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.
The author of this hymn, Horatio Spafford, had become all too familiar with tragedy by the time he composed these words in 1873. Two years earlier had been a year of great loss both personally and financially for the Spafford family. Their two-year-old son died of pneumonia, and in October of that same year, the Great Chicago Fire put them on the brink of financial ruin.
In the fall of 1873, Horatio, his wife Anna, and their four daughters planned to make their way to Europe to travel with the evangelist D.L. Moody. Horatio was delayed by business at the last minute, and the rest of his family continued on their journey. About halfway through the voyage, their ship, the Ville du Havre, collided with another vessel in the North Atlantic early in the morning of November 22. The Ville du Havre sank in twelve minutes, and 226 of the 331 passengers and crew aboard the ship died in the wreck. Anna Spafford survived, but their four daughters perished.
As soon as Horatio received word of this tragedy, he took passage on the next boat he could board to join his grieving wife. Reportedly, it was on this journey that he wrote the words that would become the beloved hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul.”
How could one in the midst of such tragedy write this testament to faith in the Lord? The Apostle Paul recounts, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-13). This secret of contentment—this secret of peace in all circumstances—Paul tells us begins with looking to the God who strengthens his people.
How can we trust God in the midst of life’s hardest trials? How can we trust him when everything seems to be going wrong?
We strengthen our faith in the Lord during hardships by remembering his past mercies, by recalling that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). We must remind ourselves of his great love for us: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6-8). While we were still living in rebellion against God and wanting nothing to do with him, God sent his Son to die in order that sinners like us could be reconciled to him.
We remember the Lord’s past mercies to us in Christ, and we also need to remember his faithfulness to us throughout our lives. Remember with thanksgiving all that God has done for you. Recount his goodness and mercies to you in your life. Recall his grace in providing for you, and thank him for his mercies.
Not only do we remember to strengthen our faith but we also look forward. We look with hope to our final redemption when God will resurrect us to live forever in both body and soul in his presence. As Christ was raised from the dead, so too will his people join him in the New Creation in their resurrection bodies.
Christ does not promise to protect us from all hardships and tragedies in this life. He promises neither health nor prosperity for those who trust in him. Rather he warns us, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:18-20).
Christ does not promise protection from pain in this life, but we can have peace in the midst of pain, knowing that he does promise that we will be raised with him into everlasting life.
Listen: Hear a rendition of “It Is Well with My Soul.”
More Info: For more on Horatio Spafford and the story behind this hymn, see Forrest M. McCann’s Hymns and History: An Annotated Survey of Sources (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 1997).