Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind but now I see.
Whether you grew up “in the church” or not, these words, published in 1779 by Englishman slave trader turned abolitionist and Gospel preacher, John Newton, most likely ring familiar. This hymn is arguably the most well-known and well-loved of all liturgical tunes. With its timeless theme of redemption—something all people, at some level, long for—its universal appeal is obvious. While the entire song is packed with sucker-punch truths, for me, the beginning of the second verse is striking:
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved.
Until recently, I have always skimmed over—often an unfortunate result of becoming numb through over-familiarity—the seeming contradiction inherent in these lines.
How can something both cause you fear AND relieve your fears?
My attempt to understand this paradox left me here…
Recognizing the wild, immense grace God dispensed so freely on my wretched self should cause me to fear God...what kind of God does something so extravagant for people so disgusting? That kind of love, that kind of grace should make me stand awestruck. It should make me fear the Mighty Power who has every right to separate me from His holy presence eternally but who instead relishes grace on me at the expense—the insane expense—of His only Son—His perfect, spotless Lamb. And when I rightfully stand in awe and fear of the One who had His own heart ripped out for me, then that understanding, feeble and incomplete as it may be, of grace relieves my fears and draws me in to a sweet, incomparable intimacy with my Redeemer. Because what kind of God does something so extravagant for people so disgusting? Grasping that I have been rescued from the pit and robed in His righteousness only by His grace—totally apart from any of my own merit which appears as filthy rags and totally in spite of my own endless failings—erases fear and makes me want to jump recklessly into His outstretched arms. Arms that ever beckon His cherished creation to come Home. Come rest. Come drink deep from His well that never runs dry. Come nestle in and be cradled by His perfect love that casts out ALL fear (1 John 4:18).
So for me, that’s the marriage of fear and grace. And when I pause to remember this beautiful contradiction, it reminds me that we are all the same. “Rich” or “poor”, young or old, American or Ethiopian, man or woman, we all desperately need grace to teach our prideful hearts to fear and then to allow that grace to relieve our fears. Can you imagine the joy, the freedom, the peace, the security, the unconditional love that is there for the taking in Christ? Because it is. It is all there for us, every single one on every inch of this globe. We can exchange our fears of rejection for acceptance, of disappointment for hope, of loneliness for community. And we, who have experienced this open-armed grace that teaches us to fear and then assuages our every dread, are then propelled to walk also with outstretched arms, welcoming the weary and the orphan and pointing the way to the Good Father. This is the way of abundant life.