Very few people who sing the old hymns written through the years know the life stories behind the words they are singing. Quite often, what made these hymns so powerful and moving, was the pain and suffering the composer had to go through. It is these bitter experiences that are often the source of the greatest inspiration. Although God is never the source of evil in this world, He will use it to bring about some of the greatest victories. The results of the glorious things God does with our trust in Him are rarely seen by us. But, eternity will reveal how God has woven all of the events of our lives, the good and the bad, into something that will shine for the rest of eternity.
One of these very familiar hymns is “It Is Well With My Soul.” It is a beautiful, simple hymn written late in the 1800’s by a man who came through great tragedy. Horatio G. Spafford was a successful lawyer and businessman in Chicago. He and his wife, Anna, had five children. Tragedy was not unknown to the Spaffords. In 1871 they lost a little boy to pneumonia. Mr. Spafford also lost his business to the great Chicago fire in 1873. Through God’s mercy, Mr. Spafford’s business once again flourished and he was able to get back on his feet financially.
In 1873, Anna Spafford and their four daughters left on an ocean liner to go to Europe. Horatio was not able to go due to a business problem that had developed, but his plan was to meet his family in Europe soon after their arrival. The French ocean liner, the Ville du Havre, was crossing the Atlantic ocean from the U.S. with 313 passengers on board, including Anna and their daughters.
About four days after they left the U.S., the Ville du Harve collided with an iron-hulled Scottish ship, the Loch Earn. Everyone on board was in immediate danger and Anna quickly brought her daughters on deck. She knelt there with Annie, Margaret Lee, Bessie, and Tanetta and prayed that God would spare them if it was His will, or make them willing to endure whatever was ahead. Within about twelve minutes, the Ville du Harve sank, taking 226 of the passengers down with it, including Anna Stafford’s four young daughters.
A sailor who was rowing over the spot where the ship went down, spotted Anna floating on a piece of wreckage, and seeing that she was still alive, pulled her into his little boat. They were picked up by another vessel and nine days later, landed in Cardiff, Wales. From there she wired her husband with a message, “Saved alone, what shall I do?” Anna’s telegram was later framed and hung in his office.
One of the other survivors of the shipwreck was Pastor Weiss, who later remembered Anna having said, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.”
Mr. Spafford took the next available ship and joined his grieving wife. When their ship was about four days out, the captain called Mr. Spafford to his cabin and told him they were over the place where his children drowned. According to Bertha Spafford Vester, a daughter born after the tragedy, Spafford wrote the moving hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul”, while on that sorrowful journey. These are the words to this beautiful hymn:
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well with my soul!”
It is well with my soul!
It is well, it is well with my soul!
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin–oh, the bliss of this glorious thought–
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to His Cross, and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live;
If dark hours about me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
Anna had three more children, one of whom died at age four, once again with pneumonia. In August 1881, the Spaffords moved to Jerusalem. This is where Mr. Spafford died and is buried. This is a story of tragedy and what God did with the bitter experience the Spaffords went through; a story that in spite of the fact that they have long passed on, God is still continuing to use today. Only when we have arrived in our Lord’s presence will we be able to see how far God will have taken this story.
So, what does the Bible tell us about the difficulties we encounter in our short time on this earth? The Bible is full of examples.
The Old Testament contemporary of Abraham, the man Job, had these words to describe life:
“Man who is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower and fades away. He flees like a shadow and does not continue.” Job 14:1-2
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul, a man who went through more tribulations than most in the Bible, had this view to share:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven…
…we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; 5:1-2, 7-9
Job pointed out that life on this earth is not only short but full of troubles. The Apostle Paul also spoke about the troubles of this life, but added that we spiritually groan to get rid of this tent, our mortal body, knowing that when we have laid down our corruptible mortal bodies we will have put on our eternal incorruptible bodies and left behind this short temporary life full of struggles and troubles, having traded it in for eternal, glorious life in the presence of our God as promised by our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
There is no trouble, struggle, tribulation, or persecution that will not fade away when we have received our reward in Heaven. Although the two passages are a bit lengthy, I would like to share what the Apostle Paul had to say about the troubles of this life and God’s promises to us with these words:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body….
…Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: “For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 18-23, 35-39
Paul knew what he was talking about. He had endured great persecutions, mainly by those that were abusing him by claiming he was a religious heretic. He gave a list of what had happened to him to the Corinthians.
From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily; my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 2 Corinthians 11:24-31
At the time of this writing, Paul had not yet written most of his epistles to the churches. In the following years, he would travel, minister, endure trials and tribulations, and finally be beheaded at the command of Caesar. Paul considered living the Christian life a privilege, no matter what it brought him. To the Philippian Church he said this:
According to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Philippians 1:20-21
I heard a sermon recently in which the preacher made a statement that stuck in my mind. He said, “It seems that the devil hits God’s people the very hardest at the beginning of their walk with God and at the end of that walk.” As I thought about what he said, I could see that in many of the people I’ve known over the years. The devil knows that if he is going to cause a young Christian to lose their initial joy and exuberance, he needs to hit them hard and fast so that they will become discouraged with the Christian walk. But, the devil also knows that life has a way of wearing on us, and often when we’ve lived for God for a long time, we can get to the place where we put more emphasis on “working for God” than walking in intimacy with Him. It is that intimacy that produces ministry through the rivers of life that overflow our soul and spill on all those around us. The devil knows that if he can get us to look more on our surroundings and the troubles we face and look less for that intimacy and supernatural touch of God, he can cause us to take a detour.
Our natural surroundings are not imagination. They are real. Yet, we must keep our spiritual eyes on the finish line. If we don’t, we will be sidetracked. And, we will lose our confidence in the One who died for us. This is why the writer to the Hebrews urges us with these very important words:
Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise; “For yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, My soul has not pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul. Hebrews 10:35-39
We are the last generation before Jesus’ second coming and the Days of the Gentiles are coming to a close. It was the sovereign will of God that you and I live in this age. Let’s finish well! It will prove so very much worth it…
Forever In His Service,