It Is Well With My Soul

Series: Preacher: Date: August 2, 2009 Scripture Reference: Psalm 34:15, 17-19, 22

15 – The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and His ears are attentive to their cry;

17 – The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them; He delivers them from all their troubles.

18 – The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

19 – A righteous man may have many troubles, but the LORD delivers him from them all;

22 – The Lord redeems His servants; no one will be condemned who takes refuge in Him.

This is a picture of Horatio G. Spafford. He was a hard-working, successful attorney who lived in Chicago in the latter part of the 19th century. I think if we had lived then and known him—well, I think Spafford would have been someone whom we all loved and admired—for many reasons.

  • First off, he was a devoted husband and father—a true family man.
  • Plus he was a growing Christian—not only active in his church but also a close friend and avid supporter of the evangelistic ministry of the great Dwight L. Moody.
  • Spafford was someone who lived out his faith in that he not only knew the Bible well—he also obeyed its teachings…by using his talents to help people less fortunate…

…and by working with people like Moody to do his part to fulfill the Great Commission.

  • Another thing—Spafford had been very involved in the abolitionist movement prior to the Civil War.
  • And, on top of all this, Spafford was a talented hymn writer.

But in spite of all these good things—admirable things that you and I would put in the “PLUS” column—in spite of all this, at no fault of his own, Spafford suffered several serious blows. I mean, he was someone who was very familiar with the unfairness—the inequities—of life.

Listen as I share a summarize of a few of his years on this earth—and you’ll see what I mean. I’m beginning in 1870—I start there because that was the year Spafford’s four-year-old son—his namesake—died of scarlet fever. Then, in 1871 when he was still struggling with his grief, the Great Chicago fire came—and since he had invested heavily in real estate, Spafford lost a fortune. He responded to the fire—and the still fresh anguish of losing his son—by pouring himself into the work of rebuilding his city—doing all he could to help the 100,000 people who had been left homeless by the blaze.

Two years later, in November of 1873, things were looking better in his windy city and Spafford decided to put that sad chapter of his life behind him by taking his wife and daughters to Europe. Their journey was to be part family vacation…and part family mission trip. You see, after enjoying some time touring “the old country,” they intended to link up with Moody who was conducting a revival in England at the time. The family packed up and traveled from Chicago to New York where they were to board this luxury liner, a ship called the Ville du Havre. However, at the last minute, an urgent matter came up and rather than make the whole family wait on him, it was decided that his wife Anna—this is her picture—and these, their four daughters, Maggie, Tanetta, Annie, and Bessie, would go on ahead. Horatio would finish his work and then join them in a few weeks. It is said that as Spafford settled his family in their cabin, a sense of unease filled his mind, and he decided to move them to a stateroom closer to the bow. Once that was done, they said their goodbyes and he reluctantly left the ship to complete his work. In his book, Then Sings My Soul, Robert Morgan describes what happened next,

During the small hours of November 22, 1873, as the Ville du Havre glided over smooth seas, the passengers were jolted from their bunks. Their ship had collided with an iron sailing vessel and water poured in like Niagra. The Ville du Havre, tilted dangerously. Screams, prayers, and oaths merged into a nightmare of unmeasured terror. Passengers clung to posts, tumbled through darkness, and were swept away by powerful currents of icy ocean. Loved ones fell from each other’s grasp and disappeared into foaming blackness. Within two hours, the mighty ship vanished beneath the waters. There were 226 fatalities, including all four of Spafford’s daughters, Maggie, Tanetta, Annie, and Bessie. Mrs. Spafford was found nearly unconscious, clinging to a piece of the wreckage. When the 47 survivors landed in Cardiff, Wales, she cabled her husband. This is a picture of the cable gram. It begins, ‘Saved…alone. What shall I do?’ Horatio immediately booked passage to join his wife. En route, on a cold December night, the captain of his ship called him aside and said, ‘I believe we are now passing over the place where the Ville du Havre went down.’ Spafford stood silently at the rails for a long time and then went to his cabin but found it hard to sleep. He said to himself, ‘It is well; the will of God be done.’

He later wrote his famous hymn based on those words. Here’s a picture of the paper he used for his first draft. As you listen to the opening phrases I think you can almost imagine this grief-stricken father standing there that cold December night, looking out over the ocean. Listen and see if you agree:

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.’

