages that fall short of God’s highest purpose for marriage.
Now, why do I say that?
1. Sinful marriage does not equal invalid marriage.
First, going back to Romans 14:23, which is a very radical text: “Whatever is not from faith is sin” (NASB). It does not follow that if something is sinful, it’s not real and shouldn’t happen. For example, in the context of Romans 14, the point is that eating certain things, even innocent things, will be sinful if they’re not done in faith.
So, if an unbeliever eats God’s good gift of meat, or drinks God’s good gift of wine or orange juice, that act, not done in faith, is a sinning act. God intended food to be eaten and drinks to be drunk with thankfulness and faith in him. All other uses of his gifts are sinful. They are failures to live up to God’s design for meat and drink.
Now, the question is, Should we conclude that unbelievers therefore should not eat since their eating is sinning? Or should we conclude that unbelievers should have faith when they eat? And the answer is this: God does not require of unbelievers that they stop eating; he requires that they trust him and thank him when they eat. And if they don’t, they’re going to be in big trouble. The same thing is true of marriage, since marrying without trusting Jesus and thanking Jesus is sinful. What does God require? Does he require that unbelievers not marry? Or does he require that unbelievers believe and trust him and thank him for the gift of marriage?
2. Unbelieving institutions still fulfill God’s purposes.
God ordained that there be human institutions like government. He explains in Romans 13:1–7 and 1 Peter 2:13–17, and he teaches that governments are real. They’re real governments, and they accomplish many of his good purposes, even when the emperor and the governors are unbelieving. So everything these governors and emperors do is sin in their unbelief, because they don’t do it from faith. And yet, that doesn’t stop God from recognizing the governments as real, God-ordained institutions of government accomplishing his purposes.
In the same way, God ordained the institution of marriage, and it too accomplishes many of God’s purposes, even when the husband and wife are unbelievers, like providing replenishment for the earth, some measure of stability against chaos, some semblance of the covenant love that God intended marriage to portray.
Now let me underline that last point. The ultimate purpose of marriage, according to Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 5:32, is to portray the covenant love between Christ and his church. This is done most clearly in an obedient, faithful Christian marriage. But it is done obscurely even in a lifelong, promise-keeping, adultery-avoiding, unbelieving marriage. So marriages accomplish some of God’s purposes imperfectly, even when the spouses are unbelieving.
3. Converted spouses should stay married.
In 1 Corinthians 7:12–16, Paul addresses Christian spouses who are converted while they are in an unbelieving marriage, so that one spouse is now a believer and one is not. And he tells them not to divorce, lest they think, “Oh, I’ve got to divorce my spouse because now this is a wrecked marriage because one of us is an unbeliever.” He does not tell them that they are now in a half-marriage or an illegitimate marriage, and he doesn’t tell them that they need to have a new wedding ceremony because they were in a non-marriage. They weren’t. They were in a marriage. It was a marriage, and it is a marriage — imperfect, to be sure, but still marriage.
4. Wrongfully entered marriage is still marriage.
When Jesus speaks of divorce, and he describes remarriage after divorce as adulterous, he still calls those marriages marriages. For example, in Luke 16:18 he says, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Well, that’s very strong language, and there’s no escaping that Jesus uses the word marry for what ought not to happen, but it does happen. And when it happens, it is what it is. If Jesus treats wrongfully entered marriages as real marriages, then it’s not a stretch to treat the marriages of unbelievers as real marriage.
Now, lots more could be said here, but let me end with this: Marriage is rooted in God’s design for creation at the beginning and is a valid institution for all his human creatures (Genesis 2:18–25). Where there is a covenant made between a man and a woman for a lifetime of faithfulness as husband and wife, we have a marriage. It will become God-honoring, Christ-exalting, truth-based when the couple believes.
