Louisa Stead was a young woman with a husband and a daughter when her family decided to take a picnic lunch on Staten Island Sound one sunny day.
Their lunch was interrupted by the screams of a young boy caught in the current. Her husband sprang into action, and rushed into the water to save the boy. It was a heroic effort, but a doomed one. As Louisa and their daughter looked on, both her husband and the boy he had intended to save, drowned.
This was in the 1800s, and employment options for a woman were limited, even without a dependent.
Without the income her husband provided, Louisa and her daughter, Lily, soon became destitute.
God, however, remained faithful, and with what he provided for them, the Steads moved to South Africa and served as missionaries. In 1882, Louisa published a hymn titled “'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” a simple but inspiring song about a simple faith that is honored and rewarded to the very end.
As Christian folklore goes, this story has all the elements needed for a hearty amen chorus at the revival service. It has a deep, personal tragedy that breaks the heart of anyone who hears and considers it. (How could you not cry at the thought of a young widow having to raise a child on her own after watching her husband drown?) It has a simple, unassuming faith in God that is proved justified time and again.
In the end, that faith even carries the young widow and her daughter into frontier missions work, where one assumes that they lived long, faithful and fruitful lives of service to those around them. Who would like to be the first tonight to dedicate her life to serving God?
Perhaps I mock a little, but only a little. A simple faith that says “I will trust God to provide for my needs” is the faith of children, and it's a not a bad place to start. It gets us through tough spots like “Janine was my friend yesterday but today she says she's not my friend anymore” and “I failed the test” and even “I can't go to the movies today, mom is so mean.”
It's a Golden Book sort of faith, one that tells us that God rescued Daniel from the lions because Daniel kept the faith, or that David was able to kill Goliath because David trusted him. It's a well-intended faith that says that we'll always be safe with God, because God-plus-one is a majority. You never lose, you never suffer, and you always come out on top because God is faithful.
It's a great faith for 4-year-olds, but it doesn't hold up well over the long haul. Sooner or later, the rest of life happens. Your dog dies. A friend betrays you. You get cancer. You lose a child. Your partner leaves you.
I've known people who try to sail through life on that same simple faith that got them through the travails of kindergarten, and it never works out well. Some bury pain deep and insist that things are all right, even when they're plainly not, because they don't want to be found lacking in faith.
So they smile and say they're happy that their child is with Jesus now; or they nurture a quiet revenge fantasy where the errant spouse will return, admit to being wrong, and then beg for forgiveness (which will be granted most magnanimously, once the humiliation has been paid back in equal measure).
That's never a good idea, because pain is real and it happens for a reason. You can plaster a smile over it for only so long until that son-of-a-bitch comes back and demands payment, with interest.
Others flounder on the rocks. Maybe they abandon the ruins of the ship; or maybe they stay there, with the ship still intact, too afraid to try pulling loose and sailing free on the ocean again. You'll see them years later, hollow ghosts of who they once were, identified entirely by the crisis they couldn't handle.
It's good to enter through the wicket gate as a child. It's a bad idea to stay a child your whole life.
“You need meat,” Paul lectures his readers. “Stop drinking milk.”
“Let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity,” writes the author of Hebrews.
God never said bad stuff wouldn't happen. People still lose their parents, and it's always too soon. Spouses still stray, and even when they don't, sometimes the relationship withers on the vine anyway. Sometimes friends act with unspeakable cruelty. Sometimes life is unfair, and sometimes it's positively unjust.
Sometimes, it's true, faith shuts the mouths of lions. But for all the heroes of faith who miraculously were rescued, there are many others who were not:
“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” (Hebrews 11:35-38)
Faith, real faith, the kind of faith we all boast that we have, even if only to ourselves, affirms that sometimes life is awful. She acknowledges the pain of loss, the grief of separation and the searing burn of injustice. Faith sheds real tears, and she even rages against God in the face of undeserved suffering.
Faith also knows not to offer answers at these moments. She keeps her peace, and simply holds on while the storm rocks the ship and threatens to wash everyone off.
It's also faith who finds the courage to ask the important questions. Is God still worth following – not just believing in, but actually following to the end – when he turns his back on us, or when he leads us into the Shadow of Death and leaves us there? Would Christ still be worth the effort if the lions had eaten Daniel, or if Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had perished in the fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar?
Is faith still worth having if your husband dies, and you're left destitute with a child to raise on your own? That's not a question anyone can answer until it has been asked in the most personal way, but I think we know how Louisa Stead answered it.
God grant us the faith to do likewise.
Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.
"'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus"
’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take him at his word;
Just to rest upon his promise,
And to know, "Thus says the Lord!"
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust him.
How I’ve proved him o’er and o’er.
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
O for grace to trust him more.
O how sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to trust his cleansing blood;
And in simple faith to plunge me
’Neath the healing, cleansing flood.
Yes, ’tis sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just from sin and self to cease;
Just from Jesus simply taking
Life and rest, and joy and peace.
I’m so glad I learned to trust him,
Precious Jesus, savior, friend;
And I know that Thou art with me,
Wilt be with me to the end.