A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

It Is Well With My Soul

If you were to spend 30 seconds talking to me about things I love, without a doubt you’d hear about Jesus, my son, and music. If you persisted for another 2 minutes you’d hear about “It Is Well With My Soul”, my absolute favorite song in any genre. It has an unfortunate association with funerals which always disappoints me because, despite its legacy, it is so much more than a song for the sorrowful. In fact, I’ve always considered it to be a song of great joy!

For those unaware, it has a significant background. The quick version is that it was written originally as a poem by Horatio Spafford in one of the darkest moments of his life. He’d lost his finances in a fire and a son to sickeness. Soon after he lost his remaining children when his family (without him) was on a ship that went down and his wife was saved alone. He penned this hymn when he was on a second ship that passed the believed location where his children perished. I’m presenting here his original poem rather than the changed lyrics we usually sing (because I think it’s good to see his honest words, but mostly because I much prefer the line “thou has to me to know” over “thou has taught me to say”):

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to know,
It is well, it is well, with my 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.

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!

And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
– a Song in the night, O my soul!

I think what many people miss is that this was written by a pained man. It’s easy to think because of the joy in this song that he somehow was above all of it, having reached some altered state of faith where he felt nothing but bliss. It simply isn’t true. While he did have peace as he wrote this song, he acknowledges that “sorrows like sea billows roll”– the “wellness” of his soul is despite the pain, not instead of it.

And if you read the rest of the story no one ever tells, clearly he and his wife were affected for their remaining days. They had more children and some were again lost to sickness. They were pushed out of their church because the tragedies that befell them convinced other believers they were in sin. They ended up trying to serve God in Jerusalem by forming a community that did much good, but also had some strange practices contrary to the teachings of scripture. I think they were doing their best to serve God, but I also think they never fully recovered from their pain of so much tragedy. I speculate that “peace like a river” must have been more of a memory than normal feeling for Spafford; his days appear to have been marred with “sorrows [that] like sea billows roll.”

So does the fact that Spafford was affected by this pain and did not finish his life in blissful sinlessness mar the wonderful lyrics above? I don’t think so. I think it makes them real, and it heightens that what he was writing about in this song was not surface level happiness, but deep in the soul, joy. Joy that you may not even be able to “say”, but that in your heart of hearts you KNOW. I know that peace. Every step of the way it has been well with my soul, even when all was ill in the world and I was fighting for my next breath. Even when my service to God wasn’t all it should have been. My sin is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more. That is my hope, whatever my lot right now, and what a hope it is!

This is a song we can all sing, and for every believer it is true. We may be shattered and hurt. We may not be able to see beyond the end of the day. Pieces of us may be broken that won’t be healed in this life. But above all of that, it is well with our souls. A song in the night indeed.

26 Comments

  1. joepote01

    That song is one of my favorites, too, Jeff. Thanks for sharing it here!

  2. MeganC

    Jeff — Beautiful post. This is one of my favorites, as well (as you know!). I did have it sung at my parents’ funeral but it wasn’t a sad thing, somehow. It really WAS “well with my soul”. There was a peace that passed all understanding that I cannot describe to this day. It was like the Holy Spirit came in and held my very heart during that time in my life. Anyway, love your writing. :)

  3. Bethany

    This song and “be thou my vision” are tied for first place on my list of favorite songs :) Thank you for the post. I needed the reminder today. All really is well with my soul.

  4. Just Me

    I also really love this song. I played piano a lot in high school and my family got so sick of this song, because I played it almost every day. Even still, when I sit down at the piano, I play this either first or second. Thank you for reminding me of the history. I heard it years ago and had forgotten. And I didn’t know about that change in wording in the first verse.

    • MeganC

      Just Me . . . I did the same thing. :) I had the score and would play and sing all the songs (even the man voices. ha!).

  5. Katy

    “Pieces of us may be broken that won’t be healed in this life.”

    THIS.
    I was thinking today of how Frodo was never totally healed at the end of his journey. There were parts of him that were never going to be fixed in that life. Being rescued by Jesus doesn’t mean that your life ends up a fairy tale. I need to meditate on what this kind of peace really feels like.

