“Nearer My God to Thee”: A Serious Song of Hope for Sufferers

“Nearer My God to Thee”: A Serious Song of Hope for Sufferers

”The songs we sing do not always provide realistic expectations of the Christian life.

Consider the line from a well-loved hymn which states that it was at the cross by faith, “I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day.” The first phrase is true. The second is strictly unbiblical.

We should always rejoice when we remember the sight God gave us by faith in our crucified Savior. As a result, the nature of our burdens has been forever transformed! But the punchline, “and now I am happy all the day” should make true Christians cringe. The world, too, could rightly mock us for that pronouncement. We all know it’s not true, so why do we sing it?

A Trouble-Free Life?

It’s so easy to pretend that faith in Christ removes our troubles. Nothing could be further from the truth. The world hated Jesus, and it hates His followers (John 15:18–20). As Christians, we suffer from our own sin and from the sins of others. Our family lives, work lives, church lives, and friendships are troubled.

Neglecting this reality might cause a troubled unbeliever to come to Christ under false pretenses. All too often, his seed falls among the thorns when the promise of utopia proves to be a lie (Matthew 13:5, 20-21). Believers, too, upon singing that line with their fellow travelers, must conclude that there is something wrong with them. They see the smile on everyone else’s faces and determine that they must not be trying hard enough.

Draw Near to Christ Through Suffering

I recently attended a funeral where “Nearer, My God, to Thee” was sung congregationally. It seemed to me the perfect song for a funeral and for life. It is at once realistic and uplifting, not painting a utopian picture of Christianity in our current existence but portraying a dependence on God during our temporary sufferings here on earth.

The first verse recognizes that God’s design is to draw us nearer to Him through suffering:

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me
Still all my song shall be nearer, my God, to Thee
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee

This is biblical. Romans 5:3-5, to name just one of many passages, teaches us to rejoice in our sufferings because of all they accomplish in our lives by faith. Endurance, character, and hope emerge in the person who takes up her cross and follows Christ. Her desire is to draw nearer to Him whose promises are much greater than the taunting notion of a comfortable life.

The second verse admits that darkness is near for the believer:

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone
Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee

In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes about how trials and darkness produce nearness to God. He portrays his suffering as a qualifier for his ministry (6:4-10; 11:16-33) and enumerates some of the benefits of suffering, which believers recognize from experience:

Jesus comforts us when we suffer, and in turn, we comfort others (1:3-4).
Suffering will not bring about our defeat; rather, it produces thankfulness and assurance of victory (4:7-18).
Suffering produces repentance and joy (7:10).
Suffering can produce a deeper experience of God’s grace in the end (12:9-10).

Verse 4 gives us an even closer view of how suffering can bring us near to God:

Then, with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee

Bethel is a reference to a memorial that Jacob erected after a key interaction with God. From his duplicitous father-in-law (Genesis 29) to his treacherous sons (Genesis 37), Jacob had many complaints about his life. He even used to live in fear of his brother Esau (Genesis 32), but God helped him in a famously odd and painful way. Through his struggle with God, Jacob learns that through pain comes blessing and remembrance that God is the One who helps us in our trials, which is the meaning of the Bethel monument.

Suffering No More

The last verse of the song recognizes that suffering is temporary and leads to glory.

Or if, on joyful wing cleaving the sky
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I fly
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee

Today might be another day of labor and service and pain. Or… it might be my final day on this earth! That day will come, and for the Christian, it will be far better than all the days leading up to it. The fruitful labor of this life on earth was important and full of adventure. But when that last day comes, I will fly away to be nearer to God, who’s been faithful throughout my life. He was the One I most wanted all along. Ever since my conversion, my life was a pursuit of Him, and now I shall see Him face to face and live with Him forever.

Many churches look for positive messages in the songs they sing, but they often fail to realize that suffering is a God-given partner for Christians in their walk with Him and in their growth toward holiness. My prayer is that many will embrace it and find greater joy in this life and the next.

Here is a great version of this powerful song:

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