Another look at "a wretch like me."

Posted by Charlie Finn at

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.

To hear Judy Collins, or anyone else for that matter, sing Amazing Grace is not only to have your heart moved but your soul lifted. Who among us has not felt lost, and if we do not at present feel found, this hymn’s hauntingly beautiful faith helps us believe we yet can be. Who among us, blind often to what truly matters, does not feel profoundly grateful for now, at least partially, being able to see?

But something here jars, offends our modern sensibilities, makes us cringe, and that is the ghastly word “wretch” which seems to hearken back to a theology that viewed man so depraved as to deserve, without divine rescue, eternal damnation! Surely, we have likely found ourselves hoping, a word less slanderous of our very nature could be found to substitute for wretch in this otherwise soaring hymn.

But hold. Think psychology here instead of theology. Who has not felt like a wretch when he or she has betrayed that inner code, that still small voice, has by defiant action or fear-based inaction actually chosen to hurt self or another? Not only is it human nature to feel oneself a wretch when violating conscience, it is hopeful human nature. Recall that the author of this poignantly moving hymn, John Newton, had once been a captain of slave ships. We have only to consult our imaginations to guess the depth of shame and self-loathing he must have felt as he came, whether incrementally or with thunderbolt searing, to his senses, when he stared straight into the face of his complicity in the excruciating suffering of fellow human beings. Thanks to the way the human heart is fashioned, when it acts inhuman it feels inhuman, and does not wretch capture it perfectly? Could Newton have awakened to the light without cringing in the night?

Remember the Prodigal Son. This parable was Jesus’ way of giving us a glimpse not only into the heart of man but into the heart of God. Is this not the story of each of us, needing to hit enough of a “bottom” to come to our senses and ask for help, trailing behind us a cloud of unworthiness? So unworthy does the prodigal feel (it’s not a stretch to imagine him calling himself a wretch) that the most he dares to hope, believing he has forfeited his sonship, is permission from his father to labor in the fields with the swine. Could a Jew imagine anything lower?

But on his leaden way back a stupendous thing happened. His father, having spied him returning, ran out to meet him, not in judgment but in joy! Instead of being punished the prodigal is lavished! “Let us feast and celebrate. This son of mine was dead and has come back to life again, was lost and has been found again.” How long it took the son to let this fully sink in we will never know (imagine how dazed he must have been during the celebrating, how likely he averted his eyes from his brother’s glowering). But when it did sink in—that he truly in his father’s eyes was not only still son but beloved—we can imagine him singing words like these:

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.

A final thought inviting a reconsideration of the full humanity of Jesus:

Let It Sink In
We are to love much because we have been forgiven much—
the Good News in a mustard seed.
It’s inconceivable that Jesus could so extol the power of
preach and practice the primacy of forgiveness,
without experiencing it,
without in some human way, shape or form
knowing he had missed the mark, fallen short, not measured up,
and then exploding in the heart and soul of him to experience
from no less than the undergirding, overarching Presence and
Power of the universe
the unconditional love and grace of forgiveness!
Let it sink in Jesus spoke also of himself
when he spoke of the prodigal son.

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