Mysterious Ways

originally published March 27, 2014

Perhaps you have occasionally answered difficult or puzzling situations with a shake of your head and the words “God moves in mysterious ways.” That phrase can be a flippant or a serious answer to just about everything we don’t understand, and its popularity would suggest to me that it must have come from one of two possible sources – the Bible or Shakespeare, but surprisingly it comes from neither. Rather, it is the first line of a hymn by the 18th century poet and hymn writer, William Cowper. In the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 his text is found at Hymn 677:

God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform:
He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

Cowper was a case study in woe. His mother died when he was very young, an unhappy relationship with his father caused him to enter a law practice he abhorred. He suffered from severe depression and horrifying delusions all his life, making several suicide attempts. It was while he was an inmate at the St. Albans Insane Asylum that he became a believer in God’s power to be the strength and guide he needed in his life. A prolific poet, he was urged by his friend and mentor, John Newton (of Amazing Grace fame), to write hymn texts as a form of therapy. Together they created a hymnal with nearly 350 hymns in it, many of which are still sung today. He shared Newton’s strong anti-slavery sentiments, writing poems that were quoted by Martin Luther King nearly 200 years later.

Knowing that he struggled with mental illness, I find the words of his hymn God moves in a mysterious way all the meaningful. The trust required to believe and write about God’s ability to bring bright designs (gems) from unfathomable mines (v. 2) speaks to Cowper’s ability to have hope in the midst of his anguish. The clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy (v. 3), the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower (v. 5) encourage us to trust that goodness can emerge from our struggles. The more we trust, the more we believe.

A trusting heart can understand what cannot be seen, Cowper seems to tell us. The eyes opened by faith and trust will be able to see the blessings in this stormy life. Cowper channeled his tortured mind to craft poetry. For his sake I wish he could have created without suffering, but God’s ways are indeed mysterious and I want to take Cowper’s words to heart and simply trust in the presence of goodness, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

There are a surprising large number of recordings on YouTube of settings of Cowper’s most famous words, and they come from so many different traditions. These are a few that I enjoyed. Though the first doesn’t exactly stick to Cowper’s text, it’s pretty fun:

and a more sober approach:

And then there’s this one, which just cracks me up – in a good way. If the Monkees had sung this hymn on their show it would have looked like this:

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

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2 thoughts on “Mysterious Ways

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