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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 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.
Cowper’s poem is so well-known as a hymn text that it can be easy to dismiss. It’s a poem about God’s Providence, which guides everything that happens to us, and about God’s designs, which are far beyond our ability to understand, but always for our good. “Behind a frowning Providence / he hides a smiling face” has entered the language and become a cliché. To be honest, it can all sound a bit pat. But this poem is the fruit of Cowper’s painful experience in a lifetime of intense suffering and religious struggle.
William Cowper was born in 1731 into a quite distinguished family—his mother was a Donne, related to John Donne, and his father was connected to the Earl Cowper, the lord chancellor of England. His life was marked by early tragedy—his mother died when he was just six years old, and he then went to boarding school, where he was systematically bullied. These two experiences are thought to have contributed to Cowper’s many, serious, and extended bouts with mental illness. The first of these came in 1763, when Cowper was 32 years old. He had been nominated for a significant post in the House of Lords, which would require a public examination. The thought of this examination before the entire House of Lords brought on a psychotic episode. Cowper became convinced that he was damned and attempted suicide.
Cowper spent many months in an asylum and during his recovery, he had a profound conversion experience in which he felt in a profound way God’s mercy for him and for all sinners. He was one of the “fearful saints” he talks about in the poem. Cowper became a parishioner of John Newton—the famous slave trader turned minister--who invited him to contribute hymns to a new hymnal he was preparing. Newton wrote “Amazing Grace”; Cowper wrote “O for a closer walk with God” and the poem we just heard, among others.
Cowper continued to struggle with mental illness after his conversion. All his life, he considered himself an outsider, both socially and spiritually: a “stricken deer, that left the herd / Long since,” as he wrote in one of his poems.
Knowing a little of Cowper’s story, “Light Shining Out of Darkness” takes on new meaning. The darkness of which Cowper speaks was something he knew from experience; the fear he mentions, he felt; the hope he expresses, was what he longed for.
The first stanza of the poem draws on Biblical language. “He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.” The language recalls the psalms, especially Psalm 104: “You make the clouds your chariot, traveling on the wings of the wind.” The imagery also evokes the story of Christ, walking on the water and stilling the storm. This language speaks of the power of God, but also reminds us of the desperation of the Apostles in the boat, crying out for the Lord’s help. 
In the stanzas that follow, Cowper uses a series of images and comparisons to highlight the hidden quality of God’s Providence. It is like treasure hidden in a mine; like storms of rain pent in a dark cloud; like a smile concealed by a frown; like a sweet flower hidden within a bitter bud. God is present, but hidden.
I think the key word of this poem is found in this first stanza: “mysterious.” God’s ways are not clear or even intelligible to us most of the time. Providence—that sense of God’s guiding hand in history and in our own lives—is also mystery.
Cowper offers no key to understanding God’s provident care. Rather, he insists that only God can do that: “God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.” Only God can reveal to us how his Providence is governing our lives, and our world. God’s ways are a profound mystery--but our faith tells us there is always mercy and there is always hope.



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Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303