What we say to an unbelieving couple is not, “Don’t marry,” but rather, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
Heart-Deep Theology: The Devotional Poetry of George HerbertBy Betsy Howard — 8 months ago
ABSTRACT: Seventeenth-century poet George Herbert once likened the experience of meditating on Scripture to inhaling a shooting star: the Bible disrupted his insides, shook his heart, and demanded visceral expression. So, as pastor of a rural country parish in southern England, he expounded Reformation doctrine and spirituality in what would come to be recognized as some of the best devotional poetry in the English language. A look at Herbert’s canon reveals why he felt the need to express scriptural doctrine in heartfelt verse, and it also illustrates some of the differences between Protestant and Catholic spirituality at the time. By expressing the theology of the Reformation in poetry, Herbert’s work adorns Protestant doctrine with an appropriately affectional response.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we asked Betsy Howard, assistant professor of literature at Bethlehem College & Seminary, to explore the craft of George Herbert’s devotional poetry.
In addition to his two English poems probing the intricacies of the Bible, George Herbert (1593–1633) viscerally describes the experience of meditating on Scripture in his Latin poem “In S. Scripturas,” or “On Holy Scriptures”:
Alas, what spirit, and ardent whirlwindTurns my thoughtsOver in my heart of hearts?Sitting by the doors at eveningHave I inhaled a shooting star,What’s more, not knowing howTo lie wholly hidden in a foul lodging,Is she considering escape?Did I, in eating honey, eat the beeSwallowing her home with the queen?1
In “In S. Scripturas,” Herbert links meditation not with its cognate descriptor, ruminating, and the metaphor of a cow’s slow digestion through its four-part stomach, but with windstorms, burning balls of gas ricocheting with uncontainable kinetic energy through the body, and the festering pain of an esophageal bee sting. For Herbert, Scripture moves forcefully and uncomfortably in a place that is “imo pectore” or, as he describes elsewhere, “hart-deep.”2 Tornados, meteors, and beestings are Herbert’s metaphorical amplifications of Scripture’s ability to disrupt one’s spiritual insides, much like the declaration in the book of Hebrews that the word of God can pierce “to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow” (Hebrews 4:12).
Given our modern cultural stereotypes of seventeenth-century Reformation spirituality, we might find ourselves surprised by the bizarre, violent beauty and the ludicrous aptness of Herbert’s comparing an evening spent meditating on Scripture to the shock of accidentally sucking in a shooting star. While the degree of vitality and imaginative energy in Herbert’s verse finds, perhaps, few contemporary peers,3 the activity of moving from scriptural and doctrinal study to composing verse adaptations of Scripture and devotional poetry was popular, even commonplace, in early seventeenth-century English Reformation culture.
Exploring the explicit connections that Herbert draws between scriptural study, the affections, and eloquence, and then setting this see-feel-say chain within the complex devotional culture developing out of and in response to various strains of the Reformation, may help to explain the popularity of theologically oriented verse in Herbert’s day. Within a larger diverse culture of devotional poetry encouraged by the Reformers and the Counter-Reformers alike, seventeenth-century English Protestantism tethered understanding to feeling and expression in ways that fostered theology expounded in poetry.
“For an early-modern English Protestant, believing a biblical truth did not stop with intellectual assent.”
To clarify how a widespread flurry of devotional poetry might accompany the exegetical and catechetical labors of the English Reformation, this essay appeals to Herbert’s canon to demonstrate how early-modern English Protestants turned to poetry to expound and amplify the theological convictions that they rooted in their readings of Scripture. Then, to answer how divergent Catholic and Protestant confessional approaches impacted a widespread culture of devotional poetry, this essay turns to the subgenre of lacrimatic poetry — or the poetry of devout sorrow — to explore how Herbert articulates a theology of godly sorrow. Herbert’s poetry of tears is both wary of Counter-Reformation treatments of penitence and eager to supplant mannered depictions of weeping in devotional poetry with probing, visceral ones. He expands facets of Reformation soteriology by linking tears of contrition to tears shed over Christ’s passion to tears wept for the sins and sorrows of others.
