Be Still, My Soul

A Hymn for the Hardest Losses

After nearly two decades, the memory is still vivid: standing in the living room with the phone to my ear, listening as my friend and pastor, Rick, described to me through sobs how one of the young, vibrant couples in our church had just been in a terrible car accident. The husband had survived. But the wife had not. And neither had their unborn son — their first child, whose birth they had been anticipating with so much joy.

I stood stunned, trying to process this new reality. I could see her laughing with a group of people after church the previous Sunday. Now, she was suddenly gone — taken, along with her child, in a violent event that unfolded in a few seconds. Rick asked me, the leader of the worship ministry, to begin thinking and praying over possible music for the funeral that would likely be held the next week.

If my memory is accurate, the first song that came to mind, almost immediately, was one of my favorite hymns: “Be Still, My Soul.”

Song for Deepest Sorrow

I have loved this hymn since my late teens. When sung to a beautiful arrangement of the tune “Finlandia,” it has, to my ear, perfect prosody — that’s the term musicians use to describe how “all elements [of a song] work together to support the central message of the song.” And the central message of “Be Still, My Soul” is the resurrection hope Jesus gives us in the face of the devastating death of a loved one.

The powerful lyrics come from the pen of a German woman named Katharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel and began appearing in German hymnals in 1752. Little is known about Katharina. Some believe she may have been a “Stiftsfraulein,” a member of a female Lutheran “stift” (convent) in the town of Köthen (one hundred miles southwest of Berlin), and that she had been significantly influenced by a pietistic Christian renewal movement.

No record survives of the specific event(s) that inspired her to compose this deeply moving hymn. But such specifics aren’t necessary since we all experience the kind of devastating losses she writes about. And when they come, we often find ourselves enduring an internal hurricane of disorienting grief, in desperate need of the peaceful shelter of hope. And the gift Katharina has bequeathed to us — in the four verses most English hymnals contain (she wrote six) — is this profound poetic reminder of the one shelter for our sorrowful, storm-tossed souls: the faithfulness of God.

‘The Lord Is on Thy Side’

She begins in verse one by reminding us of the unshakable foundation on which we stand by faith:

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In ev’ry change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav’nly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

The first line is a near quote of Psalm 118:6: “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear.” But the rationale for why we have any right to make this otherwise audacious claim is gloriously stated in Romans 8:31–32:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

In the swirl of grief, we may wonder, “All things? Then why did God not spare my loved one from death and me from such anguish of separation?” To which the Holy Spirit, through the great apostle, graciously, hopefully, and gently replies,

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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 8:37–39)

Soul, be at peace: your faithful Lord is on your side. And he will lead you through this vale of deep darkness to the eternally Son-lit, joyful land of everlasting love (Psalm 23:4, Revelation 21:23).

‘All Now Mysterious Shall Be Bright at Last’

In verse two, Katharina reminds us of the great promise purchased for us when the Father did not spare his own Son for us: freedom from the curse of living with the knowledge of good and evil — the knowledge we insisted on having, while lacking the capacities to comprehend or mange it.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Now, God’s purposes in allowing evil to wreak such grievous havoc are largely shrouded in mystery, and so can appear senseless. But it will not always be so. For Jesus came to undo all of the effects of curse. First, he came into the world to undo the curse of death (Genesis 3:19). And then, when we finally experience life free from remaining sin and beyond the threat of death, we shall be given knowledge more wonderful than what we sought from the Edenic fruit: we shall know fully, even as we have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Soul, be at peace: your faithful Lord will soon make all you now find so mysterious bright at last.

‘Jesus Can Repay All He Takes Away’

In verse three, when the sword of grief has pierced our hearts at the deaths of our dearest ones, Katharina applies the balm of gospel promise to our throbbing wound.

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.

That last line echoes the great faith-filled, worshipful declaration Job made upon the news of the deaths of his dear children: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). But Katharina’s words declare the biblical promise of a greater restoration than Job experienced on earth. For God has promised that even the severest losses will someday seem like “light momentary affliction” compared to the “eternal weight of glory” they produce (2 Corinthians 4:17).

“Your faithful Lord will never depart and will repay from his own fullness far more than all he takes away.”

But this verse also describes a Christian’s paradoxical experience in the very anguish of bereavement. For those who, while grieving, place their trust in their best and heav’nly friend receive a foretaste of the riches of Jesus’s fullness as they come to “better know His love, His heart.” They often experience new dimensions of the reality of what Jesus meant when he said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5), and “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Soul, be at peace: your faithful Lord will never depart and will repay from his own fullness far more than all he takes away.

‘We Shall Be Forever with the Lord’

One week after that tragic car accident, we gathered in the sanctuary to remember the lives and grieve the deaths of that young wife, daughter, sister, friend, and expectant mother, and the baby boy she and her devastated husband had looked forward to bringing into the world. But we did not grieve as those “who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

My clearest memory of the funeral was being so deeply moved and comforted by the way I heard my brothers and sisters sing “Be Still, My Soul,” especially the last verse:

Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessèd we shall meet at last.

“There is coming a day when ‘we will always be with the Lord.’”

Here is every Christian’s “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13), the reason Jesus is for us “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). Katharina’s words helped us encourage one another in the hope that there is coming a day when “we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17–18). They helped us together preach to our souls,

Soul, be at peace: your faithful Lord will soon gather us all together again, safe and blessed, in his presence — where his full joy will be our full joy, and where all that gives him pleasure will be all that gives us pleasure forever (Psalm 16:11).

Then, having done our best to still our souls through faith in God’s faithfulness, we escorted the earthly remains of our sister and baby brother to the cemetery, where we sowed their perishable, weak, and natural bodies into the ground in the hope that Jesus will raise them with imperishable, powerful, spiritual bodies (1 Corinthians 15:42–44). And upon the grave’s marker, the loving husband and father, whose loss had been incalculable, yet who in faith believed Christ had greater gain for the three of them, had this text inscribed:

As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;      when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness. (Psalm 17:15)