"When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast caused me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul."
The hymn quoted above was written by Horatio G. Spafford, a Chicago Presbyterian layperson. He was a lawyer and had much financial success. He was a deeply spiritual man and a devoted student of the scripture. In the months before the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, he had invested heavily in real estate and his holdings were wiped out by the disaster. His son had died just previous to the fire. He planned a trip to Europe so he and his family could have some rest and sent his wife and four daughters ahead while he took care of some unexpected business that had arisen. On November 22, 1871 the S.S. Ville du Havre on which they were passengers was struck by another ship and it sunk quickly. The survivors were taken to Cardiff, Wales from where his wife cabled Spafford, "Saved alone." He left to make the journey to join his bereaved wife and it is thought that on the ship as he crossed the ocean, he wrote the words describing his own personal grief--"When sorrows like sea billows roll..." He had experienced sorrow which few others could relate to but he had come through it because of his faith in God.
This hymn is greatly loved by many people and it has been sung at numerous funerals for which I have officiated. It does not end with sorrow but has a theme of hope that runs through it for over and over it echoes the phrase..."it is well with my soul." How can a couple lose a son to death and then in a short time period lose four daughters to death? How do they survive the loss of all their children and continue to have the desire to live? I think it has to do with where they find their emotional and spiritual strength and in what or whom they place their hope as the source of that strength.
I often read from Romans 8 when I am concluding a funeral service at the cemetery. As we stand by the graveside, and offer the loved one back to God, I read those words that are so familiar to many. "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life....nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:39) St. Paul lists a large list of things that cannot separate us from God and they include powers of earth and heaven (as believed in his day) and concluded that none of them could cause us not to be kept in God's care and love throughout our lives. So, Paul would say, whatever happens in life, God is present and God cares and loves through it all.
God does not cause grief and God cannot prevent grief. God gave humans free will and cannot step in to prevent humans from making errors in judgment or from taking risks that could prove to be fatal (such as riding on a ship across the ocean that could sink, as Mr. Spafford's family did). God cannot interfere in the choices we make but God can love and care for us during and through the most difficult times of our lives. Some things are of our own making and some happen to us simply because we are humans living on this planet. Natural disasters, disease, weather related tragedies....all happen to humans because they inhabit this planet. Some modern maladies may be caused by our lifestyles or by the effect humans are having on our planet but regardless of why they may happen, God as our source of our strength never fails to be present.
"Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, it is well with my soul..." Perhaps that is the greatest lesson we can learn from life's trials. It is well....it is well....because God is and will always be.