top of page

Suffering Honestly: Philip Yancey’s Undone

Editor’s Note: Undone is acclaimed author Philip Yancey’s latest book, published by Rabbit Room Press. In it, he renders 17th-century poet John Donne’s meditations on illness and suffering into modern English and adds his own commentary, informed by his experience with a debilitating diagnosis. Read Philip Yancey’s preface to Undone, explaining his heart behind the book.

I was born at the height of an epidemic. In 1949, just over 42,000 Americans contracted the disease polio, most of them under the age of five. Less than 10 percent of the afflicted died, but a large number experienced paralysis. Children with crutches, leg braces, and deformed limbs were a commonplace sight, spreading fear among parents and children alike. My father, though an adult, somehow became infected. He spent several months in an iron lung, completely paralyzed, and then died at age 23.

My first book explored the question Where Is God When It Hurts?, a question that had hung over my brother and me like the shadow of a missing father. In the years since, my writing has often circled around the issues raised by pain and suffering. Then came 2020, when a global health crisis put everyone on the planet at risk. Within weeks, a tiny virus overwhelmed hospitals, disrupted economies, and upended everyday social interactions. For a time, everything came undone.

We had no instruction manual on how to respond to a pandemic—or did we? Historians soon dug up lessons from prior outbreaks of diseases such as polio, smallpox, cholera, bubonic plague, and Spanish influenza. At various times, these scourges spread terror and brought normal life to a halt. Each pandemic reduced humans to frail, bewildered creatures facing questions that seemed to have no satisfying answers.

Where could I find a guide who had survived such an ordeal, and who offered wisdom for the ages? I found the answer in a journal predating COVID-19 by four centuries. John Donne wrote Devotions upon Emergent Occasions in 1623, during a bubonic plague epidemic in his city of London. Here, at last, was a master tutor, a trustworthy companion in crisis.

Thrilled at the discovery, I sequestered myself in a mountain retreat and began a project that would occupy me for several months. My goal: to make more accessible for 21st-century readers the timeless insights from one of our greatest writers. The understanding and treatment of disease has changed dramatically since Donne’s time, and yet I know of no better account of someone confronting God during a health crisis.

Ironically, just as this book was being edited, my doctor confirmed a most unwelcome diagnosis: ‘Philip, you have Parkinson’s Disease,” she said. Suddenly I knew exactly how Donne felt when he wrote the first words of his book: “Variable, and therefore miserable condition of man! This minute I was well, and am ill, this minute.” Unlike Donne’s feverish battle with immediate symptoms, I face the challenge of adapting to a chronic, degenerative disease. Yet I am finding that his journal of suffering points the way toward a hard-won faith.

John Donne composed twenty-three meditations charting the stages of his illness. They include some of the most famous passages in English literature: “No man is an island . . . never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. . . .” To Donne’s meditations, I have added seven entries that explain some of the author’s background. Donne wrote as a form of contemplation, and his reflections should be read that way. I recommend reading one entry per day over a thirty-day period, slowly and meditatively. I was brutally selective as I edited Devotions, slashing anything that required explanations: archaic science or Greek mythology, or even obscure Bible passages. retained only parts that seem to have an immediate relevance, not only to the COVID-19 crisis, but to any crisis that stirs up existential questions. And, wincing at my own effrontery, I sought to tame his complicated writing style into something that modern readers can more readily absorb. I sought to extract from Donne’s literary masterpiece universal truths on how to live and how to die.

—Philip Yancey, 2023


Unknown member
Oct 16, 2023

If his name is one of the first to pop up after you post your story, it’s a sign he wants to know you better.

spacebar clicker


Unknown member
Oct 13, 2023

Nice Blog. Thank you for sharing.



Unknown member
Oct 09, 2023

This is really helpful. Thanks for sharing. If you are interested in used car industry, visit and learn.

bottom of page