/ Barry York

A Pastoral Look at Spafford and His Hymn

Recently I read the haunting article "It is well..." by Janie Cheaney in WORLD magazine about Horatio Spafford. Spafford was a lawyer and dedicated Presbyterian from the Chicago area, who at one time served with famous evangelist D.L. Moody. He is the author of the poem turned familiar hymn "It is Well with My Soul." Spafford, as many readers will recall, lost all four of his young daughters in the tragic shipwreck of the Ville du Havre in the Atlantic Ocean. Days afterward, when traveling by ship past the site of the accident to be reunited with his wife who had survived, Spafford penned the famous words whose first stanza and refrain read as follows.

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, it is well with my soul.
(Refrain) It is well with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

You should read her incredible article for yourself, for Cheaney then tells the story of what happened to Mr. and Mrs. Spafford following this tragedy. Though I had known that he had emotional problems after this awful event, I was not aware of the extent of them. Spafford, wracked by great debt, grief, and guilt, ultimately abandoned the true Christian faith and led others to do likewise. He and his wife ended up leaving orthodoxy, ultimately living in Jerusalem and forming an authoritarian, legalistic cult.

At the end of the article, Cheaney describes the hymn as an example of the Lord's ability to bring forth good out of tragedy or from a crooked person who even may be an unbeliever. That the Lord can do that I do not deny. However, I would like to offer a further pastoral perspective on Spafford and his hymn. It has to do with the main thought of the hymn that has troubled me in the past. Her article stirred this concern up in me again. For Spafford wrote, "Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,/It is well, it is well with my soul." Yet is that truly what God has taught us to say at times of horrific calamity?

As you read the rest of the hymn, Spafford offers several encouragements for why we should hope in Christ despite a great tragedy. The Lord "hath shed His own blood for my soul" so that "my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more". When going even through death itself, the believer can know that Christ "wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul". He will return again one day to take us to heaven, for "the sky, not the grave, is our goal". Certainly these truths offer a measure of comfort to us in affliction. But again I come to what Spafford says in his hymn. Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,/It is well, it is well with my soul. Presumably, he practiced this response at this crucial moment in his life. After all, the morning after he heard of the shipwreck and loss of his daughters, Cheaney tells us his first words were these: "I am glad to trust the Lord when it will cost me something.” Is this the attitude and type of response the Lord expects from his people when suffering acutely?

The Scriptural witness is no. Rather than saying with a brave piety to God and others that everything is well with my soul, the Bible in many places encourages us toward a raw honesty, a baring of our soul pain without any pretense that all is right. Job, the epitome of a suffering saint who also lost all of his (ten) children, said about his soul, "Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul" (Job 7:11), and "I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul" (10:1). The Lord commended him for such faith. Likewise, the psalmist comes in anguish to God and says such things as: "My soul also is greatly troubled" (6:3); "How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?" (13:2); "O God, my soul is in despair, so I remember you" (42:6); "In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted" (77:2).

Yes, the Lord will eventually bring healing and wipe every tear away (Rev 21:4; 22:1-3). We can receive strength and hope even now in our journey despite traveling through valleys and hardships such as testified to in Psalm 23. We can rally our souls, such as the psalmist does in Psalm 42, saying, "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God" (42:11).  But "when sea billows roll", it is not the time to say "it is well with my soul." Was Spafford's faith ultimately shattered and shipwrecked trying to do so? Was it because he tried simplistically to convince himself all was well before God and man when in fact it was not? Did he seek to cloak real pain with a religious platitude?

Some may call this perspective one that is too critical. Perhaps it is. Yet as a pastor, I have witnessed too often a similar response as folks try to cover a bleeding heart with a religious bravado that says "I am fine." For when the floods come, the faith that is really needed before God is the type of heart honesty that we find in the examples above and in these final words.

Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” Ps. 42:7-9
Barry York

Barry York

Sinner by Nature - Saved by Grace. Husband of Miriam - Grateful for Privilege. Father of Six - Blessed by God. President of RPTS - Serve with Thankfulness. Author - Hitting the Marks.

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