Have you ever answered difficult or puzzling situations with a shake of the head and the words “well, God does move in mysterious ways”? That phrase, “God moves in a mysterious way”, can be a flip or 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 clergyman and hymn writer, William Cowper, found in The Hymnal 1982 at number 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 in a law practice he abhorred, and he suffered from depression and horrifying delusions all his life and made several suicide attempts. It was while he was an inmate at the St. Albans Insane Asylum (I cannot make this stuff up) that he became a believer in God’s power to be the strength and guide he needed in his life. At the urging of his friend and mentor, John Newton (of Amazing Grace fame), he began writing hymn texts as a kind of therapy, and together they created a hymnal with nearly 350 hymns in it, many of which are still sung today.
And so knowing about his struggle with mental illness, the words of this hymn become particularly meaningful. [God moves in a mysterious way full text] The trust required to write about God’s ability to bring bright designs (gems) from unfathomable mines (v. 2) speaks about Cowper’s ability to see God’s plan for him through 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) imply that trusting God leads to deeper understanding of the workings of our own lives. Just as in human relationships, the more we trust, the more we believe.
The eyes opened by faith and trust will be able to see the blessings in this stormy life. A trusting heart can understand what cannot be seen, he seems to tell us. Cowper channeled his tortured mind to craft poetry. For his sake I wish he could have created without suffering. But God’s ways are mysterious and I will take Cowper’s words to heart and simply trust in God’s goodness.
Songwriters are still using Cowper’s words. I found several newer settings on YouTube. Here are two versions – one contemporary and the hymn version that will be sung on Sunday at St. Alban’s.