Horatio Spafford was a wealthy real estate lawyer from Chicago who lived in the late nineteenth century. A Christian man, Spafford often marveled at how God had blessed him with wealth, a beautiful wife, four young daughters and an infant son.
Then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed. In the winter of 1871, scarlet fever took the life of his infant son. A few months later, the Great Chicago Fire wiped out his real estate holdings.
In 1873, Spafford decided to move his family to England to make a fresh start. He bought six tickets on a French luxury liner. The day before they were to set sail, he was forced to return to Chicago to attend to some unfinished business. He sent his family ahead of him on the ship, planning to meet up with them in England a few weeks later.
Four days into the voyage, a terrible fog descended on the North Atlantic. Another ship broadsided the luxury liner. It sank in only 12 minutes. Two hundred and twenty six people died, including Horatio Spafford’s four daughters. An hour later, his wife was pulled from the icy water, barely alive. When she arrived in England, she cabled her husband with two simple words:
Spafford quickly boarded a ship to join his wife in England. Three days into the journey, the captain informed Spafford that they were passing over the place where his daughters had died. As Spafford gazed out over the icy sea, a hurricane of emotions came over him. He ran to his room and wrote a poem to God, a poem which was later put to music.
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,when sorrows like sea billows roll – whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say: It is well, it is well with my soul.”
Horatio Spafford was hurting. He was filled with unimaginable sorrow over the loss of his five children. He was filled with regret. Yet he found peace. In the middle of unimaginable sorrow, he was able to say, “It is well with my soul.”
How could he say that? How could his soul be at peace?
“My sin – oh the joy 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!”
Every Good Friday at our church, we give people a nail as they enter the church. After the service, as people quietly file out, we ask them to place their nail in the cross at the front of church. That nail represents their sin and guilt. We leave that nail at the cross, because it was there that sin and guilt were paid for. We don’t have to carry it around with us. We are forgiven.
But that is not the only reason Horatio Spafford could say, “It is well with my soul.” He ends his beautiful hymn with the words:
“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.”
Right now, we can’t always see or understand why God does what he does in our lives. Horatio Spafford couldn’t understand why God would take all his children. Yet he trusted in God his Savior. He looked through the eyes of faith and saw that God had a good reason. He also looked forward to the day when he would be able to see with his physical eyes – be able to see God face to face, see his children again, see the heaven that was waiting for him.
Horatio Spafford could say, “It is well with my soul” in the midst of unspeakable heartache because by faith he trusted that God had forgiven him. He trusted heaven was waiting for him. He trusted he would see his children again. He trusted that God would make everything work out in the end.
Knowing that, we too can sing with confidence, “It is well; it is well with my soul.”