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Pleasing Grief and Mournful Joy

John Newton was a slave-trader turned hymn-writer, a man who underwent a miraculous transformation that saw him leave behind a life of immorality and depravity to pursue the calling of a minister of the gospel. The amazing grace that had unexpectedly but permanently “saved a wretch like me” was his joy and meditation for the rest of his days, the topic of a thousand sermons, hymns, prayers and letters.

Newton was an insightful pastor who was adept at peering deep into the human soul. As he reflected on his life before that encounter with the Lord’s saving grace, he penned a poem or hymn titled In Evil Long I Took Delight. In that song he confesses “In evil long I took delight / Unawed by shame or fear.” For so many years of his life he had been wild and dissolute, living only for his own pleasure, at least “Till a new object struck my sight/ And stopp’d my wild career.” The object that arrested his gaze was “One hanging on a Tree / In agonies and blood.” This hymn describes all that he came to see and learn about the Son of God—that Newton’s own sins had hung him there, that Christ was suffering for the sins of this wretched sinner. And then Newton identifies something every Christian has experienced when meditating on the cross, that in the Christian life there are times of “pleasing grief, and mournful joy.”

With pleasing grief, and mournful joy,
My spirit now is fill’d,
That I should such a life destroy,
Yet live by Him I kill’d!

There, with his eyes transfixed on Jesus Christ, Newton weeps with both joy and sorrow—sorrow that his sin had led this man to suffer such great pain, and joy that this man was willing to die so that he, Newton, might live. This is the wonder of the cross, that place where in one act we weep and rejoice and wonder and worship.

This year I had the privilege of attending a Memorial Service at Toronto’s Pregnancy Care Centre–an organization I have come to know and love–and found myself, through tears, reflecting on the pleasing grief and the mournful joy of those who have found the freedom of forgiveness. This memorial service is a time to own past sins and, in confessing them, to proclaim and experience forgiveness. It is a time for mothers and fathers to confess that they had knowingly taken the life of their own child, and yet to proclaim that the grace of the Lord is sufficient to cover even this sin. In obedience to James 5:16, it takes the shame of private sin to a public setting: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

Each of the participants was given an opportunity to speak in front of the group gathered that evening. There were some who named their child, who read that child a letter or poem, who asked or begged that child’s forgiveness, who proclaimed their trust that they had found forgiveness through the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As they spoke they were given a flower, a rose, a small and symbolic token of God’s love for them. There were some who could say nothing, who could only stand silently and weep for what they had done and what they had lost. These women, too, were given a flower. Many of them placed a sealed letter in a basket, a letter they had written to their child but could not bear to read. Those letters remain sealed today, a private interaction between a woman, her child, and the Lord.

Yet even among all the tears and even in the expressions of such pain and regret, still there was joy. It was the joy of freedom, for these women were not only confessing sin, but proclaiming and accepting forgiveness. The tears of shame were mixed in equal parts with tears of joy, for these women did not mourn as those who have no hope, but as those who have been filled with hope—a new hope that has come through new life.

Abortion holds out the promise of freedom. It offers freedom from the shame of an unplanned pregnancy, the responsibility of raising a child, the burden of providing for an infant. But like all sin, it over-promises and under-delivers. Where it promises freedom, it delivers captivity—captivity to shame and regret and the knowledge of having done what is wrong. Abortion is a lie, a sin that could only be birthed by the father of lies (John 8:44).

But all the shame of abortion, all the evil and weight of it, is broken before the cross. Before the cross we are all invited to kneel, to trust, to confess, to weep with that pleasing grief and mournful joy, and there to find the freedom of forgiveness.

Most Pregnancy Help Centers across North America offer post-abortion support, most often through group and individual Bible studies. If that would be helpful to you, you can visit OptionLine to find a center near you.

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