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Sometimes the answer is “No”

Written and posted in November of 2007 about a very specific situation, the post still contains some useful insight in how we should respond in such situations.


Our church has been praying for a young girl (elementary school age) with leukemia for 14 months, primarily for healing and the efficacy of her chemo, along with the strength to endure. This past week we got an answer. She went home to her Lord and ours. As a father of two daughters, I can imagine a little what this must be like to go through. But as Christians, the response of her family and our extended church family is in stark contrast to that usually seen at such times for those without the Christian hope we have. Yes, there is sorrow and grief, and we weep with those who weep. Yet, there is that hope, and a peace that passes understanding, that serve as a grounding foundation. It is best expressed, I think, in the words of the beloved hymn by Horatio Spafford, It is Well with My Soul:

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.

Refrain:

It is well, with my soul,
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blessed 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!

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.

I have a difficult time singing this song without tearing up because of the story behind it, and, as I said, I am a father of two daughters. Horatio Spafford was a Presbyterian lawyer with a successful business in Chicago. He had invested hugely in real estate by the shore of Lake Michigan just months before the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The disaster greatly wiped out his holdings. Adding insult to injury, that same year Spafford had experienced the loss of his only son.

Two years after the fire, Mr. Spafford planned a trip to Europe for him and his family. He wanted a rest for his wife and four daughters, and also to assist Moody and Sankey in one of their evangelistic campaigns in Great Britain. The day in November they were due to depart, Spafford had a last minute business transaction and had to stay behind in Chicago. Nevertheless he sent his wife and four daughters as scheduled on the S.S. Ville du Havre. Given what followed, the potential for self-recrimination to the point of insanity, the "if only" syndrome, hinges on this decision. He was expected to follow in a few days. On November 22, the ship laden with his wife and daughters was struck by the Lockhearn, an English vessel, and both ships sank in a few minutes. Anna Spafford found herself and her four daughters clinging to the flotsam of the wreckage, and then had the exquisite torture of watching her daughters one by one, starting from the youngest and therefore the weakest, sink beneath the icy Atlantic waves as their strength gave out.

After the survivors were finally landed somewhere at Cardiff, Wales, Spafford’s wife cabled her husband with two simple words, "Saved alone." Several weeks later, as Spafford’s own ship passed near the spot where his daughters died, he was inspired to write these words. Knowing his entire family were Christian, he penned this most poignant text so significantly descriptive of his own personal grief – "When sorrows like sea billows roll…" – yet so expressive of life’s true priorities and of the Christian hope – "My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more."

He didn’t sing the blues, bemoan his fate, curse the gods or God, or claim any kind of victimhood. He didn’t try to sue anyone. Likewise, there is no "if only" in his words. Just the glow of a faith tried in the crucible of life shining with a brilliance I challenge any atheist to produce as a function of his belief system.

Reflect on this, that one could experience such personal tragedies and sorrows as did Horatio Spafford, yet, be able to say with such convincing clarity, "It is well with my soul." It is an enormous challenge to embrace the significance of this hymn.

Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The LORD God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.
(Hab 3:17-19)

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