Think about the worst thing you’ve ever done. Something from your past that follows you around. Something that, even now, all these years later, makes your heart shudder. Every time you have a flashback you feel embarrassed and ashamed all over again. Every time it crosses your mind you cringe and think, “why did I do that?…I can’t believe I said that!…man I was so stupid..” But no matter how remorseful you are, it’s apart of your story now. Something you can’t undo. Regret can be a heavy weight to carry around with you. Especially when you’re carrying it all by yourself. We can ask for forgiveness but even then it doesn’t undo what was already done. Often times we are still left with the consequences of our words and actions. How do we redeem ourselves? How do we make things right? Are we ever just “too far gone” or “lost” to even bother?
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all lost something that meant something to us at some point in our lives. Something, or someone, that was extremely valuable to us. It could be a piece of jewelry that was a family heirloom. It could be something that has no monetary value but has priceless sentimental importance. It could be a relationship or even our self worth. We all know the sorrow of losing something or someone of significance. We leave nothing unturned. We search high and low. We promise to do anything within our power to find it. To repair it. To rebuild it. Sometimes to no avail. It’s just gone. But then again, some of us know the joy when by some miracle, that someone or something has been found again! Our heart skips a beat (or seven!) We’re so thankful! We wanna shout it from the rooftops. We wanna hold on tight and never let go. We do whatever we can to make sure we never lose something that precious ever again.
In this same way, sometimes we’re the precious ones who are lost. Sometimes it’s us who need to be found. If we’re honest with ourselves, we would all admit that this has been apart of our story at some point along the way. Whether we have intentionally run away from our past, not wanting to be found because of the guilt and shame of it. Or we’ve been left alone in the dark by others because they couldn’t see past our previous failures.
How do we live with ourselves?
How do we make amends?
How do we move forward?
Where and how does redemption come in to play?
How do we use our past to shine a light for others?
Especially if you played a part in one of the most horrific events in history? That’s something that John Newton had to ask himself and live with his entire life. As someone who participated in the African-American slave trade for many years, how could he ever redeem and forgive himself for something like that? The scope of the damage done on such a large scale can’t even begin to be measured but yet, in the end, he was able to find redemption. Though not because of anything that he himself did or said.
John Newton was born in 1725. His mother died when he was only seven years old. While his father was away at sea he was raised by his emotionally distant grandmother. He accompanied his father, who was a sailor, on many of his voyages growing up and was often headstrong and disobedient, relapsing back and forth into bad habits. During his time as a sailor, he denounced his faith after being influenced by a fellow shipmate and would even mock others for the same faith he walked away from. To which he would later reflect on by saying,
“Like an unwary sailor who quits his port just before a rising storm, I renounced the hopes and comforts of the Gospel at the very time when every other comfort was about to fail me.”
He was eventually forced into the Royal Navy where he was caught as a deserter. He was publicly punished and flogged in front of his shipmates as a result. It was during this time that he contemplated suicide by throwing himself over board.
The next ship he was apart of didn’t go any better for him. He didn’t get along with the crew and on one of their voyages he was left on the shores of West Africa with a slave trader who gave him to his wife, who was a Princess of a tribe there. For the next three years John was a slave and was severely mistreated until he was finally rescued by a sea captain who was asked to search for him by his father.
During this voyage back home there was a huge storm. The storm was so severe that everyone thought that the ship would sink. In a moment of desperation, John cried out to God and begged Him for mercy to save his life. His prayer was answered and he made it home. This began his long journey into faith, although he still had a long way to go yet. In his own words,
“I was greatly deficient in many respects. I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”
Once home, under the influence of a friend of his fathers, John entered into the slave trade. He began as a First Mate and ended up as Captain, overseeing three voyages carrying slaves across the Atlantic.
I find it very interesting that the same man who was once a slave himself, now had a hand in inflicting that same fate onto others. It’s actually a very powerful concept. How often have we inflicted pain onto others because we ourselves were in pain? How often do we hear things like, I’m an alcoholic because my father drank. I’m a cheater because someone in my family is a cheater. I’m an abuser (in any sense of the word) because I myself was abused. etc. I can only imagine that he must have been angry, bitter and resentful about his time as a slave. And instead of allowing himself to process and heal from that, he allowed his experience to fester and take root. He was a broken man who didn’t know anything except brokenness. And when that is all you know, that’s all you know how to give. Hurt people, hurt people. Healed people, heal people.
It’s like that saying, “If you never heal from what hurt you, you’ll bleed on people that didn’t cut you.”
In 1754, John suffered a stroke which ended his sailing career. Through this entire time, ever since he cried out to God for His mercy all those years ago he had begun a long journey into discovering faith. He studied Greek, Hebrew and other religious studies and he finally came to the realization of how spiritually lost he really was. He fully committed himself as a Christian and in 1764 he became an ordained priest. He became well known for his pastoral care and preaching. People struggling with their own faith would seek his advice.
In the 1780’s he began to contribute to the work of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He became an ally of William Wilberforce, a leader of the Parliamentary campaign to abolish the slave trade. He wrote a pamphlet entitled “Thoughts Upon The Slave Trade” which he sent to every MP in Parliament. In it he wrote,
“…a confession which comes too late…it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
John Newton would live to see his Abolitionist work rewarded with the British passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, just months before his death.
On his tombstone, at his request, is this inscription:
“Once an Infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.”
In 1772, eight years after his ordination, he would write the most well known hymn on the planet. The lyrics read like an autobiography about a man who saw himself as unworthy, lost and blind. But more importantly, also as a man who, through the Amazing Grace of Jesus, was now found, filled with hope, redeemed and secure in his relationship with God. Someone with such an ugly past was now restored to life again. Not by anything he himself did, but simply by the grace of God. His slate was wiped clean. It was a new day.
I want to take this moment to encourage you with this truth. There is absolutely nothing you could have said or done that could make God stop loving you. No matter what your past may look like, you are never “too far gone.” God’s grace and mercy is new every single morning for you to receive. You can talk to him at any time, day or night. He wants to help. All we have to do is ask. Being a Christian doesn’t mean being perfect. None of us are or ever will be. But that’s the point. That’s why we need Jesus. Because HE is perfect. Me choosing to follow Him simply means that I recognize that I am a sinner in need of a Saviour and that I cannot save myself. I need help. And only Jesus can do that. He can turn anyone’s past around and use it for good. No matter what your story looks like, there is hope! There is no situation that is impossible for Him. That’s what is so “Amazing” about it.
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
The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures
When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun