Friday, July 23, 2010

"Wellness of the Soul"

Based on the hymn “It is well with my soul” by Horatio Spafford, 1873 

We live in a time when “wellness” is a buzzword. Wellness of body, wellness of mind, wellness in our emotions, wellness in our finances, relationships, almost any area of life is addressed by whether or not we are “well” in that regard. As Christians, it is the constant daily judgment call as to whether we are walking in each of these areas according to God’s will and direction, whether we are allowing Christ to dwell in us fully so that every one of these areas is under His control and producing the fruit that He desires in us. (Colossians 3:16 "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom…”) Obviously the best outcome would be that every single area of our lives as Believers are indeed governed by His loving grace and His holy standards of righteousness so that we daily learn to walk with Him more fully and become conformed to the image of Jesus. Under those circumstances, we would say that all of those areas are “well”, that they are just as they should be, and that we can be content with how our lives are progressing.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we are seldom in such a state that every area of our lives is indeed in such a state of wellness. Oh, we might be generally at peace, or for the most part functioning without serious turmoil or trauma…but to say that we are completely well in every area would be a reach. Horatio Spafford knew what this was like. Mr. Spafford lost his home and his considerable business holdings during the Chicago fire of 1871, and had set about making plans to rebuild his business and home. In 1873, he sent his wife and four daughters ahead of him on a ship bound for England, with the plan to follow them a short time later. On November 22, 1873, the ship that Mrs. Spafford and the girls traveled on sank at sea, and of the family only Mrs. Spafford survived…all four of the daughters drowned. While traveling to England to meet his bereaved wife, Horatio Spafford penned the words to the well-known hymn, “It is well with my soul”. But let’s back up for a second. This man had just suffered loss on nearly every side. He was, by all standards, NOT in a state of “wellness”! He was in deep grief over losing his only four children, he had lost his home by fire, he was re-building his business, he was under immense emotional stress, probably lacking sleep and, like most people experiencing grief and hardship, not eating quite normally. All of these things add up to one very “NOT-well” individual…and yet he wrote “It is well with my soul”.

Do we see the point here? He didn’t lie to himself and say it was well with everything in the world, while he was going through tragedy after tragedy. He didn’t suggest that his unfathomable losses were of little consequence or that they were minor setbacks rather than major hardships. He recognized the situation for the painful challenge that it was, yet in the midst of it he said it was well with his SOUL. He lost his home. His business. His livelihood. His children. Possibly his physical health. And yet he said that it was well with his soul.

We do not always live in the midst of peace. Our world is rife with discord. Troubles abound; wars rage; sickness ravages with no regard for the young or old, the good or the evil; crime is rampant; natural disasters occur without warning, and we as Believers in Jesus often look upward and wonder when will there be relief from the hardships that life throws at us? At such times it makes sense that we would struggle. Definitely, when troubles come we do not see peace in our surroundings. This makes sense. But what about when we ARE at peace? What about those times when life seems to be rolling along like a song and we really don’t have much to be upset about? Either way, it is well. But not because of any momentary lack of struggle or strife in our lives. Jesus said in John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” It may or may not be well with the peace of the world, but it is well with our soul in the midst of whatever peace we live within…or without.

I said my final goodbye to my Dad on December 13th, 1997. I felt like someone had cut off both of my legs, I was so lost after his passing. Never did I know such extreme grief until the loss of our six month old son on October 25th, 2006. Again, my grief was so overwhelming that at times I feared I would suffocate under the sheer weight of it…and at other times I wished I would. The loss was so intense that I couldn’t see how life could ever be right again. Oh, I knew life would “go on”, but deep in my heart I believed that nothing in my world would ever again be beautiful and bright and lovely…my pain blinded me to any hope of goodness , or to the love of a gracious God who was carrying me through every moment of that grievous time. I had always said, “I can handle just about any trial that comes my way, I could trust God and bear up under whatever hardship comes, as long as nothing ever happens to one of my children. Losing a child would do me in.” Now suddenly I was in the midst of the greatest pain and deepest fear I had ever considered, and I was lost. Ask anyone who knew me at that time, I was definitely not well. I was an emotional train wreck. I wasn’t eating, I couldn’t sleep, my ability to focus on even small tasks was severely compromised. I was forgetful and depressed. I fled every church service I tried to attend because even the mention of a baby or the sound of an infant in the congregation would reduce me to tearful sobbing. My husband and I were utterly broken. Horatio Spafford would have understood perfectly. I can imagine that he would have sat quietly, tears likely spilling down his own face, taken our hands and said something like “Let us pray together, for my heart knows the very same pain that yours does.” Sorrow. Grief. Suffering. Loss. They rip our hearts out and cause us to feel decidedly NOT well. And yet…”it is well with my SOUL”, Horatio Spafford said. Paul said in Philippians 4:12-13 “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” My emotions may flail about searching for relief, my mind may cry out for the blessedness of sleep to restore strength and clarity of thought, my body may ache with fatigue and tension, my heart continue to beat even though I cannot see how it possibly can wracked as it is with spasms of pain…yet my SOUL lives outside of these realms where pain attacks. My soul is with Christ in Heavenly places, and His Spirit lives in the deepest recesses of my heart no matter how heavy that heart may feel to me. Christ in me…”the hope of glory”, Paul wrote to the Colossians (1:27). Me in Christ…the safety and assurance of my place in the Father’s house! Paul reminded the Ephesians (2:6) that our Father loved us so much, even when we were lost and dead in sin, that He saved us through His grace “and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”. That is the TRUTH: no matter what sorrow befalls me, no matter how severe or how devastating any grief may be…it is well with my SOUL.

