Horatio Spafford lived in the mid 1800’s and was an American lawyer, but his greatest and most lasting accomplishment was definitely authoring the Christian hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul.”
In his early 40’s, Spafford was doing quite well for himself and invested heavily in the real estate along Lake Michigan’s shoreline. However, the great Chicago fire of 1871 demolished all his investments. In addition, his son died before this took place. Unfortunately for Spafford, this was just the beginning of his troubles.
Spafford was planning a vacation in Great Britain for his wife and four daughters in the fall of 1873, but last minute business required him to stay home, so he sent his family without him. Hymnologist Kenneth Osbeck tells the story: “On November 22 the ship was struck by the Lochearn, an English vessel, and sank in twelve minutes. Several days later the survivors were finally landed at Cardiff, Wales, and Mrs. Spafford cabled her husband, ‘Saved alone.’”
Spafford left immediately for England to join his wife and, while sailing over the area in the Atlantic where his four daughters died, he wrote the hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul.” Spafford and his wife spent their final years in Jerusalem, ministering to Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say,
Is it well, it is well, with my soul.
I read this picture of peace and sorrows seeming to co-exist and think back to Psalm 23. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” (v. 4) Maybe we’ll never find out how good and capable our shepherd is until we go through the valley of the shadow of death. I know these valleys are awful and I can’t imagine any of us would willingly seek these dark times, but it’s in these valleys we learn something so precious about Jesus, don’t we? We learn about his peace when there’s no other peace to be had.
The passage in Job, found in 13:15, which says, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him,” makes me think about peace amidst trial, too. I’ll admit, this is a really, really hard verse. This obscure passage in Job basically calls us out and challenges our belief in Romans 8:28, that God is working out everything to our good. Job is saying, “Even if he takes everything from me, I know he’s doing something for my good. It’s well with my soul.”
Though He takes my job, I will hope in Him; though He allow this relationship to be broken, I will hope in Him; though He permit this sickness, I will hope in Him – and this list could go on and on. Whatever has happened or is happening to you – is it well with your soul?
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
I think this stanza mirrors John 16:33 when Jesus tells his disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Right here, on the night before his death when all the disciples will scatter and leave him, Jesus informs us of two realities. He says we will have tribulation; not you may have tribulation or you could have tribulation, but you will have tribulation.
Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t leave us there but affirms his control over all the world – tribulations and all. It’s in Jesus, and only in Jesus do we have “blest assurance,” as the song declares.
The hymn also states here that Jesus has regarded our helpless estate and shed his blood for us. Our susceptibility to this life’s hardships don’t surprise Jesus – he knows and has taken care of it. Do you remember in the book of Ruth, specifically in the 2nd chapter, when Boaz told all his workers to let some grain fall for Ruth, to essentially make is easy for her to glean in the fields? In a way, Boaz was regarding Ruth’s helpless estate. Jesus knows we need help, lots of help, and he made sure to provide that help with his blood.
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
As I initially read this stanza, it seemed a bit disconnected. Spafford is talking about his trials and Jesus’ presence, and then he starts talking about his sin? This is important: when trials come our way, it’s essential to remember that our sins have been paid for already. “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:10) If we don’t get this into our heart, we may think our trials are somehow punishment for our sins, which isn’t true.
God, “having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-14)
We think of the nails piercing Jesus’ hands, but this verse essentially is saying that Jesus was holding our sins in his hands while that happened. Write all your sins down on a paper – even the ones you’re going to commit tomorrow and the next day – and put them in Jesus’ perfect hands. The worst things about you are on that paper and the nail is driven through Jesus’ flesh and your sins, all at once. We never get too far from the cross, do we?
But Lord, ‘this for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.
“For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” (Philippians 1:21,22)
Paul understood the true goals of his life went beyond this world. Maybe this illustration will help. Think of the last day of work before a week long vacation. Can anything wreck your mood that day? The printer can jam, someone can disagree with you, but you’re going on vacation for an entire week, to the place of your choice – what can steal your joy? This life is the last day of work before a great, but permanent vacation with Jesus. Who can steal that joy?
And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
One day, all your steps taken in faith will be totally verified – you’ll know Jesus as fully as he knows you. Faith won’t always be faith; one day it will be sight. In that day, we’ll be partakers of glory with him. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:4)
When I listen to this song, I hear of God’s peace in the middle of trials and pain; it’s the table in the presence of my enemies. Many want to believe the presence of evil undermines the argument for God’s existence, but Christians know that God’s existence is verified and re-verified in the presence of evil and suffering.
As we look at our various lots in life, whatever they may be right now, I pray this little study can help us reflect on God’s good and sovereign nature and say, “It is well with my soul.” In this uncertain, fearful world, what an unconventional, but God-honoring way to live!
“When you go through a trial, the sovereignty of God is the pillow upon which you lay your head.” (Charles Spurgeon)