How a Weak, Tormented Man Still Strengthens the Body of Christ
He was too mentally unstable and self-destructive to leave an enduring legacy of faith in Christ. Too emotionally fragile to make an eternal difference. Too introverted, too much time spent in seclusion, to bless others. No one who’s in and out of an insane asylum his entire adult life becomes a Christian historical figure who scholars write about more than two centuries after his death.
If you don’t know his name, you’ve probably sung his hymns. Of the scores of hymns he published, the best known are “There Is A Foundation Filled with Blood,” “God Moves In A Mysterious Way,” and “O, For A Closer Walk With God.”
Meet William Cowper (1731–1800).
On several occasions, he spent anywhere from a few months to over a year in a mental hospital for treatment of paralyzing depression. The worst depressive episodes occurred about a decade apart, often starting in the month of January. While institutionalized, on many days he spent the majority of his time staring out of a window.
Multiple times he tried to kill himself, but God’s providential intervention thwarted each attempt. Once, after becoming unconscious, the garter he used to hang himself snapped.
Even when Cowper wasn’t put away, he was a recluse, haunted by horrific dreams at night, dogged by hopelessness during the day. To use his own description, at one point he felt like “a man when he arrives at his place of execution.”
In 1764, at age 33, during a stay in the asylum, a Christian physician left a Bible on a bench, hoping Cowper would find it. Cowper found solace on its pages, yet didn’t put faith in Christ immediately. A little later in his stay, he felt compelled to open that Bible again. The page he randomly selected included Romans 3:25.
The verse refers to Jesus as our “propitiatory sacrifice” who met the law’s requirement that sin be punished, and satisfied the justice of God in relation to sin. The cross revealed God’s unconditional love for the objects of His wrath, which meant He can pass over, or forgive, our sins when we put our faith in Christ.
“Immediately, I received the strength to believe it,” reported Cowper. “I saw the sufficiency of the atonement Christ had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and the completeness of His justification. My eyes filled with tears. I could only look to heaven in silent fear, overwhelmed with love and wonder.”
His meditation in Romans 3 spawned his most famous hymn, “There Is A Fountain Filled with Blood.”
There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
and sinners, plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day;
and there have I, as vile as he, washed all my sins away.
Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its power;
till all the ransomed church of God be saved to sin no more.
E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply,
redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.
God’s Dark Providence
In an ideal world, the capstone experience culminating in his conversion would have freed him from the inner torment of deep despondency. But we live in a fallen world, and sometimes God’s providence is difficult to understand. God completely heals some of His children from the vise-grip of depression, but not everyone, certainly not William Cowper.
The second half of his life was also pockmarked by despair, suicide attempts, and stays in an asylum. Even after putting his faith in Christ, extreme self-condemnation characterized his descents into depression. He saw his sinfulness clearly, but lost sight of God’s capacity to forgive. Though he never stopped believing in the efficacy of the gospel, nor the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, at times he thought that the general truths to which he gave mental assent no longer applied to him. He often saw himself as a reprobate, out of the reach of God’s love, the lone exception in the world to God’s capacity to forgive.
This vacillation was illogical and disturbing. On one occasion, so smitten by God’s redeeming love, Cowper would write a poem or a hymn praising Him. At other times, he was pessimistic and inconsolable.
The Inestimable Value of a Friend
A key catalyst for tapping into Cowper’s poetic genius for the sake of the gospel was his closest friend and pastor, John Newton (author of “Amazing Grace”). In an effort to circumvent Cowper’s tendency for isolation, Newton occasionally took him along when he did pastoral visitation. God gave Newton the idea of publishing a book of hymns, and the pastor saw that as a way for Cowper to contribute to corporate worship. The hymnal, published in 1769, contained two hundred songs written by Newton, and sixty eight by Cowper. Newton was the only person to whom Cowper felt comfortable pouring out his soul. Even after Newton took a different pastorate and moved away, he regularly wrote letters to encourage William.
Hymns aren’t Cowper’s only contribution to the church at large. His legacy includes volumes of poems not put to music. In 1785, a collection of poems under the title The Task helped spread gospel truths and the concept of revival among the educated classes. Contemporaries considered Cowper the poet laureate of the evangelical movement within England.
