Sing a Hymn of Providence

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Where is history going? Do the details of our lives count as part of that history? Are our individual stories all there is, or is there a big story, a grand metanarrative?

We derive from Scripture that there is a big story, that God is writing its chapters, and that it includes even the minutest details of our individual lives. Theologians call this providence, the classic Christian doctrine that affirms God is active in all the affairs of this world, superintending all things according to His divine purpose, for His glory.

Many hymns express this truth, but none more specifically and colorfully than William Cowper’s “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” God reveals Himself, but He reserves part of Himself, veiled in mystery (Romans 11:33). We learn to live with God’s unknown. What unsettles us is the part we know, His “mysterious ways.”

God’s ways frustrated Job (3:1), angered David (Psalm 13:1), and drove Habakkuk up the wall (1:13). But as their stories illustrate, one is never closer to God than in the crucible of suffering. Joseph seemed to know that intuitively. Thus his paradoxical reply to his brothers: “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

This puts life’s trials in hopeful perspective, bolsters faith in a world falling apart. When we bury our loved ones despite earnest prayers; when natural disasters devastate the poorest countries, compounding poverty and human suffering; when believers struggle to survive while the ungodly prosper, providence gives us firm standing.

Cowper (England, 1731-1800) grasped this truth through personal experience. His profile includes lifelong depression, bereavement over his mother’s death when he was six, as well as the deaths of four siblings, abortion of his marriage just days before the wedding, several suicide attempts, and years in an insane asylum. But during his time in that asylum, Cowper wrote this hymn. There, living between hope and despair, he glimpsed this beautiful truth.

God is working all things for our good (Romans 8:28). Someday, with clearer vision, we’ll praise Him for the pattern He has planned. Meanwhile, we pray like David, “Teach me Your way, O Lord . . .” (Psalm 27:11). He’s not running for President; He is sovereign. History is His-story, and, as the saying goes, “There’s no maverick molecule in His universe.”

This reassuring perspective inspired a hymn writer while in an asylum. May it inspire Christians to live confidently in a broken world.


God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform;/He plants His footsteps on the sea,/And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines/Of never failing skill,/He treasures up His bright designs,/And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,/The clouds ye so much dread,/Are filled with mercy and shall break/In blessing 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 very hour;/The bud may have a bitter taste,/But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,/And scan His work in vain;/God is His own interpreter,/And He will make it plain.

Whaid Rose
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