The story behind the hymn “It Is Well” comes from the life of Horatio Gates Spafford. Spafford, the lyricist for the hymn (music by Philip Bliss), had an incredible number of tragedies in his life. He invested heavily in Chicago real estate, only to have most of it destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. His first son died of scarlet fever at age four. In 1873, he sent his wife and four daughters to vacation in England to hear his friend, evangelist Dwight L. Moody, speak. He stayed behind on account of his work. As the ship journeyed across the Atlantic, it was struck by an iron sailing vessel and all four of his daughters were killed. His wife alone survived. As Spafford sailed to England to join with his wife, he penned this hymn as he passed over where his daughters died:
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.
REFRAIN: It is well
with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul. (Refrain)
My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to His cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! (Refrain)
(history and lyrics from Wikipedia)
We sang this hymn at the college service at Grace Community Church this past Sunday. Afterwards, I was talking with a couple of fellow UCLA GOC-ers (GOC is “Grace on Campus,” the college ministry of the church) and one of them said that she was nervous about upcoming midterms, but was ministered to by this song. She said, “Even though I’m stressed and worried about finals, I feel better because I know that everything is going to be OK.” I added, “Even if everything goes wrong, it’s OK, because your soul is secure.” “Exactly!” she said.
This drives to the core of a Christian’s peace. Though everything may go unexpectedly and even terribly wrong, though we may be at fault for those things, we may be at peace knowing that the most pressing issue of all–the state of our soul–is resolved. Paul wrote,
15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
We are no longer enemies of God. We no longer are targets of His wrath. By the atoning work of Christ, we are at peace with God, reconciled to Him. Our relationship with God is restored. Our eternity is no longer a thing to be feared. Our soul is secure! This should give us the most enduring and comforting peace ever possessable.
Where does this peace come from? It comes from our faith in Jesus Christ, that His death on the cross is the act by which He bore the punishment for our sins (Isaiah 53:5-6). It comes to us from God (2 Thess. 3:16) when we trust in Christ.
Then to be at peace gives glory to God. Peace requires a tremendous amount of faith. It requires that we acknowledge our powerlessness and humble ourselves before God, trusting in His grace and mercy over this life and the next. I do not think it was easy for Spafford to be at peace after the death of his four daughters; yet he sang, “It is well.” Why? Because he knew that it is well with his soul. He knew that the most important issue of his life was settled, and that allowed him to continue to praise God for His atoning work. To be at peace means that we understand our proper place in the spiritual hierarchy. We trust in God’s work for our peace, not in ourselves. Drawing our faith and peace wholly from God gives Him complete credit, and this glorifies God. Thus we are commanded, “[L]et the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful” (Col. 3:15).
I am not saying that it is unacceptable to mourn or that we should ignore our studies. Jesus wept (John 11:35), and we are commanded to do everything to God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31). We are told not to squander our gifts from God, but to invest them wisely (Matt. 25:14-30), and this includes our minds in our studies. But when trials come, keep centered on God and Christ on the cross. God gave us grace and peace through that act. Further, as we read in Colossians 1, Christ has control over everything. So do not let our earthly troubles overshadow God’s power and mercy. Give thanks for the cross, and let us strive for peace and God’s glory.