Rising Leader Series: Week 14 - The Sinner
New– Song for April. Listen => Between the Moments (on Christ’s faithfulness, despite our disconnectedness)
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 crewmates, 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 of the coast of Ireland, and the ship’s hull cracked. As the boat began to sink, Newton prayed to God 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 transform into 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 walk along this path began when he finally realized God loved him; it continued once he allowed God to guide him to the truth. Once he admitted that truth, he asked for and received God’s forgiveness for his sins. From there he eventually forgave himself, until finally he embraced God’s call to live out a new purpose.
Especially for leaders, it is all too 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.
It begins 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.
The world is in distress. You are our hope. Will you prepare your soul for the work at hand? First, welcome God in. Then let Him lead you past your shadows, and then back to your original goodness, and then on into the light of your true 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). Love, truth, grace, call— this is how God leads us forward. Just as He did with that hall-of-fame sinner, John Newton. Through prayer, we invite God into our souls to walk beside us as we make the journey into the deep.
“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
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?
Your friend in God,
P.S.: In this week’s poem, we find a leader whose self-centered soul is exposed– prompting a first grudging glimpse of self-reflection.
I’m perfect to lead. Where do I begin?
I have what it takes– just give me command.
Pedigree readies me– I lead, you win!
Of course: I’m the gift this moment demands.
My problem with anger? Totally rare.
That flirting encounter? Nothing at all.
Self-centered, you’ve heard? No, really– I care.
An oversized ego? Absolute gall!
How bogus is this? I ! I’ve been denied?
Good luck finding someone who’s half as good.
Handed a leader who screams “qualified”,
You drilled me and drilled me on “servanthood.”
Servanthood. Servanthood. How? Where begin?
God you say? God? Let God enter in?
Previous Week's Letters: