If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!
You likely know the name William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) because of his oft-quoted line, “God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.” Less known is the cross he bore for nearly all his life: a profound melancholy that on multiple occasions led him to seek to take his own life.
Born near London, in 1731, Cowper was sent to boarding school at the age of six, following his mother’s death. Goaded into pursuing a law career he had no interest in, he was first overwhelmed by a crippling depression at the age of 21. How he came to trust Christ is a story worth telling for its own sake, but following his conversion, Cowper became acquainted with the famous slave-trader turned pastor and hymn writer, John Newton. Perceiving both Cowper’s chronic despondency and the poignant introspection that accompanied it, Newton invited him into a collaborative hymn-writing effort that would span nearly a decade. While the American revolution raged, Newton and Cowper composed their Olney Hymns, which, for the latter was as much tonic to his soul as it was an expression of his talents. Of the sixty-eight hymns Cowper himself penned, one was entitled "The New Convert":
The new-born child of gospel grace,
Like some fair tree when summer's nigh,
Beneath Emmanuel's shining face
Lifts up his blooming branch on high.
No fears he feels, he sees no foes,
No conflict yet his faith employs,
Nor has he learnt to whom he owes
The strength and peace his soul enjoys.
But sin soon darts its cruel sting,
And comforts sinking day by day,
What seem'd his own, a self-fed spring,
Proves but a brook that glides away.
When Gideon arm'd his numerous host,
The Lord soon made his numbers less;
And said, "Lest Israel vainly boast,
My arm procured me this success!"
Thus will He bring our spirits down,
And draw our ebbing comforts low,
That saved by grace, but not our own,
We may not claim the praise we owe.
As Mark reminded us last Sunday, the first thing the Lord Jesus teaches us about prayer is that we must understand the identity of the One to whom we pray. The Lord is our Father. He is, as our catechism reminds us, “Spirit, infinite, eternal, unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.” Yet, all those divine attributes are best understood in the context of a very this-world conception of fatherliness. Even if our fathers have failed or harmed us, we know intrinsically what a perfect father is like, if only in the wistfulness for such a father.
Cowper’s father may have contributed painfully to his distress. Nevertheless, Cowper’s hymn reveals a keen insight into what it meant to live joyfully before a heavenly Father.
Our Father is the source of all our life and hope. He takes joy in giving us what we need and allows us to rise like a “blooming branch” to bask in the sun of forgiveness and divine delight. Our heavenly father gives us no greater gift than His Spirit. The Spirit awakens us to the majesty of God; He forces us to face our frailty; He convinces us of the singular goodness of Christ and His Cross. All this our Father does to the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:14), but also because He delights to give us expensive, enduring gifts even more than our earthly fathers do (Luke 11:13). Such is what Jesus means to tell us about the fatherliness of our God.
But Cowper mentions one other aspect of fatherliness we might at first find odd. Within all the exuberance that comes with being born again—the joy at having had your ultimate enemy vanquished, your eternity secured, your purpose outlined, and your acceptance vouchsafed—there lurks a temptation to think oneself “a self-fed spring,” to conclude, “My arm procured me this success.” To which our heavenly Father responds by “[bringing] our spirits down,” and “[drawing] our ebbing comforts low.” And why? That “we may not claim the praise we owe.”
But why does the heavenly Father seek to perpetuate our sense of dependence on Him? Is it not the virtue of our earthly fathers to guide us for a while, like training wheels on a bike, and then let us learn to balance on our own? Are fathers not to release us—to give us wings, as the saying goes—that we might not only learn to fly on our own, but to relish in our having matured?
The answer may lie in the fact that it is never a mark of maturity to become more impressed with ourselves than with our God. It is a mark of our fallenness that whenever we become too intoxicated by a perception of our self-sufficiency we tend to run off the rails into indulgence, arrogance, and folly (cf. Deuteronomy 8:11–14). True maturity discovers that “He must increase and I must decrease.” True maturity sends us to our knees, praying to our God as Father, because we see Him as the source of our life, the guide to our life, and the benefactor for our life.
The four diagnostic questions Mark asked us to pose to ourselves will reveal clearly whom we are more impressed with—God or ourselves. What do your answers to those questions reveal? As you continue to ask the Lord to teach you to pray, ask, seek, and knock for the heart that dares not “claim the praise we owe.”