• Brittany Proffitt

"Behind a Frowning Providence He Hides a Smiling Face": On William Cowper



William Cowper (1731-1800) was a man of seeming insignificance in the world’s eyes, but to those who knew him, he was a fearful and lethargic individual who struggled with depression until the day he died. But were it not for the intense suffering of William Cowper, we would not have the beautiful poetry esteeming the sovereignty of God and his work in dark circumstances.

Cowper’s mother died at the age of six. That same year, his father sent him off to boarding school. He was not saved until his mid-twenties (in an insane asylum of all places). Even after experiencing saving faith in Christ, he continued to struggle deeply with depression – attempting suicide multiple times. John Newton (the author of “Amazing Grace”) came into his life as a faithful under-shepherd who counseled and encouraged Cowper through the remainder of his life. Cowper benefited greatly from the ministry and friendship of Newton.

Cowper functioned best as a poet and hymnist. He could not work a job due to his fragile mental state. Instead, he immersed himself in writing to handle his inner turmoil and process his feelings of despair. Cowper was an extremely introspective individual and this affected every area of his life, especially in his relationship with God.

Cowper acknowledged the power of God to save sinners and the believer’s eternal security in Christ. However, he believed that this eternal security did not apply to him. Despite his adamant belief in God’s sovereignty, he viewed himself as a lost cause on behalf of God. Perhaps Cowper had the courage to openly wrestle with what some of us secretly struggle with – grasping how Christ can love us in our sinfulness.

Cowper’s belief in God’s sovereignty was powerfully displayed in one of his most famous works, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”

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.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust Him for His grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy and shall break

In blessings on your head.

Blind unbelief is sure to err

And scan His work in vain;

God is His own interpreter,

And He will make it plain.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flow’r.

The remainder of this article will attempt to take these words of William Cowper and dissect them – expounding on the sovereignty of God in trials.

The Poem

God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea

And rides upon the storm.

The phrase “God moves in a mysterious way” is not found in Scripture. However, the Bible does teach a vast “unknowableness” of the ways of God.

In Romans, Paul says, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Romans 10:33).

Job was deeply awed at the greatness of God and said, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted… I had heard of you, by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:2, 5).


Additionally, in Psalm 77:19, we see where Cowper might have derived this imagery of God walking upon the waters. "Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen." This verse brings into play an extra component of God's sovereignty - that it is often unseen. God's footsteps upon the sea are often unnoticed by us but are working towards God's eternal plan of salvation. When it seems as if God is not moving, perhaps he is intentionally working where we cannot see. Why? If we knew every facet of his work, we would not need faith. God is more concerned with the increase of our faith than us knowing every detail of his working and being "comfortable."

God is mysterious. We will never understand his ways or his greatness. Yet, He humbles himself to work in our hearts and lives in ways that reflect his character.

In this first verse, Cowper paints an ominous picture of God’s sovereignty. It is both glorious and slightly unsettling to our human minds. In Psalms, David describes God’s sovereignty in extraordinarily similar terms. “He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him, thick clouds dark with water” (Psalm 18:11).

Cowper understood this side of God’s sovereignty–a dark side that can make us uncomfortable. God is not always presented as being “bright and cheery.” There is a seriousness to the deity and sovereignty of God that much of our modern American church has missed. Cowper describes God’s sovereignty as one of “riding upon the storm.” God is over the storm, yes, But he is also in it.

Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never failing skill

He treasures up His bright designs

And works His sov’reign will.

God’s sovereignty is rooted in places we cannot access. But what God ordains in secret will soon be visible to every eye. Our God deeply delights to amaze us.

God is not like the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz – tricking us into thinking he is all-powerful but weak and unhelpful in reality. God’s will is not left to fate. There is no fate with God. God does not submit to anyone or anything. He rules his universe with authority unmatched by any human king. Psalm 2:4 expresses this well when it says of God, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them [the nations and kings] in derision.”

