Courage for Troubled Times: The Surprising Power of Hymn Poetry

Courage for Troubled Times

The Surprising Power of Hymn Poetry

By Rev. Dr. Dean Borgman

Dear friends, in my distress concerning our country’s political turmoil, I’ve often felt anxious and confused. For this reason, I’ve found myself drawing back from discussing “the elephant in the room,” as many Americans do when we face opposing opinions in our families, workplaces, and churches. What then can I and other followers of Jesus Christ do with our feelings?

The Apostle Paul suggests encouraging ourselves and one another “with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19). As I confront this new political climate, I look to these forms of poetry for the inner peace which leads to godly action. 

I’d like to acquaint you with some hymns that may be unfamiliar to you. The best hymns combine sociopolitical laments with personal emotions, confessions, and spiritual hope. I find that reading them as poems allows me to take in and soak up their richness of spiritual comfort and inspiration.

god moves in a mysterious way

William Cowper’s life was described by biographer John Piper as “one long accumulation of pain.” Cowper came to faith in the asylum at St. Albans when he happened to pick up a Bible in the garden. After this experience, Cowper was forced to reconcile a life marked by death and mental illness with the goodness and sovereignty of God.

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 you 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.

Reflection Questions

  • As you take your time to read Cowper’s hymn, what most resonates with you?

  • In a world and life like Cowper’s—and ours—in what ways do God and God’s actions often seem mysterious?

  • How do you see our Creator and Redeemer becoming His own interpreter amidst our cultural chaos?

God is working his purpose out

In writing the refrain of “God Is Working His Purpose Out,” scholar Arthur Campell Ainger drew inspiration from Habakkuk 2:14: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.” It, too, speaks to trying times.

God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.

God is working his purpose out and the time is drawing near.

Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be

when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

From utmost east to utmost west wherever feet have trod,

by the mouth of many messengers goes forth the voice of God:

'Give ear to me, ye continents, ye isles, give ear to me,

that the earth may be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.’

What can we do to work God's work, to prosper and increase

the love of God in all mankind, the reign of the Prince of peace?

What can we do to hasten the time, the time that shall surely be,

when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea

March we forth in the strength of God, with the banner of Christ unfurled,

that the light of the glorious gospel of truth may shine throughout the world.

Fight, we that fight with sorrow and sin to set their captives free,

that the earth may be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

All we can do is nothing worth unless God blesses the deed;

vainly we hope for the harvest-tide till God gives life to the seed.

Yet nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be

when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

Reflection Questions

  • Do you ever feel yourself asking with Habakkuk, “Why, God? How can you stand by while such things happen?”

  • What do you do when you feel this way?

  • What possibilities for action does this hymn offer to you, even when you feel directionless?

once to every man & nation

Concerned about slavery and the impending Mexican-American War, professor and abolitionist James Russell Lowell penned “The Present Crisis” early in his career. This poem later became “Once to Every Man & Nation,” and as a hymn retains its message about social responsibility. Though the gender-exclusive language is dated, what can we take from this 1845 hymn to use in our own lives?  

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide

In the strife of truth and falsehood, for the good or evil side.

Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,

And the choice goes by forever 'twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched crust

‘Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and 'tis prosperous to be just.

Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside

Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track, 

Toiling up new Calv'ries ever with the cross that turns not back. 

New occasions teach new duties, ancient values test our youth. 

They must upward still and onward who would keep abreast of truth. 

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong.

Though her portion be the scaffold and upon the throne be wrong. 

Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown 

Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

Reflection Questions

  • What stands out to you from this hymn? In what ways is it different from the earlier two?

  • How are we as Christians asked to follow Jesus, carrying our crosses up “new Calvaries”?

  • What does Truth mean to you? Do you think that this is a moment when all Americans must decide about Truth?

In conclusion

Although changing our world is an enormous task, encouraging ourselves and others with psalms and hymns is a doable first step. Can you give yourself some time daily or weekly to devote to songs like these? 

As you do, may this powerful poetry lift your spirit and give you the courage to cooperate with our Father, who is fulfilling our prayer that God’s Kingdom might come to this world.