The music to this hymn that is so familiar to us was written by Philip Bliss and it was first heard as a solo in 1876 at a Pastor’s Convention in Chicago. Since then throngs of people have embraced its words—because all of us can cite some example of heartbreak or hardship. All of us have experienced the unfairness of life. In fact, to use Spafford’s phrase—we have learned that there are times when sorrows seem to come as regular as the “sea billows that roll” ashore. And that’s what makes this son a GREAT hymn of our faith because Spafford points us to powerful truth—comforting facts that help us when sorrows threaten to overwhelm us. His hymn underscores vital principle that tell us how to be content no matter what happens—or to put it another way, how it can be well with our SOUL—when it’s not well with our LIFE.

(1) First, this grieving father reminds us that having peace—or being content—even amidst the unfairness of life—is something that must be LEARNED.

As he puts it in the last part of his first verse, “Whatever my lot, Thou hast TAUGHT me to say, ‘It is well, it is well, with my soul.’” In other words, we’re not born with the ability to be happy and at peace when we are going through hardship and grief—nor do we gravitate instinctively toward this mind set. No—this caliber of contentment is something we have discipline ourselves to LEARN—because if truth be told, we tend toward DISCONTENT. I mean, our natural bent is to always think we need more than we have.

  • This is why Play station can sell a new slightly improved version of its game system every year.
  • It’s why car companies put out new models annually.
  • Its why clothing styles are always changing.

Companies put out all this new stuff on a regular basis because they know that humans will buy them…and they know we will buy them because we are never satisfied. We always want something newer or better. We always want more. In other words, corporations literally bank on being able to make a profit from our discontent. So—this faith-fueled peace—this no-matter-what-comes contentment—this “soul well-ness” that Spafford writes about—this is a virtue that must be learned and developed. Even the Apostle Paul had to discipline himself to experience this kind of peace. He confesses in Philippians 4:11,“I have LEARNED to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have LEARNED the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty.”

Well—LEARNING implies a TEACHER and Spafford testifies that his Teacher was God Himself—and God knows that in most cases the teaching tool that works best is experience…because let’s fact it, this is a hard lesson for hard-headed sinful people like you and me to learn. Most of the time the only way we learn to embrace this kind of contentment is in the school of hard knocks. I mean, the more sorrows we go through in life—the more we grow and are then finally able to look back and…with our 20/20 hindsighted eyes see that just as He promises, God worked in all things—even in the heartbreaks of life—for our good. That perspective of experience helps us to see that as God told Jeremiah, He has had a plan for our welfare—a plan to give us a future and a hope. As we gradually learn this vital lesson, we come to trust God more deeply and believe—as Spafford obviously did—that our times really are in God’s hands.

But most of all we realize that in those difficult times God drew especially close to us—and those experiences of closeness with our all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful Heavenly Father, they taught us that nothing is worth more than our relationship with Him. God’s nearness—becomes the most precious thing to us. Having God with us—knowing Him—leaves us content in all circumstances. I’m reminded of the little girl who misquoted the 23rd Psalm and said, “The Lord is my Shepherd—that’s all I need.” She was right—our Shepherd is indeed all we need—and because mature believers like Spafford know this—they experience contentment—soul-wellness—even in the midst of heartbreak. They learn to do—and FACE—all things through Christ Who is WITH them and strengthens them.

In his book, Trying to be Good, Bob Schmidt tells about a friend he made in a state-run convalescent hospital—an elderly woman whose name was Mabel. He writes,

The hospital was not a pleasant place. It is large, understaffed, and overfilled with senile and helpless, lonely people who are basically waiting to die. On the brightest of days it seems dark inside, and smells of sickness and stale urine. I went there once or twice a week for three years, but I never wanted to go there, and I always left with a sense of relief. One Mother’s Day I was walking in a hallway that I had not visited before, looking in vain for a few who were alive enough to receive a flower and a few words of encouragement. This particular hallway seemed to contain some of the worst cases, strapped onto carts of into wheelchairs and looking completely helpless. As I neared the end of this hallway, I saw an old woman strapped up in a wheelchair. Her face was an absolute horror. The empty stare and white pupils of her eyes told me she was blind. The large hearing aid over one ear told me she was almost deaf. One side of her face was being eaten by cancer. There was a discolored and running sore covering part of one cheek, and it had pushed her nose to one side, dropped on eye, and distorted her jaw…so that what should have been the corner of her mouth was the bottom of her mouth. As a consequence, she drooled constantly.

