William Cowper and the Insanity of the Gospel
On this birthday of William Cowper (born November 26, 1731), I'm reflecting on Cowper's frequent bouts with insanity--and on what appears to be the counterintuitive character of the gospel of Jesus Christ. "He's bonkers," they used to say of someone with insanity. In WW I, they would refer to a soldier shell-shocked with trauma, and say, "He's blighty." Some call it mental illness, PTSD, dementia, early-onset dementia, or Alzheimer's. Whatever society calls it, we feel that something is not right about someone's words and behavior. "Have you lost your mind?" we say when something is not connecting the way the rest of us feel like it ought to connect. Or the way it used to connect.
BECOMING A CHILD AGAIN In the last years of his life, a dear friend of mine, incrementally lost his mind. Once a can-do-anything man, an ironworker, certified to weld every ore on the planet, developed Alzheimer's and has since past into glory. In the final stages of the disease, the man of laughter and endless stories of bygone days with which he held his grandchildren spellbound and belly laughing for hours, not only didn't remember any of those stories; he didn't know his own wife, children, or grandchildren. For him, the earlier stages of the disease were more difficult, when he knew he didn't know things he ought to know, and was frequently frustrated by that knowledge. But near the end, there was a mercy in his mental oblivion. Mercy for him, though not for his family and friends who knew he no longer knew them and were in anguish at the knowledge. "The more knowledge, the more grief," wrote the author of Ecclesiastes (1:18). Whatever else this means, surely it applies to a family watching a dear loved one steadily lose his mind. At the last, they become like a child in an old body, an infant again, who must have everything done for them. Let's be honest. There's a nagging question that inevitably creeps into our minds, or onto our children's lips: "If Grandpa doesn't know anything or anyone anymore, does he still know Jesus?" Is he safe? When he has lost his mind, is his soul lost too? Is he still saved? God our Heavenly Father wants to hear all our lisping, all our stammering, all our quavering questions. And his Son answers this one. "Unless you become like little children," said Jesus to his disciples, "you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 18:3). SUFFERING--THE SCHOOL OF POETRY My travels take me frequently back to Olney in middle England, John Newton and William Cowper's inconsequential village, the geographical origin of my literary endeavors over the last twenty plus years, and the setting for my Mr. Pipes 4-book series. As I prepare for another visit, I am reminded again of the expansive reach of the gospel of grace. We can so easily slip into thinking that Christianity is for the morally upright, for people who have it together, for normal people, functional people, smart people, witty people, people who have not lost their minds. You know, people like we want others to think we are.
We scowl and attempt to explain what Paul really meant when it begins to dawn on us how the gospel actually works (or we clutch at our perceived good works, our respectable middle-class lives, and grind our teeth like the religious leaders of Jesus' day). It doesn't seem to connect. Jesus came for the sick, not for the well, for those sick in mind as well as in body. For smelly fisherman, not well-perfumed religious leaders; for lepers, not people with all their fingers and toes; for prostitutes, for victims of sexual abuse, for sexual abusers, not self-righteous moral purists; for swindlers, not for well-suited accountant types; for the illiterate, not for the strutting sophisticated academic; for those with dementia, with mental illness, for the demon possessed, who live in tombs and run around naked, cutting themselves in their rages; for people who have to be chained to stumps, like brute beasts; sin does that in various degrees to all of us--makes us lose our minds, makes us lose our humanity. It's how the gospel of grace works. Christ comes to those who have not only lost their minds; they must acknowledge that they have lost their lives. The one who is the Life, only saves those who are dead, and who know they are dead.
William Cowper, born in 1731, one hundred years after the death of his ancestor and fellow poet John Donne, was one of those with great needs, special needs. He was one of the blighty. As a sensitive young man, he was bullied unmercifully by an older kid, no doubt, traumatized by that abuse. As an adult, he was crushed under repeated bouts of insanity, even attempted suicides, odd behavior, dark depression, at times feeling himself a castaway, "whelmed in deeper gulfs" than any other. And yet God raised him up by the grace of the gospel, ministered to him through the love and kindness of his neighbor and pastor, John Newton, to be one of the Church's greatest hymn writers.
Perhaps it was not in spite of, but because of Cowper's lifelong struggle with his disordered mind and emotions that he became one of the most tender of our hymn writers. He knew that God truly does "move in mysterious ways his wonders to perform." He knew that behind a "frowning providence" God truly does "hide a smiling face." Cowper gently, experientially teaches us that, "Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan his work in vain." God truly does work "deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill." He truly does "treasure up his bright designs and works his sovereign will." God in his gospel truly "is his own interpreter and he will make it plain," in his time, in his way.
With all of his mental challenges, Cowper knew that there really is a sort of insanity about the gospel. It is completely counter-intuitive. It defies economic sense, quid pro quo, this for that, balance the scale of bad deeds with good deeds. No. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a tertium quid, something altogether outside of and above all other religions. I want to get this, down deep in my soul. "O for a closer walk with God!" as Cowper cried. O to see more clearly the Light that "rises with healing in his wings." O to be washed in the precious "blood drawn from Immanuel's veins," there to "lose all [my] guilty stains."
We will always get the gospel distorted when we think it is only for the functional, the respectable, for people like we want to believe we are, and not for the insane, the ones who have lost their minds, for the dead, who must be raised to life by the gracious, sovereign mercy of God. Cowper reminds me of that. When I am most honest about my own heart, my desperate need for grace--justifying grace, sanctifying grace, daily enabling grace--then I know that I am in some real sense much more like William Cowper with all of his mental disorders, or more like my dear friend who lost his mind, but not his soul. When I see myself as a little child, a nursing infant (Luke 18:15), one who needs to have everything done for me, one who must be carried into the Kingdom of Heaven, then God has made the gospel plain. He has been his own interpreter. Behind his "frowning providence," I see his "smiling face." And am healed of all my diseases (Psalm 103:3).
Douglas Bond, author of more than thirty books, is Director for the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, two-time Grace Award book finalist, award-winning teacher, hymn writer, speaker at conferences, and leader of Church history tours in Europe. Follow him on social media and subscribe to bondbooks.net. Check out gift-giving ideas and our special offer at bondbooks.net/shop. Use promo code WYCLIFFEBIO when you check out.