A lecture in the course I just attended on Oxford’s Christian history was on John Owen, the Puritan divine who was Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. Read John Piper’s eloquent tribute to him here.
Owen, despite ill health and personal tragedy (all his 11 children died before him, and only one survived childhood) was unbelievably disciplined and driven. Whether the drive came from the love of God or personal ambition or, most likely, a combination of the two is not clear.
From the age of 12, he disciplined himself to sleep for just 4 hours a night, staying up and studying and later writing late into the night. His health was affected, and later in life, when he was often sick, he regretted the hours of rest he had missed as a youth.
He wrote 22 books. The most famous are The Death of Death in the Death of Christ and The Mortification of Sin in all Believers.
Few read him today. His prose has become impenetrable to the modern ear, unlike his friend and contemporary, John Bunyan’s!
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Was it worth it? All the late nights, the ruined health, the long labours for books which are barely read today.
I personally don’t believe that Christian writing written solely to edify, preach to, or enlighten others is worth it.
Writing should be undertaken first and foremost for the joy of it. Writers should write as birds sing, for joy, and because that is how they were shaped and put together. We write as we work out our thoughts, we write to create shapely and beautiful things, and yes, if others are blessed by it, we rejoice!!
Our writing should edify–build us up–as well as our readers. I suspect Owen was developing and working out his own theology as he wrote, and his writing probably brought peace and light to his own soul, as well as influencing many theologians, such as Jonathan Edwards, John Piper, Sinclair Fergusson, J I Packer, and Simon Vibert. He is predominantly a theologian’s theologian!!
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I felt a bit melancholy listening to the lecture on John Owen, all that labour, the 22 books researched and written over 65 years of just 4 hours sleep a night, and few of them read any more.
And I just hoped he enjoyed the writing of them. Because if he did, then the labour was not entirely wasted—if he found joy in it.
Solomon, reputed to be the wisest man who ever lived, condenses wisdom partly into finding joy in one’s work. A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. Ecc 2:12
So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. Ecc 3:22.
If, or how long, we will be read, we cannot control. So, let’s work for the joy of it, let’s work because we are followers of Christ, and because, gloriously, mysteriously, he has called us to write, and, in peace and serenity, let’s leave the results of our work in his hands!
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And here is a wonderful story, taken from John Piper’s essay on Owen.
King Charles II asked Owen one time why he bothered going to hear an uneducated Tinker like Bunyan preach. Owen replied, “Could I posses the tinker’s abilities for preaching, please your majesty, I would gladly relinquish all my learning.”
“Repeatedly when Bunyan was in prison Owen worked for his release with all the strings he could pull. But to no avail. But when John Bunyan came out in 1676 he brought with him a manuscript “the worth and importance of which can scarcely be comprehended” (see note 33). In fact Owen met with Bunyan and recommended his own publisher, Nathaniel Ponder. The partnership succeeded, and the book that has probably done more good, after the Bible, was released to the world—all because Owen failed in his good attempts to get Bunyan released, and because he succeeded in finding him a publisher. The lesson: “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,/but trust him for his grace;/behind a frowning providence/he hides a smiling face.”