When Sorrows Like Sea Billows Roll

Christian Womanhood

Unless we’re close – down the street, in your life kind of close – all we can see of other’s lives is what they show us. People assume that if someone doesn’t dump their vulnerability onto the internet, they don’t struggle or experience pain.

There are all kinds of grief. All kinds of loss. Sometimes it feels like a loss before anything has even happened yet. I know the temptation to get my grief carried; the belief that I just need one more person to help me up, to lift the weight. Maybe if I pour it onto the internet, get a bunch of comments, a bunch of solidarity, then I’ll find peace? But when I run out of people or when I realize they still have lives to live, I’m left here with my grieving. As the hymn writer put it: The sorrows like sea billows roll.

I have too good a life to be this sad. 

That’s the other thing I believe. If people can’t fix it, then I’ll fix it myself. You shouldn’t feel this way. Aren’t you grateful? This is the life you dreamed of, get it together! Be a big girl.

As we hold the pain in our hearts, trying to guide our little boats through the storm, we tell ourselves the lie: If I can just keep the sails aloft, if I can just make it over this wave, if I can just – 

But the sea billows keep coming. And what then?

At some point the willpower runs out. The arrangement of circumstances, the self-care strategies, the little tips and tricks and Real Simple hacks – they stop working. You’re left clinging to ship as the waves slap its sides and toss it to and fro and you can’t even remember what a quiet harbor feels like.

The sorrows like sea billows roll.

The author of the hymn It is Well With My Soul was Horatio Spafford. Horatio’s first loss was his four year old son, shortly followed by the loss of his successful law firm in the Great Chicago Fire. He planned to help D.L. Moody with an evangelistic campaign to England, but because of the Fire was delayed from joining immediately and instead sent his wife and four daughters ahead. On their journey overseas, a storm assailed the Ville du Havre ship and all four of Horatio’s daughters died. His wife alone survived.

When Horatio later passed by the place of the shipwreck, he wrote the words we know today as It is Well With My Soul.

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It is well, (it is well),
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

(Read the rest of the song here)

If I compare my trials to Horatio’s they pale in comparison, but I don’t think that’s the point. What makes Horatio’s words so powerful is what makes the Psalms so powerful and Job’s lament so powerful: A turning from grief to God. No one on earth will ever fully understand, resonate with, or enter into the pain. No one on earth can be expected to. No one on earth sees the end from the beginning – except Him. Only Christ.

The book of Job describes the story of a man who, like Horatio, lost everything. All his children died, his business and home and health were taken, and he was left with a bitter and grieving wife who told him to commit suicide rather than live in such pain. Job continues to put faith in God, including in Job 19:25. My version of Scripture (CSB) has a unique translation of Job 19:25. Most versions say, “I know my Redeemer lives and in the end he will stand upon the earth.” But my version says, “I know my Redeemer lives, and He will stand on the dust at last.”

This translation has been a great comfort to me, for in the dust of what we hope for, the dust of what we planned, the crumbs of the feast we expected, He is still standing. He is still there.

And that is why Horatio could say, “It is well,” even as the billows of sorrow rolled over his heart.

And that is what we return to when the sorrow billows over us.

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