When God Moves in Mysterious Ways through Mental Illness


One of the most shocking biographies I remember reading was that of William Cowper.

Even if you don’t recognize his name, you’ve probably sung his hymns (including “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood”) or used the phrase he coined, “God moves in a mysterious way.”

It’s been years since I read his biography, but in recent research, I came across his name and reflected for a few minutes on some of the most extraordinary and meaningful aspects of his life.

Cowper’s salvation testimony is remarkable because he was saved as a direct result of admittance to a mental asylum after failed suicide attempts. The doctor who treated Cowper was a born again Christian who shared the gospel with him. The night and day difference in Cowper’s life after his salvation is undeniable.

Most of us would be very comfortable with Cowper’s testimony if it ended there. But it didn’t. Although he didn’t struggle mentally to the same degree after his salvation as he had before, he did battle mental illness (including severe depression and two more mental breakdowns) for the rest of his life. 

Of course, not every day was black. Cowper enjoyed many seasons of relief and even victory. But he did struggle.

And yet, God used Cowper in such significant ways. As a poet, he is remembered as one of England’s finest. He is even honored with a window in Westminster Abbey.

Through Cowper, I think we can draw at least three concrete truths regarding the marvelous, mysterious works of God in our lives:

God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.

God used a very weak man to leave an enduring legacy.

Don’t get me wrong. Cowper was brilliant and (obviously) articulate. He was clever with words and gifted as a poet. But his mental and emotional struggles were real, and they sometimes incapacitated him.

Yet, the difference in Cowper’s life before and after salvation is testimony to the difference God’s grace makes. Before his salvation, his struggles drove him to the brink. After salvation, they continued to be intermittently present—but God was more present than the struggles (even when Cowper couldn’t seem to perceive His nearness) and held him through the storms.

And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.—2 Corinthians 12:9–10

There is eternal value in sacrificial friendships.

Shortly after Cowper’s salvation, he met John Newton (author of “Amazing Grace”) who became Cowper’s pastor and friend. Together they published Olney Hymns, which included many of both Newton’s and Cowper’s hymns.

Temperament-wise, Newton was the opposite of Cowper. Yet over the next twenty-five years (until Cowper’s death) Newton stuck with him—not as a mere ministry project, but as a friend.

As mentioned a moment ago, Cowper suffered two more mental breakdowns during this time. And in between those, he had numerous ups and downs in his emotional stability.

There is no doubt in my mind that God used Newton’s friendship to Cowper in a powerful way. Newton’s friendship was a rock in Cowper’s life. Through it, he not only had the stability of a sacrificial friend, but he had a friend who would pray for, hope with, and remind him of God’s truth and goodness when Cowper himself couldn’t’ seem to see it.

A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.—Proverbs 17:17

God moves in mysterious ways.

Perhaps the most enduring lesson from Cowper’s life comes from the words he penned—“God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.”

Churches around the world sing Cowper’s hymn in which he rejoiced in his salvation: “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” The fruitfulness of that hymn alone is a legacy many Christians would be content to contribute. Is it not one of the deep mysteries of God that the man who wrote it suffered through many days in which he could only hold its truths by faith (and even that a faltering faith) and not by perception?

Who would have guessed that God would have so magnified His grace through the weakness of a man like William Cowper? For that matter, who knows to what extent Cowper’s usefulness was a direct result of his suffering? Could it be that—for Cowper, at least—the days of darkness made the days when the clouds lifted that much brighter, that much more to be celebrated in God-exaulting poetry?

Furthermore, why was it that this may have been true for Cowper but not for Newton? One of the things that always strikes me when I read about mental illness is how little we know of it. For years of study and testing, we still have such small amounts of conclusive data regarding causes and cures.

This we know: God moves in His own ways in every life yielded to Him. He even moves in and through the mysteries of mental illness. And He preforms wonders.

Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty. Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain: Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind:—Psalm 104:1—3

Are you facing a weakness in your life? God’s grace is made perfect in it. And not just for the “ordinary” and “acceptable” weaknesses, but for the unseen and “unacceptable” weaknesses that seem beyond His strength. Even these are not beyond the power of our God to redeem and through which to make His strength perfect.

Do you have a friend whose needs are a weariness to you? Love her. And remind her of her God who loves her more. Who knows how God may use your faithful—if sacrificial—friendship in her life?

Are you perplexed or confused by God’s dealing in your life? You don’t have to understand it for Him to work. God’s dealings with us are greater than our comprehension. Trust Him. In Cowper’s words, “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.

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 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.