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.
The beautiful words of the famous hymn “It Is Well With My Soul” were not written at a time of peace. Though they sound more appropriate for a day at the beach or a scenic walk in the outdoors, these lyrics were born from a dark place.
Hope in Pain
Horatio Spafford earned a fortune in real estate investments in the mid-1800s. But he didn’t write this hymn during those days of success. His life was filled with tragedies in the days to come. He lost his fortune in the great Chicago fire of 1871. He lost his four-year-old son to scarlet fever soon after. He then lost all four of his daughters in a shipwreck after sending them on the boat to enjoy a vacation in Europe.
When he hit rock bottom, Job still cried out, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).
If anyone ever had reason to despair, it was Spafford. Yet it was only after these tragedies, as he stared at the very spot where his daughters’ ship had sunk, that he found the inspiration to write one of the most beloved hymns ever. Can you imagine the strength it took to find peace in his soul in the midst of this storm? He didn’t just praise God for teaching him to find contentment. He used the very instrument of his tragedy—sea billows—as a declaration of victory!
His story sounds a bit like Job’s. Each man lost his wealth and his children in a short span of time. Yet neither man gave in to the crippling weight of their tragedies. Instead, their intensely tested faith proved true. When he hit rock bottom, Job still cried out, “The Lᴏʀᴅ gave, and the Lᴏʀᴅ has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lᴏʀᴅ” (Job 1:21).
A Year of Pain, a Year of Lessons
I bet you’ve felt this way in the past year. There’s no doubt about it: This was a tough year. Many of us probably felt driven to the point of desperation in recent months.
It’s tempting to chalk up 2020 as a lost year and pretend it never happened. But to do that would be to ignore the lessons God has taught us through our suffering. James 1:2–4 shares the benefit of enduring suffering: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”
So what can we learn?
1. Enduring trials is a reason to rejoice, even if you don’t feel like rejoicing.
The apostle Paul was a big advocate of this concept. After being imprisoned, whipped, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, made to starve and suffer the cold without proper clothing, Paul knew about trials probably more than anyone else. Yet he often talked about the joy we can find in trials. He echoed James’ words in Romans 5:3: “We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance.”
We must endure trials to develop the patience and faith that make us more like Jesus.
Then again he says we should be “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation” (12:12). This isn’t an easy pill to swallow, and it’s one I’ve personally struggled with. Why should I be happy when hard things happen to me? Here’s the reason:
2. Trials that test your faith grow patience in you.
The encouraging news is that we’re not meant to go through trials just for the sake of going through trials. There’s a purpose to our suffering: patience. It was hard to be patient this year for many of us, I’m sure. Whether that meant staying home for months unable to enjoy the things we’re accustomed to, or whether that meant enduring pain, loss, or sad changes, patience was something we all needed but probably struggled to demonstrate. But God promised that enduring these hard things would lead to patience for us, which leads us to the purpose of patience:
3. Patience is the key to completing your faith.
Here we see how we can emerge safely on the other side of our trials. The patience we develop from our struggles produces complete faith in Christ. The tests we face are not meant to destroy us but to push us closer to Christ, which helps us develop a deeper trust in Him. Though the trials are painful, this is a beautiful process that only strengthens our spiritual walk. It’s through these weaknesses that He is glorified and we are strengthened, as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:10: “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
We must be willing to nurture our faith not just by praising Him in times of triumph but by walking with Him patiently in times of trouble.
We experience this type of relationship with others, too. Have you ever had to struggle through a painful experience with a friend? I remember getting lost on a hike with a friend many years ago. I was terrified that we would never find our way out of the mountain caverns, and it was a scary afternoon as we wandered, failing time after time to find the rest of our group. When we finally found them hours later, we were so relieved to be safe. We remembered that hike and brought it up to each other many times, knowing we’d grown closer through the trial. In this same spirit, we grow closer to Christ through suffering, as He walks through our trials with us safely to the other side.
Did you feel like rejoicing when you had to change your way of living this year? How about when you saw injustice and violence dominating the world? How about when you endured sickness or lost loved ones? There’s nothing easy about any of those hardships. But enduring easy things isn’t the goal. We must endure trials to develop the patience and faith that make us more like Jesus.
This year shouldn’t be forgotten. Ideally it will be remembered as a year of spiritual growth, a time when God metaphorically grabbed us by the shoulders, looked us in the eye, and said, “Don’t give up!” We must be willing to nurture our faith not just by praising Him in times of triumph but by walking with Him patiently in times of trouble.
Do you feel like God has forsaken you or tested you beyond what you can bear? Be assured, your Heavenly Father will never do either of these things. His promises are true, His love endures, and His faithfulness remains. That means even when we face situations we’ve never faced before, situations that might seem too painful to bear, we can find our contentment, our peace, our wellness in our soul, in the presence of the Lord. Always remember: You can come to His feet at any time to cast “all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).