The hymn is a standing favorite and go-to for many in the midst of crisis and, according to 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, it was writer Horatio Spafford’s own agony that equipped him to minister so directly to others in theirs.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
Born in 1828 in Troy, New York, Spafford later settled in Chicago where he met and married his wife, Anna. In the late 1860s, Spafford was a prominent attorney who acquired substantial wealth through real estate investments along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Those investments, however, turned to ash during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, resulting in significant financial loss for the Spaffords.
Two years later, the business and investments were reestablished and Spafford planned for his family a European holiday to coincide with their friend D. L. Moody’s speaking engagement in France. At the last minute, Spafford was detained on business so he sent his wife Anna and their four small daughters ahead to Paris aboard the French luxury liner S.S. Ville du Havre.
Around 2 a.m. on November 22, 1873, the steamship was hit by the iron-hulled Scottish sailing vessel Loch Earn. The Ville du Havre broke in two and sank within 12 minutes. Out of 283 passengers, 57 were saved.
According to reports, Anna Spafford was found unconscious and floating on a piece of debris. She was rescued taken by vessel to Cardiff, Wales, where she cabled Horatio in Chicago with the words, “Saved alone. What shall I do…”
On the voyage to meet Anna in Paris, Horatio was summoned to the Captain’s cabin, where he was told they were passing over the place where the Ville du Havre sank and his daughters drowned. It is said he returned to his cabin and there penned the words we now sing through the fires, floods, and victories of our own lives.
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
Out of unimaginable tragedy came the words that have become one of the most treasured and influential hymns of all time.
Turbulent waves of anguish and grief have been stilled with the peace-producing words of It Is Well With My Soul as the lyrics push the heart to rest in God’s sovereignty though “sorrows like sea billows roll.” Why is it so meaningful?
This song lifts our hearts to God’s flawless character and into confidence that the Judge of all the earth can do only right. The words remind us that we are no longer our own, we’ve been bought with an enormous price and we can trust our Master. God holds our lot and, because of who He is, His grace enables our hearts to sing “whatever my lot Thou hast taught me to say it is well, it is well with my soul.”
“Whatever my lot.” Even if, like Spafford himself, that means being stripped of all we hold dear. To lose everything and still rejoice, think also of the Apostle Paul, going so far to say, “It is well with my soul,” is something that can only be explained by the Gospel.
It doesn’t make sense on the surface, and it is not our natural default setting, but your heart can sing the Gospel in agony and anguish. But how?
How could Spafford write and believe these words?
How can it be well with your soul when you lose three children to shipwreck?
How can it be well with your soul when you lose almost all your financial investments?
How can it be well with your soul when you lose all sense of normalcy in your life?
It can only be well with your soul in the moment of tragedy if your heart is locked on the One who is not only better than your circumstances but has divinely orchestrated them for your highest joy.
Though Satan should buffet,
Though trials should come,
Let this blessed assurance control,
That Christ has regarded
My helpless estate
And hath shed
His own blood for my soul
It can only be well with your soul in the middle of misery when your hope is found in the regard of Jesus Christ the Righteous. It is that “blessed assurance” which reorients our thoughts and focus and places at center the One who bore our sin and shame thereby enabling us to worship and suffer at the same time.
We suffer with an eternal perspective by remembering the Gospel. We bake our souls in the truth that says Christ has defeated every sin and has shed His own blood for our souls.
We suffer with an eternal perspective by looking to the day when all our pains will be dissolved into gain, all our sorrows will be diffused into eternal joy, all our agonies will be disintegrated into glory, and all our death will be decomposed into resurrection.
We suffer with an eternal perspective when we remember Jesus is the Man of Sorrows who once wore our grief like a garment and now sits at the right hand of the throne of God as our High Priest.
We suffer with an eternal perspective by anticipating when the faith shall be sight and acting on God’s promise to one day completely eradicate sin and all the pain that goes with it.
We suffer with an eternal perspective when we trust Him to sustain us to the end (of all our suffering [1 Corinthians 1:8]).
We suffer with an eternal perspective as we breathe in the blissful reality that Jesus took our sin not in part but the whole and nailed it to the cross, enabling us to praise Him with our whole hearts despite the circumstances around us.
We suffer with an eternal perspective by staking our hearts in the truth that He does all things well, therefore, it is well. And that hope stands firm though the winds and waves try to convince us otherwise.
We suffer with an eternal perspective by finding hope not in this world but in the One who reigns over it and has purchased our passage through it to eternal rest.
But, Lord, ’tis for Thee,
For Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel!
Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed rest of my soul!
It is well.