Hump-Day Hymns: Be Still, My Soul

I have previously stated that there are three main directions of hymns: us speaking to God, God speaking to us, and us speaking to each other about God.  This hymn falls into a completely different category: us speaking to ourselves about God.  The nature of this hymn makes it perfect for one to carry this hymn with oneself in one’s heart and mind as it has a personal devotional quality to it.

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 every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: they best, they heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
They hope, they 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 when when He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening 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 blessed we shall meet at last.
-Katharina von Schlegel (1697-1768), Trans. Jane L. Borthwick (1813-1897).

One of the most difficult things for me is to know, understand, and truly believe that God is completely in control.  Two of the foundational doctrines of the Reformed tradition are the sovereignty and providence of God.  These doctrines are ones that we talk about quite a bit, ones that we are glad that we have, ones that we put a great deal of emphasis in, but in my experience, they are not always ones in which we put our complete faith — at least I know that there are many times when I do not.

I have a great deal of anxiety, and I worry about many things, some of these I can exercise some control over, but many of the things that I grow anxious about are things in which I have absolutely no control.  I hear the words of Jesus, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?’” (Matthew 6:25, NRSV).  This hymn is of a similar vein.

While I find all of the words to this hymn meaningful, in my view, the first line is the most significant: “Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side”

The reason that our soul can be still is because God is on our side.  It is an interesting way to think about the providence of God.  In some ways, this idea of “sides” can seem somewhat adversarial.  However, perhaps this is the point of this terminology.  When we talk about the providence of God as a theological doctrine, there is a certain distance which is erected — in no other way and in no other context do I use the term “providence.”  However, I do speak of sides, of people against another, times in which I feel as though people are against me or trying to destroy me.  I use the terminology of protecting and taking care of.  We also see this in the Psalms, which in several places entreat God for protection against enemies who seek the destruction of the writer. This antagonism and adversarial context is something which we can all relate to.  Perhaps, then, the idea of God being on our side is a fruitful way to think about providence.

It must always be remembered, however, what this hymn means when it talks about God being on our side.  It is imperative to bear in mind the words penned by Bob Dylan, which noted that people have done horrendous things when they believe that God was on their side.  This hymn has nothing to do with politics, it has nothing to do with war, or world events.  This hymn denotes the internal struggle that one feels when one feels weary and anxious, and when one feels as though everything is against them.  In this way, it echoes the sentiment of Paul in his letter to the Romans, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (8:31b, NRSV). In this hymn, as well as in this particular section in Romans, the idea of God being on our side is that God will protect us and care for us against the powers of evil and sin, and those things which seek to destroy us.

The significance of this all is this: when it feels as though the deck is stacked against us, when it feels as though we are are unable to keep our head above water as waves crash over our heads, even when it feels as though everything in the world is against us, we can still say to ourselves, “Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.” When suffering seems as though it will overwhelm us, we can be assured that God is on our side, that is, God is watching over us and God is protecting us, and that nothing can ultimately defeat us because God is on our side, and the powers of sin and evil cannot overwhelm God, and consequently cannot overwhelm us.

This hymn invites us to calm our souls, because God is in control (sovereignty), God takes care of us (providence), God will be faithful, God will fulfill God’s promises, and God will make good out of things which seem to be (or are) bad.

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