A Hymn’s Mysterious Ways

It is typical for preachers such as I in an attempt to bring encouragement to people struggling through difficult times to quote from the hymn whose first line is ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way’. We will often along with that tell something of what we know of the hymn’s author, William Cowper.

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We will tell how he was a pastor and a poet, and friends of the famed John Newton, the author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. And finally we will point out how Cowper dealt with severe affliction, that he struggled with mental health issues and that he was hospitalized numerous times, sometimes after attempts on his own life. Given that context we will then encourage people to reflect on lines from the hymn:

You fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds you so much dread
are big with mercy and shall break
in blessings on your head.

And from this, we hope people will find comfort.

But did Cowper find comfort from these words himself? That he did not is the possibility that hymn scholar Erik Routley in his book I’ll Praise My Maker suggests.

Routley points out that the bulk of Cowper’s hymns show they were written by a man with a passionate and sensitive heart. His words were often personal, flowing from a heart in love with his savior.

Oh! for a closer walk with GOD,
A calm and heav’nly frame;
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!

But Cowper, like many sensitive souls, struggled to understand God’s providence when it took dark and inexplicable turns. And so, Routley points out, the words from his hymn on that matter,

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

are completely true and deeply hopeful. But, coming from the pen of Cowper, they are oddly lacking anything personal or emotional. They lack, that is, Cowper’s heart.

The whole hymn exhorts men to trust in God and not to enquire into His ways, which is well enough so far as it goes….

But what astonishes the careful reader is surely this, that here is a man who had both plumbed the depths of suffering and scaled the heights of faith, who wrote so passionately of his Saviour as he did in “There is a fountain filled with blood”,…yet, when he would advise men upon the inscrutability of God’s Providence, he makes no mention whatever of the Saviour of the world, and does not so much as mention the word “grace”.

How can Cowper, after all his experience and all his exhortation, write a hymn of providence that makes no mention of redemption?…Something is wrong here…. (page 110)

I’m not sure that there is something actually ‘wrong’ here, but something is clearly missing. How can that be explained?

Sometimes we find ourselves in those hard places where we are torn between the pain that hurts so badly and the truth that we are supposed to believe. All that we can really do in the midst of that agony may be to recite what we know to be true even though it seems distant from our hearts. Sometimes all we have strength to do is to sing, or in Cowper’s case write, what we are having trouble believing so that we might come around to the place where in fact we do believe and our hearts can again rejoice.

This is the ‘I believe’ part of the complete confession, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’ (Mark 9:24) We do believe, but contentment eludes when the horror of what we are experiencing and feeling overcomes us.

Perhaps in his own way, Cowper, struggling with the incomprehensible darkness of mental illness, is showing us a path. In the dark we confess the truth that we know until the light comes to illuminate it to our hearts. Perhaps this hymn itself moves in a mysterious way.

O, Death

Those who lived for any time in Tampa Bay hold former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy in high esteem. I’m sure the same can be said for those who live in Indianapolis where Dungy ended his NFL coaching career.

He is esteemed not only for his success on the football field – he was fired in Tampa, we should note – but for his character, character formed and molded by his Christian convictions. Dungy’s Christianity was not a PR image, but something real and deep impacting the life he lived. And people noticed.

But people also noticed with sadness that this righteous man had a son, a student at the University of South Florida, who in the depths of depression took his own life.

I don’t know much about Pastor Rick Warren, but controversy aside I sense that he, too, is a man who loves God and has sought to live faithfully before him. His son, like Dungy’s, has taken his life.

Pain and tragedy, and yes, the deep darkness of depression, does not spare the faithful in this broken world. My wife and I this morning recounted the names of those we have known who have taken their lives, attempted doing so, or have expressed the desire. It breaks our hearts.

I have often been asked by those trembling with the pain of suicidal loss to weigh in on their loved one’s eternal state. There is a tradition in Christianity suggesting that those who commit suicide go to hell.

When asked, I respond, I must respond, with a question: “What saves us – Jesus’ sinlessness or our own?” Clearly the Christian gospel trumpets “…nothing in my hands I bring / simply to thy cross I cling…”. Self murder is unquestionably a sin, a desperate, horrible, selfish abandonment of faith and hope. But it can no more undo the sufficiency of the work of Christ than any other sin. Jesus saves us, not our sinlessness. Those trusting Jesus are saved by him, even if their final act was a sin.

Some argue that suicide is different, that one cannot repent of the sin of suicide. But without diminishing the value and importance of regular repentance, of particular sins, particularly, nevertheless, our hope of salvation rests in Jesus not in repentance. Jesus, not repentance, saves us.

Do we not, though, by speaking thus encourage the suicidal to hasten a path to peace that seems to otherwise always elude them? I have been asked bluntly, “If I killed myself, would I go to hell?” Warren reports his son saying, “Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?”

A superficial understanding of grace will always make sin seem easier. And yet, in reality, an understanding of the love of God behind grace makes sin ultimately harder. Love, not fear, best keeps us from sin.

And yet, we still sin. We forget his love and we act contrary to it. And some, in such a moment clouded by a deep darkness which others cannot comprehend, flee the pain in the only way they know how. Can we not see, though, that the Man whose cries of despair echoed from the cross probably understands that despair and darkness better than most? Jesus loves even, perhaps especially, the despairing.

Our hearts break. And that is a good thing, for only from broken hearts will flow words of grace, not law. My preaching, and your speaking, is to broken people, whose brokenness we cannot fathom, and often cannot see. We need to speak, and to hear, but one wonderful and comforting truth: the steadfast love of a gracious God.

O, Father, enable us to hear it and hold on to it.

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In 2002 friend and fellow pastor Petros Roukas took his own life. Bryan Chapell’s funeral sermon on that occasion stares the demons head on and fills the occasion with grace.