Pain Invites Empathy: It Is Well

Horatio Spafford lived in Chicago. He was a lawyer. He had 4 kids.

The Spaffords had been planning a family vacation to Paris. But at the last minute, Horatio was kept back with urgent business. Sending his wife Anna and their four daughters ahead of him on the SS Ville du Havre, he expected to be only a few days behind them.

After a week of sailing, the Ville Du Havre collided with the Scottish clipper Loch Earn at 2am on Saturday, November 22. Realizing that danger was immanent, 313 passengers scrambled for the lifeboats. But having been freshly painted, most of the lifeboats were stuck to the main deck, and the passengers were able to break a only a few loose.

The ship sank in 12 minutes. 226 passengers were lost.

Upon reaching Wales 9 days later, Anna telegraphed her husband:

"Saved alone. What shall I do."


After hearing the news, Horatio left Chicago on the next ship to Wales to bring Anna home. At a point in the North Atlantic crossing, the captain called Spafford to his cabin to inform him that they were passing the spot where the Ville Du Havre went down.

Pulling a piece of hotel stationary from his pocket (pictured below), Spafford penned the words to the hymn.

It Is Well (original)

Interestingly, the original last line – “a song in the night,” from Psalm 42 – differs from what we sing today. In a later edit, Spafford thought his original words too dark – preferring instead to allude to the more hopeful Rev. 22:20 “…even so, come Lord Jesus.”

At the end of all things. Resurrection. Beautiful.

Here’s the point:

If you’re a church leader, how do you encourage those you shepherd to handle tragedy? David wrote some of his best poetry in extreme pain. Don’t merely preach at them. Give your people a platform and a voice. Invite empathy back into your church. The next “It Is Well” could be sitting quietly in the third pew from the back. Approach them. Be creative. Listen. And be genuine.

If you’ve experienced any level of tragedy, what have you done with it? Without sounding dismissive, it’s easier to play the wounded bird than the one who tries to sing – although faintly. Share your story. When you do, two things will happen: 1) By externalizing your pain, you’ll gain perspective on what God’s plan for pain. 2) You’ll likely find resonance with others for their benefit.

Share your story. Listen to others. Grow in grace.

– Association of French lines, Maritime Naval History.
– 100 Hymn Stories, Osbeck.
– An American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Sparffords and the American Colony in Jerusalem, Talese.


4 thoughts on “Pain Invites Empathy: It Is Well

  1. Brannon, thanks for this post. “It is Well” is a very meaningful hymn for me as well, and one I posted on a few months back with a beautiful rendition by Mahalia Jackson. Could I gently suggest one thing, that your last paragraph may have been a bit dismissive after all to the depths of pain a Christian might feel, and difficulty in expressing or finding an audience for it? I agree that healing and faith will eventually require us to share our story, and look to God for help in understanding it, but it can take a while for some of us to get there. And sometimes when we do finally share, we simply need to be heard for the sake of processing our own pain or grief; though I agree that sharing our pain often represents a valuable form of identification for others, or at least contains the possibility to be so (“we read to know we’re not alone,” etc). Again, thanks for drawing attention to this hymn, and to the looming need within the church for vulnerability and empathy – Ben

  2. Ben – excellent point. Timing is definitely an issue here. For some (in all reality, most), I can’t imagine pain rising quickly and certainly not in an untested (?) community. I’m hopeful that if communities can form where vulnerability and empathy are shown as immediately valuable, painful stories can be told, processed, and serve as tools for healing.

    Thanks for tracking on this one with me. You’re a gift, brother.

  3. Definitely, Marshall, most of our faith communities need growth along those lines, as do some of us (thinking of myself, I mean) who might claim to have a somewhat better grasp on or experience interacting with vulnerability and empathy, but not be quite so gifted when concepts are confronted with reality. Thanks again for drawing attention to these themes, and for the affirmation you communicated – you’re a blessing as well, Ben

  4. Thank you Brannon
    This is a very special song. My Dad died suddenly one Monday night in the fall of 1979. Needless to say, quite a shock. The next Sunday in church the first song sung and the first song I sang was “It is well with my soul.” Thru the years I’ve come to learned a bit at a time how that it IS well with my soul.

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