We often think we have authority, control, and power in this world. However, we must exercise humility in submission to the King of Kings. God is gloriously working out his sovereign plans with full authority, and he does not need our help or our advice. He treasures up his bright designs in secret – where no mortal has access. He works his sovereign will in full view of the entire universe.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust Him for His grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

This is personally my favorite part of Cowper’s work. It points out my tendency to judge God based on what I think is best – mostly based on the emotions I am feeling and not on submission to God. I am prone to say, “God, you’re doing it wrong.” Yet who am I to tell God what is best? I judge God in my heart when I question his ways.

Cowper notates that the opposite of judging God is to trust God for grace. “But he gives more grace” (James 4:6). Do not judge God based on your own fleeting emotions and thoughts, but trust God because he is sovereign.

And, as Cowper beautifully describes, sometimes God’s providence seems dark and unkind. It doesn’t seem fair. Yet God-ordained goodness and beauty to come from the dark cloud.

A.W. Pink put it this way, “Divine sovereignty is not the sovereignty of a tyrannical Despot, but the exercised pleasure of One who is infinitely wise and good! Because God is infinitely wise He cannot err, and because He is infinitely righteous He will not do wrong. Here then is the preciousness of this truth. The mere fact itself that God’s will is irresistible and irreversible fills me with fear, but once I realize that God wills only that which is good, my heart is made to rejoice.”

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy and shall break

In blessings on your head.

When life feels overwhelming, take courage. When you dread what might be around the corner, take courage. Take courage because those dark, difficult, and emotionally wrecking events that may happen will overflow with the mercy of God. Difficult circumstances demonstrate God’s mercy at a deep level that happy-go-lucky circumstances will never let us understand.

Through your current trial, those dark clouds are not only full of mercy, but they will gush forth blessing upon blessing in a deeper knowledge of God, a deeper relationship to God, and a deeper trust in God.

Yield to what God delights to do in your present hardship. Mercy, tenderness, and blessing are the results of well-persevered trials.

Blind unbelief is sure to err

And scan His work in vain;

God is His own interpreter,

And He will make it plain.

“Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?” (Isaiah 40:14). God does not need a teacher or an advisor. He needs no one.

Do we, as God’s creation, presume to know what God is doing? I have found this tendency to be abundant in my own heart as I process life’s direction, pursue school, and process a recent 1,000-mile move. I want to know what my future will hold because I feel out of control of the present. Because I desire to know the future, I presume what God will do in my future and create unrealistic expectations of myself, others, and future events. This is, as Cowper wrote, “Scanning His work in vain.”


The next lines bring peace to my heart. “God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plain.” God alone holds the keys to the future. Only God can truly point to what He is doing. In my own personal experiences, this often entails looking back and seeing God’s sovereign hand in details pointing to a larger story of goodness and mercy.


His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flow’r.

God is constantly at work in our world. There is not a single molecule over which he is not sovereign. His plans are constantly being realized and worked out in our world.

Realistically, for most of us, these plans may seem undesirable – bitter. Jesus himself, in the garden of Gethsemane, prayed and begged for God to remove the trial. It seemed overwhelming and too much. Christ submitted to the sovereign hand of his father, saying, “Not my will, but your will.” The result of Christ submitting to God was our salvation. May God give us the courage to say, along with our Savior, “Not my will, but your will.”


Conclusion

Were it not for the intense suffering of William Cowper, we would not have this beautiful poem esteeming the sovereignty of God and his work in dark circumstances.

Submission to the sovereignty of God matters. It matters because God is doing something bigger through your life than you might realize. You can trust your God. Better to trust God (who is perfect) than to trust yourself who would be headed toward destruction were it not for your Savior.

At times, God’s sovereignty might seem dark, intimidating and leave a knot in your stomach. Trust him anyway. Those dark clouds are filled with mercy. There is a light at the end of the tunnel that is the blessing of God. He delights to work out his plans in your life for the wonderful purpose of displaying his glory.

“Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.”



Brittany Proffitt lives in Dallas, TX, holds a BA in Religion, and is a student at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is passionate about Scripture and how God’s Word impacts individuals’ hearts and lives.


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