Facebook has become a difficult place for me. It’s been so hard for me to go on my newsfeed and see a constant stream of healthy newborn babies who were safely delivered by God into the arms of their mommies. I am sincerely happy for my friends on Facebook, but it is also incredibly difficult to see what God has chosen to write for one person’s story, since He has chosen something so very different for mine. My baby was born into the arms of Jesus. I know if I fully understood the depth of those nine words I would be overwhelmed with gratitude that that is what God chose for Charlie’s life. I know that as I am writing, Charlie is in the very presence of God and that as He promises, “in His presence there is fullness of joy.”
But, I’m still so very sad for me. Sad for me that my baby is not with me today. And sometimes I feel absolutely overwhelmed and beaten down by that reality. I really think it is ok for my heart to feel the endless gamut of emotions that come from having to bury a newborn baby, and I am trying hard to let my heart feel everything I need to feel as we grieve not getting to live life with Charlie. But…the one emotion I feel very hesitant to sit in for too long is self-pity.
It feels like a dangerous thing to sit in self-pity for any length of time, because I know that in the end, both throughout human history and even today, most people who have lived have actually suffered deeply. I think John Piper says it best, “If you haven’t suffered much yet, don’t worry…your day is coming.” Suffering, is a part of life. And as much as we try to escape it here in our glistening tower of american freedom and democracy…death seems to be the great leveler of nations and peoples, because death comes to everybody. But in the moments when I have most felt myself slipping into the dark abyss of self-pity, the Lord has been so kind to bring truth to my mind. Truth from His Word. Truth about His love. Truth about His wisdom. Truth about His sovereign rule over my life. And also, truth about how He has worked in the lives of others who have experienced unimaginable suffering.
One of the people that the Lord specifically keeps bringing to my mind is the late Horatio Spafford. Most of you have heard of his hymn “It is Well with My Soul,” and many of you know a little of his story, but as I continue to think about the full story of Horatio’s incredible life of suffering and heart of faith…the man seriously encourages me daily. I don’t know why more people don’t name their sons “Horatio” because this guy was amazing! : )
Horatio and his wife Elizabeth were well known in 1860’s Chicago. Horatio was a wealthy and prominent lawyer, faithful follower of Christ, and a dear friend and supporter of the great evangelist D.L. Moody. Life seemed to be going along just swimmingly for the Spafford’s when they encountered their first tragedy with the death of their only son in 1870. Their sweet son died of pneumonia at the age of four. (Write that down. It will be important later.) If this was the only thing that ever happened to the Spafford’s I can say from experience now, that burying a beloved son is an overwhelming tragedy. It may be common to “life” but it was not common to me, and I know that burying our baby boy has been the heartbreak of our lives. And it may not be our only heartbreak. It was not the only heartbreak in Spafford’s case. In fact, it was just the beginning. You would think that burying their son would have been the Spafford’s “fair share” of life’s sorrow and sufferings, but the very next year the Great Chicago fire of 1871 swept through the city and wiped out almost all of Spafford’s real estate investments and holdings. The Spafford’s life was quickly becoming a picture of a modern day Job. And then…enter the insurmountable tragedy.
Shortly after the Chicago fire, Spafford decided to take his wife and remaining children on a holiday to Europe. At the last minute, Spafford had to stay behind because of a business emergency so he sent his wife and four small daughters ahead of him on the steamship the Ville du Havre. While crossing the Atlantic, the Ville du Havre was struck by an iron sailing ship and all four of his daughters drowned on November 22, 1873. The last thing his wife saw before she was struck unconscious was the waters ripping her hands away from the hands of her baby. Elizabeth had thought she was going to die, but a wood board floated undnerneath her and when she opened her eyes she was on a rescue boat headed for England. One of the first things she thought in that moment of deepest despair was something her friend had said to her one time, “God doesn’t want you for a fair weather friend.” Elizabeth cabled Horatio when she arrived in England with a message that said, “Saved alone.” Endless suffering summed up in two short words. Can you imagine the depths of sorrow in the heart of a father as he read a cable that told him that now all five of his children had died?
And here’s where the story gets really amazing. As Horatio headed to England to meet up with his devastated wife his ship passed over the exact location where the bodies of his four precious girls were buried. The ship’s captain told him where the Ville du Havre had gone down and in this moment of deep agony Horatio went down to his cabin and penned one of the greatest hymns of all time.
This was not even the end of Horatio’s suffering. He and his wife returned to Chicago and were told by their church that these tragedies were a result of “divine punishment.” As if they didn’t have anything else to grieve, the Spafford’s now had to deal with people who make Job’s lame friends look absolutely heroic. But in spite of endless tragedy and being blamed for it by others, the Spafford’s continued through it all to put their trust and hope in Christ. They went on to trust the Lord to provide three more children. And then, when their son Horatio was four-years-old, he died of scarlet fever. Yet another precious life to grieve. Yet another child to bury. The Spafford’s moved to Jerusalem soon after little Horatio’s death to serve the Lord there for the rest of their lives. God’s “fair weather friends” they were not. The Spafford’s served Him faithfully even to their dying day.
I’m sure your heart is hurting even as you read this story. Can you believe that this was their lives? On my darkest and hardest days, I think constantly about the kind of relationships that Elizabeth and Horatio must have had with the Lord Jesus to trust Him relentlessly through tragedy after tragedy. I love how the hymn says, “Thou has taught me to say, It is well with my soul.” I find great comfort and hope in the fact that it was the Lord who taught them to treasure Him above all they had lost in life. To treasure Christ above the loss of all of their wealth and material gain. To treasure Christ above the insults and spiritual abuse of being told by others that all of this tragedy was somehow their “fault” for disobedient lives. To treasure Christ above the loss of six of their eight children. These aren’t just numbers, they were real babies the Spafford’s had made, and bore, and loved, and named.
Not a moment goes by that I’m not thinking about our sweet baby Charlie. He is always on my mind. He who we also made and bore and loved and named. He who we also buried. But I am encouraged deeply by the faithful lives and steadfast hearts of Horatio and Elizabeth Spafford who carried an unfathomable weight of suffering, and still chose to take God at His Word, and treasure knowing Christ above the loss of absolutely everything. I am so thankful for the faith of Horatio Spafford who, even on the darkest night of his soul, could still with great faith write,
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.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
I miss my baby so much today that I physically ache. And yet, whatever my lot, I am also slowly being taught to sincerely say, “It is well, It is well, with my soul.” It is a long, slow, painful journey. And a road that each of us who follow Christ must take. Can you imagine though, what it would be like if we who believe in Jesus were taught by Him to trust Him relentlessly that He is to be treasured above all things? It would impact the whole world for generations to come, just as Horatio’s faith has impacted yours and mine.