They say that terrible things happen in three’s. Whether that’s true or not is subjective to whomever you ask. Some call it superstition. The theory itself isn’t based on hard facts but rather on our natural human need to make sense of the senseless. To bring order into chaos. Depending on a person’s life experiences they may agree or disagree with the concept altogether. I suppose it comes down to that age old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Is it Divine Providence? Natural selection? Completely and utterly random with no rhyme or reason whatsoever? Is it the “universe” trying to get our attention or teach us something? Is it God intervening to make sure we go down the path that was ordained for us since the beginning of time? We could sit around a stoked fireplace with our cigars and brandy (or whatever your jam is) and discuss this single topic until the world ends. At the end of the day, in our very limited human understanding, we’ll most likely never know the answers on this side of eternity.
It’s bad enough when life hits us with a little bump in the road. Most of us can bounce back, take it on the chin as they say, and carry on. But what if it’s more than just a little bump? What if it’s earth shattering and life altering? And, going a step further, what do you do when it feels like it’s just one thing after another? Have you ever recovered from one disaster only to find yourself in the middle of another…and then another? You’re already on the ground, sore, bruised and bleeding. Barely able to stand up and then life comes along and kicks you when you’re already down. You get through one thing and all is calm again. Sailing through still waters. Or so it seems. Not realizing that you’re merely in the eye of the storm.
It begs the question: How do you maintain the attitude that “all is well” while you’re walking through hell? How do you make the choice to continue on no matter what life brings you? Through peace or sorrow?
This is Horatio Spafford’s story. This man, who penned the words to one of the most beautiful and most globally inspirational hymns, knew what it was to have one terrible thing happen after another. And still he maintained the notion that regardless of what it looked like in the present, there was hope that all would be well again some day.
Horatio Spafford was born in New York in 1828. He was a prominent, successful senior partner in a law firm. He was very involved in his church as an elder. He and his wife Anna were also very active in the Abolitionist crusade and often supported great evangelists like their friend D.L. Moody.
In the spring of 1871 Horatio invested substantially in real estate in the city of Chicago. However, later that year in October, most of his investments were destroyed by the “Great Fire of Chicago.” This devastating blaze lasted three days. It killed approximately 300 people, destroyed 3.3 square miles and left more than 100,000 people homeless. He lost everything.
A short two years later, a debilitating, economic recession swept through. It began as “The Panic of 1873” but ended up lasting until 1879, to which it was later dubbed “The Long Depression”, lasting 65 months. (Not to be confused with “The GREAT Depression” of 1929 when the stock markets crashed. That one lasted 43 months.) This recession wasn’t just in Chicago or in the United States. It was worldwide. A fire and a recession in just two years. Unfortunately, as “fate” would have it, it didn’t stop there for Horatio and his family.
During the same year of 1873, Horatio and his family planned a trip to England where his friend and evangelist D.L. Moody was holding a crusade. But at the last minute he wasn’t able to join his family. He had to stay behind to take care of some business and zoning issues, a consequence of the fire that happened two years prior. He sent his wife and four daughters ahead of him on the boat and he would join them in England later on once his business dealings were complete. But the ship would never make it.
On November 22, 1873, the ship carrying his wife, Anna, and their four daughters was struck by another boat. The ship sank quickly, killing 226 people, including Horatio’s four young daughters. His wife sent him a telegram once her rescue ship reached land stating simply, “Saved alone. What shall I do?…”
Another survivor of the wreck overheard Anna saying, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.”
“Why?” There’s that question again. The natural human tendency to attempt comprehending something so incomprehensible. To grasp at anything that would slightly resemble reason.
As a mother myself, I can’t even begin to imagine that level of grief. Not only surviving a horrific shipwreck out in the middle of the ocean and the trauma that alone would bring, but then also to lose all of your children in one single moment. And to initially bear that alone while your husband is thousands of miles away on the other side of the world. From my own experience, I know what it’s like to be separated from my own children. It’s devastating, heart breaking and soul crushing in it’s own way and comes with it’s own set of challenges, trauma and grief. But losing a child in the most permanent way, and not just one, but all four at once? Sorrow of that magnitude, cannot accurately be put into words.
