It Is Well
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!
It is well with my soul;
It is well, it is well with my soul!
—Horatio Spafford (1876)
He Is Enough
When Paul spoke of being hard-pressed on every side, he wasn’t speaking lightly. He wasn’t saying, Whew, things were a little tough for a while. He was describing pain that was so oppressive that he “despaired of life itself ” (2 Cor. 1:8). How in the same sentence can Paul be pressed in like that, yet not be crushed? Nancy Severns knows the answer. She has been bedridden for five years with pain from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a debilitating disorder that affects her entire body, inside and out—her ribs even slip out of place! When all feels torturous, Nancy slowly inhales and calmly acknowledges the pain. She then enters it much like the three Hebrews entering Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. There in the middle of hellish, white-hot agony, she finds the Son of God. And she feels his protective embrace.
I do the same thing. When the fangs of pain sink into my hips and lower back, it’s a signal to begin deep breathing. I then walk into the pain and hold it near me, even have a conversation with it. I don’t fret and say, This is killing me, or, I can’t stand this, or Oh, no, not again! Words like that are fraught with anxiety, and we all know that fear only exacerbates the problem. Instead, like Nancy, I serenely acknowledge the pain and allow it to press me in on all sides, and then I take one more step of faith: I ask my Savior to not let it crush me, but to meet me in it. He always does.
This is a hard discipline learned over time. Brad Stulberg, an analyst and performance coach, explains:
Pain can be a bit of a catch-22: often the more you try to wish it away, the worse it becomes. . . . Pain is pain, and it’s bad enough. Suffering—which features distress and misery layered on top—occurs only when you try to fight that pain. . . . When you’re in pain, be it physical or emotional, you need not make it worse by resisting it. It’s better to accept the pain and commit to accomplishing your goals, and often that means carrying the pain with you.1
It takes discipline to carry pain with you while not letting it asphyxiate you. Horatio Spafford, the composer of “It Is Well with My Soul,” knew how to carry his pain well. A year after he lost his son to scarlet fever, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed all his business holdings. Spafford then decided to take his family to England, sending his wife and four daughters ahead on the SS Ville du Havre. While crossing the ocean, the ship sank after colliding with another vessel. His four daughters perished. Spafford’s wife survived and sent him a telegram: “Saved alone.” Shortly afterward, as he sailed to meet his grieving wife, he wrote “It Is Well with My Soul” as his ship passed the place where his daughters had died.2
All that matters is knowing Jesus is walking in the fiery furnace with you.
How was it that a tidal wave of grief did not sweep Horatio Spafford over the rail and into the dark waters that swallowed his daughters? How is it that Nancy Severns lies in bed, stiff with pain for years, yet finds peace? Even I look in the mirror and wonder, How is it I keep smiling after so many years of quadriplegia?
You could experience a baker’s dozen of serious issues layered one on top of another. Financial pressures. Health pressures. Relationship pressures. Spiritual warfare pressures. The pressure of unthinkable grief or cruel pain. It will not crush you if you believe Christ is in it. All that matters is knowing Jesus is walking in the fiery furnace with you. The pain may feel white-hot, but be encouraged—his “peace like a river” is able to quench every anxiety and fear. When that happens, you will know—really know—how to sing “It is Well with My Soul.” You will know how to be in turmoil well. How to be downcast well. How to suffer well. How to be in an unhappy place very well.3
- Brad Stulberg, “How to Make Friends with Pain,” Outside magazine, April 2, 2018, https://www.outsideonline.com/.
- David Depp, “It Is Well with My Soul: Historical Origins of the Hymn and the Tune,” October 27, 2015, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/. See also “Horatio Gates Spafford: The Story behind the Hymn ‘It Is Well with My Soul,” Bethel Church Ripon, December 12, 2018, https://www .bethelripon.com/.
- The concept in these last four sentences is not original to me. “To suffer well” is a phrase I’ve often heard John Piper use, and I extrapolated my reflections from his words.
This article is adapted from Songs of Suffering: 25 Hymns and Devotions for Weary Souls
by Joni Eareckson Tada.
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