When the Holidays Are Hard: Mourning and Longing With William Cowper

Dear Church,

I remember sitting in the pew at my grandma’s church a few springs ago, on Easter Sunday. Everyone around me was joyfully belting out that “Christ, the LORD, is risen today!”, but I wasn’t singing. I was fighting back tears. I was struggling to remember what I had to be thankful for, so I could focus on that instead of my ping-ponging emotions. I was wondering how it was that they were so happy, but I was so sad. I was battling guilt, because aren’t Christians supposed to be joyful on Easter Sunday? I’m on the other side of that hard time in my life today, but I’ll never forget it.

One of my favorite dead people understands what longing for elusive happiness is like. Do you have a favorite dead person? A hero of the faith of old? Maybe that sounds weird, but I’d say if you don’t, you should probably find one. One of my favorite dead heroes of the faith is William Cowper. He was born in 1731, the firstborn to an English reverend and his wife. Best known as a poet, letter-writer, and translator, Cowper went on to co-author a collection of hymns with John Newton, known today as the Olney Hymns. A formative aspect of William Cowper’s story was that he suffered from severe depression throughout his entire adult life, which caused him to be hospitalized at one point, and even led him to attempt suicide. We can learn much from the way Cowper walked through the trial of depression, because he was a Christian who never tried to hide that pain. Cowper penned many hymns and poems throughout his life, several of which related directly to his battle with depression. Here is an excerpt from a hymn he wrote called Mourning and Longing:

The Saviour hides his face!
My spirit thirsts to prove
Renew’d supplies of pard’ning grace,
And never-fading love.

The favor’d souls who know
What glories shine in him,
Pant for his presence, as the roe
Pants for the living stream!

What trifles teaze me now!
They swarm like summer flies,
They cleave to ev’ry thing I do,
And swim before my eyes.

How dull the sabbath day,
Without the sabbath’s Lord!
How toilsome then to sing and pray,
And wait upon the word!

Of all the truths I hear
How few delight my taste!
I glean a berry here and there,
But mourn the vintage past.

Maybe you can relate to that. Do you feel like the Holy Spirit is distant, as though he’s hiding his face from you? Is your spirit thirsty? Are you panting for God’s presence, but not finding him? Do you feel a heaviness that swarms around you like summer flies; that cleaves to you, and swims before your eyes? Are Sundays dull to you, and singing and praying toilsome? Do you find that too few truths delight your taste? Do you mourn the vintage past; longing after distant memories of a time when you didn’t feel this way?

There’s a general cheeriness in the air around the holidays, but I need you to hear that it’s okay if you’re not cheery right now. Sometimes, the holidays are hard. Perhaps you feel guilty because you think you’re supposed to just “grin and bear it,” but listen: that guilt does not come from God. Friend, you may not be clinically depressed like William Cowper, but maybe you’re in deep pain as you read this letter. I don’t know why you feel so heavy, or why God seems so distant. I don’t know what’s making songs and prayers fall dully from your lips, or stick dryly in your throat. I don’t know why you can’t rejoice in the truth. And I’m not going to judge you, because I’ve been there, too.

See, you don’t really need me to preach to you, do you? No, because you know what is true. What you need to hear right now is that it’s all right to be in pain, and it’s all right if you aren’t overflowing with joy. Immanuel, ‘God With Us,’ came down into darkness. He dwelt with broken people, and he loved them in their brokenness. More than that, we’re about to celebrate that Jesus wasn’t just ‘God With Them,’ but ‘God With You,’ and ‘God With Me.’ Jesus Christ is reaching out to you at this moment to remind you that he loves your broken self completely and unconditionally, and he is with you.

I left off the end of Mourning and Longing. It goes,

Yet let me (as I ought)
Still hope to be supply’d;
No pleasure else is worth a thought,
Nor shall I be deny’d.

Tho’ I am but a worm,
Unworthy of his care,
The Lord will my desire perform,
And grant me all my pray’r.

Brothers and sisters, the mourning of this life, for us, is tinged with hopeful longing whether or not we feel hopeful, because Jesus’ victory over sin and death and sickness and Satan is our victory, too.

Yet, for now, suffering saint, all you need to know is that whether you relate to William Cowper in his despair or his hope this holiday season, the love of God will be enough to meet you there and carry you to the other side.


Fellow Soldier


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