I was told later that when NEW nurses arrived, the supervisors would send THEM to feed this woman, thinking that if they could stand this sight they could stand anything in the building. I also learned later that this woman was eighty-nine years old and that she had been here, bedridden, blind, nearly deaf, and alone, for twenty-five years. This was Mabel. I don’t know why I spoke to her—she looked less likely to respond than most of the people I saw in that hallway. But I put a flower in her hand and said, ‘Here is a flower for you. Happy Mother’s Day.’ She held the flower up to her face and tried to smell it, and then she spoke. Much to my surprise, her words, although somewhat garbled because of her deformity, were obviously produced by a clear mind. She said, ‘Thank you. It’s lovely. But can I give it to someone else? I can’t see it, you know, I’m blind.’ I said, ‘Of course,’ and pushed her in her chair back down the hallway to a place where I thought I could find some alert patients. I found one, and I stopped the chair. Mabel held out the flower and said, ‘Here, this is from Jesus.’ That was when it began to dawn on me that this was not an ordinary human being.

Later I wheeled her back to her room and learned more about her history. She had grown up on a small farm that she managed with only her mother until her mother died. Then she ran the farm alone until 1950 when her blindness and sickness sent her to the convalescent hospital. For 25 years she got weaker and sicker, with constant headaches, backaches, and stomachaches, and then the cancer came.

Her three roommates were all human vegetables who screamed occasionally but never talked. They often soiled their bedclothes, and because the hospital was understaffed—especially on Sundays when I usually visited—the stench was often overpowering. Mabel and I became friends over the next few weeks and I went to see her once or twice a week for the next three years. Her first words to me were usually an offer of hard candy from a tissue box near her bed. Some days I would read to her from the Bible and often when I would pause she would continue reciting the passage from memory, word-for-word. On other days I would take a book of hymns and sing with her, and she would know all the words of the old songs.

For Mabel, these were not merely exercises in memory. She would often stop in mid-hymn and make a brief comment about lyrics she considered particularly relevant to her own situation. I never heard her speak of loneliness or pain except in the stress she placed on certain lines in certain hymns. During one hectic week of final exams I was frustrated because my mind seemed to be pulled in ten directions at once with all of that things that I had to think about.
The question occurred to me, ‘What does Mabel have to think about—hour after hour, day after day, week after week, not even able to know if it’s day or night?’

So I went to her and asked, ‘Mabel, what do you think about when you lie here?’ And she said, ‘I think about my Jesus.’ I sat there, and thought for a moment about the difficulty, for me of thinking about Jesus for even five minutes and I asked, ‘What do you think about Jesus?’ She replied slowly and deliberately: ‘I think about how good He’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know. I’m one of those kind who’s most satisfied…most CONTENTED…because of His friendship. Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old-fashioned. But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me.’ An then Mabel began to sing an old hymn: ‘Jesus is all the world to me, my life, my joy, my all. He is my strength from day to day, Without Him I would fall. When I am sad, to Him I go, No other one can cheer me so. When I am sad, He makes me glad. He’s my friend.’

Mabel was a great student of contentment wasn’t she? She graduated with honors! It didn’t matter how much pain and sorrow—or how unfair life was for her—she had learned to trust and love her Lord. She developed a close relationship with Him—a relationship that satisfied her deepest longing…and that enabled her to be content even in her horrible circumstances—it gave her a peace like a river. It made her soul WELL.

Let me ask—how are YOU doing when it comes to learning this vital lesson? How content are you? Have you become able to trust God no matter what happens? How close are you to our Heavenly Father? Remember, as verse 18 says, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

(2) A second thing that Spafford reminds us about in his great hymn is that the greatest unfairness of life was suffered by God Himself.

And of course he is right. When Jesus died on the cross—He took on Himself the consequences of the sins of all mankind from Adam and Eve all the way to the end of time…your sins…my sins…the sins of the adulterers and murderers…the sins of the child molesters and terrorists…the evil actions of people like Adolph Hitler and Osama Ben Laden. Jesus—Who was innocent—was punished for the sins of every human being who has ever lived or ever will live.

