Like most time-tested hymns and almost every book of the Bible, “It Is Well with My Soul” was birthed from faith mixed with pain. Whenever our people at Christ Presbyterian Church sing it together (as we often do), I look around to see how it is affecting our people. Without fail, those who sing the hymn with the greatest gusto are the suffering. People battling cancer, mental illness, addiction, bereavement, rejection, unemployment, pandemic fears, and other trials bellow the lyrics in a way that says, “This is my song.”
Without fail, those who sing the hymn with the greatest gusto are the suffering.
What compels afflicted souls to keep singing, hoping, believing, and pressing forward in the face of gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, life-busting circumstances and cry out from the gut, “It is well”? It’s the promises of Scripture working by and with the animating work of the Holy Spirit, pressing these promises into frail, fearfully and wonderfully made human hearts.
My friend and singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken beautifully captures Christian hope in her song “Fool’s Gold.” Concerning suffering, she sings, “If it’s not okay, then it is not the end. And this is not okay, so I know this is not the end.”
As believers in Christ, we are living somewhere in the middle chapters of the God’s story. These middle chapters, like all good stories, are fraught with drama and setbacks and angst and loss. But the final and future chapter that awaits us will go on forever. At that time, things like death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more. The new heaven and new earth will be our new, never to be rescinded, everlasting reality.
According to the promise, Tolkien’s notion of everything sad coming untrue is true. Likewise, C. S. Lewis’s parallel notion of the last and everlasting chapter in which every day is better than the day before is also true.
As a pastor, I’ve had the privilege of sitting with people in their final moments in which the promises are ignited and amplified. These are valiant souls facing our worst and final enemy with both sobriety and hope.
Deteriorating from terminal cancer, the 35-year-old Brian said to me, “I’ve learned to thank God for the good I cannot see.”
Al, another cancer victim in his early 60s, pledged to wear his “Happy Socks” every day for the remainder of his life to remind himself and others that sickness, sorrow, pain, and death will not have the last word . . . but resurrection will.
These are valiant souls facing our worst and final enemy with both sobriety and hope.
Susan, a third cancer victim, peacefully thanked God for the life he had given her as she planned her own funeral. With otherworldly confidence and joy, she hoped that even through her death she would get to tell family and friends that “it is well” because of Christ who died, who is risen, and who will come again.
John, whose body was wasting away from ALS, learned what Paul called the secret of contentment. “I’ve been a Bible reader all of my life,” he told me. “Somewhere along the way, I guess it all sunk in. And because of this, I have joy.”
Janet, whose dementia progressed quickly, said her greatest fear was that she might forget Jesus. Her husband grabbed her hand and reminded her that even if she did, Jesus would never forget her.
And the saints cry, “It is well, it is well with my soul.”
For better and for worse, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health—especially in times of pandemic, instability, loss, and even death—it is praiseworthy that the promises of God are true yesterday, today, and forever. Not one promise is threatened in the slightest by circumstance or tragedy. Come what may, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. If this was true for Paul, who faced death all day long, it must also be true for us.
Indeed, this pandemic and all other forms of pandemonium are not okay.
And if it’s not okay, then it is not the end.