Storms come for us all. We can face them with terror or with faith, with unbelief or with belief. If Christ be near, unbelief must be far. The nearness of Jesus drives away doubts. Darkness flees his presence. The question is, have we drawn near to him?
I love words. I’m always fascinated by their power to inspire thought and emotion. That’s why I enjoy reading hymn lyrics.
I’m slowly making my way through Olney Hymns, a book of hymns written by John Newton and William Cowper in 1779. Within this massive collection, my favorite is Newton’s “I Will Trust and Not Be Afraid.”
Lost and Found at Sea
Newton’s life reads like a classic novel. He was born in 1725 in London. His mother died when he was 7. By age 11 he was living the life of a sailor with his father. He grew up and eagerly embraced a godless lifestyle, deserted his post in the Royal Navy, and lived as a slave in west Africa for a time.
By 23, the tables had turned and Newton commanded a slave ship. But while transporting slaves across oceans, God was freeing him from his own enslavement to sin.
Newton spent almost a decade studying Hebrew and Greek in Liverpool, and eventually became a minister in Olney, England in 1764. He is perhaps best known for writing the hymn “Amazing Grace.” This former slave and slave trader had a deep understanding of, and gratitude for, the amazing grace shown to him.
His conversion began immediately after being rescued from slavery in 1748. The ship he was on encountered a tremendous storm off the coast of Ireland and nearly sank. He and the crew worked tirelessly through the night to keep the ship afloat. In desperation, Newton prayed to God, begging for mercy.
Then God began drawing Newton to himself. Though he continued working in the slave trade, he read the Bible and other Christian writings and began rejecting his wicked deeds. Eventually, he made a full break from his vocation and a full conversion to new life in Christ.
The first stanza of Newton’s hymn “I Will Trust and Not Be Afraid” begins with these words:
“Begone unbelief, my Savior is near,
And for my relief will surely appear:
By prayer let me wrestle, and he wilt perform,
With Christ in the vessel, I smile at the storm.”