1st John 2:2 says,“Jesus Christ—the righteous One—is the atoning sacrifice for our sin and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” And as Isaiah puts it, He was, “…pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities…” (Is 53:5) 2nd Corinthians 5:21 says,“God made Him Who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”

You know—we DO live in an unfair world…and truthfully, that’s what we deserve as sinful beings. All of us are fallen beings so none of us should be exempt from tragedy and unfairness, but as Spafford reminds us in his hymn, our Holy God Himself was not exempt. His only Son, sinless though HE was….suffered and died unfairly….for the sins of others. Philip Yancey writes,

At once the Cross revealed what kind of world we have and what kind of God we have: a world of gross unfairness and a God of sacrificial love.

So—as I said, the GREATEST unfairness—was suffered by God Himself—and that fact not only humbles us and puts our own heartACHES and heartBREAKS in perspective…what Jesus did on the cross—the unfairness He suffered—it is the ONE thing that gives us true peace. His sacrifice is the one thing that can heal our souls and MAKE them well. As the rest of Isaiah 53:5 says, “The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him and by His wounds we are healed.”

You see—since Jesus died the death we deserve—we know that no unfairness can really touch us. If we accept His forgiveness—a forgiveness for our sin made possible on the cross—we are saved—and are given not death but eternal life—and that eternal gift trumps the worst thing that can happen because if you know that you are going to live forever in Heaven—if you know death can’t touch you—then you have nothing to worry about. Look at the words in verses 2 and 3 where Spafford says,

Though Satan should buffet—though trials should come—let this blest assurance control—that Christ has regarded by 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, Oh my soul!

Sing the chorus with me:

It is well—with my soul—-it is well, it is well with my soul!

Earlier I told you that Philip Bliss wrote the music to this great hymn of our faith and shortly after premiering this song he received a telegram from Dwight Moody asking that he and his wife come and sing at his church in Chicago. So, on December 29, 1876, they left their two small children with Philip’s mother and boarded a train, The Pacific Express.

About eight o’clock that night as the train creaked over a chasm near Ashtabula, Ohio, the trestle bridge collapsed and the train plunged 75 feet into the ravine. Here’s an illustration of that disaster—a disaster that claimed the lives of both Philip Bliss and his wife, Lucy. It is said that Bliss survived the crash but when he discovered that his wife was still trapped inside, he crawled in and perished with her in the fire. He was only thirty-eight at the time. When his suitcase was opened, inside were the words to the last hymn he had written. I’m sure you’re familiar with its word:

I will sing of my Redeemer, and His wondrous love to me;
On the cruel cross He suffered, from the curse to set me free.

Sing, oh sing, of my Redeemer; with His blood He purchased me.
On the cross, He sealed my pardon, paid the debt, and made me free.

Like Spafford, Philip Bliss knew that because of the cross—because Jesus suffered and died in our place—the worst disaster is really nothing. He could say with Job like faith, “I know that my Redeemer lives and that in the end He will stand upon the earth.” (Job 19:25) Because of our Redeemer—because He lives—we know that after our death—eternal life awaits—and that thought gives us peace—no matter what comes. That fact makes us content. What else could you want?!

This leads to one other thing that helps it to be well with our souls even when it’s not well with our lives.

(3) Spafford reminds us that a day will dawn when unfairness is no more.

In fact, as he stood there on that rail, thinking of his four daughters, I believe he eagerly LONGED for that day—the day he’d be in Heaven with his son and his daughters. If you’ve grieved the death of a husband or father or dear friend then I know you can identify with that yearning—that longing for the day when you’ll be reunited and there will be no more unfair partings.

Our former Minister of Music, Bob Anderson, used to bring his trumpet and join me for grave-side services. He would stand off from the grave about fifty yards and before I did my part…he would play the music to this hymn—and the bereaved family would hear this familiar melody and take comfort in the words it brought to mind. Do you remember them? Can you sense Spafford’s eagerness in these words as he says,

And, Lord, haste the day, when the faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll….the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend!

He was eager—as we are—for the day when the unfairness of life would become a dim memory as Jesus returns with our loved ones and an eternity of no separation begins. Anna Spafford believed in this day as well. When she was finally reunited with her husband she said, “I have not lost my children. We are only separated for a little time.” And I love that phrase, “a little time…” because no matter what you are going through—if you know it is temporary—it you know that eventually this too shall pass—you can be content.

In fact, I’ve seen the longing for that kind of contentment in people who didn’t know Jesus—a hunger to know that they would not be separated from their loved ones when they died…more than once I’ve seen God use that particular hunger to draw lost people into a saving relationship with His Son. The most recent example is the conversion of Betty Smith’s father, Bob. For those of you who don’t know Betty—she serves as a missionary in Nairobi Kenya and Betty has been praying for her dad since she became a Christian herself 30 years ago.