Devotional Poetry as Theological Amplification
One of the English Reformation habits of heart and mind that encouraged the composition of devotional poetry was a conviction that orthodoxy leads to doxology. In other words, for an early-modern English Protestant, believing a biblical truth did not stop with intellectual assent; instead, the more attention one gave to teasing out the implications of a particular doctrine or a passage of Scripture, the more one expected to be moved, and this affective response — whether love and admiration or distress and conviction — found a consistent outlet in the composition of devotional poetry. This is how Herbert’s metaphor of the shooting star works in “In S. Scripturas”: the narrator has taken in some portion of Scripture, and it not only comes in forcefully but will, we expect, come out again with significant force. Thus, in the poem’s argument, meditation on Scripture provokes the affections toward utterance.
Herbert’s “In S. Scripturas” is a doxological celebration of Scripture’s affective power, just as chapter 7 of his didactic prose work The Country Parson encourages parsons to bring to their congregation “texts of Devotion,” which Herbert defines as “moving and ravishing texts, whereof the Scriptures are full.”4 Here, Herbert not only assumes that parishioners can and will inhale their own shooting stars in Scripture, but he also expects that his fellow parsons will have already been so moved. He insists that, when parsons preach, they “dip . . . and season . . . all our words and sentences in our hearts, . . . so that the auditors may plainly perceive that every word is hart-deep.”5 In his culinary metaphor, Herbert exhorts fellow parsons to marinate their words in their affections, knowing that our affections help us to adorn what is already beautiful so as to help others see its beauty.
“For Herbert, ‘hart-deep’ words reflected a genuine desire to share beautifully what he had found to be beautiful.”
For Herbert, however, speech flavored by the affections is the opposite of affectation or what we might call performative, mannered speech. As a professionally trained orator who left his position at Cambridge for the pastorate, Herbert was acutely sensitive to slipping into sounding merely witty, or learned, or eloquent. He took with him to the Bemerton pulpit of southern England his skills of imaginative precision and persuasion, and he wrestled openly in his verse with a fear that the beauty of his poetry might be merely rhetorical show. At the same time, Herbert shouldered the particular responsibility and reality of shepherding in a rural country parish, where he recognized that he would need to take greater pains “by all possible art” to help his parishioners cultivate their attention to Scripture.6 Kate Narveson identifies Herbert’s posthumous collection of English verse, titled The Temple by his friend Nicholas Ferrar, as “didactic devotional guide” within a “culture of practical divinity.”7 If Herbert’s Temple displays his unique elocutionary talent, it simultaneously showcases a pastoral desire to stir up the affections of others toward God. For Herbert, “hart-deep” words reflected a genuine desire to share beautifully what he had found to be beautiful.8
What then does such genuine, heart-soaked speech sound like? Although in The Country Parson Herbert is teaching on the genre of sermon-craft, marinated speech readily suggests rhetorical genres like poetry that linger, amplify, and expound. Fresh paraphrase, arresting comparisons, and resonating word pairs reframe even the most quotidian truths and underscore the most astounding. In The Temple, Herbert returns again and again to spiritual themes demanding further consideration. He has five poems titled “Affliction,” all of which wrestle with the question of suffering from a different angle; he also has three poems on Scripture, three on love, two on prayer, two on baptism, and two on the temper, not to mention the times that each of these themes reappears in other poems. In his poetry, Herbert makes a “study of himself,”9 laboring to explicate his own desires and motivations, his agonies and his joys, as a means of working Scripture’s claims into the woof and weave of his everyday life, making them square with the varied, uneven nature of his own experience.
Scripture in Paraphrase
Herbert’s spiritual-literary habit of writing and rewriting poems on passages of Scripture and doctrines derived from Scripture against the grid of his own experience evinces his participation in a larger early-modern English Protestant surge of scriptural studies, which extended well beyond family and private Bible reading or exegetical homilies into a wide range of Scripture-based activities.
