2020 has been… disappointing. Some days I would say discouraging, or exhausting, or even infuriating. On the whole, it certainly hasn’t been the year we expected. It has come with great loss on many fronts—loss of life, loss of unity, loss of freedoms, and loss of trust.
I would agree with many when I say it’s been difficult to know exactly how to respond. So many days I’ve wanted to fast forward to 2021. But my friend John Owen has encouraged me to reinterpret 2020.
Owen knew a thing or two about disappointment. He lived during the failed English Protestant attempt at a reformed English republic. It was a spectacular failure that cost Owen his career and almost his life. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 several of Owen’s friends were executed and their corpses displayed publicly for years.
Owen spent 24 years sifting through the ashes of his ministry, personal, career, and political aspirations. Circumstances did not improve during his lifetime. As he described the situation from his viewpoint in 1684 he said,
“All things in almost all nations are filled with confusions, disorders, dangers, distresses, and troubles…distress of nations, with perplexity, men’s hearts failing them for fear, and looking after those things which are coming on the earth.”
He might as well have been describing 2020.
Through it all he buried ten (10!) children and his first wife. He was forced to abandon his career in academia. All he had left was his investment in small, independent church plants that had no great prospects for success.
One of the last letters he wrote was to a friend in one of those churches. Owen knew he would soon be at peace with Jesus, and he felt that the situation for the church in England would deteriorate further. Too weak to write, he dictated the letter to his second wife. What was his advice to those ordained to carry on in such difficult times?
“Live and pray and hope and wait patiently and do not despair.”
He saw the trouble around him, but he lifted his gaze to the glory of God in the face of Jesus. Biographer Crawford Gibben summarized the moment well, “After a lifetime of work that most would have deemed a failure, and after failed eschatological hopes, Owen was waiting for Jesus.”
Perhaps Owen’s change in focus from the grandeur of Oxford and Parliament to the church was not a downgrade, but an upgrade. Perhaps the failures and disappointment he experienced freed him from hoping in this world and allowed him to focus on what will last forever. My friend John Owen has encouraged me, and perhaps he can encourage you too: “Live and pray and hope and wait patiently and do not despair.”
PS- Crawford Gribben has written a great intro to John Owen. It’s brief, accessible, and has some great devotional moments. If you have more time you could always turn to Owen’s massive 7 volume commentary on Hebrews.