If you know the old hymn “It is Well,” you likely know the story behind it.
Horatio Spafford, its author, lost his four daughters at sea in a shipwreck. Only his wife survived.
On his way to retrieve his wife, as he crossed the same Atlantic waters where his daughters perished, he penned the song.
Its lyrics are hauntingly beautiful:
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 song continues with ruminations of trials and darkness, what you might expect. But then there is the surprising verse three.
My sin—oh, 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!
How did we go from sorrows and sea billows, grief and anguish, to thoughts about Spafford’s own sin? Why this thought at this moment? Why verse three?
Timothy Keller (2013) explains:
What has that got to do with his four little girls who are dead? Everything! Do you know why? When things go wrong, one of the ways you lose your peace is that you think maybe you are being punished. But look at the cross! All the punishment fell on Jesus. Another thing you may think is that maybe God doesn’t care. But look at the cross! The Bible gives you a God that says, “I have lost a child too; but not involuntarily – voluntarily, on the cross, for your sake. So that I could bring you into my family.”
In that hymn you can watch a man thinking, thanking, and loving himself into the peace of God. It worked for him under those circumstances. It worked for Paul under his circumstance. It will work for you.(p. 312)
As Keller reminds us, “this glorious thought” is glorious because it tells us the Gospel, and the Gospel tells us, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God is for us. Jesus has carried away our sin. And this means every trial that comes, every wave of sorrow that washes over us, is not punishment or a sign of God’s indifference.
In this life, we will never know all the reasons why we suffer what we do, and yet we can be confident of this: God, in Christ, has regarded our helpless estate.
God, in Christ, crossed heaven and earth to rescue us from our sin, to bring us back home. To that truth we cling.
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38–39)
Keller, T. (2013). Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. Viking.