Satan asked the Lord to allow him to sift Peter like wheat. Now, I grew up in farmland and I know what wheat sifting looks like. I don’t entertain even the slightest notion that it is something I would want to have done to ME! Stripping the chaff, tossing the wheat kernels in order to free them of any debris, passing them through the machines designed to remove everything that is not supposed to be there and leave only the clean grains…can we see the picture here? Satan asked to do all of that to Peter. He asked to be allowed to take Peter through the wringer. To strip away his outer shell, the walls around himself that kept Peter safe from the external confrontations the world might bring. To toss him, mix him up, spin him around, pour him out again, throw him into the air, and ultimately lay him quietly in the cool darkness. Jesus didn’t tell Peter, “Hey, but don’t worry, I would never let that old bugger get a hold of you,” or “Now don’t fret, this won’t hurt a bit”.
Jesus told Peter that He had PRAYED for him. Now, tell me Peter didn’t shake in his sandals at hearing THAT! Jesus the Messiah, having walked on water, healed who knows how many sick people, raised more than one person from the dead, calmed a storm with nothing more than a verbal command…He told Peter, “I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” (Luke 22:32). In other words, Jesus had no intention of stopping Satan from doing exactly what he had asked to do…he would be permitted to sift Peter. Jesus knew that all that would preserve Peter would be the power of God Himself, and so He prayed for His disciple. He trusted His Father yet again to handle things as He saw fit, knowing that His way was always the best way, that He loved Peter more than anyone else ever could, and that the very best that He could do was to place Peter firmly into His Father’s loving hands. Peter was held in those mighty hands through every trial he ever faced, right up through his own crucifixion upside-down…he was never out of the Father’s powerful grasp. Satan sifted him, all right. Pulverized him. Beat him, taunted him, stole his sleep, tormented his mind and dealt out agony to his flesh. But again the TRUTH…it was well with Peter’s SOUL, even as he hung dying, crucified for his faith. Satan DOES attack. He does “buffet” us, as a storm blowing against a mountainside or a gust of freezing rain lashing at a rock face. He throws every negative thing at us that he can, seeking to destroy us to our very core. Don’t ever think that the devil is just a little red guy with horns and a pitchfork, running around poking at us on occasion and trying to get us to make little mistakes. He is no such little thing. He does not seek to bother or bug us, to just annoy us with his frustrating antics. No. Please remember that Satan was once an angel in the Heavenlies, acquainted with the greatness of God and well-versed in the many ways that God’s creation can be damaged, scarred, and ultimately destroyed. THAT is what he wants to do. Peter himself taught that “the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour”, and that we must “resist him, steadfast in the faith…” (1Peter 5:8,9). We may not find ourselves crucified upside-down like Peter was, but we do face attacks of various kinds. Perhaps God will allow Satan to inflict us with an illness, bring about an injury, send discouragement or turmoil or some other hardship our way, not because He doesn’t love us but because those trials draw us closer to Him as we look to Him as our source of all comfort. He knows what we are made of and where our strength comes from, (“For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.” Psalm 103:14) but do we? Do we see our weaknesses? The places where we need to give more attention to God’s designs and more effort to seek out His plans for us? Do we rest fully in His care without trying to manipulate things our own way? Even if we think we do all those things just right, God may exercise His right, in His good judgment and as a loving Father, to allow Satan to sift us like wheat just as he did Peter. If that happens – WHEN that happens – can we see that even when Satan buffets, even when we are under direct attack, it is well…with our SOUL? Or even when trials come that have nothing to do with a demonic attack, but are just part of daily life here on this big blue ball hurtling through space. Sometimes we can’t tell which it is, the hand of Satan, or just ordinary human struggle. When the law of gravity comes into play and we simply fall. Even THEN, it is well with my soul.

