When God Hides From You: W. Cowper and "Sometimes a Light Suprises"

Some of you may be wondering about the title Sometimes a Light. In a previous post, I mentioned coming across a book with a similar title. So here’s an all-out confession of borrowing a good title. But in my defense, even that title was lifted. The phrase “sometimes a light surprises” originally comes from the first line of William Cowper’s hymn “Joy and Peace in Believing.”The fabulous thing about this hymn isn’t just the text itself; it’s the back story. For the entirety of his adult life, Cowper was plagued by persistent, devastating, at times suicidal, depression and insanity. When you read his hymn with that knowledge, you begin to understand how truly surprising God’s intervening light is for those caught in the cycle of depression and despair.Our family has recently gone through some very difficult passages including the loss of home, job, and church in one fell blow. We rather quickly relocated three states away, experienced nearly six months of unemployment, and still feel like we’re stumbling around in the dark. There are days, fewer of them now, when we just can’t seem to do much more than put one foot in front of the other.

Anyone who is honest knows that life is full of these dark moments. The kinds of moments when God seems absent, when you question everything you’ve ever believed, and wonder whether the universe has gone slightly off kilter. In these times, it really can seem like God is hiding from us.

But in our ever-so-safe subculture, we hesitate to acknowledge these dark times unless we should somehow minimize the truth of what we say we believe. And so instead of honestly confessing the pain, we create happy clichés and mindless condolences to assure ourselves and each other that everything’s right in the world.

But it’s not.

This is a world waiting redemption, a world groaning under the curse, a world with unexplained injustices and epidemic pain. It is a very broken creation, and more often than we’d care to admit, that brokenness invades even our own souls. What we need to understand is that acknowledging the darkness actually makes the Light all that more brilliant.

In all this chaos and destruction, we cling to the light of Christ in faith. Faith that this present darkness while reality is not the ultimate reality; faith that as we struggle forward, He struggles alongside us; faith that one day by His grace, we will reach our better, permanent home.

But even in our faith, we can't always see.

And this is why the light surprises. Because often the shadows of this life can become so dark that we lose faith. So when God, even for a brief moment, chooses to step out of the shadows and pull back heaven’s curtain to let a glimpse of glory shine into our dark existence, we blink our eyes and strain at it. It’s like someone suddenly turning on the light while we're fumbling around in a dark room. It’s completely welcome but completely unexpected and perhaps even for a moment, unsettling.

Since 1779, several different tunes have been paired with Cowper’s text, and there are multiple arrangements of each from the folksy to the stolid. By far my favorite is Craig Courtney’s lyrical choral arrangement. I actually stumbled across it while googling the phrase “sometimes a light.” Interestingly, the first and only video link is to a youth choir led by our former worship pastor and friend, Dan Kirsop. As I sat listening to the young voices, I wondered what dark days each will encounter and whether Cowper’s text will bring comfort that today they can’t even imagine they’ll need. As for me, tears rolled down my face as I hit replay. Again. And again. And again.

And each time, the Light surprised.