The other day, Uni (my wife) found this poem taped in the back flyleaf of an old Bible of mine. I don’t remember where it came from, and the name of John Newton was added to it in my hand-writing. John Newton, of course is the converted slave trader of the late 18th century, the author of the hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
These Inward Trials
I asked the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace,
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face.
I hoped that in some favoured hour
At once He’d answer my request,
And by His love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
‘Lord, why is this?’ I trembling cried,
‘Wilt thou pursue Thy worm to death?’
‘’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 seek thy all in me.’
-- John Newton
I know nothing of the poem’s context, the circumstances behind its writing. (Nor do I have any idea what “gourds” are.) And I don’t remember the circumstances that prompted me to put it in my Bible. Perhaps I was experiencing something similar to what was written.
We can see many “outward trials” all around us. If we don’t have any of our own, all we need to do is turn on the TV news: war, terrorism, crime, domestic abuse, physical illness, “acts of God” – earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, etc., etc. Newton himself had experienced many outward trials in his career and had inflicted them himself on the “passengers” in his ships.
But “inward trials.” I wonder what his were, but it’s really not important. Perhaps Newton was experiencing what John of the Cross, a 16th century monastic, termed “the dark night of the soul.” Many of us have experienced something like this. We’ve grown in our love for God, we’ve longed for a closer walk. But God seems to separate Himself from us. We seek Him but He is nowhere to be found.
Job seemed to be experiencing this dark night. ”Even today my complaint is rebellion; His hand is heavy despite my groaning. Oh that I knew where I might find Him, That I might come to His seat!” (Job 23:2, 3). But he was also seeking an explanation from God. If we read on in Job’s story, we know he did find God, but God never saw fit to explain Himself or His actions to Job, as is often our experience.
Perhaps, as in Job’s case, our inward trials are triggered by outward trials. Perhaps not. Sometimes they are inexplicable. I suppose modern thinkers would see them as caused by a chemical imbalance or short circuit in the brain, or as being triggered by some childhood trauma. They may be right. But the trials are still real.
Some Christian counselors would play the part of Job’s friends and blame these feelings on sin or unresolved conflict. They may be right. They would recommend to us that we simply confess our sin or sins to God and/or others we’ve offended. They may be right. But I wonder what they’d have told Jesus as He struggled in the garden. “And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground” (Luke 22:44).
Newton’s “inward trials,” as he described them, were not caused by sin. They were brought on as he tried to “seek more earnestly His (God’s) face.” They were brought on by his desire for “rest.” God was setting him free “from self and pride.” It apparently took a while to understand what was going on.
Sometimes we go through these feelings of inward trial and conflict. It’s a simple solution to get a prescription to cure it. And there are times when this may be the solution. But there are times, I believe, when God simply wants us to “seek His face,” to spend time meditating on His Word and speaking to Him in prayers, even if He seems to refuse to answer.
I’m not saying we should seek these experiences. There is nowhere in the Bible where we are told to seek trials, whether inward or outward. We’re just told that they will come. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). But we often hear the biblical writers’ cries of desperation, especially, but not limited to the Psalms. See Psalm 4:1; 5:1, 2; 6:1-3; 10:1; 13:1, 2.
And when we counsel others who are going through experiences like these, we should not be too quick with a solution. It may not be a problem to be solved, but a necessary experience in their growth. They may simply need a listening ear and a supporting arm, a friend to help them through their “dark night.” “ … let every one be quick to hear, slow to speak … ” (James 1:19).