Yesterday I looked at the Mystery of “God Moves in Mysterious Ways”. In my research for this I read through John Piper’s biography of William Cowper again. There was a statement that Piper used that came alive to me. One of his section headings reads: Never Cease to Sing the Gospel to the Deaf.
Let us rehearse the mercies of Jesus often in the presence of discouraged people. Let us point them again and again to the blood of Jesus…Don’t make your mercy to the downcast contingent on quick results. You cannot persuade a person that he is not reprobate if he is utterly persuaded that he is. He will tell you he is deaf. No matter. Keep soaking him in the “benevolence, mercy, goodness, and sympathy” of Jesus and “the sufficiency of the atonement” and “the fullness and completeness of [Christ’s] justification”…Pray that in God’s time these truths may yet be given the power to awaken hope and beget a spirit of adoption. (Piper, The Hidden Smile of God, 117-19)
This is what John Newton did in the life of William Cowper. Newton was very discouraged and perplexed at Cowper’s ailment. Yet he remained by his side, even at times foregoing vacation so as not to leave his dear friend alone. Newton never ceased to sing the gospel to the deaf. It took a toll in Newton too.
On one occasion Newton wrote to John Thornton of the toll it was taking on him:
Mr. Cowper’s long stay at the vicarage in his present uncomfortable state, has been upon many account inconvenient and trying. His choice of being here was quite unexpected; and his continuance is unavoidable, unless he was to be removed by force…I make myself easy by reflecting that the Lord’s hand is concerned; and I am hoping weekly for his deliverance…The Lord evidently sent him to Olney, where he has been a blessing to many, a great blessing to myself. The Lord has numbered the days in which I am appointed to wait upon him in this dark valley, and He has given us such a love to him both as a believer and as a friend, that I am not weary; but to be sure, his deliverance would be to me one of the greatest blessings my thoughts can conceive.
Why it was so taxing on Newton?
Sometimes when I read through tattered pages from days long ago I slip into a type of fairy tale thinking. People stop becoming real. John Newton becomes a hero without warts. I rejoice in the fruit of his ministry but I do not accurately reckon the toil that such fruit entails. I say things like—and will say again in a moment—that we need more pastors like John Newton. But I forget the travail that Newton must have experienced as he bled with William Cowper.
Consider this letter from Cowper and how it must have pained Newton. Keep in mind this is written in 1784. That is eleven years after Cowper’s second bout with madness (first under the watch of Newton). Now it is happening again after a brief respite. Listen as if you had received this letter from a dear friend that you had been counseling and bleeding with for years:
Loaded as my life is with despair, I have no such comfort as would result from a supposed probability of better things to come, were it once ended ... You will tell me that this cold gloom will be succeeded by a cheerful spring, and endeavour to encourage me to hope for a spiritual change resembling it—but it will be lost labour. Nature revives again; but a soul once slain lives no more ... My friends, I now expect that I shall see yet again. They think it necessary to the existence of divine truth, that he who once had possession of it should never finally lose it. I admit the solidity of this reasoning in every case but my own. And why not in my own? ... I forestall the answer:—God's ways are mysterious, and He giveth no account of His matters:—an answer that would serve my purpose as well as theirs that use it. There is a mystery in my destruction, and in time it shall be explained.
Do you hear what has happened in the mind of Cowper? His mind has become so set upon destroying him that his precious hymn written in 1773 is now darkened. “There is a mystery in my destruction, and in time it shall be explained”. He has somehow believed that the mystery of God’s ways is that he will be damned even though he is one of the elect. He theologically agrees with everything that Newton is saying but he is, as on biographer said, “utterly deaf” to “every consolatory suggest” because he had “concluded that God had rejected him”.
Yet Newton never abandoned his friend.
We Need More John Newton’s
Some would probably consider Newton’s soul care of Cowper a failure. After all he never really found healing. We like magic words that somehow fix everything. But Cowper wouldn’t be “fixed”; not on this side of Eden.
Newton couldn’t be Cowper’s savior. But he could be his friend. Though it’s a mystery and not something I would really want to write a theological dissertation on, it seems that at times the Lord calls people like John Newton to hold the hand of his friend while simultaneously holding the hand of Jesus. His dear friend was in such despair that he could no longer cry out for mercy. It seems that Newton interceded for Cowper when he was too weak to even plead for help.
Newton’s ministry to Cowper was a ministry where he continued to “sing the gospel to the deaf”. He did it as his friend not as his fixer. He loved William Cowper, madness and all. He was never a project but always a brother in Christ. To this end Newton never gave up on his friend. He pleaded for Cowper’s stake in Christ even when Cowper was confident that he had been forsaken.
Ministry success isn’t defined by the number of hands we heal but the hands we hold. Healing belongs to the Lord. Holding on is our sacred duty as fellow sojourners. We need more pastors like John Newton. Pastors that aren’t discouraged because their “projects” fail. But pastors that ache because their friends hurt. Pastors that stay and preach, and plod, and proclaim the excellencies of Christ even when it seems that we are only holding a symphony for the deaf.
Jesus is pleased with such faithful husbands, daddies, friends, and pastors. I pray that I am one.