George Matheson was a nineteenth-century Scottish pastor who, as a teenager, learned that his poor eyesight would eventually lead to blindness. He enrolled in university at 15 and graduated four years later in classics, logic, and philosophy. He then entered seminary but, within a year, would go completely blind. His three sisters banded together to help him complete his theological studies, learning Greek, Hebrew, and Latin to assist him. With their help, he graduated and went on to pastor two churches before he died suddenly at the age of 64.
When he was twenty years old, George was engaged to be married. When doctors informed him that blindness was imminent, he shared this news with his fiancée, who decided that she could not marry a blind man and broke off the engagement. He would never marry. At a sister’s wedding in June 1882, memories of his broken engagement came flooding back and inspired him to write “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.”
O love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.
George combatted the pain of lost love by reflecting on a greater love that would never abandon him. As painful memories gripped his heart, the truth of Scripture transformed his mind: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39).
George described the hymn in his journal as “the fruit of suffering.” Paul similarly wrote his words in the context of suffering. The great affirmation about the tenacious perseverance of divine love was written in answer to this question: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” (v. 35). Suffering, argued Paul, is no sure evidence of divine disfavour. God’s love for his children perseveres through tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and danger and sword (death).
We have many opportunities to put this theology into practice. Perhaps you are facing tribulation or distress at that dreaded positive result from the health test or as you watch a loved one fight—or lose the fight to—a dread disease. Perhaps you are facing persecution for your faith, your gospel proclamation, or doing the right thing. Perhaps a season of restricted income has left you facing some form of famine or nakedness—uncertainty about your ability to provide for yourself or your family. Perhaps failing health or civil unrest have left you in danger, facing the very real possibility of severe harm or death. Perhaps, in all of this, you’ve wondered where God is. Has your suffering diminished your confidence in God’s love for you? If so, ask yourself three questions.
First, ask yourself what you believe about the character of God. Is he a capricious God whose mood changes from day to day and moment to moment, or is he a God who dies not change and whose love never fails? What does your experience with Good tell you about the constancy of his love?
Second, ask yourself what you believe about the claims of God. Whatever your experience says, there is something greater than experience. What does God’s word say about his love? Does Palm 136 not assure us that his steadfast love endures forever? Did Paul not promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ? Do you believe the Bible? If so, you must believe that his love is not subject to caprice.
Third, ask yourself what you believe about the church of God. Churches are made of sinners who, unlike God, will fail you. But the church is nonetheless the place where divine love finds feet. If you’ve ever been through the fire of affliction, you have likely found loving support in the church. Let that support be a testimony to you of God’s love.
As you reflect on God’s love in your pain this morning, let the words of George Matheson encourage you.
O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.