Last month I wrote about the hymn “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder” by John Newton (1725–1807). I mentioned that it’s one of a couple Newton hymns that hold a place in my personal Top 5. Another is “I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow,” and its appeal similarly lies in its poetry and its theology. I have it on a playlist on my phone called “I Need Thee,” which I often listen to in times of depression.
Telling a Story
“I Asked the Lord” has seven verses. But don’t let that turn you away. These verses flow together in a seamless narrative, each verse following logically on the heels of the one before. You can see this poetic structure if you just look at the opening line or two of each verse:
1I asked the Lord that I might grow . . .
2’Twas He who taught me thus to pray . . .
3I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request . . .
4Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart . . .
5Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe . . .
6“Lord, why is this?” I trembling cried . . .
7[The Lord replied,] “These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free . . .”
Because Newton does such a good job telling a story, I find all seven verses surprisingly memorable. But more important than the fact that this song tells a story is the story it tells.
Does God hide His face?
“I Asked the Lord” tells the story of frustration in prayer. What’s more, Newton attributes this frustration to God Himself, identifying it as a tool the Lord uses to discipline our pride.
Newton’s story is my story. I can’t tell you how often I’ve gone to the Lord hoping for encouragement and peace, only to find difficulty and frustration. Because of this experience, I tire of books and songs which give the impression that prayer is something that just naturally flows out of our hearts if we just let it. One popular conservative evangelical author writes, “I didn’t learn continuous prayer; I discovered I was already doing it.”1 I’m happy for him, but that ain’t my experience. And I’ve been encouraged to discover that it’s not the experience of many of my fathers in the faith. John Bunyan wrote,
As for my heart, when I go to pray, I find it so loth to go to God, and when it is with him, so loth to stay with him, that many times I am forced in my prayers, first to beg of God that he would take mine heart, and set it on himself in Christ, and when it is there, that he would keep it there. Nay, many times I know not what to pray for, I am so blind, nor how to pray, I am so ignorant; only, blessed be grace, the Spirit helps our infirmities.2
What a relief to know I’m not alone.
But why is praying so difficult? To our surprise, Newton answers (in verses 6–7) that praying is difficult because God makes it that way. Newton focuses here on a painful reality which is notably absent from most worship music today. We cheerfully sing song after song about God lifting, raising, exalting, freeing, calming, and comforting us. But do we believe that God ever lowers us? Does He humble us? Abase us? Discipline us? Show us His displeasure? If you only listened to the songs on Christian radio, you’d be forgiven for wondering if such things have any place in the Christian life.
Yet here is the testimony of God’s Word:
But I, O Lord, have cried out to You for help,
And in the morning my prayer comes before You.
O Lord, why do You reject my soul?
Why do You hide Your face from me?
. . .
I suffer Your terrors; I am overcome.
That is the theme reflected in Newton’s lyrics in verse 4:
. . . He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in ev’ry part.
Would God really do such a thing? If we’ve read Job, we must answer yes.
Our squeamishness on this point is illustrated by a contemporary rendition of this hymn by a popular Christian songwriter. He left most of the lyrics intact, with some minor poetic adjustments, but a couple of his edits are telling, such as the addition of two final verses that continue where Newton left off, from the Lord’s perspective:
For earthly joy is but a cloud,
All blown apart by earthly winds;
But Mine’s the joy that bore the shroud
To ever wash away your sins.
Now whosoe’er takes up their cross
And finds their hope and rest in Me,
All join the saints of Pentecost,
Filled now with faith and love and peace,
Filled now with faith and love and peace,
Filled now with faith and love and peace.3
I include the songwriter’s performative repetition of the final line to highlight why these added verses disappoint me. Of course, there’s nothing theologically incorrect about them. But I can’t help but feel like they rob Newton’s hymn of its gravity. Lest Newton’s sobering words make us tremble under God’s fatherly hand, we happily resolve all possible tension with the soothing repetition of “faith and love and peace . . . faith and love and peace . . .” As if Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” was a man who lacked an understanding of God’s kindness.
“I Asked the Lord” is helpful precisely because it gives voice to the one who is not currently experiencing the comforting assurance of peace with God. It’s for those who need to persevere amid inward spiritual turmoil. Charles Spurgeon is helpful here:
Give not up praying because you cannot pray, for it is when you think you cannot pray that you are most praying; and sometimes when you have no sort of comfort in your supplications, it is then that your heart all broken and cast down is really wrestling and truly prevailing with the Most High.4
There are times when it is wrong to declare peace to ourselves. We know this because it was the fatal error of the false prophets in the days of Jeremiah. They said, “Peace, peace,” but there was no peace (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). Jeremiah, on the other hand, was hated by God’s people for declaring the coming of God’s painful discipline.
