We Need Old Hymns: God Moves in a Mysterious Way
The world is groaning, we are groaning, but God is protecting us, forging our faith on the anvil of affliction because of his love for us and because of a passion for his own glory.
“God Moves in a Mysterious Way” by William Cowper
God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform; he plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines, of never-failing skill; he fashions up his bright designs, and works his sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints fresh courage take, the clouds that you much dread, are big with mercy and will break in blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace; behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his work in vain; God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.
I love this hymn for the same reason I love Romans 8 and country music. I’m not talking about modern-day country music, the kind that is slick and well-packaged, the sort that is merely countrified pop music. By country music, I mean Hank (Senior), Cash, Jones, the Hag. Legends, all, whose lives were marked by the profound suffering and searching of which they sang. They were not dime store cowboys and neither was the author of “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”
In some ways, the British poet William Cowper is to classic, Reformation-tradition hymnody what Hank Williams was to country music: both men perennially suffered deep, dark depression and anguish of soul. Out of their pain, each man wrote deeply emotional, heart-felt poetry that was set to music. Of course, their biographies part ways there: both diagnosed the illness that drove their angst in a deeply fallen world, but only Cowper found the transformative cure, locating his healing balm in the old rugged cross. Sadly, Hank sought solace in the bottom of a whiskey bottle and died of an overdose of alcohol and pain killers at 29. Hank sang “I Saw the Light,” but never seems to have run to it.
Two bruised reeds, two smoking flaxes, two different outcomes, but two men who were unsentimental about the mysteries of life and God’s providence east of Eden. “God Moves” is my favorite for two fundamental reasons: the story of the man behind the lyrics and the robust theology of Romans 8 that it expresses in unforgettable poetry. Every time I sing it in corporate or family worship (and I love the revised tune by Bob Kauflin and our friends at Sovereign Grace Music), I think of its author, and I am strengthened by the grace of which it speaks.
John Calvin referred to fallen humanity and the world in which we live as broken actors performing on a broken-down stage. Cowper’s brokenness was as profound as it was palpable. In his excellent biographical essay on the life of William Cowper, John Piper wrote of him, “The battles in this man’s soul were of epic proportions.” Indeed.
Cowper lived from 1731 to 1800, a contemporary to John Wesley and George Whitefield in England and Jonathan Edwards in America. Heartache was his handmaiden virtually from birth. William and his brother John were the only two among seven siblings to survive past infancy. At age 6, his mother died giving birth to John, leaving William deeply distraught. Cowper moved from school to school before landing at Westminster school in 1742 where he was bullied mercilessly by older students. While studying for a career in law as a young adult, he fell in love with his cousin Theodora and sought her hand in marriage. Her father refused to consent to the union and nuptials were never exchanged. Lost love left him crestfallen.
As he progressed into adulthood, things grew appreciably worse. In 1763, he was offered a position as a clerk of journals in the House of Lords, but the specter of the job examination sent him off the rails; he experienced grinding depression that bordered on insanity. Three times he attempted suicide and was sent to an asylum for recovery. The asylum turned out to be a place of grace for Cowper. Dr. Nathaniel Cotton, an evangelical believer, cared for Cowper and showed him the love of Christ. One day at the hospital, Cowper found a Bible and opened it. The pages fell upon Romans 3:25. God opened Cowper’s blind spiritual eyes that day, and he was converted to a saving hope in Jesus Christ. Salvation changed his heart, but not his propensity for melancholy.
In 1767, two years after leaving the asylum, Cowper met the slave-trader-turned-preacher John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace” and curate of the church at Olney. Newton mentored Cowper. He encouraged Cowper and ministered to him. There were numerous additional suicide attempts as the viper of melancholy gripped the poet every ten years, usually every tenth January. Cowper wrote “God Moves” in 1773 at the behest of Newton, who later published it in the Olney Hymnal. Soon after Cowper wrote “God Moves,” the darkness returned, and he attempted suicide by drowning. He died on April 25, 1800, in the throes of depression. The final poem he composed in 1799 was titled “The Castaway,” but by God’s grace that did not describe his eternal state.
A Hymn for Rough Weather
Cowper’s story makes this hymn all the more remarkable. Life between the times is full of hurt and pain; we live in what John Bunyan aptly called a vail of tears. Relationships sour. Malignant tumors grow inside our frail bodies. A phone call shatters our dreams. The spring flowers die, and our lush summer lawns turn brown in winter. The only thing consistent in this embittered cosmos is that nothing stays the same. Cowper lived in and wrote out of this reality as much as any figure in church history. “God Moves” was originally titled “Conflict: Light Shining out of Darkness.” Cowper knew first-hand that life is warfare.
This hymn is my favorite for the same reason Romans 8:28-39 is my favorite Bible passage. The final four of the six stanzas are pure gold for suffering saints—that’s all of us on various levels—on pilgrimage through the valley of the shadow of death: “You fearful saints, fresh courage take, the clouds that you now dread, are big with mercy and will break in blessings on your head.” The world is groaning, we are groaning, but God is protecting us, forging our faith on the anvil of affliction because of his love for us and because of a passion for his own glory. Charles Spurgeon once said that God’s sovereignty is a doctrine for rough weather; “God Moves” is a hymn for stormy days, and there are many such days in a fallen world.
Behind a Frowning Providence
The fourth stanza is the best-known: “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace; behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.” It is easy to hear echoes of Isaiah 55 here: “My ways are higher than your ways, my thoughts than your thoughts.” We are not omniscient. We have a limited ability to exegete our experiences. We face moments when the God who has declared himself good won’t seem so good. Life may seem bad, sometimes, very bad. But we do not find peace in our ability to interpret events but in the God who is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works (Ps. 145:17). The fifth verse is a healing balm: “His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.”
Cowper concludes the hymn with a reminder for forgetful Christians like me, a reminder I need to hear hourly: “Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his work in vain. God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.” We don’t know the future. We don’t often understand his ways. But we can trust him because he is never late and never gets the wrong address.
I have never suffered anywhere near the level of William Cowper, but I am grateful that he has set to verse the theology that describes his thorny life so that we might be encouraged and equipped for the fight. Cowper may have spent much time in darkness, but he truly saw the light.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.