This past weekend, our pastor set aside his planned sermon to speak a word personally and directly to the congregation. A much-loved member of the congregation, who for years had led the prayer ministry, had lost her battle with cancer. Pastor Aaron spoke in tribute to her faithfulness even during the worst of her illness, asking the congregation to lay their own concerns humbly before God.
At one point, we sang what has long been one of my favorite hymns, It is Well With My Soul:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
The hymn was penned by Horatio Spafford, a man who knew sorrow well. He and his wife Anna lost their only son to scarlet fever in 1870. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 wiped out most of his real estate investment. In 1873, the family had planned a vacation in England, where he could see his friend Dwight L. Moody.
Delayed by business, Spafford sent his family ahead. Their steamship was struck by another vessel. Anna survived, but all four of their remaining children, daughters from two to eleven years of age, died in the accident.
When sorrows like sea billows roll: as Spafford sailed to England to reunite with Anna, his ship passed over the spot where his daughters died. The hymn was written on that voyage.
Can we imagine that Spafford could look out at that vast expanse of water, imagine his precious ones floundering for their lives, and claim that it was truly well with his soul? Perhaps: God may have blessed Spafford with a supernatural calm. More likely, though, without taking away his grief and pain, without putting an end to the groaning of his spirit (Rom 8:22-24), God granted Spafford the faith to see through his tears.
Sometimes, we want what we sing and pray to reflect what we truly feel. We read the Psalms, looking for the ones that express the emotions we already have. But as an act of worship, praying or singing or reciting a psalm can also be aspirational. Our words don’t merely give voice to our emotions, but shape them, conform them to the reality the words express, a reality that is only known through faith and hope.
That hope looks forward into a promised future:
But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
O trump of the angel! O voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!
That’s why Spafford’s hymn ends thus:
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,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
My faith is not yet sight, he seems to say. I see, Lord, but only dimly; I believe, Lord, but help my unbelief. I know the day will come when you will return to put all things right, even the sorrows of my heart. It is with hope, therefore, whatever there may be of it, that I reach into that future, that I draw the comfort of that future into the present. And it is in faith that I declare now, haltingly, even in the face of tragedy and death, “It is well with my soul.”
How is it with your soul? It may not feel well, not completely. But there is no shame in using what faith we have to declare it to be well, because we know ourselves somehow to be in the hands of One who will indeed return to make all things well.