There is paradoxical good news in the news today.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says that according to the latest coronavirus numbers, his state is on a downward descent from the curve. Unfortunately, he explained the good news this way: “The number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Faith did not do that. Destiny did not do that. A lot of pain and suffering did that” (his emphasis).
Another paradoxical story: the final five hundred landmines at a historic baptism site on the Jordan River have been exploded and removed. The UK-based demining specialist HALO Trust group did the work at Qasr al-Yahud in preparation for Easter.
I have been to the site many times, but we always had to be very careful to stay on the one road, as mines remaining from earlier conflicts riddled the fields around us. Now they have been removed and churches can build and minister here far more effectively.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 is now decimating travel to the Holy Land. I had to cancel trips to Israel planned for April and May. Closing the borders to tourism may cost $1.7 billion.
Joy in a jail cell
One of the paradoxes of the Christian faith is that believers often find the greatest joy in the most difficult circumstances. This is because joy is one of the “fruit of the Spirit” independent from any and all circumstances (Galatians 5:22). We find the joy of the Lord not in our lives but in our Lord.
Consider three examples from the life of Paul.
One: After he and Silas were arrested in Philippi and the magistrates “had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison” (Acts 16:23). But two verses later we read, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (v. 25). Their joy was not in their jail cell but in their Lord.
Two: When the Lord refused to remove Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” the apostle responded: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). His joy was not in his pain but in his Provider.
Three: In a Roman prison, Paul wrote back to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). His joy was not in Rome but in heaven.
How can you and I have his paradoxical joy in a pandemic?
Horatio G. Spafford was a prosperous lawyer and devout Presbyterian church member and elder. In 1871, he and his wife were living comfortably with their four daughters in Chicago when a great fire broke out that devastated their city.
Two years later, to benefit his wife’s health, Spafford arranged an extended stay for their family in Europe. At the last moment, however, he was detained by real estate business, so Anna and their four daughters sailed to Paris on the steamship Ville du Havre. On November 21, it was rammed by the British iron sailing ship the Lochearn and sank in twelve minutes.
Anna was found unconscious on a floating spar by the crew of the Lochearn, but their daughters were lost. Nine days later, she landed in Cardiff, Wales, and cabled to her husband, “Saved alone. What shall I do . . .”
Horatio immediately left Chicago to bring his wife home. On the Atlantic crossing, the captain of his ship called Horatio to his cabin to tell him that they were sailing over the spot where his four girls had died. As he passed over their watery grave, he wrote the hymn, It Is Well With My Soul.
A stanza I’ve never seen before
Max Lucado calls Spafford’s words “the lyrics to a song that would become an anthem to the providence of God.” They are usually sung as a promise of serenity, an image the first line seems to suggest: “When peace like a river attendeth my way.” We picture a wide, slow-moving, tranquil river.
But note what comes next: “When sorrows like sea billows roll.” Sea billows are waves that crest and crash, picturing sorrows that roll incessantly upon us. Despite such suffering, Spafford testifies, the Lord has taught him to say, “It is well, it is well with my soul!”
I found Spafford’s original manuscript online at the Library of Congress. The first through fourth stanzas are there and familiar to us all. But on the backside, there is a final stanza I had to decipher from his original handwriting. It seems to be an earlier version of the famous fourth stanza. Here I found these words:
But Lord, ’tis for Thee, not the grave that I wait,
For the clouds to roll back as a scroll,
For the trump to resound and Thyself to descend,
Naught but that be thy hope, O my Lord.
They key to true joy
- G. Spafford knew what we can know today: our hope is in Jesus. Not in our present circumstances, but in his certain return. Not in where we are, but in who he is.
The closer we are to Jesus, the closer we are to joy.
How joyfully will your heart sing today?