“It Is Well with My Soul” is a traditional, 1800’s hymn that most of us know well. The lyrics were written by Horatio Spafford. The accompanying music was composed by Philip Bliss.
I’ve sung this hymn more times than I can count and have always loved the words and tune. (For a beautiful choral rendition of this hymn, click here.) But it is only recently that I learned about its history, which now makes the hymn all the more meaningful.
Horatio Spafford was a lawyer in Chicago in the 1800s. Before writing the hymn’s lyrics, he suffered many tragedies. First, his 4-year-old son died. Thereafter, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 ruined him financially.
Then, in 1873, while his wife and four daughters were traveling to Europe, the ship carrying them collided with another vessel and sank. His four daughters died. Afterward, his wife sent Spafford a telegram, which said, “Saved alone…”
While sailing to meet his wife after the accident, Spafford wrote the words to “It Is Well with My Soul” while passing the place where his daughters had died. The hymn speaks of Spafford’s complete faith in God, and his proclamation that no matter what has happened to him, because of God, it is well with his soul.
Spafford’s story tells us a lot about how truly faithful people deal with misfortune. Below are some lessons to be learned from his life.
Rain falls on the just and the unjust.
Horatio Spafford was a good person. Yet, like many good people, he suffered unspeakable tragedies. Unfortunately, the tough reality of life is that being a good person does not protect you from difficulty. Decent people can fall victim to natural disasters, illnesses, and accidents. Tragedy randomly can strike any of us at any time.
Moreover, good people can suffer at the hands of others. For instance, a sweet, well-behaved child can still have parents who don’t love him or who treat him cruelly. You can be a wonderful spouse, and nevertheless, have a husband or wife who treats you poorly. Sadly, in life, good behavior does not always produce good results. So, being a good and faithful person isn’t going to provide you with a perfect life. But God doesn’t promise us a perfect life. We only are promised that through every trial, He will be with us.
And if we focus on Him, God will give us the wisdom and strength to get through any calamity.
You are not defined by your misfortune, but by your response.
So, the goal isn’t to have a life that is misfortune-free. That isn’t possible. Rather, the goal is to live a life in which we respond to every difficulty with faith. That is no small task. But that is the example that Horatio Spafford provides us. He faced devastating losses. Yet, his faith in God remained steadfast.
And that is what we remember him for – his faith and courage. So, realize that you are not defined by your misfortunes, but by your response. For example, you are not a person who endured child abuse, but a person who overcame abuse to do great things with your life. You are not someone who got divorced, but someone who survived a bad relationship and came out of it stronger and wiser than before.
We are defined not by what happens to us. We are defined by what we do in response to what happens to us.
We can be at peace, no matter what.
In the Gospel of John 14:27, Jesus tells the disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
That is what the Christian faith offers us. We aren’t offered a perfect life. We are offered peace in the midst of imperfection. Faith in God gives us the ability to be calm no matter what is going on around us. That is because we know that God is always with us, and we are never alone.
The first verse of “It Is Well with My Soul” states this idea so eloquently.
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
In the hymn, Spafford simply is saying that no matter what is going on in his life, it is well with his soul. He had lost his son, and thereafter, he lost his daughters in a shipwreck (two unimaginable tragedies). Yet, because of his faith in God, his soul was at peace.
We too, can have that peace. God offers it to each one of us. No matter what is happening in our lives, our souls can be well if we place our faith and trust in Him.
Time and again, when I have faced difficulties in my own life, my first reaction has been one of fear or deep sorrow.But, after taking a breath and turning to God, He has offered me peace. And He has given me the strength and wisdom to face my challenges. I just first needed to stop and turn my attention to Him.
The reality is that life is hard. Sometimes it is really hard. People can disappoint us or hurt us. We or those we love can become ill. Jobs can be lost. Out of nowhere, we can end up with unforeseen bills. Admittedly, the stress of life breaks many people.
But when we place our faith in God, we can be at peace. That is because no matter what comes our way, if we turn to God, He will give us the strength, wisdom, and peace to get through any calamity. And then we can say with confidence, “It is well, it is well, with my soul.”