Who doesn’t love a good mystery? Whether it be a cold case television documentary, a clever theatrical caper, or a cozy whodunnit story, most of us enjoy the process of collecting clues about the unknown and piecing the bits together to discover the whole truth. But when we find ourselves in the middle of a personal mystery, the story is different. We typically like to be in control of our bits. When life begins to unravel in ways we can’t explain, the old adage “God works in mysterious ways” can become more baffling than beguiling.
What Is the Meaning of 'God Works in Mysterious Ways'?
Certain truths are concrete, finite, and tangible. Mysteries are not. The very essence of a mystery makes it hard to grasp. You can’t put a mystery in a box or accurately predict its nature. Why? Because mysteries contain elements that are not yet clearly perceived.
God’s ways are inscrutable, not because He’s trying to hide something from us, but because our limited human understanding lacks the capacity to grasp the full scope of His sovereignty.
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
“God’s ways are not only higher than ours, but they are also better than ours. The big struggle we have is whether or not we will embrace them. There is a blessing and a hope that comes from embracing God’s ways. The good news is that the blessing comes even when you don’t understand what God is doing,” says Clarence L. Haynes Jr. God Works in Mysterious Ways" - Biblical Truth or Myth?
What Is the Origin of This Phrase?
One stormy night in 1763 William Cowper, the famous English poet, tried to drown himself in the River Thames, but when he noticed a strange man observing him, he returned home in search of a more private means to end his life. In the end, all three of Cowper’s suicide attempts that night were thwarted by what he later described as an “invisible hand.”
Having suffered from mental illness most of his life, Cowper entered an asylum for treatment. There, he found God through the loving and Christlike care of Dr. Nathaniel Cotton and through the Bible. Two years after leaving the hospital, Cowper moved to Olney and met John Newton, author of the famous hymn “Amazing Grace.” Newton ministered to Cowper and encouraged him to use his gift of words for evangelistic purposes.
In 1771 William Cowper wrote “Conflict: Light Shining Out of Darkness,” which was later titled “God Moves” and published in the Olney Hymnal. The first line of the hymn is where our modern phrase “God works in mysterious ways” originates. Though Cowper continued to suffer from depression throughout his lifetime, the timeless truth God gave him during his lowest moments is still being repeated 250 years later. Here are just a few stanzas of Cowper’s age-old hymn:
“God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform; He plants his footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm. Ye fearful saints fresh courage take, The clouds ye so much dread, Are big with mercy, and shall break, In blessings on your head. His purposes will ripen fast, Unfolding ev'ry hour; The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flow'r. Blind unbelief is sure to err, And scan his work in vain; God is his own interpreter, And he will make it plain”
Is This Phrase Found in the Bible?
Although the phrase “God works in mysterious ways” doesn’t appear in the Bible, scripture is filled with examples that exemplify the saying.
Imagine how shocked Abraham must have been when God commanded him to offer Isaac as a human sacrifice (Genesis 22).
Consider young Joseph’s disillusionment when he was sold into slavery, wrongly accused of rape, and imprisoned before God made his dream a reality (Genesis 37, 39-45).
Who could have predicted that God’s plan to save fallen humanity would involve sending His beloved Son into this world through a teenage virgin, then allowing Him to suffer a horrible death on the cross? (the Gospels).
As if these well-known biblical events weren’t mind-blowing enough, consider the following more obscure mysteries of God:
God sends two female bears to maul a group of kids who taunt Elisha and call him “baldy” (2 Kings 2:23-25).
God calls Ehud, a man with a withered right hand, to kill the evil King Eglon and deliver Israel from the oppressive rule of the Moabites (Judges 3).
God binds the prophet, Ezekiel, with ropes after He instructs Him to lie on his left side for 390 days, then his right side for 40 days. During that time God initially instructs Ezekiel that he cannot eat anything except bread cooked over human dung (Ezekiel 4:1-16).
On the day God gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, He stopped time, at Joshua’s request, so that the battle could be won by the end of the day (Joshua 10).
Granted, we have the advantage of viewing these events through the lens of hindsight and scriptural context which lends clarity, but can you imagine being in that moment—facing those inexplicable occurrences head-on? God truly does work in mysterious ways.
If God's Ways Are a Mystery, How Can We Know Him or His Will?
As we’ve seen, Scripture is full of proof that God doesn’t act or think as humans do. He is the definition and definer of all that is good, holy, and right. Many times our finite brains can’t comprehend His infinite plans, but that doesn’t mean that God wants us to remain ignorant about His character or His ways.
Perhaps the biggest mystery of all is that our unknowable God calls us to press on to know Him. “So let’s learn, let’s press on to know the LORD. His appearance is as sure as the dawn; And He will come to us like the rain, As the spring rain waters the earth” (Hosea 6:3, NASB).
The heroes of our faith all had one thing in common. They knew the power of the seek. God desires that we seek Him with everything in us. Shane Idleman expands on this thought in What Does it Mean to Truly Seek God? “To seek in this context means to ‘find what is missing.’ The Hebrew word for seek, baqash, has a very strong meaning. Imagine losing your child in a crowded mall. Your entire heart would be engaged. How would you spend your time? Where would your energy be concentrated? Now parallel this with seeking God.”
God’s desire for us to seek Him is so important that it’s mentioned over 8000 times in Scripture. Why is seeking Him so important? Because when we seek God, He promises to open our understanding in supernatural ways and reveal Himself to us (Proverbs 2:3-6, Proverbs 25:2, Proverbs 28:5, Jeremiah 29:13).
As God reveals Himself to us, our need to be in control of all of life’s mysteries fades, our faith deepens, and our ability to trust Him is perfected. We are given the power to walk in full confidence that our mysterious God is faithful and true.
If you’d like more information about how to seek God in practical ways check out Danielle Bernock’s How Can I Get to Know God Better?
In due time our God will make known all the mysteries of the universe. He’s already revealed part of that mystery through Christ and His Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth. But “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
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Annette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.