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Philip Yancey: 'Pain redeemed impresses me more than pain removed'

The bestselling author Philip Yancey made a brief visit to the UK last week to attend a conference in Oxford, delivering a paper on CS Lewis and the Pandemic. Inspire books reviewer John Woods spoke to him …

The pandemic was a productive time for Yancey – he released two books, a personal memoir Where the Light Fell and A Companion in a Crisis, which is a modern paraphrase of the metaphysical poet John Donne’s Devotions, that were written in London during the Great Plague in the 17th century (see review here).

I asked Philip what he liked most about writing: He replied: “Getting it done!” He explained that he enjoys the period of research for writing and tidying up what he has written, but finds the actual writing difficult.

“You sit before a bland computer screen and think up one word, then you have to get the next one; it never stops.”

How do you balance challenge and hope?

We all have to figure out how to learn what is our voice. My voice is to be brutally honest. Don’t fall for any pretence or propaganda; tell it like it is and ask the hard questions. But I am a believer. We can be brutally honest about ourselves and about the questions of our faith and yet emerge with hope. It’s not a fairytale. A phrase I have used recently is that: ‘Pain redeemed impresses me more than pain removed.’

Every book costs the author something in time, intellectual effort and emotional impact. I guess that writing Where the Light Fell was particularly costly for you?

I did have to explore painful times, so you have to relive some of that pain but learn to stitch it together into a meaningful pattern. I waited a long time, and the reason I waited such a long time to tell these stories is that people were still living, even my mother who is 98, and I didn’t want to hurt those that I care about.

It is rather like a person who has gone through cancer and treatment and comes out the other side, and someone asks: ‘What was that like?’ And you tell it graphically, but you tell it as a healed person. When I joined a beautiful church in Chicago, it was almost as if God said: ‘Philip, you have seen the worst of the Church, now let me show you the best.’

What encourages you the most about contemporary Christianity, and what discourages you the most?

I usually start with the discouraged part. One of the most recent things is how we responded to the pandemic. If there was ever a chance for the Church to represent the God of all comfort, the Father of compassion, it would be during a global pandemic, that literally affected everybody in the world, economically and health-wise. What did we do? We sowed division, we sowed contention; the USA, the evangelicals were among the most contentious in the anti-vax movement and even the anti-mask movement.

Two things that are encouraging: I travel a lot internationally (86 countries); wherever I go where missionaries have been, they have left clinics and hospital and development organisations, anti-sexual trafficking organisations, schools and prison ministries. They don’t often get the headlines, but there they are. Some 50% of the healthcare in sub-Saharan Africa is performed by mission agencies. In most of the world people don’t have an idea what it means to be a Christian – but if I have a broken arm, they help me.

The most unexpected things happen in the church. Jesus told Nicodimus that the Spirit blows like the wind, you never know where he’s going to show up next. I remember living through the Jesus Movement: if you picked a group in the US the least likely to make a difference it would be these hippies – and yet the Spirit blew and Calvary Church and so many groups came out of that.

Or think of the Charismatic movement; the church I grew up in called them freaks, but 50% of the Christians in the world are influenced by the Charismatic movement. Consider the impact of the Alpha Course; we often tuned into HTB during the pandemic.

One of the things I have enjoyed about your books is the way to let the reader look over your shoulder to see what you are reading. That enthusiasm come over in your fresh rendering of John Donne’s Devotions. Donne seems to be able to show us how to both think and feel.

I went through a time when I tried to not feel, even breaking an arm to show that I could not feel pain. John Donne did not say ‘I am your pastor, let me show you how you should bear these trials.’ He cried out with lament; and there is a lot of source material in the Bible about that, Psalms, Habakkuk and Lamentations. It is as if Donne laid out on a dissection table: ‘Cut me open and this is the raw me.’ That was helpful for me, in the way that the Psalms help me, when we do not have the words to express the feelings we are going through, God gives us the words, and in his Devotions Donne does as well.

We can learn from a master teacher who went through it, emerged on the other side and has something to teach us.

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