Yet as previously discussed, the periods of great contributions were interspersed with episodes of immobilizing depression. Newton’s friendship sustained Cowper, and served as a catalyst for his impact on corporate worship in churches, yet didn’t obliterate Cowper’s mood swings.
Shortly before he died, apparently in utter despair, he wrote his final poem. “The Castaway” is the tale of a sailor washed overboard and left behind during a storm at sea. This poem was a parable of what Cowper perceived as his own lost and doomed condition.
When he took his last breath, Cowper discovered that he was not, after all, an exception to God’s saving grace. God’s perseverance proved greater than his own.
Lessons from Cowper’s Life
Here are several takeaways from the story of Cowper’s perplexing, yet fruitful life.
1. The warm nurture of parents has unquestionable value during a child’s formative years. Though I haven’t previously mentioned his parents, his mother died when he was six years old. Then his father sent him away to a boarding school. Years later, he mentioned that he detested boarding school, in part due to the bullying dished out at him. There was no surrogate mom or dad who provided loving words or embraces. John Piper points out that “The legacy of his father, who died when William was twenty-five, is marked by Cowper’s total silence. Almost everything in his life that he valued, he wrote poems about. But none for his father.”
Not even the significant friendship of John Newton could make up for the absence of his parents’ presence and reassurances. Everyone needs a parent’s unconditional love, but especially a hyper-sensitive child like William.
2. Close friends are divine gifts to help carry us through periods of depression. Yes, one’s private time with the Lord is integral to emotional health. One’s own heartfelt prayers and absorption of comforting truths in Scripture offer sustenance. But God designed us to need one another as well, and He brings special people into the sphere of our lives to encourage us to keep pressing on. Like Newton, these special friends remind us that despite our failures, flaws, or temperamental weaknesses, there is important ministry we can exercise for God’s kingdom. Like Cowper, we desperately need someone to help bear our burdens (Gal. 6:2).
3. Temperamental flaws and weaknesses do not disqualify us from usefulness to God. Whatever our limitations, the fact is that “God’s power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). We carry the treasure of the gospel in fragile, earthen vessels. Why? “That the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:7). God saves and uses people the world considers weak, foolish, base, despised, and socially-insignificant so when they accomplish things for Him, He, not they, gets the credit, and so no one should boast before God (see 1 Cor. 1:26-29).
Isn’t that just like God? To turn things topsy-turvy, to foil human logic and expectations, to give a severely-depressed person a gift with words that enhances the worship of God’s people for future generations? To encase the gospel in a broken human vessel so its light shines brightly through the cracks? The next time you think God couldn’t possibly use you, think again. Remember William Cowper….and smile.
4. Our afflictions may actually expand our ministry influence, rather than hinder it. You could argue that the substantial amount of time Cowper spent immobilized by depression limited his output for the Lord. You could assert that despite the hymns and poetry he contributed, he didn’t come close to reaching his potential. But I’m not so sure about that.
Perhaps the brief episodes of unfettered exuberance spawned by grasping the truth of the gospel inspired him to pen words more incisively precisely because he had just escaped the darkness for a period of time. Perhaps knowing the torment, hopelessness, and self-condemnation of a depressed state increased his appreciation for God’s love, and for His provision for sin through Christ’s death on the cross. Even if the heart-massaging effect was temporary, a short interval of time before succumbing to another descent of mood, perhaps he valued the gospel more due to the contrasts in his experience.
If he hadn’t been badgered by feelings of extreme guilt and self-condemnation, could he have written the comforting lyrics to “There Is A Fountain Filled with Blood”?
Ironically, William Cowper’s life was “Exhibit A” of the mysterious ways of God, which he captured in the words to “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 sovereign 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 every 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.
Doesn’t it read like a poem he wrote for himself? Now that Cowper is in the presence of the Lord, what did not make sense to him on earth is plain to him now.
*The words in Cowper’s poem inspired the title of John Piper’s book, The Hidden Smile of God (Crossway Books, 2001). The subtitle is The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd. What reassuring biblical perspectives I gleaned from all three stories!