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 and leadership, as a pastor and teacher I’m struck by the often-overlooked power of hymns. Some old and mostly unfamiliar hymns speak to me in our current difficult cultural and political animosity.

The United States is in political crisis. Whatever our political opinions, most of us admit to being anxious and confused. For this reason, we draw back from discussing “the elephant in the room” as we find ourselves in families, workplaces, and churches among opposing opinions.

Many of us, including secularists, Christians, and social groups, have adopted a “politics must be avoided” policy. What then can 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)

The best hymns combine highly personal emotions with social and political laments, confessions, and spiritual hope. Training and practice in meditating on these forms of poetry are needed these days, for both inner peace and encouragement for godly action.

I’d like to reacquaint you with some chosen hymns that may be unfamiliar to you. Reading them as poems allows you to take in and soak up the richness of spiritual comfort and inspiration found in these songs.

Once to Every Man & Nation

James Russell Lowell, a professor and diplomat, wrote the poem, “The Present Crisis” out of concern for the impending Mexican-American War and slavery. Some hymnals have used four verses of his important poem. Though the gender-exclusive language is dated, what can we take from this 1845 hymn for our own times?  

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 do you mourn truth on the scaffold while wrong holds the throne?

  • How are Christians asked to follow Jesus and carry their crosses up “new Calvaries” today? How are we asked, with the Apostle Paul, to complete the sufferings of Christ? (Colossians 1:24)

  • How is this a moment when all Americans must decide about Truth?

God is Working His Purpose Out

Arthur Campell Ainger wrote the refrain of this hymn based on 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 the 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 with Habakkuk and many psalmists: “Why God…? Where are you? And, when God? How can you just stand by when such and such is going on, and someone is doing such things to us?

  • Do you ever leave church or times of prayer and ask: “What in the world should I be doing?” What possibilities can this hymn offer to you?

God Moves in a Mysterious Way

William Cowper’s life was described by his biographer, John Piper, “as one long accumulation of pain.” His struggles with depression also led him twice to attempt suicide. Cowper came to faith in St. Albans Insane Asylum when he happened to pick up a Bible in its garden. Though siding with Evangelical Calvinists in emphasizing God’s sovereignty and goodness, Cowper was forced, nevertheless, to recognize the difficulty of seeing God at work in a troubled world.

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

  • How do you sense this sensitive poet recognizing a real world of unbelief, fearful spirits, and the “understandable unbelief” of those who can’t reach faith through reason alone?

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

  • How our Creator and Redeemer, by his loving gift of free choice to us, seemingly forced, in our cultural chaos, to become His own interpreter—in mysterious Divine ways?

  • As you take your time to read Cowper’s hymn again slowly, what most impresses you? What do you want to take time to “soak up?”


Dark and troubling aspects of current affairs have darkened and troubled the spirits of many I know. Changing our world is a complex and gigantic task. A doable first step might be to encourage ourselves and others with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.

How much time daily or weekly can you allow for psalms and hymns and spiritual songs? May they lift your spirit and give you courage to cooperate with our Father, who is fulfilling our prayer that God’s Kingdom might come to this world.