Betty’s father, Bob Smith, was an airline pilot—and a very self-sufficient man. This past year Bob became ill—with the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease. When he got this diagnosis his wife filed for divorce and Betty took a leave of absence from her work in Kenya to care for him until a room would open up in a facility where she knew he would be cared for when the disease progressed. She and her daughter, Suzie Estelle stayed with her dad for several months using every God-given opportunity to share their faith. This is a picture taken during their visit.

Well, each time Betty talked about her desire that he become a Christian—as in years past—Bob would respond angrily—saying he didn’t need Jesus. In fact, in the early days of her visit Betty said he didn’t seem to want her or Suzie around. But Betty ignored this and lovingly served her father’s every need—waiting on him hand and foot—cleaning the house, cooking good meals, etc. And over the days and weeks and months things changed. Bob grew to love the company of his daughter and granddaughter. Plus—he became less angry when the subject of Jesus would come up.

Each night before he went to bed Betty would share the blessing of Numbers 6:24-26 with her dad. I’m sure you’ve heard it—it goes like this: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn His face toward you and give you peace.” Well, a room finally came open and Betty moved her dad in, then she returned to Maryland on her way back to Kenya—and right before she left the states something wonderful happened. Betty writes,

I had called him four or so nights each week after we left Florida and we were still in Maryland. Each night I would say the Blessing from Numbers 6:24-26 to him. Lately he had said “Thank you so much for saying that” which is SO ODD for him. He hadn’t always been grateful I was saying it those six months we had been with him in Florida. During those months he said ‘No’ to God several times – to me and to a pastor friend who visited him for me. And then, Saturday night before we left for Kenya on Monday, after saying the blessing I said, ‘Daddy, I know you don’t believe this, but God really does love you.’ He replied ‘Yes, I do believe that.’ I was shocked!

Sunday I prayed for God’s wisdom and guidance as I knew I would call him again and needed to follow up on the conversation of the night before. After getting him on Skype and saying the blessing once again I said, ‘Daddy, Suzie and I leave for Kenya tomorrow and we don’t know when we’ll see you again. We could die, or you could die and we may never see you again. Suzie and I both know Jesus as our Lord and when we die we will be with Him in Heaven. I don’t know that for you, but I want to.’ He got very quiet. I was certain he was mad, as he often was when we would talk of God, or at least very uncomfortable. But instead he said, almost child like: ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ I kept it simple and said ‘Daddy, it’s very easy. All you have to do is ask Jesus to forgive you of your sins and to be your God.’Again he got quiet. But then he prayed that prayer! He asked Jesus to forgive him his sins and to be his God! My [self-sufficient] dad, Bob Smith (73 years old) prayed out loud to Jesus to be his God! The next day just before the plane left for Kenya I talked to him on the phone again and told him I was so glad he had prayed, and he said he was too. He told my sister Ethyl the same thing a few days later. I can’t thank God enough for giving Daddy that gift of grace, even at 73 years old and giving Suzie and I and my sisters the gift of knowing Daddy is now a Christian and we will share eternity with him, with Jesus. God is indeed a graceful, grace-giving God.

Now, only God knows if this is true—but I think the thing that softened Bob Smith’s heart—and made him want to know the Jesus his daughter loves and serves was both her persistent witness and his longing to be with them in eternity. He wanted the peace of knowing they would not be separated—and God used that longing to give him so much more! Betty reports that there is a Christian nurse—and a chaplain in the facility where her dad is—and both of them have committed to helping him grow in His faith.

This morning if you are here and are not a Christian—if you’ve never prayed in childlike faith as Bob Smith did—then I invite you to do so. You don’t have to face the unfairness of life alone—you don’t have to fear death—if you pray and ask for His forgiveness and grace, He will give it. As verse 22 of our text says, “The Lord redeems His servants; no one will be condemned who takes refuge in Him.” Decide to take your refuge in Jesus today. And if you have questions about that—questions you prefer to ask in private, call me. I would love to meet you for lunch or breakfast or wherever and whenever is most convenient for you. I’ll do all I can to answer your questions and tell you how you can come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior.

But—if you have public decisions you wish to make—then walk forward and tell me…or Bobby…or Kevin about them right now—as we stand and sing.

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