But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
- 1 Corinthians 15:10
A few years ago, while I was attending the Worship Symposium in Grand Rapids, I joined a retreat workshop with a group of other pastors and church leaders. The fellow who was leading the workshop gave us a number of stories to reflect on as a group—stories that opened up our hearts to a deeper understanding of grace in the midst of turmoil.
One of these stories was about a man named Martin Rinkart—a minister in the 1600’s who lived in present-day Germany during the Thirty Years War. This was a war that many historians claim to be the longest and most destructive in European history.
In addition to the war, there was a great pestilence and famine that had swept across the region, killing people by the thousands. So although at the start of the war there were four pastors in the town of Eilenburg, it wasn’t long before one ran away and two had passed.
The only one left was a Lutheran minister named Martin Rinkart, who cared for the ill and the dying and laid many of these souls to rest.
It is said that at the height of it all, Martin Rinkart officiated 5,000 funerals in one year alone – sometimes as many as 50 a day. One of these funerals was for his own wife because there was simply no one else to do it. He was left on his own to care for their young children, and his house became a refuge where other ill and lost children could find a home.
It was sometime in the middle of this terrible season that Martin Rinkart wrote the hymn, ‘Now Thank We all our God.” He didn’t intend for it to become public; he had actually written it for his children to sing as part of their prayers each night before bedtime.
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way,
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in his grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next.
How is it that such beautiful words can come out of such a terrible season of loss? How did Martin find the strength, the courage, and the hope to write music while in the midst of such suffering?
How did the grace of God keep him and meet him in that place?
It’s helpful to notice the original intention of these words, because this song was not intended to be anything popular or long-lasting. It began as a simple prayer written by a widowed father for his two motherless children to remind them that no matter the circumstances, God was still with them and keeping them in his grace.
Paul tells us that God’s grace was what made him who he was. It was ‘not without effect,’ he says. It spurred him on to love, to serve, to give, to offer, to humble himself, to submit, and to care for others in the face of ongoing difficulties.
What but the grace of God can do this? What but the grace of God can hold us and keep us in seasons of distress? Can give us the courage and the strength to press on? Can alleviate fear and offer us hope?
Charlie Jones once said this: “I am not what I used to be, I am not what I shall be. But by the grace of God and through the blood of the Lamb, I shall become what I'm supposed to be."
It’s so easy for us to retreat or run away when we are in difficult situations—and yet some of the most beautiful things can come out of times of desolation.
Will we let God make something of us in this season? Will we let Him keep us in His grace?
I thank you, O my God, with heart and hands and voice,
who wondrous things has done, in whom I now rejoice;
who from my mother’s arms has blessed me on my way,
with countless gifts of love, that still are mine today.
O may Your bounteous love through all my life be near,
With an ever joyful heart and blessed peace to cheer;
Keep me in Your grace, and guide me when perplexed;
And free me from all ills, in this world and the next.