“God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” We are all familiar with the Old Testament account in which God reminds Job of the limits of human reason when He asks, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!” (Job 38: 4) Not only is God’s knowledge complete, but His omnipotence is demonstrate when the disciples, of “little faith,” call upon Jesus to still the storm which He does in the succinct command, “Quiet. Be still!” This prompts the disciples to ask the question whose answer Job would have done well to consider before he questioned God, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey Him!” (Mark 4: 39) With this thought in mind, today’s sermon hymn comes from William Cowper: “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform! He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.”
William Cowper (1725-1800) is perhaps one of the more colourful figures in hymnological history, begging for a diagnosis of mental illness. Early in his life, he fell in love with his cousin. The marriage being forbidden by her father, Cowper was left distraught and attempted to commit suicide, although he failed at this. He had studied law and in 1763 was offered a clerkship in the House of Lords, requiring a brief but public examination in Parliament. This prospect so distressed the fragile and already-depressed Cowper that the night before the examination he attempted to hang himself. This again ended in failure, merely cementing Cowper’s notion that he could do nothing right. He eventually took refuge in the household of Morely and Mary Unwin who befriended and looked after him. They eventually moved to Olney, where Morely died. Olney, a picturesque medieval market town about 100 miles outside of London, happened to be home to a most famous curate—John Newton. Newton laboured hard and continuously at the Church of St Peter and Paul striving to help the many poor people of the town. Newton, of course, was the ex-slave trader turned evangelical clergy whose hymns include “Amazing Grace” and “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.” Newton saw some poetic potential in the young man, and together they explored writing poetry and hymns. Cowper had published poetry before (one of his first poems was entitled, “Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portions”), but now he began to be infused with Newton’s Christian zeal, and it might be said the moving of the Holy Spirit in Cowper’s life was now evident. Newton invited Cowper to include his hymns in Olney Hymns (1779), one of the first and most important hymnals in the English language. It is from this volume that this hymn originates.
Considering Cowper’s emotional state, one wonders if he wrote the third stanza of this hymn in order to convince himself it was true: “Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.” The following stanza illustrates that Cowper himself probably intellectually understood his own limitations as a human being, both emotional and mental, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense. But trust Him for His grace; behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.” We moderns might not like to characterize God as having a “frowning providence,” but Cowper here sums up law and gospel, an oft-misapplied paradigm in modern Christianity. God is both and the same a stern lawgiver demanding perfection, but also a loving Father who sent His Son that all might be saved. One concept demands the other. The final stanza echoes Jesus words in today’s gospel, “Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His work in vain; God is His own Interpreter and He will make it plain.” Jesus asks the disciples, “Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4: 40b) Even after they continually witness Jesus’ miracles, they continue to demonstrate a lack of faith, whether in Peter’s denial or in Thomas’ doubting. Yet, the disciples merely exhibit the human tendency toward doubt which we all harbour. How many times do we watch tele programs which advocate a secular humanist approach to the world? Scientists, those who study and know the works of God better than anyone else, are interviewed and put forth their ideas of how “nature” provided this or that creature with the means to survive, or how “nature” designed earth to be a hospitable environment for life, never acknowledging God’s designing and sustaining work. What better example of “Blind unbelief” “scanning” God’s work for naught, never seeing the Designer in the design. God is a great mystery to some, even though He is omnipresent. We have never seen air, but depend on it for our life and we would certainly know if it were absent! Such is it with God—we do not know and cannot always reason His ways for doing something, but the faith supplied us by the Holy Spirit assures us that what He does is good.