John Newton is the writer of this hymn, a man who lived a good part of his life as a sailor, experienced many hardships, and was later converted after reading Thomas a Kempis’. This hymn is based on a prayer in which the believer asks the Father for Christian growth. Haven’t we all asked this? The song depicts the aftermath of this prayer, his immediate difficulties afterwards, and later to see that God’s response is that those times of despair, and even struggles with personal sin are from the hands of a sovereign God whose plan is to make us like Jesus. It starts in stanza 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.
Like the writer, we all should seek and pray regularly this way. Isn’t this the prayer of Paul in Ephesians?
Eph 3:14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,
Eph 3:15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,
Eph 3:16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being,
Eph 3:17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love,
Eph 3:18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,
Eph 3:19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
’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.
It can drive us to ‘despair’ when we know God desires this prayer, only to think he has not answered our prayer for growth! We think, “why isn’t anything happening to me?”
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.
Yes, can’t we empathize? We want our sins to be squashed finally, no more to dog us or harass us, then…will we have rest. Again, we all want this prayer to be answered immediately “in some favored hour.“
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.
This is the turning point of the hymn. “Instead of” squashed sins” God’s plan made the writer feel the “hidden evils of his heart”. The phrases “angry powers of hell, assault my soul in every part” reflect the real anguish of living with hearts still prone to sin. (James 3:2, Galatians 5:17)
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.
“Crossed all the fair designs I schemed” is to say, we need understand the weight of our wickedness, before we experience the power of grace, and our need of Him.
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.
The writer sees that God uses our weakness to answer prayer for growth in grace and faith (2 Cor. 12:2-10)
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.”
Perhaps the vexing trials of one’s own flesh are God’s mean to help us loathe and distrust this world and the flesh, and our self and pride, in order to be free in our pursuit of Christ. Is it not true, that as long as we are self-sufficient and confident, that we tend to use earthly joys to adorn us? We should rather be adorned with our citizenship with Christ.
Perhaps this hymn and experience does not fit every believer, and who can say that God always works these methods for each saint. There is much merit to this hymn nonetheless, and I commend its content for consideration of part of the mysterious web of sanctification.
God be praised in Christ.