Chana Bloch has described Herbert’s poetic style as “a kind of biblical shorthand,”10 and as Brian Hanson illuminates, Herbert was hardly unique in his habit of amplifying Scripture: alongside devotional poetry, the seventeenth century witnessed a proliferation of devotional prayer books and catechisms.11 Gary Kuchar describes entering a seventeenth-century Anglican church as an experience akin to entering a “scrapbook of scripture,” given the prominence of biblical texts on the walls and windows and in the daily liturgical reading from the Book of Common Prayer.12 Narveson roots the flourishing of devotional poetry, in particular, in the seventeenth-century Protestant treatment of the Psalms as “infinitely expandable” by elaboration and paraphrase, since they provide an example of how to “express and anatomize the godly heart.”13 Catholics and Protestants alike shared a preference for the popularly designated “seven penitential psalms” as “the foundation of domestic devotional culture,”14 particularly in new metrical renderings.15 Even Sir Francis Bacon published a “translation” (an adaptation) of these seven psalms.
The easy metric adaptability and the expressive vulnerability of the Psalms were not the only devotional models that scriptural study provided early-modern readers; Herbert’s “Holy Scriptures II” underscores Scripture’s syntopical mode, where “this verse marks that, and both do make a motion / Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie.”16 Early-modern Protestant devotional poetry, including a significant corpus by women poets, cultivated habits of comparative reading by joining and juxtaposing passages.17 Like the handmade Scripture harmonies produced by Herbert’s friends at Little Gidding,18 composing devotional poetry was often an activity of analysis and organization just as much as it was an exercise in spiritual reflection and expression. Its beauty, therefore, was often one of parataxis and collation.19
Poetry of Tears
As cataloged by Hannibal Hamlin, however, seventeenth-century English devotional poetry’s popularity was not limited to Reformation spiritual practices. The Catholic Counter-Reformation also placed a strong emphasis on a culture of devotion, including the composition, circulation, and reading of devotional poetry. While we could catalog the general differences between Catholic and Protestant English devotional poetry, it might be more helpful to pick one shared mode — the poetry of tears, which Kuchar identifies as a “literary agon” of the day — and use it to distinguish between Counter-Reformation impulses and Protestant ones.20 We can then assess how Herbert engages this popular (and theologically contested) subgenre as he explores the characteristics of godly sorrow.
Kinds of ‘Devout Sorrow’
While the connection between tears and contrition was common and significant both to Catholic and Protestant devotional traditions in the seventeenth century, Richard Strier distinguishes two important differences between the Catholic and Protestant traditions as it relates to tears’ role in repentance: early-modern Catholicism approached repentance as a multiple-step process, including contrition, confession to a priest, and satisfaction.21 Strier clarifies, and Hanson corroborates, that Protestant traditions expected contrition and its visible tears as integral to repentance, but they understood such tears to be the fruit of forgiveness rather than its cause.22 Hamlin summarizes the distinction: both seventeenth-century Counter-Reformation and Protestant theological traditions shared practices of penitential devotion, including rewriting, reciting, and adapting the penitential psalms, but only Catholic practices of penitence required further acts of penance.23 As a result, in devotional verse, Counter-Reformation depictions of weeping are often mannered or stylized, as seen in the poetry of Herbert’s Catholic contemporary Richard Crashaw, as distinct from a rawness and “introspective intensity” in Protestant verse employed to communicate what Barbara Lewalski identifies as a markedly affective response to God’s work in the heart.24
In addition to the penitential verse that often foregrounded the activity of weeping, Kuchar identifies a shared Protestant and Catholic devotional tradition of devout sorrowing over Christ’s passion and his agony, what he calls the “compassio” — one in which the weeper suffers in remembering Christ’s suffering.25 Herbert’s poetry of tears reflects Kuchar’s first two modes of devotional sorrow: penitential and compassio sorrow. Herbert’s “Grief” and the weeper in “The Thanksgiving,” who responds to Christ’s tears in “The Sacrifice,” for example, display penitential tears as the fruit of genuine repentance that then overflow in remembrance of Christ’s suffering. But Herbert’s canon offers us a distinct third category of devout sorrow — a weeping over the sin and suffering of others, as demonstrated in Herbert’s “Church-Rents and Schisms.” I identify these tears on behalf of others as second kind of compassio, which is at its heart an evangelistic compassion — modeled after God’s grieving for us, whether Christ’s in “The Sacrifice” or the Holy Spirit’s in “Ephesians 4:30,” and rooted in Herbert’s understanding of genuine love as a concern for another’s holiness.
