New Year’s Day, 1773, marked a decade since depression nearly snatched away William Cowper’s life.
The mental agony tortured him so severely ten winters prior that he was locked up in St. Alban’s insane asylum after a botched suicide attempt. While there, he stumbled upon a Bible that the asylum’s Christian director had strategically left open. His eyes fell upon Romans 3:23–26, and the glory of Jesus Christ chased the shadows from his soul.
But by the beginning of 1773, successive blows had left Cowper staggering. His brother died in 1770, followed by two of his cousins the following year. In 1772, neighbors’ whispers suggested that Cowper’s relationship with his landlady was something short of innocent. The grief and the slander soon gathered into clouds too dark for his sanity. And so, as Cowper walked through the fields after church 246 years ago today, Cowper “was struck by a terrible premonition that the curse of madness was about to fall on him again” (John Newton, 217).
But before night fell on Cowper’s soul, he sat in the light of his remaining sanity, took up his pen, and wrote a hymn that has strengthened generations of staggering saints through their various shadows.
Cowper’s hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” is a song for every saint who sits on the edge. It is a guide for all who do not see fresh hopes rising over the horizon of the new year. It is a confession of faith in the face of darkness — one that flickers with enough light to carry us through whatever midnights this year brings.
At the heart of the hymn is a simple exhortation: “Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take.” Take courage. Take courage when the clouds come thundering toward you. Take courage when the coming days seem covered in shadow. Take courage when you cannot understand God’s ways.
But why, we ask in the valley, should we take courage? Throughout the rest of the hymn, Cowper gives his reasons.
1. God moves in a mysterious way.
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
As Cowper wrote his hymn, God’s ways confounded him. The God who had rescued Cowper from the storm of mental instability was now sending him back in, where Cowper would feel like he was “scrambling always in the Dark, among rocks and precipices without a guide, but with an enemy ever at my heels, prepared to push me headlong” (Letters and Prose Writings, IV:234). We can understand why he would begin his hymn with the famous line “God moves in a mysterious way.”
But for Cowper, “God moves in a mysterious way” was a statement of faith, not despair. Cowper knew from Scripture that God rarely performs his wonders in lands of comfort and ease. More often, God delivers his people from one trouble only to usher them into another: he delivers us from Egypt, and then leads us to the shores of the Red Sea (Psalm 77:19). “He plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.”
Do not be dismayed when God’s ways bewilder you. Instead, take courage. Remember with Cowper that you are in the company of many trusting saints. You are walking with Abraham and Sarah, waiting decades for a son (Genesis 17:15–21). You are traveling with David through the valley of the shadow (Psalm 23:4). You are watching with Jeremiah as Jerusalem goes up in flames (Jeremiah 21:10). You are lying with John the Baptist beneath the executioner’s sword (Matthew 14:1–12). You are weeping with Mary Magdalene outside the tomb of Jesus (John 20:11–15).
We do not need to grasp all that God is doing when we find ourselves in the middle of his mysterious ways. In the end, God will show that his ways, so high above our own (Isaiah 55:8), were nevertheless perfect (Psalm 18:30). “God is his own interpreter,” Cowper reminds us later in the hymn. And when the time is right, “He will make it plain.”
2. The clouds you dread are full of mercy.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Cowper did not downplay the anguish of depression or any of our other afflictions. He did not claim that, because of Christ, the children of God stride unfeeling through the thorns of this cursed world. He was willing to write in a letter to a friend that depression had thrust him into “the belly of this Hell, compared with which Jonah’s was a palace, a temple of the living God” (Letters and Prose Writings, II:83).
Nevertheless, Cowper’s hymn does more than give a voice to our distress. It also lends us the eyes of faith to look ahead at the storm clouds of our sorrows, no matter how dreaded, and to recognize them as the messengers of God’s mercy.
“Dreaded clouds” are never the final horizon for the people of God. In the end, the barren couple holds a baby in their arms (Genesis 21:1–3). The sun rises over the valley of the shadow (Psalm 23:6). Jerusalem hears again the sound of a song (Isaiah 62:1–5). The martyr awakes with a resurrected body (1 Corinthians 15:53–55). The stone rolls away from the tomb (John 20:16–18).
Take courage. The clouds that cover you this year may be darker than any you have yet known. They may linger long. They may seem to blot out the sun. But God knows how to take even these clouds, and through them work wonders so marvelous, so unlooked for, that they leave us on our knees in worship.
3. God’s purposes will ripen fast.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.
Toward the end of the hymn, Cowper leaves us with an assurance: God’s purposes “will ripen fast.” Very soon now, the sun will scatter these dreaded clouds, and we will stand upon the dry land of God’s goodness with everlasting joy on our heads.
In the moment, of course, God’s fast may feel like a thousand years (2 Peter 3:8). The depression that fell on Cowper in 1773 covered him until his death in 1800 — a 27-year darkness. John Newton, in his funeral sermon for Cowper, preached from the passage about the burning bush (Exodus 3:2–3), because, as he put it, Cowper “was indeed a bush in flames for 27 years.”
Can we say that 27 years in the flames was a fast affliction? Only if we, with Cowper, set 27 years next to 27 million years, and allow eternity to adjust our scales. From the standpoint of forever, no calamity can befall us this year that will not be a “light momentary affliction . . . preparing for us an eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17). For the moment, we taste only the bitter bud. Soon, we will see that heaven’s soil knows how to turn every bud into a flower whose beauty we cannot imagine.
Later in his funeral sermon, Newton agreed with Cowper’s sense of fast. “He was one of those who came out of great tribulation,” Newton said. “He suffered much here for 27 years, but eternity is long enough to make amends for all.”
Eternity is long enough to make amends for all — all the evil that has fallen on us so far in this life, and any evil that will fall on us this year. So take courage. Today, we are one year closer to the land where the skies are always clear, where flowers cover the hillsides, and where every tearstained face feels the tender touch of Jesus Christ.