Providence in Unlikely Places: The Story of J.I. Packer
At some point this past summer I asked myself the question, “Who are my living personal heroes?” It’s much easier to name heroes from the past since they are distantly removed enough from us, removed enough that we tend to gloss over or forget about their faults. People still alive though are almost always an obvious mixed bag, just like we ourselves are. Well, I spent several weeks ruminating over the question and I came up with one man as the front runner for my answer: J.I. Packer.
After coming to that answer, I realized something: I didn’t actually know much of anything about J.I. Packer. I had read a few of his books, including the classic Knowing God, but truth be told, none of them had been favorite books of mine. Nor have I ever heard him speak (aside from the occasional youtube video) or had any other sort of contact with him. What put him to the top of my list was several things including his free-of-scandals life, his respect for the Great Tradition of Christian history, his willingness to speak across traditional boundary lines, and the fact that he rarely seems to have spoken impulsively but rather has always given gracious and reasoned answers to the pressing questions facing Christians in our times.
In my attempt to remedy my deficit in actual knowledge of Packer, several weeks ago I picked up Alister McGrath’s biography of him. While I did not have time to complete it, I did learn several things and want to relate one story here; a story of how God used a tragic incident in a young man’s life for his good and to shape him in ways that were likely unforeseeable at the time.
The story is this. When Packer was seven years old, another schoolboy was bullying him and gave him a forceful shove, launching Packer out into the street where he was promptly hit by a milk truck. Packer sustained fairly serious injuries to his head, coming out without apparent mental damage but with the result that he had to wear a metal plate over the wound in his forehead from ages 7 to 18. This plate protected the damaged region of his skull and was meant to help protect him from potential future damage.
As one can easily imagine, wearing a metal plate on your forehead is not the best aid in social situations. Already shy by nature, Packer’s reserved nature coupled with his head injury led to him being bullied more through his childhood years and drove him to become somewhat of a bookworm. All of the time that other kids would spend playing games with each other outside, Packer would spend reading books. So here we have result #1 of the accident: Packer the bookworm. Now for result #2.
In England in the 1930’s it was a big moment when a boy turned 11. Eleven was seen as a sort of coming of age, and the coveted present which every boy expected to receive from his parents on his birthday was a bicycle. Packer’s parents considered buying him one, but they feared that if he ever were to get in an accident or a crash that it could prove fatal due to the head injuries he had already incurred. Because of this, when J.I. Packer came downstairs on his 11th birthday what awaited him on the table was not a bicycle, but rather a typewriter.
Packer fell in love with the machine, taught himself to type, and was soon typing up all sorts of things on it. The remarkable thing is that all of the books that Packer would later go on to write in his long life (and there are many) were written on a typewriter. Packer fell in love with the typewriter at age 11, and even when computers, the internet, and all the rest came, Packer has continued to write all of his books by typewriter.
What’s remarkable is how very influential that fateful day with the milk truck was, when Packer was only seven years old. It was a day not only fateful for him, but indeed for evangelicalism in the West in the 20th century. What would J.I. Packer have become if not for that seeming tragedy? Would he have become the great theologian and the great writer who has been loved by so many millions? Would he have become the man who helped British evangelicalism navigate its own turbulent waters in the 1960’s, who led evangelicals through the ‘battle for the Bible’ of the 1970’s, who helped foster international missionary cooperation across continents in the 1980’s and 90’s? We of course will never know. What we do know is that while J.I. Packer’s schoolboy bully meant that shove for evil, God meant it for good. Romans 8:28 is not trite; it is true. God worked even that tragedy for the good; the good not only of J.I. Packer, but also of millions of others whom his life and writing has blessed.