Wednesday, November 27, 2013

An unlikely hymn of thanksgiving

Last summer I described this as the hymn of my heart, and that's still decidedly true. Over the past several months, though, a different old hymn-text, likewise authored by John Newton, has been uppermost in my thoughts. Here is the lightly edited adaptation by Laura Taylor of Indelible Grace (I could offer some funny commentary on the archaic language in the original, but that's for another day):

I Asked the Lord

1. 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.

2. '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.

3. I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He'd answer my request
And by His love's constraining power
Subdue my sins and give me rest.

4. Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry powers of Hell
Assault my soul in every part.

5. Yea, more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Cast out my feelings, laid me low.

6. "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."

7. "These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest seek thy all in me,
That thou mayest seek thy all in me."

I knew this hymn before, but it made my stomach hurt. I couldn't quite imagine singing it in church with anything like a grateful heart. I didn't want to believe that the Lord might go about answering my prayers in such a way. Certainly I prayed to know His presence better, and seeking Him might entail some rough seasons—indeed, it already had—but He would meet me with something gentler than despair and crossing of schemes. Right?

More than a year later, I think I can understand something more of what Newton was getting at in this hymn. The Lord has been working out a lot of things in a deeper way in my heart, and very little of it has been easy. In fact, much of it has involved His removing those things I stubbornly look to for comfort and purpose instead of Him, blurring my images of the future so that the only thing I can discern with clarity is Himself. He is the only thing I can rest on, because He doesn't change or disappoint. Not like my abilities as a writer or scholar, or my plans for how things would unfold for us as a family, among other things. Most of those dreams aren't bad, and the fact that my direction and purpose in those areas has withered doesn't mean they'll never be restored, if not in the way or timing I'd expected.

The point, though, is that He is greater than those, by an incommensurable measure; they cannot even be compared. And there isn't going to be some definitive moment when I believe this once and for all; even if it isn't always this intense, His work of subduing my sins and setting me free from myself is going to be, mercifully, ongoing. Until the time of earthly joys is ended.

I can't pretend I understand the depth of woe Newton is describing here; I've been preserved from so many things. And I still don't know if I could sing this hymn in church without grumbling or tears. Certainly not every week. But when I read or listen to this hymn now, I recognize His work, and the sweetness of it, much more clearly than I could have a year ago. I wouldn't trade it, and that realization alone is something to be thankful for.

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