A teenager drowned in the sea during a Church youth camp. A large group of believers who gathered for a pastorsí convention were all killed in a hotel fire accident. A faithful and talented evangelist acquired acute diabetes and had to have both his legs amputated. A dedicated pastor came home to find his daughters raped and left for dead.
One hundred thirty five years ago, a man named Horatio Spafford wrote an unforgettable song that defied any trace of his anguish over a great tragedy that befell his family. Horatio was a successful lawyer, businessman and prominent Presbyterian elder. He lost his only son shortly before the great Chicago fire in 1871 which took heavy toll on his business, and not long after, his four daughters died in a ship collision in Europe. It was when he sailed to the site where his daughters drowned that he was inspired to pen the words that became the lyrics of one of our most beloved hymns:
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 with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul!
My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to His Cross, and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
Spaffordís story continues to be a notable source of strength and comfort to many Christians who have experienced pain, loss and suffering in their lives. Until my mother died (she was brutally killed by a robber) two years ago, I was unable to fully grasp the extent of the fusion of horrid agony and unabated hope behind Horatioís words in that song. My motherís death brought unfathomable sorrow to my family, and even though I was already a Christian at the time, I found myself unable to hold back the doubt and confusion about God. In that instance, it seemed as if the foundation of my trust in Him that took years and years to build was on the verge of collapse. My mother had just begun to seriously live her faith shortly before she died and for her to have had a death so violent at such a crucial time in her life was not an easy thing to accept.
There is nothing unnatural nor condemnable about Christians, specially those who have tasted despair, to feel a certain degree of apprehension with regards to the future. Pain is real and inescapable. It happens to everyone, including devout believers. The Scriptures abound in passages that encourage us to preserve our hope in God amid lifeís relentless cruelty. Yet when tragedies strike, especially inexplicable and seemingly meaningless ones, only a few of us truly find the strength to trust in God.
When a Christian meets unbearable ordeals, how does he move on with his faith in God still intact? How do we reconcile Godís goodness and mercy with lifeís atrocities to believers like us? How do we forget our dismal past and move forward with fresh hope?
When the reality of pain in life sets in, we need to understand four things: (1) Godís sovereignty is absolute regardless of our circumstances; (2) Godís plan and wisdom are flawless and seamlessly accomplished, but it doesnít mean that any one of us (i.e., individually) is the center of that plan; (3) God is perpetually faithful and merciful; and (4) God favors those who trust Him.
The picture of God as one who is sovereign, faithful and merciful is found not only in a book called the Bible. In one way or another, at innumerable points in our life which few of us really bother to count, the Lord has demonstrated these qualities for us. Unlike many of the Old Testament Israelites who personally witnessed (and greatly benefited from) Godís magnificent miracles and wonders but whose faith swiftly faltered after encountering daunting trials in the wilderness, we need to always be mindful of how God had lavished His benevolence on us so we can remain consistently thankful to Him and steadily expectant of His providence.
Trouble arises when we become presumptuous by thinking that Godís plans revolve specifically around us. We are all part of Godís grand plan of building His kingdom in the sense that He desires redemption for each of us and wants us to witness to other people, but to presuppose that carrying out of every detail in that plan must conform to our individual ideals and enhance our personal circumstances is taking it too far. In the process of executing such plan, God allows the occurrence of certain events that we may not understand but, nevertheless, fall under the scope of His perfect will.
Furthermore, Jesus himself did not promise us total immunity from suffering after believing in Him. In reality, suffering is a big, often essential chunk of Christian life; it is Godís tool for sculpting our character. Our great and unparalleled consolation is that we are S-A-V-E-D. Godís grace is unbelievably boundlessówe can rely on Him to make all things in our lives work together for good and to perhaps spare us, out of His infinite compassion, from more agonies (or at least equip us with the necessary strength to endure them) even though we are not the focus of His plan. Much solace can also be drawn from realizing that God knows us and cares immensely for us that He even knows the number of hairs on our head (Luke 12:7). Having a developed relationship with God makes it a lot easier to make sense of lifeís difficulties.
The Scriptural passages that convey Godís goodness and reliability are not empty at all. The heroes of faith in the Bible (See Hebrews Chapter 11) gained Godís seal of approval because they acknowledged and embraced Godís authority and faithfulness. Job, Abraham, Moses and the rest of their ilk were clearly not untouched by lifeís adversities. In the times that God had a role or task for them to fulfill they were not always privy and central to Godís plans and were thus uncertain of the future. But they all did one thing in commonóthey kept their faith, and they (or their descendants) were rewarded.
If there is something Iíve learned about Godís trustworthiness since my motherís death, it is that when life gets too real, He gets even more real in my life. He became more Ďvisibleí and responsive to me and my family in many specific, outstanding and often unexpected ways. That God is pleased when people earnestly seek Him and eagerly submit to His will became more meaningful to me. The more life becomes cruel, God all the more shows his goodness and faithfulness to those who choose to trust Him. As life gets tough, I found it wise to acknowledge the pain and reflect on it, then move on by choosing to continue to depend on Him, whether or not I have found sense in my suffering. There is much less sense being stuck in depression or refusing to go on for lack of answers to unanswerable questions. We must accept our finiteness as opposed to Godís infinitenessóour limited minds cannot possibly decipher everything that transpires. These, I believe, are the core foundations that fueled Horatio Spaffordís overflowing contentment in Godís grace even at the darkest hour of his life, hence his song.
As we continue our journey as Christians, let us do so with courage in our hearts. It would do us good to liberate ourselves from the darkness of the past by remembering how Godís faithfulness far outweighs all our miseries combined. Letís forge ahead armed with the unshakable faith that no suffering we could ever have is greater than Godís love or is beyond His comfort for us. Whatever happens, like Horatio, may we find the strength in Jesus to say, ďIt is well with my soul.Ē