We all search for heroes and heroines, and some even find them, only to discover their clay feet. When we see faults of different proportions in our Christian brothers and sisters, we tend to be less forgiving with them than we are with those who aren’t of our faith. Yet the same God who works in you to transform you into the likeness of Christ, works in me to do the same. And as we disappoint one another, even betray one another, we must love each other, hating the sin all the while.
Such sin we can see so clearly in others. But our own we so often fail to see until we are forced to. On some sin-encrusted surfaces of our lives, the grace of God melts and molds us easily to conform to His image. On others which are more obdurate, our stony footholds of sin must be hammered away by the heavy blows of suffering until we are transformed.
It took forty years after his conversion for John Newton to be convicted of the evils of slave trade in which he had been engaged for several years, so much so that he wrote in 1788: “I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was, once, an active instrument, in a business at which my heart now shudders.”¹ The man who wrote “Amazing Grace” also wrote of the hammering work of God on his hard heart in “Prayer Answered by Crosses.”
We don’t know the author of the second composition “I Asked God For Strength” except that he had been a Confederate soldier fighting on the wrong side of a war that may have killed or crippled or, at the very least, seen him lose friends or family or all his earthly possessions. Only through his defeat and the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy could a generation of slaves – men, women and children – be set free. Yet, like Newton, this soldier was saved by God’s grace alone and was a man whom God tempered and fashioned by heavy blows of misfortune that he too may be “God’s workmanship” (Eph. 2:10).
The two selections by Newton and the anonymous Confederate soldier have much to teach us about the church: both men were deeply flawed like us; like us, it was through grace alone, they belonged to our Father, slaves of Christ who bought us all at the price of His holy blood, and sanctifies us in His way through His Spirit until that day when we are called home.
Prayer Answered by Crosses
by John Newton (1779)
I asked the LORD that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of his salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, his face.
’Twas he who taught me thus to pray,
And he, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once he’d answer my request;
And by his love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, he made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with his own hand he seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
LORD, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way, the LORD replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in me.”
I Asked God For Strength
(Anonymous Confederate Soldier)
I asked God for strength, that I
I was made weak, that I might
learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might
do greater things,
I was given infirmity, that I might
do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy,
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might
have the praise of men,
I was given weakness, that I
might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I
might enjoy life,
I was given life, that I might
enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for–
but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my
unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all men,
most richly blessed.
¹John Newton, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, 1788 (http://thriceholy.net/Texts/African.html) qtd. in Rankin Wilbourne, Union with Christ, 2016.