When Horatio received the devastating news from Anna that his beloved daughters were gone he immediately boarded the next available ship to go be by his wife’s side and to bring her back home.
While on board the ship, the Captain called him into his cabin to tell him that they were passing over the spot where his daughters had passed away. He would write to his wife’s half sister, “On Thursday last, we passed over the spot where she went down in mid ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs.”
Already, in that moment, Horatio was searching for the good in a devastating situation. At the very least, he concluded that his precious little girls were safe in the arms of Jesus. That he would see them again some day. That decision to hope in the midst of something so hopeless takes grit.
It was also in this moment, after passing over the watery gravesite of his children that he would pen these immortal words “It Is Well With My Soul.” He wrote them on a piece of stationary. Nothing fancy. Just a man, a father, a husband and his grief. His pain. His feelings of loss and also of hope. Of resting in the knowledge that God was in control of this situation. That not only were his daughters safe in the arms of Jesus but that his own broken heart was also safe there as well.
A few years later, back at home, Horatio and Anna had three more children, a boy and two girls. Unfortunately tragedy would strike again and their son, Horatio, passed away from Scarlet Fever at only three years old. After a decade of financial and personal loss on such an epic scale, this was the last and final straw. Horatio began to move away from the idea of material success and he began a lifelong spiritual pilgrimage for a deeper meaning to his life that had been marked by such hardship and pain.
He and his wife left the church that he had helped to build and began to host prayer meetings in their home. Later on, along with some close family and friends, they decided to “seek solace” in Jerusalem where they adopted a communal lifestyle. They started philanthropic mission work among the people, helping anyone in need, regardless of their faith. This work continued even after Horatio’s death due to Malaria, in 1888. The mission that he and his wife had started continued during and after World War 1, hosting soup kitchens, hospitals and orphanages.
After a lifetime of more than ones’s fair share of loss, grief and pain, what is to be learned from this? What hope, if any, can we still grasp onto? We can see two things from the life he continued to live and the words that he wrote.
Number one, he made the decision to use his pain as fuel to help others in their time of need. He took what strength he had left and put it towards improving the lives of others. In doing this, he was taking the focus off of himself and shining a light for others to see in the midst of their own darkness. This is something that I have come to know first hand in my own life.
When you are going through hard times, regardless of the situation, one of the best things that you can possibly do is to reach out and help others.
It keeps you thankful, it keeps you humble, it keeps you grounded, it fills you with joy and most importantly, in doing this, you are becoming more like Jesus. Doing the work that he did when he was still here on earth. And I am positive that in the years that he and his wife and remaining children were serving others, that he had countless opportunities to share his story. To share both his grief and also his joy and hope that he still hung onto. And just the fact that he was there, pressing on, offering a helping hand to those who needed it most was a living testimony to his resilience and strength. And it can be yours too. No matter what this life has dealt you, you can make the choice to press on. There are people who need you. Who need to hear your story. It might be the very thing that shines a light through their struggle as well.
The second thing that we can take away from Horatio Stafford’s life of both pain and resilience is that he continued to hang on to hope. He made the choice to say “It is well..” no matter what the situation looked like. He had no control over the storms of life but he knew the One who did. And more importantly, he knew that this life, with all it’s pain and uncertainty, was merely temporary. His focus was on his faith, on Jesus and the joy that awaited him.
“Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory He (Jesus) will reveal to us later”~Romans 8:18
My hope is that we all learn to press on, even in the midst of suffering. Whatever that pain looks like for you. And that we would learn to do so with strength, resilience and hope. That we would never lose the joy that is promised to us if we just hold on until the end.
It Is Well With My Soul
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.
(Chorus:) It is well (it is well),
with my soul (with my soul),
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my 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 His cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pain shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
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,
Even so, it is well with my soul.