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Lessons from William Cowper: “Sometimes a Light Surprises”

Written by Ryan Berg on

This season of life is different and challenging for many different reasons. Times like this can often cause a person to experience anxiety, discouragement, and in some cases despair. There will be moments when many of us will feel unable to hope or have faith. But it is in circumstances like these when it is helpful to borrow faith and hope from others. This is what we can find in the story of William Cowper.

The famous hymn “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” is an anthem of God’s power to cleanse sinful hearts and unify his children to himself. This hymn was written by Englishman William Cowper in the eighteenth century. He became a believer following a hard life marked with suicide attempts and time in an asylum.

This was a man acquainted with anxiety and often downtrodden with despair. But Cowper’s fight with depression didn’t cease when he accepted Jesus as his Savior. This is illustrated in one of his lesser-known hymns, titled “Sometimes a Light Surprises.” The song voices how hope can come unexpectedly amid confusing and hard circumstances.

“Sometimes a light surprises a Christian when he sings,

It is the Lord who rises with healing in His wings.”

In the first half of the opening stanza, Cowper is referring to those times when God surprises you with a spark of hope in the murkiest of moments.

I can speak to this firsthand. Shortly after graduating from college, I was in a serious relationship that was moving toward marriage quickly. We had looked at rings, planned the ceremony and had even discussed buying a house after we married. Then, with no explanation, this relationship abruptly and unexpectedly ended. I fell into a spiral of morbid introspection and depression.

During this deep hurt and heartache, the Lord graciously illuminated the truth found in Ephesians 5:1 which says, “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Consider what this means.  The Creator of all things calls me a beloved child and wants me to imitate him—despite everything I have done.

In the weeks that followed, God used this single, biblical principle along with truth spoken by other believing brothers, to pull me out of the pit of my own making. It didn’t matter that a relationship with a girl who determined that I wasn’t “good enough” had ended. This reality—that I belong to and am loved by God—continues to anchor my soul and serves as the rock upon which I stand during tough times.

Those eight words changed my life. It was a surprising hope that I didn’t even know I needed to hear. But God in his kindness always knows what we need in the middle of challenging circumstances. He uses his word through the Spirit to reveal himself to his children.

The rest of the opening stanza from Cowper’s hymn depicts God’s kindness to us in his promise that the sun will shine after darkness and rain:

“When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.”

During tough times, it’s easy for people to be deceived by the lie that says, “God isn’t doing anything to make life better.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. In the middle of so much chaos and difficulty it is hard to see the reality of the gospel. Bringing to mind past “seasons of clear shining” God has provided serves to give hope when it seems the rain will not relent.

It is crucial to remember the many times when God delivered us from difficulty and remember to cling to the hope that He is faithful to do it again (Psalm 126).

For my office, I commissioned a piece of art that quotes Ephesians 5:1. This serves as my daily reminder of the moments when God brought me out of hardship in the past and that he is faithful to do it again.

I encourage you to reflect on the remaining stanzas in Cowper’s rich hymn and ask yourself, what is your reminder of “seasons of clear shining”?

“In holy contemplation
  We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation,
  And find it ever new;
Set free from present sorrow,
  We cheerfully can say—
E’en let the unknown morrow
  Bring with it what it may.


It can bring with it nothing,
  But He will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing,
  Will clothe His people too:
Beneath the spreading heavens
  No creature but is fed;
And He, who feeds the ravens,
  Will give His children bread.


Though vine nor fig tree neither
  Their wonted fruit shall bear;
Though all the fields should wither
  Nor flocks nor herds be there;
Yet God the same abiding,
  His praise shall tune my voice,
For, while in Him confiding,
  I cannot but rejoice.”

Ryan Berg

Ryan serves at College Park Church as the Assistant Pastor of Soul Care. He is passionate about helping people see Jesus in the midst of sin and suffering. In his free time, Ryan enjoys being with his wife, Carol, and two kids, Sydney & Elliot.

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