One of my favorite hymns of all time is the classic, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” by William Cowper. Many years ago, when I first heard the lyrics to this hymn, I decided to memorize them, and they have ministered to me consistently ever since. I especially love the third and fourth verses:
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.
I love these verses because they remind me that hardship and pain are an inevitable part of life in this fallen world. Jesus Himself said as much to His disciples near the end of His earthly ministry when He said, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33, emphasis added). The Apostle Paul too warned Christians that they will unavoidably face hardship and opposition as they seek to follow Christ in their lives (2 Tim. 3:12). Cowper’s hymn doesn’t mitigate this reality; and it also doesn’t mitigate the fact that these hardships really do hurt.
There have been seasons in my life when hardship and pain have seemed to come and go like waves on the beach. As soon as one difficult situation has receded, the next one comes crashing in. At those times, it has been hard not to be, in Cowper’s words, a “fearful saint,” as I have waited for the next wave of hardship to come crashing down upon me. At those times, it has been hard not to “dread” the storm clouds that are dark and full of rain, because I know the pain that they inevitably bring.
These seasons have given me a deep-seated appreciation for the fact that Cowper takes these difficult things head-on in his hymn. He doesn’t dance around them or make light of them. Of course, part of the reason for this is that Cowper himself was no stranger to hardship and pain. He understood fully its inevitability and the hurt that it brings along with it.
But I love verses 3 and 4 from Cowper’s hymn not simply because they point out the reality of suffering, hardship, and the pain that those things bring into our lives. I love them because—after reminding us of these things—they point us to the hope that is ours in Christ; namely, that our God is sovereign over these things and is working them all together for our good (Rom. 8:28). Though we may not be able to see God in the midst of the storm, we can, nevertheless, know that He is there and that He intends good for us even through the pain. As Cowper says, God always “hides a smiling face” behind every “frowning providence.”
Without this hope, we can only curse our bad luck when hardship comes into our lives, because there is no other reason for why it comes. Without this hope, all hardships and difficulties are senseless and are to be avoided at all costs. Why does one person get cancer and another doesn’t? Why does one person lose her job and another doesn’t? Apart from Christ, there is no reason to explain these things other than bad luck. But Christians can take comfort in knowing that, as difficult as the circumstances may be, they are not just meaningless pain. God is intending good for us in and through the hardship.
It is also worth pointing out that God has an incredible amount of good planned for His people in and through these stormy seasons. As Cowper says, the storm clouds are “big with mercy” and ready to break open in blessing on our heads. It’s not just that God has in mind the smallest amount of good possible, such as would hardly make the pain worth the gain that we receive. Rather, the storm clouds are bursting at the seams. They are ready to break open and pour out blessing upon us. This isn’t a sprinkle; it’s a deluge. And that is what God has intended for His children in and through these stormy seasons of life.
In saying this, I am reminded of something that the 19th-century Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, once said in regard to hardship and pain. He said that if he were to take all the good that he received from the easy times and sunny days in his life and put it together, it would fit neatly into a thimble, but if he took the good that he received from the hard times and stormy days and put them all together, they would be altogether incalculable. Spurgeon knew that God really does have far more good planned for us in and through difficulty than we realize. We need to remember that when we are going through hardship and pain. The storm clouds we “so much dread” really are “big with mercy,” and they are ready to break forth into blessing on our heads.
The Apostle Paul understood this, and he tells us as much in places like 2 Corinthians 12:10. I find it fascinating that Paul doesn’t say what we might expect him to say in this verse, especially given the fact that God responds to his prayers, by saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). Given this response, we would expect Paul to say in verse 10, “when I am weak, then He is strong” (emphasis added). If God’s power really is made perfect in weakness, then it would seem that the “thorn in the flesh” would show the world that God is strong. But Paul doesn’t say this. Instead, he says, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (emphasis added). His point would seem to be an acknowledgement that hardship really is a pathway to strength and blessing. The thorn in the flesh was what God used to bring great blessing to Paul. It was the “frowning providence” behind which God was hiding His “smiling face.”