The hymn God Moves in a Mysterious Way may not be as familiar as hymns such as Amazing Grace or When Peace Like a River, but its words carry a great deal of meaning, nonetheless. I first became acquainted with it while I was in college, and it became one of my favorite hymns. It was written by William Cowper (pronounced Cooper), a poet who was a well-known poet in England of the 1700’s. He was a contemporary of John Newton and collaborated with him in the production of the Olney Hymns, of which this was one.
Cowper’s story is one of pain and tragedy. His mother died when he was young, he did not get along well with his minister father, and he was a victim of bullying while in school. He experienced great anxiety over testing for his law license, and he suffered from horrible bouts of depression which drove him to suicidal thoughts from time to time. It’s generally accepted that this hymn was the result of one such episode.
As the story is told, Cowper had decided to commit suicide by drowning himself in the river Ouse. Calling for a cab, he directed the driver to take him to the river. The driver, noticing Cowper’s melancholy and state of mind, chose to simply drive around the city for a time, finally dropping Cowper at his own front door. Realizing what had happened, Cowper was inspired to write the following words (which are taken from his poem Light Shining Out of Darkness):
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.
Cowper came to faith under a Calvinistic system, which was based on election (the idea that there are only a select few who will be chosen to be saved, and the rest will be eternally damned, and the individual has no choice in the matter). Although Cowper had professed faith in Christ and his salvation, he feared that he was not one of “the elect”. Though he never successfully carried out his suicidal plans, Cowper carried the burden of fear and depression all his life.
When we experience tragedy, pain, loss, or trials and tribulations, we expect God to act in certain ways that are in line with what we consider “fair”, “loving”, and “just”. If He does not, we either grow angry and reject Him, or we judge ourselves to be somehow unworthy of His love and attention, thinking He has chosen to reject us, which usually ends in depression or worse. The problem is not God, and it may not even be us, but our limited understanding of who God is.
We have a God that has always existed and will always exist. He can simultaneously see the beginning and end of everything because He exists in every single moment. He knew what would happen because of Satan’s treachery and set a plan in place to defeat his plans before the words, “Let there be Light” were ever uttered. He knows every person who has been or will be by name, right down to their very atoms. He knows every joy, every sorrow, every pain, every struggle that each one of us has. And He knows when He will finally declare, “Enough”, and this old, corrupted world will be destroyed in that instant and replaced by one that will be what it was always meant to be.
Our temptation is to believe one of two things: a) God put creation in place and pre-determined how it would play out, which abandons us to ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ over which we have no control, or b) God finished creation, wound it up like a clock, and left it to its own devices, and we’re on our own, victims of the vagaries of the universe. But God is neither impersonal nor uncaring. He made us in His image. We carry it with us, the soul which makes us unique among all the rest of creation. Furthermore, He gave us the gift of choice; it’s called free moral agency. God allows us to decide whether we will love Him or not, because of His desire to have a relationship with mankind based on love freely given, not blind obedience from puppets who have no choice in the matter.
In spite of this we often see the way God chooses to act as incomprehensible. We don’t understand because we can’t. Our vision, our minds are very limited in comparison to God. He even said so: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are my ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9). God sees farther and in greater detail than even the most intelligent and prescient of us can.
Our vison and thinking is clouded by the curse of sin under which we live. It is why we suffer and die. It’s why the evil we see in the world is so incomprehensible. And it’s why we don’t understand when it appears God has chosen not to intervene or has allowed things to happen to us that we don’t deserve. We are so blinded by our own pride and self-righteousness that we try to interpret God’s actions by our own standards rather than His. We cry out that life is ‘unfair’ if we are made to suffer pain or loss. We feel as though we’re being ‘punished’ if we are made to face disease or hardship. We believe it because we are incapable of seeing the big picture, of pulling back the curtain and seeing what’s really happening.
God tells us over and over in scripture how much He loves us. He makes extravagant promises to those who will come to Him with humble hearts in submission. “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28) “Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” (James 4:7-8) If we belong to God, we have access to all of His blessings, which He pours out richly on His children. His love is so encompassing and overwhelming that even our struggles and hardships can become blessings. He will intervene on our behalf although we may not understand His purpose or timing. What He asks from us is to trust Him. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense But trust Him for His grace. Our faith in His goodness and grace allows us to trust Him even when we don’t understand.
When we learn to trust Him with our pain, our disease, our hurts, our struggles, God will reveal Himself in glorious and breathtaking ways. If you have ever received an unexpected and maybe undeserved victory or deliverance from an overwhelming defeat, you have seen God at work. He loves to take what we see as impossible situations and produce miraculous results. We may not understand, but we have a God who is worthy of our praise and our full devotion.