By now some folks might be thinking, “Yeah, that’s great to SAY, but when the chips are down and the buffalo’s empty, how in the world are we supposed to make that REAL? How do we actually make that a TRUTH and not just a platitude in our lives?” It is not up to us to do anything at all except for one thing, and that is to realize that we can do nothing at all. Sound like circular reasoning? Follow Horatio Spafford into the third verse of his hymn: “For Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and has shed His own blood for my soul”! Hear me now. It is not up to us to “make anything well”. Did you hear me? Let me say it again: “IT IS NOT UP TO US TO MAKE ANYTHING WELL”. It is not up to me to make my soul well, it is up to the Father who keeps my soul safe to keep it well. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that I have no responsibility to seek God, to follow His Word, to look to Jesus as my example, etc. Of course those are all things that we as Believers should always be doing. But even so, those things do not now, nor did they ever, earn our salvation or buy God’s grace like a cheap reward for following the rules. In our state of sin we were helpless to save ourselves. In our state of salvation, we are helpless to preserve ourselves. God’s grace alone draws us to Himself, plants faith in our hearts to believe His promises, and extends mercy through the shed blood of His Son who gave His own life in order to restore us to fellowship with the Father. Jude verse 24 speaks of “Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy…”. God is able to keep safe what He has placed in us, namely His own Spirit. But you might say, “Yes, but then what if the Father chooses NOT to draw us to Himself?? How fair and loving is THAT? We would have no choice, we couldn’t come to Him no matter what! We would be lost through no fault of our own!” But that would not be true. God desires that all men come to repentance and to know and love Him as their Father (2Peter 3:9). He acts accordingly, by His wisdom and boundless love for mankind as His treasured creation. There is no unfairness in God, not sarcasm, no desire to trick us. It is not up to us to make anything happen, but it IS up to us to respond when the Spirit of God calls us to turn to Him. Christ regards us in our helpless estate. God sees our frame and He knows that we are dust (Psalm 103:14). He strengthens us according to His own Word, which is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). HE does the work…all we have to do is accept it and walk in it. Accept. Walk. Accept more. Keep walking. Keep accepting. Keep walking.

But sometimes we still think we need more to go on. We are, after all, rational, intelligent human beings who demand answers to questions and would like reasons for the things we are supposed to do. We deserve answers, don’t we? Well…no, not really. Just ask Job. God is not obligated to tell us anything, but I think He had fun revealing the end of His plan to John in the solitude of Patmos just so we could one day read “the rest of the story”. How this all wraps up is no mystery. There is no need to sit in puzzlement, because God told us what was going to happen and what to expect as the end of history unfolds. Why do we have hope? How can we possibly hold on when we are at our wit’s end and we see nothing good coming our way? Horatio Spafford must have asked some of these very same questions in some moments, but he knew where to look for the answers. He knew the rest of the story. He knew that God did not leave us in the dark, asking us to blindly trust Him or to just assume that everything would somehow work out. No, Horatio read the Book and received strength to carry him through. “Oh Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll”, he wrote. There was no question that the day would come, just a plea for it to come quickly! Roll those clouds back, Lord, and please don’t wait very long! “The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend…”. Okay…the clouds roll back, trumpets heard everywhere, and down comes the Lord Himself! Isaiah, during his vision of God’s throne, fell on his face and cried out, “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts”(Isaiah 6:5)…and yet God’s people will see Jesus coming in the clouds and rejoice at His coming! No “woe is me”, but “Yes! Come, Lord Jesus!” THAT is the hope! Face-to-face fellowship, seeing Him in His glory and being able to marvel at His appearance! Being completely restored, no broken bonds, nothing left undone or incomplete, no pain, no sorrow, no more being sifted like wheat! It’s DONE! Here He comes, I’m in the family, let’s go! THAT is the hope He holds out to us. THAT is why we can say “It is well with my soul” in the midst of all these other things that WILL happen until He appears.

“It is well with my Soul” by Horatio Spafford, 1873

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.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control,
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
and hath shed his own blood for my soul.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
even so, it is well with my soul.

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