Many are familiar with Horatio Spafford’s life and the story behind his wonderful hymn “It is Well with My Soul” (for a brief history see here). The song was written in response to the news that his four daughters had drown on their way to England. I cannot imagine penning the words, “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” after hearing that my four daughters had drowned in the Atlantic. It is particularly difficult to think about such a response from a man who was planning to be on that ship with his family. Looking at Spafford’s situation as a father, I think that the thought that I should have been there and might have been able to save them would have plagued me. I do not know if I would have ever been content with my decision to send them ahead and stay behind; but, that is precisely the sentiment of the song, contentment. Mr. Spafford’s lyrics betray a true Christian contentment with the events, which, I believe, is the reason his song speaks to the depths of our hearts and lives. That is not to say that Mr. Spafford did not grieve his children, I am sure he did; but, the song shows that his grief was not weighed down by more negative emotions like regret, hatred, shame, or bitterness.
Modern society is not very keen on contentment. We are told to want more toys, have bigger adventures, want more money, live more lavishly, and upgrade to the latest greatest model. It might seem completely unfair to compare a man’s grief over his daughters to such grossly material claims, and to some extent it is; but, had Horatio Spafford bought into such claims I doubt he would have given us such a wonderful song. How would someone be able to say, “it is well with my soul” after catastrophic loss if that person complains not having the latest tablet. If I am envious or bitter because of what another has or does I will not be content if what I have is taken away.
When I talk of contentment I do not mean some Stoic notion of resignation to life and even keeled emotions. This seems to be what many think of when they hear contentment, they think of someone who does not get too high or too low, someone who quietly takes everything in resigned to life being the way it is. But this is not Christian contentment; the stoic is resigned to the fact life is the way it is, the Christian is content in the fact God is and unchangeably is.
Contentedness is not happiness either; the Christian content in life is not necessarily happy in the situation. Contentedness involves peace and calm rather than laughter and mirth. Being content in a situation does not mean one is foolishly cheerful; again if one is focused on the God who is, one may be sad, mournful, grieved, or hurt and still be content.
Horatio Spafford does not play down the horrific circumstances he went through, but, he reorients them in light of God’s work in his life, and within the world.
“Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, let this blest assurance control, that Christ has 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, O my soul!”
These words point to the fact that God was with him at his lowest, and lifted him up; why not trust God into the future. Not only has God lifted him from the lowest depths, but, God even suffered as part of the process, God has walked that lonesome valley, and is willing to walk through it with us. God the creator is there with him; how can he not be content. This is the same position as Paul was in when he wrote the book of Philippians. Paul sends this book from prison, yet, it is one of the most uplifting and hopeful books in the New Testament. Paul is in dire circumstances yet he is filled with love and concern for the small community in Philippi. Near the end of the letter we are given a reason for Paul’s mindset, “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Philippians 4:11 NIV).
The stoic cannot see grief or pleasure, pain or laughter, sorrow or jubilation because these are all circumstances to be shunned. To let in the good is to let in the bad, and since one cannot risk the outcome of the negative one cannot allow the positive. For the Christian seeking contentment, life begins and ends with God, God’s mercy, God’s work, God’s love. If this is true then those glorious sunrises and sunsets, which the stoic cannot enjoy, become even more glorious. The little generosities of others, become grander presents, the love of others becomes dearer, all because it is all seen in the light of God’s ultimate love and compassion. The world is not dismissed, grief is not passed over; rather, everything is experienced in a new and deeper way.
Spafford reflects Paul’s focus on Christ in two verses not often included in hymnals:
“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 wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
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 hope, blessed rest of my soul!”
The person content in God, focuses on interacting with God, and sees all circumstances of life through the work of God. Thus this person understands that God is working in history to bring about a final restoration of creation, a true embodiment of God’s desires on earth. This person can sing, “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.” This person understands that God is suffering through the trials of creation and will yet bring about the Grand Design. This person will be so caught up in God so as to sing:
“It is well, with my soul, it is well, with my soul, it is well, it is well, with my soul.”