Just after the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, I spent ten weeks in Jerusalem. One afternoon I was invited to have tea with Mrs. Bertha Spafford Vester, who had lived there all of her ninety one years. A fascinating woman, she was the fifth daughter of Horatio Spafford, who wrote, ‘It is well with my soul’. The story of that beautiful hymn is familiar to many, but Mrs. Vester added details which were new to me.
The great Chicago fire of the 1870s caused Spafford, a wealthy businessman, to take stock of his life. Wanting to know Jesus better, he decided to sell everything and move to the land where he had walked. Shortly before the ship sailed, he was delayed by business, but took the family to New York. For some reason which he was unable to explain he had the purser change their cabin, moving them closer to the bow. He returned to Chicago to finish his business. Then came a telegram: ‘Saved alone’. The ship had sunk. Mrs. Spafford had survived. Their four daughters had perished. Had they been in the cabin originally resented amidships, all five would have drowned, for it was just there that the steamer had been struck by another vessel.
As we sipped tea and munched on Arab sweets, Mrs. Vester, who was not born until after the disaster, told me how her mother had described that terrible black night when she and her four little girls were flung into the cold sea. Frantically she had tried to save them. Barely, she had been able to touch with her fingertips the hem of the little gown of one, but could not grasp it. She herself had been miraculously rescued as she floated unconscious on a piece of flotsam.
During Mr. Spafford’s voyage to join his wife in France, the captain summoned him one day to the bridge. Pointing to his charts he explained that it was just here, where they were at the moment, that the other ship had gone down. Spafford wrote the hymn which has comforted countless thousands (among them five widows at a memorial service in Ecuador in 1956).
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.’
That word ‘lot’ is not one we often use in quite that way. It means whatever happens, that which comes by the will of the powers that rule our destiny, a share, a portion, an assignment. When we draw lots, no human power controls which will be ours, hence lottery.
But Christians know that we are not at the mercy of chance. A loving hand, a great wisdom, and an omnipotent power rule our destiny. The government of all is on the mighty shoulders of Christ himself, who sees everything long before it happens. All is intended for our blessing. How different things look to us! Yet think of the faith of Horatio Spafford, suffering the loss of all his children, writing, ‘Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, “It is well…”‘
To love God is to love his will. That which he gives we receive. That which he takes we relinquish, ‘as glad to know ourselves in the hands of God as we should be sorry to be in our own,’ as Fenelon said. With what astonishment – of gladness or receive some things! With what reluctance or delight we relinquish others! Yet we find that we can bear our own sufferings, while of others’ sufferings we say, ‘That I could never bear!’ Jim, whose wife has cancer, wrote to me, ‘The assignment is so hard, but always there are the gracious winks of heaven-a friend stopping by, a plumber coming at the perfect moment. Coincidences? Not to one with the eyes of faith.’
God shields us from most of the things we fear, but when he chooses not to shield us, he unfailingly allots grace in the measure needed. It is for us to choose to receive or refuse it. Our joy or our misery will depend on that choice.
Find out more about the inspiring life and writings of Elizabeth Elliot.