Note: The following post is part 2 of Hymn Notes #1: John Newton. To read the first part of this post click on this link: Hymn Notes #1: John Newton on To the Afflicted, Tossed with Tempests and Not Comforted, part first.
[“Pensive, doubting, fearful heart, Hear what Christ the Saviour says; Ev’ry word should joy impart, Change thy mourning into praise: Yes, he speaks, and speaks to thee, May he help thee to believe! Then thou presently wilt see, Thou hast little cause to grieve.”]
In the previous post on John Newton’s hymn To the Afflicted, Tossed with Tempests and Not Comforted I discussed the first part which is given above. The opening of the hymn is a crying out on the part of the sinner to God. When we experience the droughts and lulls in our life of faith as Christians, we’re reminded to pray to God for strength and for help to believe because any instance of doubt and struggle is not simply a hard time in faith, it is obstacle to belief and a failure to trust God. The second part of the hymn transitions into the Lord God’s response to this wearied and wounded sinner’s cry.
“Fear thou not, nor be ashamed, all thy sorrows soon shall end:
I who heav’n and earth have fram’d, Am thy husband and thy friend:
I the High and Holy One, Israel’s God by all ador’d;
As thy Saviour will be known, Thy Redeemer and thy Lord.”
“For a moment I withdrew, And thy heart was fill’d with pain;
But my mercies I’ll renew, Thou shalt soon rejoice again:
Tho’ I seem to hide my face, Very soon my wrath shall cease;
‘Tis but for a moment’s space, Ending in eternal peace.”
“When my peaceful bow appears – Painted on the wat’ry clouds;
‘Tis to dissipate thy fears, Lest the earth should be o’erflow’d:
‘Tis an emblem too of grace, Of my covenant love a sign;
Tho’ the mountains leave their place, Thou shalt be for ever mine.”
“Tho’ afflicted, tempest-toss’d, Comfortless awhile thou art,
Do not think thou canst be lost, Thou art graven on my heart:
All thy wastes I will repair, Thou shalt be rebuilt anew;
And in thee it shall appear, What a God of love can do.”
It’s not a coincidence that we find God responding “Do not fear…” How many times in Scripture does God appear or speak to someone and they respond in fear? Then, God responds by telling the person who has responded rightly to God’s presence, “Do not fear.” It would not be right for the sinner to have no fear of God and boldly and arrogantly go before God demanding whatever one chooses. This is a failure to acknowledge who God is. When in 1 John, John says perfect love casts out fear, he does not mean fear of God at least in a healthy fear of acknowledging the true presence and reality of God in one’s life which properly understood moves one to obedience. One would have to remove the book of Proverbs and much of the Bible if all fear is to be eradicated, or simply count parts of the Bible as irrelevant compared to 1 John. I do not believe there is a conflict in this, but they harmonize wonderfully and that fear outside of God of worldly things that detract from one’s focus of affections on God is what is in view in 1 John. The sinner has rightly confronted God with a healthy fear, and God acknowledges this in His loving comment, “Do not fear.” It is as though something so wonderful and terrible has descended into creation and one has real fear, but coupled with the fear of a wayward child to a loving Father. There is a distinction between persons, Creator and creature, but also an invitation of a loving Father.
God introduces Himself to the sinner and His introduction is glorious. It is not simply a statement as “Hello, I am God.” Rather, God is described by His character and activity. His first words are words of comfort for the afflicted and comfortless, and His last words in the second part are words of salvation and redemption. Within, Newton writes God as saying something implied as: “Do not doubt that your temporary trial is beyond me, I am the Creator God, if I made the heavens and earth, it is nothing for me to help you with your struggling heart.”
Then, in the third part Newton writes of the moments when God seems to withdraw from us, and when we feel distant and alone. This is not unique, but is natural for all Christians. After all, though unnatural for our Lord Christ Jesus, He did indeed experience this very distancing and aloneness which is proof that God not only knows all things, but has experienced the very aloneness that we often feel as Christians and can readily identify with it by way of experience in Christ. No sooner does Newton tell of God’s withdrawing and the pain of such a time, than does he return to joy and grace of God’s continued presence and nurturing as a loving Shepherd. God might distance Himself for a moment from individual sheep, but He is never far from the flock. This is important to remember as we walk the long, hard, cold roads of faith and experience pensive, doubting, fearful hearts. Our rejoicing then is in the return of God’s presence which is actually the assurance of God’s presence which we at times question as sheep. God doesn’t say He hides His face, but that He “seems” to hide His face. This is what I mean by our rejoicing in the assurance of His presence as opposed to a return of God’s presence which might have been gone.
Then, we are encouraged more that such moments of aloneness will only be for a moment and we can trust God for our inheritance as His children that though we experience this momentary distancing in life, and we experience this lifetime of not physically embracing our Lord Jesus Christ, it will not always be so and that is a comforting thought. As a reminder, we are called to reflect upon God’s faithfulness to His promises in part four when the bow appeared after the Great Flood. This is from Genesis 9 while most of the Lord God’s response is very close to Isaiah 54:5-11. Why reflect on God’s promises in remembering such events as a rainbow after the Flood?
“‘Tis to dissipate thy fears.” Also, God could have simply flooded the whole earth without an ark preserving Noah and his family and the animals, but the very fact that the ark did exist and preserve some is an example or emblem of the grace of God. Nobody was twisting the arm of God to preserve Noah and his family, and no environmental activists were forcing Him to preserve the animals. We find that it is an outflowing of God’s gracious character alone which preserved Noah and his family and the animals amidst the Flood. Likewise, it is in Christ Jesus by faith that we are preserved by God’s grace as sinners amidst the Flood of God’s wrath against sin. Then, though some things move and change and are temporal in the world, we are eternally the Lord’s and are preserved in Him, by Him, and for Him.
The final fifth part of the hymn closes the Lord God’s response by reminding the sinner crying out to God to remember that they cannot be lost for the perfect and true Shepherd presides over them. For this perfect Shepherd, it is not obligation that motivates Him, but love as those God has redeemed and called and chosen for His purpose by His grace, they are written on His heart. In addition to this reminder to reflect on the unfailing love of God and God’s faithfulness, the sinner is reminded as we are in the hymn to reflect upon what will be and is not yet for our faith. Though, for now we are imperfect, being sanctified by the Spirit, and not fully seeing the what we pursue by faith and not fully realizing our inheritance, God is preparing us for it and maturing us so that we might be perfected in Christ and that we might truly be new creations, “little Christs” as it is said.
In the future when Christ returns our faith shall be sight, but for now we still battle against the flesh and powers of darkness in the world. We are not overcome though because we have the Light of life in Christ Jesus and though we do not possess our perfect, eternal bodies just yet, we are already being made new and are already new creations in Christ Jesus. We are called to reflect on what God has done not only in history, but what God has done in our life already, who we were before and how God has transformed us by His grace. All this is to remind us in our darkest hour of the love of God so that those indeed who are afflicted, tossed with tempests and not comforted might find lasting, eternal comfort in the arms of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
To listen to this hymn which has been made more contemporary, but retains the original words, click here Joy Beyond the Sorrow (track #3, Pensive, Doubting, Fearful Heart by Emily DeLoach).