Sometimes a Light Surprises: The Treasured Gift of a Troubled Soul

Art is not birthed in a vacuum, nor is it produced solely from a life of blissful devotion and ongoing prayer and song. Art is often brought forth from hardship and struggle, turmoil and tears. There is something about a troubled soul that taps into both the reality of our fallen condition and the hope of something greater than ourselves. Such is the life of William Cowper, the troubled but gifted artist whose hymns have been sung in many different languages for more than two centuries.

William Cowper was born on November 26, 1731, in England. His father was a pastor, and his mother died when he was 6 years old. For most of his life Cowper was plagued with a dark depression. At the age of 31 he tried three times to take his own life and was soon admitted to St. Albans Insane Asylum for recovery. Ironically, that is where Cowper came to faith. Using the lyrics from his hymn “Sometimes a Light Surprises,” I’d like to discuss a few themes that flow out of the life of William Cowper and artists in general.

Art and Creativity Bring Us Life

Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings; it is the Lord who rises with healing in his wings.

Virtually my entire life has centered on playing the guitar and making music. When I was 25 I experienced a severe injury severing nerves, tendons, and an artery in the palm of my right hand. On my way into surgery all I wanted to know was, “Will I ever be able to play the guitar again?” From the beginning the guitar took hold of me more than I took hold of it. Making music has been a source of life to me through all of the various seasons I have endured. My wife, Allison, often tells people, “If my husband isn’t creating, he’s not living.”

William Cowper also found life in art and creativity. He loved reading poetry, especially the work of George Herbert. One source tells us that Herbert’s poems “spoke to his soul.” [1] Without question, writing his own poems and hymns was a source of healing for Cowper and a way to deal with his chronic depression.

Ultimately, it is the art of worship that brings us life. Through the various creative expressions we offer to God and with one another (poetic prayers, profound lyrics, and beautiful melodies) we are able to see the world and our circumstances more from God’s perspective as our hearts and minds are fixed, for a time, on the love, wonder, truth, and adoration of God.

A number of years ago Allison and I were leading a series of seminars with several churches in Birmingham, Alabama. We began our time with a Friday evening worship service. Interestingly, a lady came to that service with a plan to take her own life; however, through the combination of prayer, song, and the work of the Spirit, her outlook changed and she left with renewed hope. That is an extreme example, but worship (literally and figuratively) brings us life!

More recently I experienced the surprising light and life of God’s presence while planning and selecting songs for our weekend services. Allison had sent me a link to the song “Waiting Here for You” sung by Christy Nockels. Within about 30 seconds tears started rolling down my face as I was drawn into the beauty and power of this song. It was exactly the kind of dynamic that Cowper experienced in his own life and described in his hymns: “Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings; it is the Lord who rises with healing in his wings.”

Community Shapes Us into Who We Were Called to Be

Set free from present sorrow, we cheerfully can say, “Let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may.”

One of the “unknown tomorrows” in Cowper’s life was his providential encounter with John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace.” These two men forged a friendship that would lead to one of the most productive seasons of Cowper’s life. Newton asked Cowper to be a part of a hymn project for his local parish in Olney. Together they wrote 348 hymns over a span of about 10 years. A few of the more recognizable hymns that Cowper wrote include “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” “O for a Closer Walk with God,” “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” and “Sometimes a Light Surprises.”

In the preface to the Olney Hymns Newton shares that the design of the book was not only to promote “the faith and comfort of sincere Christians,” but also “to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship.” [2] The community and fellowship that Newton and his parish provided for Cowper was transformative. Through that relationship Cowper left the world lyrical treasures of grace and truth.

Many artists lean towards isolation. Our tendency is to do things on our own and keep our problems hidden. Cowper is an example of what can take place when we immerse ourselves in community and, through the providential relationships in our lives, discover more about who we are and how God wants to use us for his kingdom.

Honest Lament Is a Sacred Release

Though vine nor fig tree neither, their wonted fruit shall bear, though all the field should wither, nor flocks nor herds be there; yet God the same abideth, his praise shall tune my voice, for while in him confiding, I cannot but rejoice.

Cowper chose the text from Habakkuk 3 for the fourth and final verse of “Sometimes a Light Surprises.” It is an interesting choice for a number of reasons. First of all, it is likely that Habakkuk was a musician. Scholars believe that Habakkuk was a Levite and associated with the temple singers. [3] The last chapter of Habakkuk is in the form of a liturgy with a prophetic prayer meant to be sung.

Secondly, Habakkuk 3 includes the language of lament and, according to one commentator, “provides one of the most moving statements of faith and trust found in Scripture (vv. 16-19).” [4] There is something about honest lament that bridges our limited, finite humanity with our infinite, covenant Lord.

Often when we look around at our circumstances we want to cry out, “Lord, what are you doing? What is going on?” There is something telling in this kind of stark and honest dialogue with God. It may seem obvious, but lament, rather than revealing a distance from God, reveals that an actual relationship is intact. When we feel close enough to God to talk to him honestly about our circumstances, intimacy is revealed. Moreover, it is often through intimate, honest lament that clarity is received. Though it begins with a description of tough circumstances, Cowper’s lyric ends with the assurance of God’s faithfulness: “yet God the same abideth, his praise shall tune my voice, for while in him confiding, I cannot but rejoice.”

Many people don’t quite know what to do with someone like William Cowper. How could someone who has placed his hope in the Lord reach such dark depths of despair? There aren’t any easy answers, but Cowper’s life reminds us that it is only the scandalous grace of the gospel that can transform such fragile vessels, such troubled souls into treasured gifts to the world.

[1] George Melvyn Ella, William Cowper: Poet of Paradise, p. 60.

[2] John Newton, Preface to the Olney Hymns, 1779, http://www.scripturetruth.org/issues/songs/hymns/Newton_preface_1779.html (September 2011).

[3] Willem A. VanGemeren, Intepreting the Prophetic Word, p. 172.

[4] David W. Baker, An Introduction and Commentary: Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, p. 68.