There will be moments in this life—in its darkness, brokenness, confusion, and even its joy—when we may feel that our words just won’t suffice to express the depths of our hearts’ concerns. There will be times when we may feel we cannot adequately articulate our longings, our pain, or our prayers to the Lord.
In these moments, many of us have learned to turn to music. And often, we tend to turn to the kind of music that has a highly emotional impact, with arrangements and refrains that offer comfort to our questioning souls or powerful choruses of praise that lead us to lift our hands in worship. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this kind of music that seeks to sway our emotions and capture our feelings and spur us toward tears or toward shouts of praise.
However, I have recently found the most comfort in turning to those older songs—the ones with outdated arrangements and sometimes wordy, clunky refrains. The ones many of us sing in church without ever thinking over the richness of meaning of those words we utter. The ones that capture the whole scope of the Christian walk and life—in its joyous, beautiful moments and also its depths of despair.
Yes, I find the most truth and emotional comfort in hymns.
And I believe that by deeply examining hymns, we can expose a crucial link between the depth of expression of these old, seemingly outdated lyrics and the present longings of our souls. So, what I’ll aim to do over the next few posts is to share what has become a much-needed habit of mine in times of heartache or distress, uncertainty or gladness—dissecting hymns. Of course, this is never meant to replace meditation on Scripture itself, but there is still much that music has to offer in illuminating our spiritual walks. We’ll take a verse or two at a time, and we’ll dive into what the songwriter intended for us to feel and to apply to our lives.
Let’s first take a look at one of my favorites: I Asked the Lord by John Newton.
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
Twas He who taught me thus to pray
And He I trust has answered prayer
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair
Here, the songwriter meets us in the midst of a routine part of the Christian walk—in heartfelt, vulnerable prayer. A natural part of progressing in spiritual maturity is to ask for growth in grace or in love and to seek the Lord more faithfully each day. This is the way that the Bible instructs us to pray—for heart change and growth in ourselves that will help further God’s Kingdom and His mission. We know He hears each prayer, for He inclines His ear to us and bends down to listen (Psalm 116:1-2). Yet, the songwriter exposes a reality that, though biblically sound, often catches us by surprise—when we pray earnestly for things, God will answer. But His answer might not be one we’d like to hear.
I hoped that in some favored 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
When we pray to the Lord, we tend to have an idea of how things should turn out. We tend to hope that He’ll answer right away, or at our “right time.” Perhaps, we think that what we need to grow in faith is to see God clearly working in us, overcoming certain sins, or showing His faithfulness in the little, joyful moments of each day. However, God doesn’t always work in the ways we desire or see fit. More often, to grow in our spiritual walk may mean that He will further expose our sin and wickedness. It might mean that we’ll face a trial that will tear us apart. And it often won’t feel like God has answered our prayer at all.
Yea more with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Cast out my feelings, 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”
In the depth of our heartache or trial, it may feel like God is against us. It may feel like He thwarted our plans, rejected our prayers for blessing and growth, or even abandoned us. So many hymns speak richly and honestly into these moments of despair. And in this particular lyric, the songwriter echoes our very own fears, longings, and demands in these tearful, confusing moments. God, but why? This verse provides us with the answer, but it is one that we often forget, one that we don’t want to hear—this answer is that often, God meets our needs and responds to our prayers for growth the hard way, through difficulty.
“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou may seek thy all in me,
That thou may seek thy all in me.”
Often, we don’t realize that in order to grow in faith, love, grace, or knowledge of the Lord, we have to die more and more to ourselves. We have to see our sin, our selfishness, our pride, and our own idols and plans cut down and torn apart.
These trials, and the incredible growing pains of these moments, aren’t meant to damage us. Rather, they are meant for our good—to set us free from ourselves and remind us how sinful we are. They are meant to remind us that we can’t put our hope in earthly circumstances. It’s only when we find ourselves wrecked that we can fully turn to God and lean into Him as our source of comfort and joy. And this is what God wants for us most—to need Him more than anything else.
So, as we pray for growth, this hymn reminds us that God may answer with a kind of growth we won’t recognize, and one that may cause us to mourn, question, and plead with Him. Even still, we can trust Him. For when we ask the Lord, He will answer, and it will be for our good.
The hymn “I Asked the Lord” was written by John Newton in 1779.