In his penitential mode, in his compassio meditations, and then in his compassionate tears, Herbert presents crying as a form of labor doomed, in part, to the failure of insufficiency. Nonetheless, across his poems, he suggests the real possibility of spiritual gain by means of tears in the midst of and even because of their insufficiency. If tears cannot be proportional to that which there is to grieve, what does the apparent failure of tears in Herbert teach us? In presenting the insufficiency of our tears, Herbert recalibrates devotional expectations for the “literature of tears” in Protestant practice by illuminating how tears of contrition, tears of compassio for Christ, and tears of compassion for others all transform the weepers, drawing them closer to Christ in an increased knowledge of self, an increased gratitude for Christ’s atoning death, and an increased imitation of Christ.
Sorrow over Self
If the knowledge of one’s sin is ever expanding, such a theological framework demands an ever-increasing degree and scope of mourning over sin. No matter the amount of tears, Herbert’s logic runs, our sins are more, such that we never grieve proportionately to our offenses. That one weeps more for one’s sins, nevertheless, is perceived as spiritual growth. It is much like the experience of sitting for one’s doctoral exams: the more one studies, the more one is acutely aware of how little one knows, but this sense of an increasing lack of knowledge over time quantitatively translates to more knowledge than any earlier moment.
“That one weeps more for one’s sins is perceived as spiritual growth and increased self-knowledge.”
These ever-increasing tears of contrition are the tears of “Grief,” in which Herbert modifies the pathetic fallacy: nature does not weep for him or his sins; instead, Herbert’s narrator wishes he could harness the natural world to augment or supplement his own tears. Because “Grief” pits tears and what Kuchar calls their “raw sincerity” against mannered speech as a test of genuine contrition, it is not to be lost on us that the narrator wishes to supplement his tears with other forms of “raw” water: springs, clouds, rain.26 The narrator’s crying is a primordial moment summoning the undistinguished watery chaos before creation; Herbert’s narrator wishes to “suck” into his veins “all the wat’ry things / That nature hath produc’d.”27 Herbert demands an absurd amount of water, reflecting a high degree of the narrator’s self-knowledge: he needs ocean-faucets for eyes.
Sorrow over Christ
A devotional compassio mode, meanwhile, is the epistemological counterweight to an ever-increasing sense of one’s own sorry state — to know one’s sins better is to come to better see the sufferings of Christ. As the covering of our sins is made possible only by the sufferings of Christ, any meditation on one’s own sins is always opportunity to weep for the weeping Christ. As John Drury describes, Christ’s suffering for Herbert is a double “epiphany”: that Christ suffered is inextricably bound up with why Christ suffered.28 Christ cries out in “The Sacrifice” to the disciples, “Weep not, dear friends, since I for both have wept / When all my tears were blood, the while you slept: / Your tears for your own fortunes should be kept: / Was ever grief like mine?”29 The poem’s dominant epiphany is that Christ has suffered. But “The Thanksgiving” is quick to pair Christ’s agony with its cause — which then translates to more tears for the narrator:
O King of grief! (a title strange, yet true, To thee of all kings only due)O King of wounds! how shall I grieve for thee, Who in all grief preventest me?Shall I weep blood? why, thou hast wept such store That all thy body was one door.30
Beyond the arresting image of Christ depicted as a huge bloody, weeping eye, the increased agony of the weeper also registers strongly in the stanza. Here Herbert captures the contradiction of Christ’s passion: if our reckoning with our sins doesn’t lead to despair, it inevitably leads to relief as meditation on our sins is transformed into gratitude for Christ’s suffering. Simultaneously, however, our own discomfort increases, for compassio easily flows out of a contrition that recognizes Christ’s suffering as a result of our sinning.31
Sorrow over Others
The sufferings of Christ increase our tears shed for him, but Herbert returns to Christ’s tears as yet a final model for our own devotional sorrow. In his depiction of Christ’s passion, Herbert’s “The Sacrifice” introduces a Christ who weeps not only for himself and his own suffering, but also for us, and therefore he creates a final category of devout sorrow: compassion for a sinner or sufferer for whom one does not bear any culpability. “The Sacrifice” announces that Christ “has wept” for both himself and the disciples. Beyond the contrite narrator-sinner weeping, Christ figures as the most prominent weeper in Herbert’s poems. Because Christ does not sin, Herbert makes clear that devout sorrow extends beyond sorrowing for our own sin. Christ’s suffering on our behalf is closely tied to his sorrowing for our sins and our state — it is a compassionate, personal weeping, like Rachel weeping for her children who are no more.
