At the age of twenty-two, an age when many young men in our time are still living with their parents, John Newton had already been at sea for eleven years. He’d served on a merchant ship, on a British man-of-war, and on several of the slave ships that plied the lucrative but bloody trade routes between the coast of Sierra Leone and the British West Indies. In May of 1748, Newton was returning to England as captain of his own slave ship, having delivered his human cargo to the New World. During the crossing, he encountered a storm so severe that the ship began to fill with water, so he called out, “Lord, have mercy upon us.”
When he survived the storm, he began to believe that God had listened to him and had mercy on him. He saw a great deal of pain in his life: He suffered illnesses that nearly killed him, he was severely beaten and experienced other barbaric conditions at the hands of British naval authorities, and he witnessed the indescribable treatment of slaves during many ocean voyages. It was from these experiences that he became prepared to learn the lessons that he later expressed in words that nearly all of us recognize:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
and mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call'd me here below,
Will be forever mine.
John Newton allowed his experiences to open his heart. He became humbled and teachable. He became a minister and shared his experiences with slavery, as well as his wisdom about grace and compassion. Newton’s church became so popular that the building had to be enlarged. The influence of this one man can hardly be calculated since among those he taught and profoundly affected was William Wilberforce, who would become probably the most influential figure in the abolition of slavery in England, which in turn influenced the Civil War and abolition of slavery in the United States three decades later.
So much good came from the difficult experiences in the life of one man, not because the experiences themselves were difficult, but because that man chose to learn from them because he chose to see in those experiences the power of grace and compassion.
This is not a lesson to be remanded to the eighteenth century. We all have difficult experiences. We’re all inconvenienced and treated badly — by people, by circumstances, by illness, by governments, by whatever — and when, in the words of the song, we encounter these “dangers, toils, and snares,” we always have a choice.
We can complain and blame. We can act like victims. We can rage. We can give up. Or we can be loving. We can find the grace in everything — as recipients, as givers, or both — and find “a life of joy and peace.”
Recover from negative experiences and beliefs!
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