Is It Really Well With My Soul?

Is It Really Well With My Soul? May 29, 2019

(Credit: Tastwo, Flickr Creative Commons)

When my wife and I suffered our first miscarriage, circumstances dictated that I would find myself driving alone that night down I-84 through western Massachusetts back to Connecticut where I had a meeting the next day with a real estate agent.

I sat in absolute silence for the first leg of the trip, unable to do anything other than keep the steering wheel straight and my foot on the gas pedal.

The silence hurt, but the prospect of listening to other people’s happiness on the radio hurt even more.

I sat in that painful silence for a long time, thinking about what could have been, what should have been, tears rolling down my cheeks as I fought the urged to scream profanities at God.

Then something strange happened.

Or at least it was strange to me because it was not the sort of thing I had ever found myself doing before, at least no in those circumstances.

It’s hard to explain how it happened, but at the time it didn’t feel like I had much of a choice in the matter. I felt somehow compelled to sing and without consciously willing myself to do so, the words seemed to force themselves across my lips, words I had not sang or even thought about for many years.

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It is well
With my soul
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It sounds hokey to write about now and certainly felt incredibly hokey in the moment because that’s just not the sort of thing I tend to do – randomly sing to myself while I cry – and had anybody else been in the car that night I’m sure I would have kept silent. But there I was alone and singing and as I sang that old hymn from my childhood the words brought not so much a sense of comfort and peace, but the prospect of hope, hope that I, that we – my wife and I – would make it and somehow be able to face the new future that now stood before us without the child we thought was about to become a part of our lives.

I’ve often returned to that song since that dark night of the soul so many years ago. When overwhelming pain has forced itself into my life, that song seems to always follow in its wake. I’ve found myself singing that old hymn in my car a lot recently as I continue to process and try to come to terms with the reality of my friend Rachel’s death. But the more I sing those words, the more I begin to think I’ve never really understood them.

From the first moment I heard It Is Well as I child, I’ve always thought of it as a song of praise, a way of “counting it all joy” even in the midst of sorrow; a hymn thanking God for grace and peace in times of sorrow. But the more I’m forced to sing it in times of sorrow, the less convinced I am that it is a song of praise, at least not in the typical way we understand “praise songs.”

I’ve begun to wonder if It Is Well is, in fact, a protest song.

Now, I know that may sound strange, but consider the circumstances in which is was written.

The author, Horatio Spafford, penned the words to the now immortal hymn after receiving a soul crushing telegram from his wife that simply read, “Saved alone….”. Spafford had sent his wife and children ahead of him on an ocean voyage to Europe. Somewhere in the vast, open, unforgiving sea, the ship Spafford’s family was aboard crashed into another ocean going vessel. The ship Spafford’s family was on sank. His wife survived, but all four of his children were lost.

How he could pen the words “It is well with my soul” after such an unimaginable tragedy baffles the mind. If I put pen to paper in such a moment I’m sure I would be far more likely to curse God than write a song praising God for “blest assurance” and “peace like a river.” In trying to understand how Spafford could possibly write such beautiful, hopeful words in the aftermath of such a painful, hopeless experience, I’ve long chalked it up to him simply being a better Christian than I, a man with far stronger faith in God than I can even begin to comprehend.

But as I find myself singing Spafford’s hymn once more as I mourn the death of a friend taken from her family far, far too soon, I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps I’ve misunderstood Spafford all these years.

I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps Spafford wasn’t so much penning words of praise in the midst of tragedy as he was trying to convince himself everything was going to be ok.

Instead of hearing “it is well” as joyful words, I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps Spafford was taking on the mantle of the Psalmist and the writer of Lamentations and countless other biblical writers – even Jesus himself – who have bared the naked anguish of their soul to God in times when it felt like God had abandoned them.

Perhaps instead of hearing “it is well” as a way of putting a smile on a difficult situation, we should hear Spafford trying to convince himself that despite all evidence to the contrary, everything is going to be ok.

Perhaps instead of singing “It is well” as an act of praise, Spafford sang it as an act of protest against the hopelessness that surrounded him and the pain that threatened to overcome his soul.

Or maybe that’s just how I find myself singing it today.

I long for peace like a river and blest assurance would be great right about now but truth be told, they feel like a hopeless mirage.

And yet I still find myself singing those words.

And maybe that vain hope is why. Perhaps Spafford did intend his hymn to be a song of praise and while my lack of faith keeps me from seeing anything other than protest in his words, some mustard seed deep inside my soul is clinging onto hope.

Or maybe it’s some amalgamation of both, the kind of painful, awkward alchemy that comes about as we try to transform sorrow into peace.

In any case, I imagine I will continue to sing those ancient words a lot in the coming days as I continue to protest against the hopelessness of death and long for better days.

Maybe one day that protest will transform into praise.

I hope it does.

Until then, I will continue to sing.

And protest.

It is well

It’s going to be ok.

With my soul

It’s going to be ok.

It is well

It’s going to be ok.

It is well

It’s going to be ok.

 

It’s going to be ok.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Catherine Cavanaugh Martin

    I like your interpretation. “It’s going to be OK.” Somehow.

  • lsudocster

    I absolutely agree with you.

  • nanbush

    Yes. And thank you for saying so, especially today, the day before Rachel’s funeral. OK. Somehow.

  • Donna Chapman

    Zack thanks for sharing on this personal level the hard aspects of faith in what’s a really awful loss. Dan and the children- why this sudden horrible loss. And you a friend. I only got to meet Rachel once on my mad dash back to Canada with a detour via Pennsylvania. She hugged me with her surprise that two Canadians would drop by to hear her speak. She couldn’t have been more authentic. So my grief is strangely great and your sharing of your grief and faith struggle in your two posts make me feel a little less awkward with my own. Thanks.