    • As a teenager, I really didn’t like that Frodo ended up broken for the journey. As an adult I appreciate it so much more. Real evil often results in real loss, and this brokenness can testify to just how much victory is worth.

      I wrote at least part of this because I read a skeptic who claimed that this song was bogus due to the evidence of continued pain in Spafford’s life. But that’s just not how I see it. Spafford’s hope was not that everything was happy in his life, but that with the condition of his soul all was well. He was looking forward and heavenward, not inward.

  6. Anonymous

    I sang this song at the dedication of a Church many years ago. I sang the Sandi Patti version of it. I sang that song with every fiber of my being – I love and trust God. Little did I know, that within 3 weeks of singing that song, I would be told by the doctors, that my child was going to die; and die she did, about 4 months later. That song kept ringing through my ears those next months and into the coming years. I still remember it as if it were yesterday. I tell my children that it carried me through at times, because it was as if I sang my faith that day, as well as the road that I would follow, but at the time I had absolutely no idea.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Thank you for sharing this story. Music is a powerful encouragement to me and often when it’s difficult to do anything else, God uses songs like this one to remind me of important truths when I’m struggling.

    • Thank you Anon, for sharing that story with us. When I sing the hymn, I’ll remember your lost child, and the way God carried you through all that grief.
      It’s little anecdotes like this that bind us together even more affectionately in God’s family.

  7. Kay

    I also love this song! Thank you for sharing the story.

  8. “Pieces of us may be broken that won’t be healed in this life,” love it. Thanks for sharing.
    Many blessings,
    Wanda S.

  9. Pippa

    I really appreciate this post and the comments. Your comment, Anonymous, was especially interesting to me because I remember the Lord giving me this song, actually along with a film about the Spafford’s lives, about a week before my catastrophic loss. He had told me years before that “This is your blessed time” one day when I was holding all my children. I think that one thing we can learn from this and unfortunately most of us know by experience, is that having pain and grief in one’s life does does not, as many church goers seem to believe, mean that one has gone astray. Most notably, that would mean that Jesus, on the cross, was completely off-course. This is another instance where the presbyterian church shunned even a founding elder simply because of the pain in his life. My perception is that, more than being shunned for divorce, I have been shunned for the pain in my life. I agree, JeffS, “Pieces of us may be broken that won’t be healed in this life. But above all of that, it is well with our souls.” (Yep, Bethany, #1 along with “Be Thou My Vision.”)

    • Jeff S

      “My perception is that, more than being shunned for divorce, I have been shunned for the pain in my life.”

      Yes- I think this is a huge point. I think people just don’t want to deal with it when it gets painful. They would prefer blogs like this one go away and those of us who have had this pain not cause trouble. It breaks into the idyllic Christian life of harps and clouds and makes everything messy.

      I think part of the problem with today’s church is that it has gotten ok with making sacrifices of those who are in pain or fall though the theological cracks. They’d prefer to shut the Spafford’s of the world out, but the problem is this also shuts out Jesus (one of his titles was “Man of Sorrows”).

      I think yours is a very insightful observation. Churches want us to have enough pain that there is something to pray about and “solve”, but not so much that it causes real problems. They want us to have marital issues that a strong pot of coffee and an evening of prayer can solve, but not ones that require the church to stand up in opposition to treachery. Oh how we’ve blunted the effects of the church by being this way. It is so sad. Paul was about sticking his kneck out and doing good no matter how much it disrupted his life. The church of today mostly can’t be bothered.

      • I cannot agree more Jeff S, and the way you’ve worded this is brilliant.
        Jesus said blessed are those who mourn but the ‘c’hurch is often uncomfortable with mourning, esp when it’s connected to undignified and ‘shameful’ things.

      • Barnabasintraining

        You know what’s bizarre about this is on the one hand you have this thorough rejection of suffering in casting out the sufferers because they suffer, but on the other hand you have people like DeMoss and Mother Theresa who practically idolize suffering, as we were saying on the other thread about DeMoss’ comments.

