The year was 1873. Horatio Spafford put his wife, Anna, and his four daughters (11 year-old Annie, 9 year-old Maggie, 7 year-old Bessie, and almost 2 year-old Tanetta) on a ship headed to France. His wife’s health had begun to fail, and he thought a sabbatical in Europe would do them all some good. You see, two years earlier, Horatio and his family had suffered significant financial loss in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire. His office and most everything in it had burned to the ground, but there was comfort in the fact that he, his wife, and his four daughters had survived. Their worldly wealth had diminished, but they had escaped with what mattered most. Horatio had some business to attend to and couldn’t make the trip with his family. His plan was to stay until a land sale was completed and then join his family in France. As it happened, the man who was to buy his land suffered a massive heart attack and died before the transaction could be completed. So, disappointed, but looking forward to his trip, Horatio waited for news of his family’s safe arrival in France. News did not come as quickly as it should have, and then finally, he received a cable message from his wife. It was sent from Wales and simply contained two words. “Saved alone.” The ship that had carried the precious cargo of his wife and daughters, the Ville du Havre, had sunk in the Atlantic Ocean, and only his wife had survived.
Grief-stricken, Horatio sent a cable message to his wife and told her to continue on to France where friends awaited who could provide care and comfort. He then boarded a ship himself and headed for France. At a certain point during this journey, the captain of the ship called Horatio into his cabin to tell him that according to his calculations, they were at about the same location where the Ville du Havre had sunk. Horatio thanked the captain and made his way to the bow of the ship where he stood alone. In that moment, he took from his pocket some paper and a pencil. These are the words he wrote –
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.”
Tho’ Satan should buffet, tho’ trials should come Let this blest assurance control, That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate, And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin–oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin–not in part, but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more; Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh, my soul!
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.”
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live If Jordan above me shall roll, No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, Thou shalt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
Can you even imagine? I know I can’t. I’ve had some pretty bad days, but I haven’t known grief like that. Losing all four beautiful children at one time in such a tragic way seems like more than a person could bear. Yet, in the middle of the deepest grief, at the very moment he was confronted with tremendous loss and pain and in the very location of tragedy, Horatio Spafford’s response was one of contentment. “It is well with my soul.”
Oh, how this challenges my heart, and oh, how I admire this declaration of faith in the midst of unimaginable heartache!
In pondering this precious hymn, I am struck by many of the lyrics, but one line in particular provides a much needed insight. “Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.'”
Contentment isn’t a natural response. It is something we must learn. How can we learn contentment if all of life is smooth sailing? If we never had the opportunity to be discontented, we could never be taught by God how to be content. Here’s what the Apostle Paul had to say about this –
“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for 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.” Philippians 4:11-13 (ESV)
“How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:11-13 (NLT)
Thou hast taught me. I have learned. The similarities are striking, aren’t they? Both men who knew unbelievable hardships became men who learned contentment. I believe this is an accurate view of faith. There is a circulating misconception that claims faith in Christ is an exemption from hardship, trial, sickness, grief, and pain. Our faith in Christ is not an exemption. Among all the wonderful promises of Jesus is –
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 (ESV)
As long as we live in this fallen world, Jesus promises that we will have tribulation (affliction, trouble, anguish). It’s how we learn to be content. As I heard in a recent sermon, it’s not an elective course in the school of faith, it’s required.
Our faith is not an exemption, it is an unshakable belief that no matter what happens in this life, God is enough. He is more than enough. And He is teaching us that true contentment doesn’t come from having everything we want or from what this life can offer. True contentment is the abiding truth that Jesus has overcome the world. One day our faith will be made sight, and we will spend eternity celebrating the One who is more than enough.
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” II Corinthians 4:16-18 (ESV)
“That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them all and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” II Corinthians 4:16-18 (NLT)
Those are some of my very favorite verses. Faith will be sight, and our hope is unshakable in Christ.
I don’t know what you may be going through. If you’re like me, maybe you’re still in the required course of hardship and tribulation. I’m still learning to be content. I have made progress, but I’m still enrolled. How thankful I am for great examples of contentment and faith like Horatio Spafford! I’m also so thankful that God never wastes our trials and hardships. When I think of the thousands upon thousands of people who have found comfort and encouragement in the words of Horatio’s well-known hymn, I smile. It’s just like God to turn tragedy into triumph and ashes into beauty.
Dear Father, I pray for my friends who are reading this blog post today and who are going through very difficult circumstances. I’m asking that You would use these words to encourage them and to help them to fix their gaze on things that cannot be seen. Thank You that You are enough and that You are the source of true contentment. Teach us to be content. Teach us to say, “It is well with my soul.” Let our faith in You inspire others to see that You are more than enough for us. I pray that You will continue to turn our tragedies into triumph and our ashes into beauty as we hold onto You in faith, believing that You are working all things together for our good. Amen.
*Information about Horatio G. Spafford taken from the book Well With My Soul by Rachael Phillips (2003 by Barbour Publishing, Inc.) pp. 8-34.