Precious Lessons from John Piper, William Cowper, and John Newton

Tonight I read the second chapter of John Piper’s The Hidden Smile of God entitled “Insanity and Spiritual Songs in the Life of William Cowper.”  There are some precious quotes from the chapter, some on poetry because Cowper and Piper are poets, some on despair because Cowper’s was chronic, and some on John Newton because he was Cowper’s beloved and compassionate pastor for many years.  The quotes are all Piper’s, and he closes the chapter with seven practical and diverse lessons from Cowper’s life (I include six below).

“I live with an almost constant awareness of the breach between the low intensity of my own passion and the staggering realities of the universe around me — heaven, hell, creation, eternity, life, Jesus Christ, justification, God.  All of us (whether we know it or not) try to close this breach between the weakness of our emotions and the wonders of the world.  Some of us do it with poetry” (82).

“There is a deep relief that comes when we find a way of seeing and savoring some precious reality, then saying it in a way that comes a little closer to closing the breach between what we’ve glimpsed with our mind and what we’ve grasped with our heart” (82).

“Those of us who are older have come to see that the events of the soul are probably the most important events in life” (85).

“Some said that other pastors were respected by their people, but Newton was loved… Cowper said, ‘A sincerer or more affectionate friend no man ever had'” (95).

“In 1780, Newton left Olney for a new pastorate in Lombard Street, London, where he served for the next twenty-seven years.  It is a great tribute to him that he did not abandon his friendship with Cowper, though this would, no doubt, have been emotionally easy to do.  Instead there was an earnest exchange of letters for twenty years.  Cowper poured out his soul to Newton as to no one else” (97).

Lesson #1:  “We fortify ourselves against the dark hours of depression by cultivating a deep distrust of the certainties of despair.  Despair is relentless in the certainties of his pessimism.  But we have seen that Cowper is not consistent.  Some years after his absolute statements of being cut off from God, he is again expressing some hope in being heard.  His certainties were not sureties.  So it will always be with the deceptions of darkness.  Let us now, while we have the light, cultivate distrust of the certainties of despair” (109-10).

Lesson #3:  “May the Lord raise up many John Newtons among us, for the joy of our churches and for the survival of the William Cowpers in our midst.  Newton remained Cowper’s pastor and friend the rest of his life, writing and visiting again and again.  He did not despair of the despairing… Those were the times when Cowper felt a ray of hope” (110-11).

Lesson #4:  “Periodic self-examination is needed and wise and biblical.  But for the most part, mental health is the use of the mind to focus on worthy reality outside ourselves… Mental health is, in great measure, the gift of self-forgetfulness.  The reason is that introspection destroys what matters most to us — the authentic experience of great things outside ourselves” (112-13).

Lesson #5:  “I suggest that Cowper would have benefited by less retreat and ease and contemplation and more engagement with suffering people who needed help” (114).

Lesson #6:  “Those of us who teach and preach and want to encourage our people to press on in hope and faith must not limit ourselves to success stories… there are stories in the Bible, in history, and in our own lives that do not appear to have happy endings of cheerfulness.  These too are not without hope and are designed by God’s sovereign and merciful wisdom for the hope of those who fear they are utterly alone in their misery” (115-17).

Lesson #7:  “One final, all-important lesson: Let us rehearse the mercies of Jesus often in the presence of discouraged people… 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’… go on telling him the glories of Christ and his all-sufficient sacrifice for sin.  Pray that in God’s time these truths may yet be given the power to awaken hope and beget a spirit of adoption” (117-19).

One thought on “Precious Lessons from John Piper, William Cowper, and John Newton

  1. I recently read this book and loved it! Thanks for the insights and reminders of the treasures in its pages.


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