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.