Is That in the Bible?

“God works in mysterious ways” is nowhere in the Bible, but it was inspired by faith.

Posted in , Sep 5, 2016

Man walking into the ocean

An interesting press release hit my inbox this week, citing a recent survey by the Barna Research Group. As it turns out, many people don’t know that some of their favorite biblical quotes aren’t actually from the Bible. See how much you know—which of these famous phrases is found nowhere in scripture:

“To thine own self be true.”

“God helps those who help themselves.”

“The truth will set you free.”

“God works in mysterious ways.”

As much as we at Mysterious Ways like that last one, the only phrase above that is in the good book is “the truth will set you free,” in the Gospel of John. According to Barna’s poll, only 24% of adults knew that.

However, that doesn’t make these other lines any less divinely inspired. Take the quote that inspired our magazine’s title. While it wasn’t written by God, the prophets, or the apostles, it does have divine origins.

In our inaugural issue of Mysterious Ways, contributing editor Rosie Schaap told the story behind these well-known words:

Late one stormy London night in 1763, a broken man was determined to end his life. He hired a coach to take him to the river. Only when he cast himself into the roiling Thames and drowned, he thought, would his agonizing trials finally end. He was unwavering in his resolve. He stepped down from the coach and walked through the fog toward the river’s edge. When he reached the quays, he noticed a strange man sitting there, staring at him, as if on guard. Moreover, despite the rainfall, the tides were low—too low to drown a man.

Returning home, the desperate man decided to poison himself with an overdose of laudanum, a potent drug derived from opium. But he couldn’t raise the bottle to his lips. He tried again and again. Each time, it was as if an invisible hand were pushing it away. Finally, he tried to hang himself. The rope snapped, and his housekeeper rushed in, responding to the noise. The man gave up. For reasons he could not conceive, the life that brought such despair and misery could not be ended…

That man was William Cowper, the famous English poet. It had not been the first time he had contemplated suicide, only to be held back by forces greater than himself. Four years after his dark evening in London, he sought a fresh start and moved to the village of Olney in Buckinghamshire. There, he met another man who had witnessed God’s grace at a moment of great desperation.

That man was John Newton, the celebrated Anglican preacher. Appointed to serve in Olney, Newton earned such a reputation for the power of his preaching and the depth of his convictions that people who desperately needed guidance and hope—like William Cowper—moved to town to benefit from his ministry.

Cowper took residence in a house adjoining Newton’s, and took a measure of peace in Newton’s friendship and care. Newton understood that for the fragile poet’s mind to find peace, writing would have to be part of the recovery. He encouraged Cowper to turn his creative talents to the composition of hymns, and the two collaborated on a collection of nearly 350 works known as the Olney Hymns.

In the centuries since, countless people have similarly found comfort and spiritual sustenance in the hymns written by these two men. Newton, of course, is best known for his most famous work, “Amazing Grace,” inspired by his miraculous rescue at sea. And Cowper? He composed a hymn titled “Light Shining Out of Darkness,” about the hidden workings of the world that had prevented his suicide and led him, against all odds, to where he was meant to be. It begins with a line we all know well: God moves in a mysterious way. . .

So don’t feel too bad if you’re one of those 76% who don’t know their Bible inside out. After all, the words in those pages aren’t the only ones God uses to reach us.

What’s your favorite biblical—or non-biblical—quote? Why does it have special meaning to you?

View Comments