Philippians 4:7 says,
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus Christ.”
Almost 150 years ago, the words of that verse took on a new meaning for one man.
On November 21, 1873, the French ocean liner, Ville du Havre, collided with the Scottish ship, Loch Earn, while both were crossing the Atlantic. Among the 313 souls on board the Ville du Havre was the wife and children of Horatio G. Spafford, a successful attorney from Chicago.
Mr. Spafford, his wife and four daughters had planned a trip to Europe. His wife, Anna, and their four daughters boarded the Ville du Havre, but business matters held Horatio Spafford in Chicago. His plans were to join them in Europe a few days later.
Four days into the crossing the ships collided. About 12 minutes after the collision, the Ville du Havre sank into the cold waters of the Atlantic, carrying with it 226 of the 313 souls aboard her. Among those were Mr. Spafford’s wife, Anna, and their four young daughters, Annie, Margaret Lee, Bessie and Tanetta.
Some time later, a sailor in a rowboat navigated his small vessel over the spot where the large ship went down. He spotted a woman desperately clinging to floating debris from the collision. That woman was Horatio Spafford’s wife, Anna. She was pulled into the smaller boat alive, and around nine days later, she was eventually delivered safely to Cardiff, Wales. She wired her husband a message which began, “Saved alone, what shall I do?” Among some of the survivors was a clergyman whom we know as Pastor Weiss. He later recalled Anna Spafford saying, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand.”
Mr. Spafford quickly booked passage to join his grieving wife. Almost a week into the passage, the captain of his ship called for Mr. Spafford to join him in his office where he informed him that they were currently over the location where his children went down.
According to Bertha Spafford Lester, a daughter born after the tragedy, Horatio Spafford penned the powerful and poignant lyrics to “It Is Well With My Soul” while on this journey.
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
It is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
Horatio Spafford’s life was spent among horrific grief and loss. Before the tragedy at sea, Horatio Spafford lost a young son to pneumonia. The year was 1871. In that same year, the great Chicago fire would destroy the majority of his business.
Only two short years later in 1873, he would lose his four daughters to the tragedy at sea. And in the years following, he would lose a sixth child to pneumonia.
In August of 1881, the Spaffords moved to Jerusalem. He lived the rest of his life in that city, and he is buried there today.
Life can be hard. Tragedy and death will touch us all at some point, and the man-made fortresses that we erect out of our own strength will simply crumble and fall amidst the weight of pain and grief that only God can heal.
For those who know Christ, He is the only Comforter. It is Christ and Christ alone who can inspire a man who has experienced such great loss to pen the lyrics of a hymn, lyrics claiming peace, while floating above the very location where the ocean consumed his four young daughters.
I love hymns, and I love the stories behind them, for they are often powerful. Those stories give us insight into the minds and hearts of God’s people—people who are often molded into the image of Christ through great sorrow. We can find tremendous hope in the lyrics and songs they have left behind, for they are poetic evidence of God’s hand at work. That same hand is at work today.
I’m thankful for Horatio G. Spafford. His faith and trust were tested in ways that many of us will never experience, yet His love and trust in God enabled him to find peace in the very waters that brought him such a great sorrow.
“…Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” — Job 1:21
He is without equal. He is the pearl of all of Heaven, and His glory is made manifest in all of His creation. His name and title we are unworthy to even speak, yet this same magnificent Christ lovely kneels low to hear what can often be inaudible utterances of pain and grief in the life of His children—children who are often devoid of real joy.
Elisabeth Elliot has it right. “The secret of joy is Christ in me—not me in a different set of circumstances.”
As I studied Hebrews today, this thought occurred to me: Our definition of the joy of Christ is often horribly skewed. Horribly. Horribly skewed. When things are going well, Christ is viewed as good and joy is easy. It’s almost cheap. When life and circumstances take a darker turn, we fail to experience the same cheap and easy joy we thought we possessed previously. In those moments, joy becomes much more expensive, because the true currency of real joy is intimate relationship with Christ. When we “lose our joy” in bad circumstances, the truth may be that we never possessed it to begin with.
Real joy, the joy of the Lord, is not exclusive to only good times; real joy is all inclusive through good times and bad. There's moments that it can be harder to find, but the joy of the Lord is grounded in our recognition and relevant relationship with Jesus Christ, who is the Truth. Real joy cannot be culled or squeezed out of emotion, because human emotion is often the enemy of real truth.
For too many years I’ve seen church services and messages that try desperately to cater to the whimsy of human emotion, and the aforementioned can easily generate an emotional response in the moment. It can catalyze a situational joy, but sadly, that situational joy can be quickly fleeting when the individual is thrust out of church sheltered and planned environment of a church service and back into a world full of very real and ever perplexing evils. People can flood the altar, they can dance, scream and shout, and they can shed tears in response to the triggering of their emotions in the circumstance of a worship service, and then they can walk out of the front doors completely unchanged, still living a life without real joy—living a life where Christ is magnificent at church but almost undetectable elsewhere. They may be living a lie.
We can’t place the foundation of our joy on the pedestal of a church service or a pastor’s message. If we can’t carry that same joy past the front door, through the gossipers and hypocrisy that can often be encountered on our way out of the church building directly following a service, then it may not be genuine.
If we don’t carry that joy into the parking lot, on our trip home and out into a world where pain and grief exist in great quantity, then we don’t possess the real joy of the Lord.
If the circumstances that invoke joy only revolve around a church service or an impassioned message, then we don’t possess the real joy of the Lord; instead, we are only experiencing a flood of deceptive human emotions that lead to no lasting change or joy when times become hard and the currency of real joy becomes tested beyond the boundaries of the church altar.
I’ve watched this very thing occur frequently for over 20 years—incredible church services, inspiring music and moving messages that often seem to generate more momentary emotion than they do relevant change—change leading to more intimacy with Christ, which, in turn, produces foundational joy in the tough times.
My friends, don’t pray for easier circumstances; pray for more Jesus. Don’t let Satan convince you that your alligator tears shed at the church altar on Sunday are sufficient to buy you joy through the succeeding six days, days which can be filled with bad behavior, faithless living and good feelings about a life unchanged by the Gospel while outside of the conditioned-air of a church sanctuary.
Jesus is looking for you, right now...
He’s seeking you out for a conversation regarding who inhabits the throne of your life. He’s offering to you more than eternal security from hell; He’s offering you grace and mercy for struggles and pain, a grace and mercy that embody the only place where real joy resides.
If the secret of your joy is a church service once a week, then your joy is not grounded in Christ, my friend, and it’s not real joy. Churches are easy to find, a real, relevant, life-altering walk with the Lord can only be found by digging deeper than momentary religious activity.
Real joy is relational; it is not situational. God's grace and mercy in your life is not more dynamic in the event of a church service. For the true child of God whose relationship with Christ is intimate and growing, real joy can be found anywhere and in any situation. As I stated previously, it can be harder to find in difficult situations, but it can be found if the relationship is real. Go to church, it's important, but build a greater relationship with Jesus than with the activity of simple church attendance, which can often stir emotions that are subject to change when we walk out of the church and into a world full of strife.
Find Jesus. Find joy.
Life is hard, but for those who really know the Lord, God’s goodness and joy can always be found. Always.
Keith Beatty is a Worship, Missions and Media Pastor living in North Alabama. He's excited and very humbled to be a follower of Jesus Christ!