“It is Well” is undoubtedly one of the most significant and popular hymns in the English-speaking world over the last 150 years or so. Its message has resonated through the years and has been a great encouragement to believers all over the world. This message is a great encouragement to the Christian life and it is an example of how Christians are to respond faithfully during times of great tragedy.
The story behind “It is Well” is well known. This great hymn was written by Horatio Spafford, a successful businessman in Chicago who experienced unbelievable suffering. In 1871, his son died by scarlet fever and in that same year the Great Fire of Chicago destroyed most of the real estate that Spafford had. This alone would be unbearable, but life became even more tragic for him just two years later.
Spafford decided to take his family on a trip to England in order to meet up with D.L. Moody, the great nineteenth century evangelist who was preaching there at the time. Horatio, however, was delayed and decided to send his wife and four daughters ahead on a ship to England. As the ship travelled, disaster stuck. The ship hit an iron sailing vessel and 226 people were killed, including all four of Spafford’s daughters. Spafford’s wife was found unconscious when the ship finally landed in Wales, and she sent a simple yet devastating telegram to her husband: “Saved Alone.” Spafford hurried to meet with his bereaved wife, and it was as they were passing the place where the ship had been hit that he was inspired to write the amazing words we have in “It is Well.”
More Than Positive Thinking
Given the deep joy expressed in the hymn despite the great tragedy, we can easily misunderstand this hymn as another example of positive thinking. We live today in a world where we are constantly being taught the value of optimism and positive thinking. We live in the world of Ted Talks and motivational speakers who encourage us that we should look on the bright side of life. This positive thinking has become very popular in Christian circles also. Christians are taught that faith means saying good things about our lives even when things are difficult.
I grew up in a setting where such teaching was common. I was taught to say that I was strong when I was sick and rich even when I was broke. Often in Christian settings like these, believers are taught that they must be careful what they say because “life and death is in the power of the tongue” (Prov 18:21). Therefore, by admitting that things are bad, we are in danger of making them worse. If, on the other hand, we say good things, then good things will happen. Being a Christian meant saying that things were well even though they weren’t. It was as if you could change your reality if you simply thought and said positive things. Faith was therefore a kind of make-believe that was based on the life that you wished you had rather than the life you actually had.
This, however, is not the message of this great hymn. The key to Christian contentment is not empty optimism. Christian contentment is not rooted in a denial of reality; it is founded upon a meditation on the truth of the blessing that we have in Jesus. “It is Well” is a wonderful example of what genuine Christian meditation looks like. Psalm 103 begins with these words: Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not his benefits” (1–2, emphasis added).
In the midst of all his great suffering, Spafford in this hymn recounts the benefits of Christ and concludes that it is well with his soul. The entire hymn centers on the blessing of forgiveness of sin. The blessing of forgiveness is ours in Christ because he died for ours sins, and this truth means that we have an eternal relationship with God. This blessing far outstrips our suffering because it comes with the hope of eternity with God in a world without sin, sorrow, or death. In the words of David, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity” (Psalm 32:1-2).
When we face tragedy, Christians are not to find peace in positive thinking or optimism. Christians are to find peace in the work of our Saviour on the cross that has secured our eternity.
Something Much Better
Interestingly, there has been a change to the words of this great hymn that sheds light on this potential misunderstanding. The original last line of the first hymn read, “Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know, It is well, it is well with my soul,” while it now reads, “Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.”Although this change does not alter the message of the hymn, it can easily fit into an understanding of the hymn that accords with mere positive thinking. We do not simply say that “it is well,” we know that “it is well.”
Though we go through intense and real suffering, what we have in Christ and what we are promised in the world to come far outstrips the pain of this world. As Christians, we can rejoice always, not because things are always rosy, but because we have Jesus and he has promised that he will never leave or forsake us. Our peace is not in a denial of pain and suffering but in a remembrance of the joy of cross.
“It is Well” is a reminder that what we have in Christ is greater than even the pain of death. It is a reminder that though we will have trouble in this world, Jesus has overcome this world (Jn 16:33). It is a reminder that this “light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17). This meditation on Christian contentment has been an encouragement to count our blessings for almost 150 years, and I trust that it will continue to be such an encouragement until Christ returns to bring us into his renewed world. It really is well with our soul.
This information was taken from Robert Morgan, Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymns Stories (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 304-305.
The original manuscript on this hymn was gifted to the Library of Congress and can be viewed here: https://www.loc.gov/item/mamcol000008