What are you building your life upon?
Horatio Spafford was a prominent Chicagoan, with an established legal practice in the city and social standing as a professor of medical jurisprudence at what is now Northwestern University. Happily married to his young wife, Anna, and with four small daughters, his future seemed happy and secure.
However, in 1871 he was almost ruined as the Great Fire of Chicago destroyed the city and made his extensive property investments almost worthless. To take a break from their troubles and in the interests of Anna’s health, he planned a long trip to Europe for his young family. Delayed on business, he sent them ahead on the SS Ville de Harve. But, on the night of 22nd November, the ship collided with another vessel, and sank. Spafford received no news for over a week, until, on 1st December, Anna sent a telegram from north Wales: “Saved alone…”
How might we respond? Like a 19th century Job, Spafford was reported to say: “God is kind. I do not know why my children all drowned. My girls are in heaven. I shall see them again.”
He immediately set out for Europe, and whilst making the Atlantic crossing, was informed when they passed over the site of the Ville de Harve’s wreck. His response was to pen the words of this hymn:
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, (it is well),
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
How was it possible for him to write such words at such a time?
How could he say that it is well with his soul?
It was not natural – rather, this was something he had had to be taught. As the hymn continues, he fully knew his lot was painful. Yet he looked beyond the immediate trials, and he found his assurance:
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has 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 the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
Where did he find his assurance? At the cross on which Jesus died.
Even before his tragic loss, he knew his life was helpless. He knew that he was helpless and lost because of his sin – that natural human instinct to reject God and act like we’re in charge. He knew that his sin had been fully dealt with – it was nailed to the cross, he could bear it no more.
Does this mean that he counted his trials as nothing?
No – he knew that life consisted of storms and trials, and that sometimes, life can feel like a mighty river washing over us:
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
But amidst this storm, he can set aside the distress because his life is assuredly secure in Christ. As he had learned to put his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, it was Christ who whispered his peace into his storm-wracked life.
But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.
And Lord, haste the day when my 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!
So it was that he could fix his gaze upwards to heaven and onwards to Jesus Christ’s return. So it was that he could confidently state that his “girls are in heaven” and that he “shall see them again”.
Spafford was like the wise man who built his house upon a rock (Matthew 7:24-27). The wise man does not build his on the rock because he thinks that there will be no storms there. Rather, the wise man builds his house upon the rock because that is where the house will withstand the storms.
Jesus said “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock.” Spafford was one such wise man; who heard the words of Jesus, who responded to the words of Jesus; and who rested in Jesus when the storms of life came.
What are you building your life upon? Will it withstand the storms of life?
Lord Jesus Christ,
I want to be wise, and I want to stand through the trials and storms of life.
Help me to listen to your words and respond to them, that I would learn to trust in you.
Thank you that you shed your blood, so that my debt was fully paid.
Please comfort me through these storms, that it might be well with my soul – so that I might praise you in all things.
For the glory of your name in my life, Amen.
 A digital copy of Spafford’s original manuscript is viewable here: https://www.spaffordhymn.com/