Brothers, Let The River Run Deep
- John Piper
- 2003 11 Dec
I have always felt that the works of the famous British New Testament scholar, F. F. Bruce, are unnecessarily dry. In reading his memoirs, In retrospect, I discovered one of the reasons why. He said, "I do not care to speak much-especially in public-about the
things that mean most to me."1 When you eliminate what means most to you from your writing and speaking, they will be dry. For myself, I would say just the opposite: "I do not care to speak much-especially in public-about the things that don't mean most to me."
This raises a question that is larger than the relative transparency of our souls. It raises the question about the way in which deep emotions can be expressed in public. What is the place of spontaneity and form in venting the passions of one's heart? This is more of a
problem for me than for Bruce. That's one reason I moved from teaching in college to preaching in the church. I assume passion has a big place in the life of a preacher. So maybe my ruminations on how Jeremiah handles emotions in the Book of Lamentations will fit your soul too.
I will make two observations about "The Lamentations of Jeremiah" and then draw out some implications for the use of spontaneity and form in the expression of "what means most to us."
First, Lamentations is a deeply emotional book. Jeremiah writes about what means most to him, and he writes in agony. He feels all the upheaval of Jerusalem in ruins. There is weeping (1:2), desolation (1:4), mockery (1:7), groaning (1:8), hunger (1:11), grief (2:11), and the horrid loss of compassion as mothers boil their own children to eat them (2:20; 4:10). If there ever was intensity and fervor in the expression of passion from the heart, this is it.
The second observation, then, comes as a surprise: This seems to be the most formally crafted book in the Old Testament. Of the five chapters, chapters 1, 2, and 4 are each divided into twenty-two stanzas (the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet), and each stanza begins with a different letter of the alphabet. They are three acrostics.
Chapter 3 is even more tightly structured. Again there are twenty-two stanzas, but now each stanza has exactly three lines. The three lines in each stanza begin with the same letter, and each of the twenty-two stanzas begins with a different letter in alphabetical order.
This is the only chapter that is not an acrostic. But it still has twenty-two lines in conformity with the acrostic pattern of chapters 1-4. Now what do these two observations imply? First, they imply that genuine, heartfelt expression of our deepest emotions does not require spontaneity. Just think of all the mental work involved in finding all the right words to construct four alphabetical acrostics!
What constraint, what limitation, what submission to form! Yet what passion and power and heart! There is no necessary contradiction between form and fire.
Chapter 3 of Lamentations is the most personal and most intense. Here first-person references abound: "Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall!" (3:19). Here the peak of hope is reached: "Great is your faithfulness!" (3:23). But here the author submits himself to the narrowest form in all the book.
After reading Lamentations, we can no longer believe that unpondered prayers are more powerful or real or passionate or heartfelt or genuine or alive than prayers that are thoughtfully and earnestly (and painfully?) poured out through a carefully crafted form. The danger of formalism is real. Prayers and sermons that are read from a manuscript are usually stiff and unnatural and artificial.
But the danger of spontaneity is also great. If the heart is without passion, it will produce lifeless, jargon-laden spontaneity. And if the heart is aflame, no form will quench it.
But not only is spontaneity no necessary advantage and form no necessary hindrance to deep, personal expression of feeling, but even more, formed affection often strikes deeper. Deeper into reality and deeper into the hearer. Formed grief, while not heaving to and fro with uncontrollable sobs, has a peculiar profundity.
Imagine a man's response when he first hears that his wife and children have been taken captive by the enemy and slaughtered. He throws himself to the ground, cries out in torment, rips his clothes, and rubs his head in ashes, until his energy ebbs into a pitiable "No, no, no." Here is utter spontaneity, utterly real emotion, no studied design, no conscious constraints.
But picture this man a week later, when the services are over and the friends have departed, and he is alone with the weight of his loss. The excruciating pain of the first blast is gone, and now there is the throb and ache of an amputated soul. What does he do to express this deep and settling grief? Between the periodic heaving sobs he reaches for a form and begins to make his lamentation.
Studied, crafted, pondered, full of power. When the time comes, he will read or recite this lamentation. But no one will say of this formed grief: "It is canned." On the contrary, it will strike deeper than the sobs. It will show more of what he has brought up from the depths.
Emotions are like a river flowing out of one's heart. Form is like the riverbanks. Without them the river runs shallow and dissipates on the plain. But banks make the river run deep. Why else have humans for centuries reached for poetry when we have deep affections to express? The creation of a form happens because someone feels a passion. How ironic, then, that we often fault form when the real evil is a dry spring.
Years ago I wrote a poem called "The Innkeeper," about the pain that the innkeeper may have experienced when Herod's soldiers came to kill the baby boys and started the slaughter at the innkeeper's place-"the price for housing the Messiah here." In the introduction I pondered why poets struggle to let deep emotion flow through narrow forms of art.
Why this struggle? Why does the poet bind his heart with such a severe discipline of form? Why strain to give shape to suffering? Because Reality has contours. God is who He is, not what we wish or try to make Him be. His Son, Jesus Christ, is the great granite Fact. His hard sacrifice makes it evident that our spontaneity needs Calvarylike discipline. Perhaps the innkeeper paid dearly for housing the Son of God. Should it not be costly to penetrate and portray this pain?2
Many pastors are not known for expressing deep emotions. This seems to me especially true in relation to the profoundest theological realities. This is not good, because we ought to experience the deepest emotions about the deepest things. And we ought to speak often, and publicly, about what means most to us, in a way that shows its value.
Brothers, we must let the river run deep. This is a plea for passion in the pulpit, passion in prayer, passion in conversation. It is not a plea for thin, whipped-up emotionalism. ("Let's all stand up and smile!") It is a plea for deep feelings in worthy forms from Godbesotted
hearts and minds.
1. F. F. Bruce, In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past (Grand Rapids, Mich.:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), 304.
2. John Piper, The Innkeeper (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1998)
Used by permission of Broadman & Holman Publishers. Excerpted from Brothers
We Are Not Professionals, copyright 2002 by John Piper.