The other day, while I was having breakfast with a friend of mine, he shared with me how much he had struggled when his first wife passed away. He told me how angry he became towards God and how he used to sit at the breakfast table, look up at the skylight and “shake my fist at God.” Since that painful season, my friend has remarried and his love for God is growing, vibrant and exciting. However, his confession made me wonder: what would I do if such a tragedy struck my life?
What if I lost my wife? What if I lost my daughter?
Would I start looking up at the skylight in disgust? Would I shake my fist at God? Would I grow angry and bitter with the One who is the Joy of my soul?
I don’t believe my friend’s responses is abnormal or rare. When tragedy comes into our life, it is very temping to become angry and bitter towards the One who has allowed it. And so I wondered to myself, “What would I do in such a moment?” As I was pondering this, God brought to my memory the hymn It is Well with My Soul. This hymn is one of my favorites and one reason I love this song is the powerful testimony it proclaims. It was actually the song’s story that God brought to my memory as I thought about my potential response to a tragic turn. If you’ve never heard the story, prepare to be moved. If you’re familiar with it, you know how worthy it is of our reflection.
The writer of the hymn was a man named Horatio Spafford. During the early part of his adult life, things went very well for him. He was a successful attorney in Chicago and had number of prosperous real estate investments in the Chicago area. God had blessed this man with a wonderful family. He was married and had five children (four daughters and a son). Horatio also involved himself actively in ministry; he was a regularly participant in the life of his church, was a good friend of D. L. Moody, and became a regular contributor to Moody’s ministry. During these early years, so many things were going well for Horatio. However, in the year of 1871 things began to change.
First, he lost his young son. For many, such a loss is something from which you don’t recover. But before Horatio and his family had sufficient time to mourn the passing of their only son, more tragedy struck their life. A few months following the death of his son, Spafford lost the majority of his realestate investments in the great Chicago fire.
With the family tragedy and financial loss weighing heavy on his wife and children, Horatio decided to lift their spirits by arranging for them to travel to Great Britain to join D. L. Moody on an evangelistic campaign. Right before they were to leave, some business arose which demanded Horatio’s attention. He stayed in Chicago and sent his family- his wife and four daughters- on ahead of him. The plan was for him to conclude the business matter and then to join them in England a short time later. However, that plan was never realized.
Halfway across the Atlantic Ocean, the ship carrying Horatio’s family was struck by another vessel and sank in 12 minutes. 226 people drowned. Among those who lost their life at sea were Spafford’s four daughters. Horatio’s wife, Anna, was one of the very few who were rescued. From England she sent word to her husband: “saved alone.”
Receiving the message by telegram, Horatio booked passage across the Atlantic to join his wife.
The hymn, It is Well with My Soul, was written on Horatio’s voyage across the sea. Here is the first verse: “When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, ‘It is Well, it is well with my soul.'”
When you know the story behind the hymn, you can see how full these words are. They are full of truth and power, of pain and of strength. It was those words, and the story behind them, that God brought to my mind as I sat contemplating my question. As I mulled Horatio’s words over in my mind, I reflected: “How do you get there? How do you get to that point where you can truly say ‘It is well with my soul’?”
It would be wonderful to sit and talk with this exemplary brother and have him share how God’s grace worked in his life to bring him to this point, but that is not an option we currently posses (however, one day in glory I do plan on sitting and conversing with my brother about how God’s wondrous love preserved him!). But there is something we can do. We can examine the testimony he left us in his hymn. And there is treasure here. I believe our brother has given us wonderful insight to help us be buoyed-up by God’s wondrous grace when “sorrows like sea billows roll.” Starting tomorrow and continuing into the next few weeks, we will explore three Biblical truths found in Spafford’s hymn. These powerful truths are the preserver we can cling to in the face of overwhelming loss and they will teach us to say “Whatever my lot… it is well with my soul.”