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Is It Well With My Soul?

By Bryan Clarke

Is It Well with my Soul?

Horatio Spafford’s hymn, It is Well with my Soul has resonated with people over the years since he wrote in light of the brutal tragedy of losing so much, including his children. From a very young age I can remember singing and appreciating this song at various levels of my own spiritual understanding and growth. When I learned the history of the song it took on a new meaning for me beyond just a lighthearted sense that I was doing OK. When my own daughter was taken from us the song changed for me again as I tried to sing the words, even two years after losing Melissa, and I could barely let them cross my lips.

Spiritual wellness is a deeper and more nuanced concept than I could ever have comprehended prior to these years of wrestling with grief and seeking to find a language to express myself again. To sing “it is well with my soul” is so difficult for someone who has a hard time living in simplicity as it is, and when I try to sing of this “wellness” all thoughts and words falter and appear simplistic. In recognizing the complexity I think something can be said about spiritual wellness that might speak to people who are asking in light of tragedy and suffering, “Is it well with my soul?” How can miserable, struggling, broken people sing these words?

“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”.

Ordinary Wellness

A binary of wellness presents itself in this song amidst the heart paradoxes that Spafford aptly names. The ordinary wellness is expressed in the peace that attends our way. This wellness reflects for me the receiving of grace that occurs in the life of a Christian. Grace received brings a deep sense of peace to our souls (persons) and remains with us along the way. So when life brings rolling “sea billows” that ordinary wellness still remains but now a deep struggle ensues.

Outcome Based Wellness

Grief rolls in and overwhelms. Context challenges us with anything we read, sing, or view. Singing this hymn during a time of life where things appear smooth can give support for future challenges, yet a tendency can also be to glibly sing “It is well with my soul” during this time pandering to escapism. Unfortunately, the one in broken circumstances or specifically grieving loss while singing this song can look around and compare their lives to others. This can be an “outcome based wellness” for those in a smooth momentary path as if to say – glad my life is going well, thus it is well with my soul; and those in brokenness can also put too much stock in the “whys” wondering about the great lives other people have. Spafford avoids this thinking as he brings out times of “peace like a river” or “sorrows like sea billows roll” living in the tension instead of saying the outcome of my life is because of what I am doing at current moment. He doesn’t point us to karma but to grace when he reminds us “thou hast taught me to say…”. I am taught this despite what I see around me. This line in the song resonates with my own grief helping me to distinguish an ultimate sense of wellness from ordinary and outcome based wellness.

Ultimate Wellness

From ordinary and outcomes based wellness, this song brought me a reminder of what I am growing to understand as ultimate wellness. While I can’t as a grieving person easily sing “it is well with my soul” in the current moment, the pain is too close to home, the chasm in my heart is too deep, yet I can sing it in light of what I read about the “not yet” of the future hope when “clouds are rolled up like a scroll”. This ultimate wellness is displayed in later verses of the song when he mentions the totality of forgiveness we receive as a gift – not in part but the whole of our sins forgiven by Christ further shown when “faith is made sight” in a new world coming. In this sense, it is well with my soul and despite the inability for the broken to sing now with any fervour, there will be a day when all things are made new as Sam in LOTR says, “is everything sad being made untrue”. I do look forward to seeing Melissa again, and while it feels so long, I await a day I can hold her in my arms and say “it is well with my soul”.

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