It is well with my soul.
A beautiful sentiment, a moving song. And a stirring point for me to bear in mind, especially when other things are, well, not-so-well:
When it is not well with my health.
When it is not well with my family.
With my bank account.
With my job.
Even then, it is well with my soul.
But when I am facing times of trials and troubles, somehow the idea that things are well with my soul feels like a last-resort kind of inspiration or a bottom-of-the-barrel type of encouragement.
You know the sort of reductionist philosophy:
“Well, I lost my job, my husband is deployed, my kid is flunking algebra, my car’s in the shop, my mom’s in the hospital, and I was supposed to bring the casserole I just burned to the church potluck, but, hey, at least it’s well with my soul!”
In this case, saying “it is well with my soul” is a lot like saying “it could be worse” or “God’s got this” or “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” And while very true, these phrases often ring hollow for us. They feel like a half-hearted attempt to keep our chin up, a stock phrase to fall back on when we need something not-altogether-disheartening to tell other people. Or to tell ourselves.
While phrases of this kind can help us keep our perspective in check and conduct ourselves in social settings with some sense of decorum, they can sometimes be problematic when we hear them from other people.
Take, for example, the aforementioned example. Let’s say we are in fact at a church potluck when we are approached by a pleasant, well-meaning acquaintance who says hello and asks (almost as a reflex) how we are doing. And we, in a moment of terrifying honesty, reply with the same state of affairs as above:
“Well, I lost my job, my husband is deployed, my kid is flunking algebra, my car’s in the shop, my mom’s in the hospital, and I burned the casserole I was supposed to bring to the potluck tonight.”
At which time the well-intentioned acquaintance, after a brief pause, smiles and says, “Well, at least it’s well with your soul.”
“Yup,” we smile back, “at least there’s that.”
And then we go cry in a bathroom stall for 20 minutes.
But if “it is well with my soul” is true—as Christians, as people whose salvation is secure in Christ—then what makes this phrase (and so many others like it) such a cold comfort at times like these?
I think the answer is two-fold.
» 1 • For Christians in times of trouble, stress, crisis, or grief, the well-being of souls—that is, our salvation—is not the issue.
Salvation, to be sure, is a bedrock of hope for us as believers in any situation and we are (quite literally) eternally grateful for it, especially at the times when we feel like everything else is our lives is being uprooted. But to reduce all matters in our lives to salvation—to the question of saved-or-not—is, quite frankly, not helpful.
As Christians, the question of saved-or-not has already been answered: We are saved, and that salvation, or soul-wellness, serves as a kind of circle inside which all of the issues in our lives are worked out.
For non-Christians, though, saved-or-not would be the appropriate starting point before many issues could be effectively addressed. A time of trouble for the non-Christian is one more opportunity to bring all issues into a circle of salvation as a starting point for soul-wellness.
But for the Christian, whose soul-wellness is already secured, the real business in a time of trouble begins with tackling the troubles themselves.
And the troubles themselves are what we are going to look at next.
» 2 • Simplistic platitudes distort the reality of the situation.
The attitude behind these kind of phrases can be dismissive, as though certain situations are not worthy to be considered troubling or stressful. That is, rather than putting our troubles in perspective, simplistic platitudes strip troubles of their inherent nature—which is the fact that they are, indeed, troubles.
In John 16:33, Jesus Himself assures us that we will experience trouble in our lifetimes. In fact, He pretty plainly says, “In this world you will have trouble.”
He did not say people who are saved would not have troubles. He did not say that what counts as troubles to other people should not really be considered troubles for a Christian. He did not say we had to act like troubles aren’t troubles.
Jesus said that in this world we will have trouble. And if Jesus acknowledges that we are going to come across troubles, then we are free to accept that fact of life as well.
Because we do have trouble—sometimes with a capital T.
Renowned Bible study author Beth Moore addresses this very topic in one her video series. She discusses how the world approaches trouble differently than does the Christian believer and refers to the following piece of worldly counsel popularized in our modern culture:
“Just remember two things: (1) Don’t sweat the small stuff. (2) It’s all small stuff.”
We, too, are probably familiar with this expression, having come across it in a book or social media graphic or television talk show or even just in casual conversation.
Moore’s take on this statement, which she calls “the best advice the world seems to have,” is that it is “so shallow.” She explains that “worldly philosophy is forced to minimize difficulty because it has no real answers.”
Because, Moore recognizes, “It’s not all small stuff.”
We recognize that too. Death of a loved one is not small. Job loss is not small. Caretaking is not small. A shaky marriage is not small.
We know that some things are not small. We know that some things are worthy to be called troubles. And we know that we will have troubles.
Just like Jesus told us we would.
But Jesus also tells us something else. Right after He tells us that we will have trouble in this world, He tells us to take heart.
And this “take heart” is no simplistic platitude or shallow piece of worldly advice. This “take heart” is a command with the full force of the all-powerful God behind it.
Jesus tells us to “take heart” not to dismiss our problems or to pretend our troubles are not as great as they seem or to make us feel weak or inferior or silly for ever being bothered by our troubles in the first place.
Because some things should bother us.
It is not inappropriate to be bothered by the bleak diagnosis for a loved one or by a challenging obstacle in our own future. We should be bothered because we should care—about the well-being of others and of ourselves too.
The key is that we don’t have to be defeated. Bothered but not defeated. Down but not out.
Jesus tells us to “take heart” so that in Him we will have peace because He “has overcome the world.”
While we still have to tackle our troubles, we don’t have to do it alone. When things are not-so-well with our health, with our family, with our bank account, with our job, with our plans, or with our life, we can rely on the power of Jesus, the One who has overcome the world, to help us take on the big stuff and the small stuff of this world.
One trouble at a time.
“I have told you these things,
so that in me you may have peace.
In this world you will have trouble.
But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
• John 16:33 •
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