Less than a year had passed since scarlet fever took the life of Horatio Spafford’s son. Soon after, the great Chicago Fire of 1871 broke out, consuming miles of real estate, including most of the portions Spafford had successfully invested in through the years. It nearly ruined him. And still the worst had not yet come. Two years later, he organized a vacation to England to give his family a much-needed reprieve and to assist in the ministry efforts of his friend, Dwight L. Moody. When the day of departure arrived, Spafford’s wife, Anna, and their four daughters boarded the Ville du Havre, but business delayed him in the city so he sent them on ahead with plans to join them shortly thereafter.
Days later, to his dismay, a telegram arrived from Anna with the words, “Saved alone. What shall I do…” The ship carrying his family had collided with another vessel and sank in less than twelve minutes, sparing only the life of his bride. As soon as the news reached him, Spafford departed to grieve with her. During the journey, the captain notified his cabin as they passed near the location where his daughters had supposedly drowned.
Battling his grief, Spafford sat down to write. What he composed on that dark day was later set to music and became one of the most enduring hymns in history, "It Is Well With My Soul." While no song or poem could bring back his daughters from the depths, a broken man found comfort in his sorrow by fixing his eyes on Christ.
Tragedy makes its presence felt all too often. Seemingly senseless pain, suffering, and affliction have wounded every life leaving many asking the simple question, “Why?” No one can deny the misery of life. No immunities exist for coming shipwrecks.
As I write, I think of a 26-year old girl struck by a drunk driver less than five miles from my home. In an instant, a man’s carelessness wrecked her dreams and now she clings to life in a hospital bed, supported by the grace of medical advancements. Around the world today, ISIS carries out its atrocities, natural disasters riddle lives with heartache, and still we drift forward. Can we find comfort? Peace? Hope?
Each of these questions masks a deeper concern lurking beneath, namely, the concern for survival. As Tim Keller puts it, they ask less about God and more about how a person can anchor on the other side of suffering “without losing the best parts of yourself.” Try as we might, human strength alone proves utterly insufficient, which explains why these questions sound profoundly spiritual. They cry out from deep within and mere philosophy does little to quench the parched heart that prompts them.
When a person struggles to tread water, no caring soul shouts swimming instructions from the safety of shore. At the very least, we throw them a flotation buoy and in some cases, dive in ourselves. No one avoids tragedy. Whatever we trust—family, friends, wealth—will inevitably reach its ruin given enough time. The words of the great preacher still ring true today: “all is vanity and a striving after the wind” (Eccl. 1:14).
Yet, our collective longing for peace has its place. We were created for peace and our hearts will not rest until we find it. Everyone suffers, but not all suffer well. Becoming mired and entangled in the pain often serves as the easier, though altogether enslaving option. Hope requires courage, and for the Christian, the presence of God sustains us in the difficult days. Spafford’s story, along with countless others, points to a singular truth that has rippled throughout the currents of history—God crafts beauty in the darkness.
Most times, it seems as though suffering defies explanation. But God has not abandoned us. When we cry, mourn, and grieve he hears every sound. He regards his masterpiece with utmost concern. Some point like a prosecutor to the cruelties of life claiming they serve as evidence that God does not exist, or that if he does he lacks virtue for allowing them. The Christian faith teaches that God, so concerned by humanity’s plight, entered his creation as a man and took its weight upon himself. Jesus invaded our groanings with an otherworldly edict: “Take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33).
God’s presence means that suffering does not surprise him. More importantly, it means that he remains sovereign over it. Knowing Christ causes beauty to stream into our nihilistic tendencies and proves that even the darkest days serve their purpose. Trials and afflictions shape us further into the likeness of our Savior so that no matter the pain, it comes and goes at the King’s bidding for our good. Nearly two thousand years ago, twelve unlikely disciples fixed their trust on the promise of Christ and while the times ahead would prove deadly, God’s indwelling presence provided hope—hope transcending circumstance.
Pain creates the space for us to remember what matters. It turns our eyes heavenward with the reminder that the coming glory of Christ, not the circumstances of today, will usher in the fullness of joy. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.” For now, everything under the sun limps along in its injured state longing for a home where peace can endure. It listens closely to the whispers that such a tale may in fact come true.
No one escapes the storms of life, but the presence of God offers the courage to face them with faith. In trial, loss, and affliction God offers the truest of treasures—himself. Though sorrows may threaten like a swelling sea, we find the courage to hope through faith in the Creator who spoke it into existence. God in his mercy has entered the storm. He has not abandoned his children, but draws close with the assurance of his presence as the clouds gather. Even more, he beckons with the promise that today’s sorrows will soon expire.
The rumors are true. God has prepared a home on the shore. For now, we look ahead though tossed and scattered by the waves. But one day, God willing, we will arrive.