I think I was in elementary school when I was first introduced to the heartbreaking story behind the lyrics. This is the account: A wealthy businessman named Haratio Spafford, planned a trip to Europe with his family (a wife and 4 daughters). When Haratio got tied up with business, he sent his family ahead of him, with plans to meet them there. During their voyage, his family's ship sank, killing all four of his daughters. After receiving the terrible news, Haratio set sail to meet his wife in Europe. As he crossed over the exact patch of sea where his daughters were said to have drowned, he penned the word to what we know as the hymn, "It is well with my soul".
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, (it is well),
With my soul, (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 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!
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.
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!
As a kid, I marveled at the strength and the unwavering faith of this man. He was my spiritual hero! Even after his children were taken from him, he trusted and honored God. When I was younger I dreamed that someday I too would be a spiritual pillar of strength. I had romantic visions of overcoming unimaginable obstacles and staring down evil without flinching. I imagined that I'd grow up to be bold and fearless. But when I dreamed those romantic dreams, I had no understanding of true pain and I could never have been able to imagine the suffering or loss that people like Haratio Spafford, Corrie ten Boom or Dietrich Bonhoeffer endured. All I knew was that I wanted to be as noble and full of faith as they were.
I’m not a little girl anymore with romantic notions of heroism. I’m grown and I’m a mom and a wife and Haratio Spafford's story kills me! I can’t hardly read or sing the lyrics of “It is well with my soul”, without losing it a little. The thought of tragedy touching my family…my husband…my babies; it’s nearly more than I can bear.
Not long ago my family endured a bit of trauma. Nearly in unison to the messiness of my life, a new Bethel song was released. It was an updated version of my old favorite, titled, "It is well". This version left me with a conundrum. The song has been quite revamped. It's entirely beautiful and the bulk of it was strengthening and brought me peace, but there's this one line...so similar to the original, but not exactly. The line says, " It is well with me". Even though only one single word had been adjusted, hearing it left me with an entirely different feeling from hearing "it is well with my soul". It left me with an angry feeling. And each time I hear the words, "It is well with me" sung, a little indignant voice inside of me answers, "It is NOT well with me! And it's never going to be well with me!"
I hear the word "well" all day long. When I'm greeted and when I greet others, the customary response is, "I'm well". Whether we're telling the truth or not, the inference is clear: things are good and I'm good. I couldn't help but impose my understanding of the cheery, casual and broadly used word "well", into the line "It is well with me". The phrase also felt a bit familiar in another context. I've heard it so many times before...in church; in that building where we're supposed to be honest, real and vulnerable and not just socially polite. How many times have I asked a church friend (or maybe even a friend has asked me), "How are you?", only to be presented with or to present a heartbreaking answer, followed up with, "but it's all good...I'm good". It's like we feel this "need" to stick up for God, as if our hardship reduces or devalues him, or maybe it's the fear of possible rejection or judgement that swallows up the fullness of our confession. We minimize the hardship of our lives and opt out of publicly acknowledging that we feel we're about to break in two.
A few Sunday's ago, as I sat in church listening to the worship team sing these words, and as anger rose inside me, I decided to pray. I wanted to understand how God saw my pain. What does, "It is well with me", mean?? Is the song's intention to serenaded and lull me into a sort of hypnosis where I emotionally detach from my pain and declare that it's OK? Does it mean that God wants me to feel OK with it; to deny it or come to terms with it?
Then I heard the part of the song that sings, "So let go, my soul and trust in him. The waves and wind still know his name", and my anger lifted like a storm cloud clearing, and a peace filled me. I was suddenly reminded that the same Jesus who silenced the storm on the sea can also calm the storm in my heart. With his love and mercy and compassion; he stills my storm. I still grieve, but in the midst of my grief, he's there. He doesn't leave me, turn away from me or request that I feel less than I do. He's not intimidated by me.
I remember the day, years ago, when someone shared Psalm 56:8 with me: "You number my wanderings; put my tears in a bottle..." It profoundly shifted my perception of God and how I imagined that he cared for me. No longer could I believe him to be emotionally detached and judgmental. He suddenly became attentive, personal and empathetic. From there I found Psalm 34:18, "The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit." and Psalm 147:3, "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds." I know now that he wants to carry my burdens, and he does all of this because he cares for me (1 Peter 5:7).
When I can see and feel and know, how deeply God; the God of the whole universe, cares for me I can say, "it is well with my soul". I'm only able to say those words because I know that I have a HUGE God who fights for me and never leaves me and constantly loves me. I still really struggle with merely saying the words "it is well with me". "It" (the unjust thing, the trauma) is just NOT well with me. But what's really comforting to know is that it's also NOT well with God. He's not going to act like it's OK, or insist that I do either. He's going to mourn with me and amaze me by making beauty where I once only saw ashes (Isaiah 61:3).