The Mystery of “God Moves in Mysterious Ways”

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 treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall 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.

Those words were penned by William Cowper. There is a question, however, surrounding the circumstances that led to the poem. In the early 1900’s a story arose that Cowper had decided once again to commit suicide by drowning himself. Here is how one person tells it:

One night he de­cid­ed to com­mit su­i­cide by drown­ing him­self. He called a cab and told the driv­er to take him to the Thames Riv­er. How­ev­er, thick fog came down and pre­vent­ed them from find­ing the riv­er (ano­ther ver­sion of the story has the driv­er get­ting lost de­liber­ate­ly). After driv­ing around lost for a while, the cab­by fin­al­ly stopped and let Cow­per out. To Cowper’s sur­prise, he found him­self on his own door­step: God had sent the fog to keep him from kill­ing him­self. Even in our black­est mo­ments, God watch­es over us.

Cool story. Tullian Tchividjian picks this story up in his book Glorious Ruin when he writes, “after one of his failed suicide attempts, he wrote what has become one of my favorite hymns…” Heart-warming tale, unfortunately I can’t find historical accuracy to this story.

Many of those who share this story place the date for God Moves In Mysterious Ways (originally titled Light Shining Out of Darkness) at 1774. This is almost certainly impossible. Cowper was in such despair at this time he would have never spoke with such faith. By February of 1773 he had become convinced that God had rejected him. As one early biographer wrote, “to every consolatory suggestion he was utterly deaf, concluding that God had rejected him.”

The More Likely Story

The cab driver story is absent in all of the early biographies that I could get my hands on. The story behind the writing of God Moves in Mysterious Ways is much different. The year was 1773. Cowper had enjoyed almost a decade of respite from his earlier depression and suicidal tendencies. Then something most unwelcome happened on January 1st of 1773. A few hours after attending morning worship (where he would have heard John Newton preach), the poet was visited with what can only be termed a “terrible premonition” that he was about to return to his previous state. Before the madness set in, he put to verse a proclamation of his faith. That is what we have today entitled God Moves in Mysterious Ways.

Cowper did not recover from this fit of madness for half a decade. Some would even say that he never really recovered. This hymn was the last one of the 68 hymns that he would write with John Newton. It would later be published as part of the Olney Hymns collection.

Why the First Story?

There could be an element of truth to the first story. It is possible that Cowper had this premonition and decided that suicide would be better than enduring another bout of darkness. And it could also be possible that this hymn was a sort of repentance before he was completely enveloped in madness. But I find that unlikely knowing Cowper’s mental frame when he was prone to suicide. Such darkness would not have penned the hopeful words of this hymn.

My guess is that the cab driver story has an element of truth to it. Cowper attempted to commit suicide many times. And on many occasions he was prevented by mysterious circumstances. Yet, these should not be attached to the hymn. Yet, we like to attach these stories to the hymn because they not only make for a great story they also serve to convince us that everything will eventually make sense to us.

It is true that “even in our blackest moments God watches over us”. But the darkest times for Cowper were yet to come. Even after this particular fit of madness dissipated another was on the horizon. Before his death he said, “I feel unutterable despair”. His last words were, “What can it signify?” William Cowper died a miserable man.

The words of the hymn are true. God does move in mysterious ways. God is his own interpreter and eventually He will make it plain. But there is no sure promise that he will “make it plain” this side of redemption. For some, like Cowper, the “sweetness of the flower” is never enjoyed in this life. For him life under the sun was marked by the “bitterness of the bud”.

We don’t like this story. We don’t like that heavens response to this poem was five years (and later more) madness. We want a story where God watched out for Cowper, kept him from suicide by using fog, and then rescued him from the darkness of despair. Though Cowper never committed suicide he did live a majority of his life in darkness and deep anguish. He seldom saw the smile of God.

239 years later Cowper’s life and the poem attached to it begs us to look to a different land for the “blessings to break upon our head”. Cowper dreaded the clouds that were looming on the horizon. Yet, at the beginning of his madness he held hope that someday they would break. They rarely did. Cowper died a miserable man…BUT a miserable man that was welcomed into the arms of Jesus. Though convinced by his madness that he had been disqualified to receive the blessings of Christ, nonetheless they were still his lot. He received his “golden harp” of which he had written in his other famous hymn There is a Fountain Filled With Blood

Lord, I believe Thou hast prepared, unworthy though I be,
For me a blood bought free reward, a golden harp for me!
’Tis strung and tuned for endless years, and formed by power divine,
To sound in God the Father’s ears no other name but Thine.

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