As far as prayer is concerned, God never promises us that it will be easy. It wasn’t even easy for our sinless Savior. Jesus told His disciples, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38), and this is why, “in the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death” (Heb. 5:7). And lest we think that Jesus suffered in this way so that we wouldn’t have to, let us remember that “we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23).
E. M. Bounds wrote,
Prayer is spiritual work; and human nature does not like taxing, spiritual work. Human nature wants to sail to heaven under a favoring breeze, a full, smooth sea. Prayer is humbling work. It abases intellect and pride, crucifies vainglory, and signs our spiritual bankruptcy, and all these are hard for flesh and blood to bear. It is easier not to pray than to bear them.5
There are many fleshly hindrances to prayer, but prayer is especially difficult when our pride gets in the way. And our pride, deceptive as it is, may very well be at work even when we think—as Newton expresses in this hymn—that we’re seeking the Lord rightly. The key to right prayer lies in the abasement of ourselves.
Self-Abasement in Worship
In verse 6, Newton asks the Lord, “Wilt thou pursue Thy worm to death?” In the edited rendition I mentioned above, the songwriter changes “Thy worm” to “Thine own.”
Of course, the reference to ourselves as worms feels a bit much. We know we’re supposed to be humble, but is such a low view of ourselves even scriptural? Here are two places which use that very humbling imagery:
But I am a worm and not a man,
A reproach of men and despised by the people.
All who see me sneer at me;
They separate with the lip, they wag the head . . .
“Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel; I will help you,” declares the Lord, “and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.”
We’re afraid to think low thoughts of ourselves, but self-abasement is the only path that leads to receiving God’s kindness. “For God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time” (1 Pet. 5:6). It is He who exalts us, not we ourselves. It is hardly possible to think too lowly of ourselves, and our worship should be characterized by the lowering of ourselves in the presence of God.
Whether suffering righteously for Christ’s name, or suffering because of our sin, it is good for us to continually acknowledge that we are but dust. Doing so does not keep us from experiencing God’s grace. Rather, it heightens our understanding of His great compassion toward us:
For He Himself knows our frame;
He is mindful that we are but dust.
“I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow” was published along with “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder” in 1779 in Olney Hymns. Here are the original lyrics in full:
1 I ask’d the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love, and ev’ry grace;
Might more of his salvation know,
And seek more earnestly his face.
2 ’Twas he who taught me thus to pray,
And he, I trust, has answer’d pray’r;
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.
3 I hop’d that in some favor’d hour,
At once he’d answer my request;
And by his love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
4 Instead of this, he made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in ev’ry part.
5 Yea more, with his own hand he seem’d
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Cross’d all the fair designs I schem’d,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
6 Lord, why is this, I trembling cry’d,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way, the Lord reply’d,
I answer pray’r for grace and faith.
7 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.”
The language in the final line of verse 5 is usually updated, which I am heartily in favor of; our congregation follows the example of others by singing “Humbled my heart” instead of “Blasted my gourds.” In case you’re curious, Newton’s lyric is an allusion to the shade plant that God gave to Jonah (translated by the KJV as “gourd”), which He subsequently destroyed for Jonah’s discipline. Newton’s hymns are saturated with such references to Scripture’s historical narratives. One classic hymn which exemplifies this Scripture-saturation is “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.” (Here are a classic and a contemporary rendition of it.)
Find It Today
- The oldest version I could find online of “I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow” is a scan of the third edition (1783) of Olney Hymns (which also includes “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Glorious Things”). It appears as hymn #36 in book 3 on page 314.
- When we sing this in our worship services, we use a version set to the old Scottish folk tune “The Water Is Wide.” There’s a good recording of this arrangement led by Bob Kauflin from piano at a Together for the Gospel conference. You can listen on YouTube or on Spotify.
- I was first introduced to this hymn through Indelible Grace’s version, which is set to new music by Laura Taylor; it is faithful to include all seven verses. You can listen to it on YouTube and access sheet music here.
|↑1||Paul Miller, A Praying Life (NavPress, 2009), 64. I wrote a book review of this book here.|
|↑2||John Bunyan, Praying in the Spirit (1662), in Prayer (Banner of Truth, 1965), 32.|
|↑3||Randall Goodgame, live performance at Under the Radar’s Studio in Palos Heights, IL, on May 18, 2012, accessed August 22, 2022, https://youtu.be/LNxSbBtf-kU.|
|↑4||Charles Spurgeon, sermon delivered on Sunday morning, July 15, 1866, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, published as “Order and Argument in Prayer” in Spurgeon’s Sermons on Prayer (Hendrickson, 2007), 37–38. Also accessible at https://www.spurgeongems.org/chs_prayer.htm.|
|↑5||E. M. Bounds, “Prayer the Great Essential,” published in The Complete Works of E. M. Bounds (Wilder Publications, 2008), 17.|