Rising Leader Series: Week 14 - The Sinner
Updated: Apr 6
Hey, God, I’m pretty sure You don’t know me
I’ve kept away from You as best I can
Some folks say no sinner’s beyond Your mercy
But actually, I’m pretty sure I am
You see, I have an angry disposition
Things happened that I simply can’t forgive
Acts done in anger point me to perdition
Mistakes that simply cannot be outlived
So I don’t know why I’m turning to You now
I really don’t know who You are at all
But speaking my truth feels good anyhow
Like slowly knocking down a high brick wall
I don’t trust, and don’t know what You’re about.
But I’m in sin. Will You show me the way out?
If there were to be a Sinner’s Hall of Fame, John Newton would be in it.
Born of a mother who died young and a father who put him to sea at age 11, Newton was a reckless and disagreeable drunk in his youth. As he came of age, he took up work in the slave trade. As a seaman, his job was to chain and ferry Africans into slavery in America. Later, abandoned in West Africa by his fed-up crew mates, he was taken in as a hired hand by another enslaver. Only after his father sought the help of a sea captain to track him down did he make it out of Africa on a boat bound for England.
It was on that boat trip home that John Newton almost died. A terrific storm came up off the coast of Ireland, and the ship’s hull cracked. As the boat began to sink, Newton prayed to God, pleading to be saved. At that moment, a wave hit the side of the ship, shifting the cargo in such a way that the hole was covered. The ship drifted to safety, saving all on board.
Newton didn’t instantly become a model Christian. It took years before he finally renounced slavery. But his miraculous rescue from the clutches of death planted a seed. A period of deep self-reflection surely followed. As he looked inside his soul, he could not have liked what he saw. After becoming an Anglican priest at the age of 39, he wrote the song Amazing Grace: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I'm found. Was blind, but now I see.” Later, he wrote an anti-slavery pamphlet, which received wide distribution and was delivered to every British member of Parliament. It fueled the push towards the eventual outlaw of slavery in Britain.
From sinner to saved, from saved to servant– this was John Newton’s path. His journey of the soul began when he finally realized God loved him despite his sin. It continued as he let God guide him to the truth. In the bright light of truth, he must have fallen to his knees in repentance. And God forgave, as He always does. From there, John Newton began to forgive himself, until finally he was ready to step out of himself and embrace God’s call to live out a new purpose.
Especially for leaders, it is so easy for us to drift away from goodness. Power is seductive. As Lord Acton, a nineteenth century British historian, once said: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It takes serious soul work for a leader to counter these temptations. It’s important work for all of us: the world needs capable, ethical leaders.
And it all begins (and ends) with love. Each of us was born wrapped in God’s love. At the moment of our conception in our mother’s womb, we were endowed by God with original goodness. Then, as we grow from childhood to adulthood, we accumulate life experiences— many of them hurtful. These hurts ricochet inside our souls, wounding us emotionally. Our most sinful acts often spring from these past hurts.
But God understands. He has been with us, at our very side, through every bit of it. And He knows our every sin. Despite that, He loves us, just the way we are. He yearns for us to turn back to Him. Yes, He gives us free will to draw towards Him or push away from Him– but there is no doubt about His hope. He yearns for our return.
John Newton, a former enslaver, became a leader of great consequence. Newton’s anti-slavery pamphlet made an important contribution to the banishment of slavery in Britain. Amazing Grace is still performed eleven million times per year. John Newton became a capable, ethical servant leader because he surrendered his heart to God. God led him, with love, through the painful dark valley of his truth to forgiveness– and then on to his calling.
As the Psalmist said,
“I will be glad and rejoice in your unfailing love, for you have seen my troubles, and you care about the anguish of my soul” (Psalm 31:7)
Enough with the tribulations of the sinner. Next week let’s turn our attention to the saint. But really, isn’t it true that all who seek God and strive towards the good are, in the end, both?
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”-- Ephesians 2:8-9
Your friend in God,
Previous Weeks' Letters: