God moves in VERY mysterious ways

It is one of the most irritating phrases in the English language. Bleated by well meaning religious types who want to close down speculation and uncertainty with a non threatening conversation stopper that suggests It will turn out all right  – God is still in charge.  It sounds pious, humble, tentative. But for those on the receiving end the platitude ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ comes across as smug and complacent.

That wasn’t how it began. God moves in mysterious ways is  the first line of a poem Light out of Darkness which became one of the greatest hymns in the English language.  Written by William Cowper in his time one of the best regarded poets in the country.  When I say written – more like dragged out of him as he teetered on the edge of a manic episode that looked as if it would destroy him.  He had been recovering from a mental breakdown and was invited to move with his carer to a village in Bedfordshire. The vicar who invited him lived on the other side of the village green. His name was John Newton – he was notorious as the slave trading captain who had turned to religion. He was after a fashion a hymn writer as well. Though not in the same class as Cowper. The two men became friends and used to meet daily. They started to write together and to put together a collection of their poems and hymns.

On the morning of the day God moves in mysterious ways was written a new hymn had been sung in church. Newton was worried that the children wouldn’t follow his sermon so had put some verses to go with it. The first line of that one “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see.“ A small masterpiece in its own right because the entire lyric contains almost no words as long as 3 syllables – it was never recognised as such in Newton’s own lifetime. Even if it tops polls today.

So that afternoon Cowper was walking through the fields when he realised that the black dog of depression was about to take him again. As he turned for home he got caught in a thunderstorm – he ran back go the village across the fields through torrential rain as words formed in his mind. When he got home he wrote the entire poem down. Within 12 hours Cowper was trying to kill himself. Newton was summoned and had to wrestle the knife out of his hand.  Cowper lived for another 27 years.  Convinced he had been told by God to kill himself as a sacrifice he regarded himself as apostate for failing to do so.  He never wrote another religious poem. And he never set foot in a church again.

Here’s the poem. Light out of Darkness. I think it’s a remarkable window on mental illness.  Despair is being kept at bay. Just.  There’s nothing remotely smug about it.

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 sov’reign 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 ev’ry hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flow’r.


Blind unbelief is sure to err, And scan his work in vain;

God is his own interpreter, And he will make it plain.


The poem became a casualty of the first line – repeated so often it turned into a platitude. A way of excusing the inexcusable.  But the poem still remains a way of affirming hope when there is absolutely no evidence that what you believe is true. In fact all of the indications are to the contrary.  Sometimes all you can do is to hold on.



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