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.”
When I read this, I imagine Newton reflecting on the events of the night he nearly died at sea. His freedom from captivity was so fresh, yet he remained in bondage to his true enemy. He frantically bailed water out of his vessel for hours as the storm relentlessly raged. He cried out to God, who he’d spent most of his life rebelling against. Mercifully, God saved him from that storm and eventually saved him from sin and death.
When he wrote this hymn, perhaps he imagined that fateful night going differently. “Begone unbelief, my Savior is near, and for my relief, will surely appear.” Unbelief had no place in his new life, for he was united with the very near Christ.
“By prayer let me wrestle, and he wilt perform, with Christ in the vessel, I smile at the storm.” The desperate need of that night remained unchanged in his memory. But he acknowledged with a sweetness that Christ performed his rescue. And with Christ on the ship, he faced the storm, not with terror in his heart—but a smile on his face.
HE CALMS THE STORMS
I first read Newton’s hymn during a stormy time in my life. The idea of “smiling at storms” seemed absurd. But I was intrigued. Newton’s journey added depth to his words. Smiling during storms feels courageous, cavalier, and a bit daring.
Am I brave enough to smile at my storms?
The point is not my bravery but my exaltation of Christ. Smiling at storms doesn’t display my courage but my trust in his all-sufficient presence. Union with Christ means never being separated from him, in this life or in the life to come. His nearness gives me a bold and daring kind of faith. And my faith in him, the calmer and creator of storms, gives me the courage to smile at them.
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?
My favorite Newton hymn ends this way:
“Since all that I meet shall work for my good,
The bitter is sweet, the medicine is food;
Though painful at present, wilt cease before long,
And then, O! how pleasant, the conqueror’s song!”
The day is coming when storms will cease and we’ll forever sing the Conqueror's song. I look forward to that day, when my smile will only be for my Savior.
But today, I boldly proclaim this rally cry, “With Christ in the vessel, I smile at the storm!” Come what may, with Christ by my side, I do not fear. I smile.
Christy Britton is a wife and mom to four boys. She writes Bible study curriculum for Docent Research Group and serves as the Discipleship Classes Coordinator for Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, N.C. She is an orphan advocate with 127 Worldwide and contributes administratively to bring pastor training opportunities to Africa for Acts 29. You can follow her on Twitter.