John Newton is one of the most well-known Christian figures of the past 500 years. Born in London in 1725 and died in London in 1807, Newton, as a young man, lived a vulgar and sinful life and worked on slave ships for several years prior to turning in faith to Jesus in 1748. Upon his rebirth, he immediately left the slave trade and would go on to spend nearly 40 years as an abolitionist, befriending and influencing such anti-slavery voices as William Wilberforce, among others. Newton also pastored for about 30 years and became close friends with, and caregiver of, William Cowper (author of “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”) over the final years of Cowper’s life due to Cowper’s severe mental health issues. Newton was also a prolific hymn writer, famously authoring “Amazing Grace,” which is probably the most well-known hymn in the English-speaking world today.
One of the songs that Newton wrote which has gained considerable attention among protestant and evangelical Christians over the past 15 years or so is one entitled “I Asked the Lord that I Might Grow”. You can listen to two different arrangements of the song here and here, respectively, and you can find the lyrics here.
John Newton prayed for spiritual growth…
What is going on this song? The answer is clear: if we take this song at face value, it is Newton’s personal testimony regarding his progression in the Christian life. Starting out as young believer, we presume, in keeping with the heart of God himself (Mt. 6:9-10), Newton asks not for wealth, health, success, or comfort, but for growth in Jesus—greater degrees of maturity, more love for people, more strength against sin, and a deeper personal relationship with the Lord himself.
Many of us can relate to that. In the early days of my conversion, I was so focused and had no desires or thoughts about anything else but growing in the Lord and in holiness and purity, and in telling everyone I could about Jesus, the Friend of sinners.
…and God answered his prayer.
And Newton goes on to testify that God did, in fact, answer his prayer. But rather than making Newton the ‘super Christian’ he was asking to be, God grew him in a way that he never could have imagined, and that, by the sounds of it, drove him to the point of despairing of life, maybe even to thoughts of suicide.
In Newton’s understanding, God did two things in answer to Newton’s prayers for growth. First, he showed him the depths of the darkness and grossness of sin and wickedness that were still so alive and well within his own heart (4th stanza). Second, he disrupted Newton’s life ambitions, undermining those desires that we all have for success and influence (5th stanza). In fact, if Newton’s short biography is any indication—he became a pastor nearly 20 years after his conversion—he may have, for years and years and years, struggled with his own sin and the ugliness of his own heart, all the while never getting to the place in life in which he really wanted to be, which was his career of choice—that is, the ministry.
Admittedly, I don’t know Newton’s life well enough to do anything more than speculate here, but Solomon’s words definitely come to mind about ‘hope deferred making the heart sick’ (Pr. 13:12). And how many of us do not know the feeling of having the greatest desire of our heart—marriage, children, a particular career choice, freedom from an illness, or any infinite number of things—go unmet for years, or even decades. To our minds, to have that desire satisfied is the pinnacle of meaningful existence for us; without it, life can literally feel hopeless, and many Christians simply cannot bear the weight of the feelings of loss and disappointment.
“God answered John Newton’s prayer in two ways. First, he showed him the depths of the darkness and grossness of sin and wickedness that were still so alive and well within his own heart. Second, he disrupted his life ambitions, undermining those desires that we all have for success and influence.
These two stanzas of “I Asked the Lord”—stanzas 4 and 5—sound so much like Psalm 38, a psalm in which David is buried under the crushing weight of external problems (Ps. 38:11-12) and the knowledge of the sin of his own heart (Ps. 38:3-5). The result, as we can see in this psalm, is that David sees no way out and no immediate solution to his troubles. He can only hope against hope that God will hear him and be merciful (Ps. 38:15, 21-22) in the midst of the overwhelming darkness (Ps. 38:2, 8, 10, 17).
But something very much like this is exactly how God has “answered” John Newton’s prayer for Christian growth and a deeper walk with the Lord, and that is the truly surprising thing. Instead of growth, and strength, and greater measures of personal character and holiness, God plunges Newton into all the grossness of his own sin, and on top of it, disrupts and frustrates evidently all his outward attempts to satisfy those deep desires for the things in life that we all want.
Why would God do this? And why would someone have the morbidity to write a song about it?
Well, to answer the first question, in perfect keeping with his perfect character, God—who himself is a Teacher (Job 33:23-30), and a Redeemer (Ps. 107), and a Refiner (1 Pet. 1:6-7), and a Perfecter (Heb. 2:10-14), and a Sanctifier (Rom. 8:28-30), and, ultimately, a Father (Dt. 8:2-5, Heb. 12:5-11)—was growing John Newton in the same way he grew Joseph, and Job, and Jeremiah, and Jesus, and Paul, and is growing us today.
And to what end? To the end that Newton would prize Christ, and not this life; that he would love the Creator, not the creation.
To answer the second question, in his knowledge of God and his theological maturity, and in the pastoral tenderness borne out of his own experience, John Newton simply wanted God’s people to be encouraged by what God is necessarily, unfailingly, unambiguously doing in their lives when they struggle with sin and suffer in trials.
What Should We Know?
So, you are a Christian. You are trusting in Jesus alone for forgiveness of sins and for righteousness before God. So what are you experiencing today? Is life crushing you? Is your sin besetting and entangling you? What should you know in the midst of all that?
You should know that Jesus holds us in the safety of his hands, and no one—not even you—can snatch you away from him. God has given his own Son instead of us, and Jesus has joyfully laid down his life for his sheep, and all that is left is the refining, character-shaping, patient love of a Father toward you, his now-adopted son or daughter.
And it isn’t arbitrary. There is a goal, namely this: that your affection for this world is weakened, and your affection for Jesus and his Kingdom is strengthened.
If have asked the Lord to grow you, to strengthen you spiritually, to help you defeat a particular sin, to make you a kinder, more patient, more faithful follower of the Lord Jesus, and all you seem to be seeing so far are external difficulties, frustrated plans, unmet desires, and greater measures of sin than you even realized were in you, be encouraged. Know that God is at work answering your prayers. He will certainly sustain you and restore you, either in this life or the next.
So press on, and fix your eyes on Jesus, our brother and great high priest who has authored and finished our faith, and remember the words of God to John Newton:
““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.”