“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.’ “
–Words by Horatio Spafford; Tune, “Ville du Havre,” by Philip Bliss
I consider “It Is Well” my favorite hymn because it resonates so powerfully in my life. Something solid and true about the hymn appealed to me even before I learned the story of its writing.
Horatio Spafford, a Presbyterian elder from Chicago and friend of evangelist, Dwight Moody, had a successful and lucrative law practice. Spafford and his family experienced an epic series of tragedies, starting with the death of a son, followed by tremendous loss of property in the great Chicago fire of 1871.
Desiring rest for his family and planning to participate in Moody’s evangelical efforts in Europe, Spafford booked Atlantic passage on the S.S. Ville du Havre. Due to a last-minute business commitment, he was unable to leave with his family, and sent his wife and four daughters on ahead, planning to join them later.
In a chilling development, the ship sank after being struck by another vessel, and all four of Spafford’s daughters died. When his wife reached Wales, Mrs. Spafford wired her husband the following message: “Saved alone.”
It is said that the hymn’s words came to Spafford as the ship upon which he was sailing passed over the spot in the sea where his daughters were lost.
Though no tragedy as heart-rending as Spafford’s has befallen me or my family, life has seen some depths and darkness. Some of these lows have been due to my own inner struggles and poor choices. At times, I’ve sought to captain my own ship, setting a wayward course from God’s will, and winding up adrift. Alone in a sea of sinking hopes, as the psalmist wrote, “out of the depths” I cried to the Lord. He saved me and my family through his great mercy, compassion and love.
Philosopher Joseph Campbell said, “where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” Returning to the place of my sinking, now with Christ as captain, I receive faith’s treasure by the grace of a God whose suffering love brings salvation and new life to his children drifting bereft on a sin-stained sea.
I, too, must wire, “Saved alone.” But here the loss is that of the self at enmity towards God – the saved life arising is Christ, who lives in me. Now I pray the words of Paul, the apostle: “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
“It is Well” because you and I are safe aboard God’s vessel, never to be separated from his Love and direction.
May it be so for all of us, dear Lord. Amen.