      • Anonymous

        You are right, BIT! If DeMoss had lost a child or a spouse or had a catastrophic event in her life like Pippa, or was being abused in a marriage, you can darn well bet, that it would be an entirely different story, just as it would have been if the leaders in my “c”hurch were the ones in an abusive marriage!

        When my child died, I was told that I had let the devil in “somehow” and that he had stolen her. Can you even imagine telling someone who has lost their child, that it is their fault?!? It seems that people have to have an answer (a/k/a Job’s friends), so they just grasp at anything, without thinking how that will affect the person it has all happened to!

      • MeganC

        Anon — I find that repulsive (understatement). How utterly awful for someone to say that to you. Goodness. What is WRONG with people??

      • “When my child died, I was told that I had let the devil in “somehow” and that he had stolen her.”

        Wow, that is so gross. I’m so sorry you had to hear that.

        I will say, the part about Spafford being pushed out of his church is not generally part of the story that is told. It usually ends with him writing the poem. That’s why I wanted to tell the full story. We can have this man write arguably one of the most powerful songs of devotion to God ever written, and he’s pushed out of church for his affliction.

        Christians are great at shooting their wounded.

      • Barnabasintraining

        Anonymous,

        I can’t wrap my mind around what they said to you. It seems mentally unbalanced to say the least. It was cruel, painful, and almost superstitious.

        As Megan said, what is WRONG with people?

      • Wendell G

        The church can be quite an enigma can’t it? On the one hand, we sing about bringing in the lost and preach about helping the down trodden, yet when helping them becomes work, we abandon them. We want solutions like TV dramas. Problem in the first 30 minutes. Climax in the middle 15 and resolution in the last 15. If it doesn’t happen that way, move on to a different episode!

        One of the worst movements to be in when you have trouble in your life is the Word of Faith movement. I had to do some papers years ago about their theology and encountered many people who were into that movement. ANY illness, ANY pain, ANY hardship was attributed to either lack of faith, or sin in one’s life! It was sickening, especially how verses were taken out of context and aberrant theologies created to prove their point!

        This song, and other’s like it goes so much against that theology and actual practice in so many churches today. Whatever happened to weeping with those who weep?

        To the song in particular, when my Mom died a few years ago, that was one of the two songs that I sang to myself a lot. The other was I Will Rise by Chris Tomlin! Thanks for sharing it Jeff!

      • Yes, “I Will Rise” is another amazing song that looks forward with such hope. It is closely linked in theme (and even contains the words “It is well”). When I was a worship leaders I led this song regularly because it is so powerful. I cannot quote it here due to copy-write issues, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a song of hope amidst the darkness.

      • “When my child died, I was told that I had let the devil in “somehow” and that he had stolen her.”

        That is appalling!
        My grandmother lost her first child to TB when he was a toddler. The women from the Plymouth Brethen church to which she and her husband belonged came round to visit her and told her “Your son died because you don’t really believe.”
        My grandma was a Scottish lass who had joined the PB church when she married, because my grandfather had been brought up as PB. It was a very strict cult-like denomination, somewhat like the Exclusive Brethren of today.
        When she told her husband what the women had said to her, he said “We are never going back to church again.” And they never did. My mother and uncle, their two children born later, were raised in a secular home because of that vile thing those women said.

        Any my mother probably had a healthier upbringing in that secular home than she would have if her family had still been Plymouth Brethren.

      • Barnabasintraining

        The women from the Plymouth Brethen church to which she and her husband belonged came round to visit her and told her “Your son died because you don’t really believe.”

        It was a very strict cult-like denomination, somewhat like the Exclusive Brethren of today.

        I was just going to ask if it was Exclusive Brethren. I would think the Plymouth Brethren should know better than this. But then some of them have had some rather “creative” ideas in the past.

      • This was Plymouth Brethren in Australia during or just after WWI.

        So that may have had a fairly different coloration than the PBs in the US nowadays….

  10. One thing I love about this song is that the harmonies (male-female / or alto-soprano) seem to me like the way God speaks to us, reassuring us while we are going through grief. Our heart cries “I am in grief, but it is well with my soul” and God responds “Yes, it is well with thy soul” – holding us gently and tenderly in the enfolding of His love even while we are going through the deepest furrows of pain.

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