When Peace Flows Like a River

When I was a little girl, I didn’t know the story behind the hymn, I just knew that singing it always flooded my little soul with peace. Although I’d not yet experienced prolonged pain or been exposed to real suffering, my young heart had encountered dark evil, and this song brought a sweet “knowing” that, although evil lurks, because I belong to Him, God is watching over me.

As a child, I claimed this hymn as my favorite, but it wasn’t until I was a teen that I began to notice how God sovereignly wove that hymn into my life at significant junctures.

When I was just fourteen, long and too lanky, all awkward with a mouth full of braces, just bony arms and knobby knees, my dad sat the family down to tell us that our country was experiencing an economic implosion. Plants and businesses were closing, cars lined up for miles at gas stations paying high prices for limited amounts of fuel, and the future looked precarious. His company was shutting down the plant where he worked as an engineer, but they were offering him the opportunity to transfer to their plant on the west coast to design some machinery.

The idea of moving to a completely new world was exciting but scary. All I’d ever known was my small school in the rural south, so small that all the students and teachers knew one another. Moving meant starting high school as a stranger, more than two thousand miles from all that was familiar, where my freshman class had more students than the total population of our entire school. And, did I mention, I was at a very awkward stage in life?

After our “family council” we went our separate ways and I began grappling with the fears of navigating foreign territory. That Sunday evening, providentially, the last song the congregation sang, before the message, was “my” hymn:

[box]“When peace like a river . . .”

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!”[/box]

You probably know the story behind the writing of that hymn, but I didn’t read about it until years later when I was in college. Horatio Spafford penned these words from a heart that was well acquainted with grief. Within a ten-year span, he lost more than most. He was a wealthy businessman in Chicago, friends with the evangelist D. L. Moody, and known for his Christian testimony. His ten-year span of loss began in 1870 when his four-year-old son, Horatio Jr., died suddenly of Scarlet fever.

The next year, Spafford experienced significant financial loss. The historic Chicago fire destroyed much of the city, including Spafford’s shore front properties. The following year, Spafford’s wife, Anna, and their four daughters, ages 2–11 years old, left ahead of him on a trip to England. He was to follow later. While crossing the Atlantic, their steamship, the Ville du Havre, was struck by another ship and quickly sank. All four of Horatio’s daughters perished, but his wife, Anna survived. When she was rescued, she wired her husband this message:

“Saved alone . . .”

Immediately, Horatio left the United States to join Anna. During the voyage, at Spafford’s request, the Captain of the ship came to his cabin to let him know when they reached the point of the ship’s sinking. Horatio stepped out on the ship’s deck to pause for prayer, knowing his daughters’ lives were lost in the waters beneath him. He returned to his cabin to pen the words of the hymn that has served to inspire believers for more than one hundred fifty years.

The Spaffords lived experiencing deep sorrow, yet always rejoicing in the Savior they knew.

That loss was not the last for the Spaffords. The ten year span of loss was not complete until another son, born after the shipwreck, also bearing the name “Horatio” for the brother who’d gone on before and for his father. This Horatio also died at the age of four, and eight years later, Anna would bury her beloved husband.

This hymn was written from a wellspring of deep sorrow and great loss.

The words bathe the weary soul with gracious truth and comfort.

As a fourteen-year-old gangly girl, preparing for my own voyage across many miles, these words penned more than a century earlier prepared me for a journey into the unknown. And I was keenly aware that God had sovereignly arranged the song service that evening. That was the first time that I noticed God using that hymn at a significant moment in my life to prepare me for something large He was about to do, but it would not be the last.

The move across the country, to Oregon, was providential.

That is where God began to grow me spiritually, under our pastor, in a little church plant that began to take off in growth right about the time that my father was transferred back home. The move out west that I had been so fearful of, proved to be a necessary trial that I’m eternally grateful for. But when it was time for us to leave there, once again I faced fears and dread at the change that was about to take place.

Again, I was standing in a Sunday evening service, the last one before moving away from my beloved church in Oregon, with a heavy heart, when God providentially arranged for this hymn to be sung. And I knew. It was so obvious to me that God was sending a tender assurance to my young heart, that even though I was leaving my church, my pastor, and the only place where I’d ever really grown spiritually . . . He was the One taking me away, and I could trust Him.

And once again, it was well with my soul. Peace flowed.

Throughout my life that has happened more times than I can count: on my first Sunday with LeRoy, when my mom was diagnosed with cancer, when we were leaving a church I loved, shortly before my father stepped into glory, at almost every point in my life when God was about to move me into foreign territory, or do a significant work, or prepare me for loss, He has arranged for me to hear this hymn. It’s really incredible. But no, actually that’s so like God to show Himself through a personal and tender expression of care.

It’s so like Him because He is a good Father.

In July, LeRoy and I led a pastors and wives retreat at the Lodge in Michigan. He was in such intense pain throughout the week, but kept pressing into God’s grace to complete that assignment. The group was unaware of his physical issues. But I knew. Each night, after fitfully sleeping for only two or three hours, the pain would drive him from the bed. He’d pace the floor of our room and silently pray while enduring hours of pain until the sun would rise.

Each morning, he led us in a teaching and prayer time and facilitated discussion. It was a sweet four days with these couples. We cried and laughed together, shared horror stories from our pastorates, and hilarious moments in ministry. It was a good week. And on the final night, one of the pastors led us in a hymn. Yes, it was “my” hymn. And I knew.

God was preparing me again for another significant life change.

After we finished, I thanked Pastor Steve for leading us in that particular hymn and through tears, I tried to share with the group how God has used the hymn at different points in my life (in fewer words than what I’ve typed here!). I told them that I had a real sense that God was preparing us for a significant life change.

When LeRoy fell three weeks later, and lost his ability to walk, the Lord immediately took me back to that night. He took me back to those moments in the Lodge, gathered with precious friends, singing the truth that “It is well . . .” no matter what . . . “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.”

Because of Christ, it is well.

He has regarded my helpless estate, and has rescued my soul, and that is all that really matters. That is where security provides the stability to say “It is well.” That is where peace like a river flows from. He, Himself is our peace (Ephesians 2:14), therefore—all is well.

Has He rescued you? Can you confidently say today that “It is well with your soul?”

I hope you’ll enjoy the song below. My friend, Kelly Needham’s husband is singing, and Pastor John Piper briefly shares the Spafford’s story. If you’re walking through a painful season today, if you’re experiencing loss or suffering, as believers, we can be “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” because of the future grace Christ has prepared for us. We can rest in that peace that flows like a river.

It Is Well with My Soul – Jimmy Needham featuring John Piper from Desiring God on Vimeo.