Herbert’s Christ in “The Sacrifice” echoes the grieving Holy Spirit in his poem “Ephesians 4:30,” where Herbert’s narrator grounds his grief in the grief of the Holy Spirit. The compassionate grieving of God for him motivates him to grieve his sin, and thus God’s compassion for our sin and our state provokes the grieving of contrition and, in turn, the compassio: “Then weep mine eyes, the God of love doth grieve: / Weep foolish heart, / And weeping live.”32 Herbert moves from God’s grieving for him to his acknowledgement that such sorrow is beyond his nature: “since still to wail / Nature denies; / And flesh would fail” to weep enough for his sin. He finds his resolution, therefore, in the blood/tears of Christ in a contrition that lingers in the compassio mode: “Lord, pardon, for thy son makes good / My want of tears with store of blood.”
The compassion of Christ for sufferers and sinners, in turn, creates the model for Herbert’s weeping narrator in “Church-rents and schisms.” Herbert’s narrator cries for the global church in her decline, personalizing the crisis by personifying church as mother:
O Mother dear and kindWhere shall I get me eyes enough to weep,As many eyes as stars? . . .. . . would at least I might With these two poor ones lick up all the dew, Which falls by night, and pour it out for you!33
Herbert’s speaker mourns for a bickering church as Jeremiah weeps for the Israelites: “Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jeremiah 9:1). The tears in Herbert’s poetry display a strong ethos of sorrowing over sin and suffering — both one’s own and another’s. Because the diverse occasions to sorrow and the degrees of human sorrow are seemingly endless, so too Herbert’s call for tears without end.
But in the same way that Herbert’s metaphors turn to the natural world that God has made to augment insufficient tears, Herbert’s poems assert that God himself will provide a stock of more tears in the dew that comes like new mercies in the morning. Herbert’s poetry of devout sorrow offers a twofold consolation model. On the one hand, his sorrowing over sins repeatedly resolves itself by pivoting from a greater knowledge of one’s sins to meditations on Christ’s passion, with ever-increasing gratitude because Christ’s death cancels all manner and degree of sin. But in Herbert’s poetry of tears, Christ is not only our Savior; he is also a model to us. If Christ has wept for us, so we also are to weep for ourselves and for one another.
Among his contemporaries, Herbert weighs in on the theological meaning of tears by illustrating how tears evidence that contrition is a fruit of repentance prompted by the work of the Holy Spirit. In Herbert’s poetry, the tears shed in remembrance of Christ’s passion highlight his suffering for our sins such that our own tears need not be those of despair but of gratitude. As Christ weeps for us, Herbert also finds it fitting that Christians weep for others in their sin and suffering.
Pastor and poet, George Herbert participated in an early-modern English Reformation theological culture that understood devotional poetry as an appropriate, even expected, affective response to meditating on Scripture. Poetry provided for Herbert both a genre in which to anatomize his own motives and affections as well as a platform to amplify Christ’s death on his behalf and God’s (often inscrutable) work. By leaving a collection of his poetry at his death to Nicholas Ferrar for potential publication, Herbert recast his poems of private devotion as those of pedagogical devotion, provoking others to engage heart-deep with Scripture and Scripture’s God.