What a friend we have in Jesus (Part of a series on hymns)
By Sis. Lilian Lee
- What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!
- Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer!
Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer!
- Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge; take it to the Lord in prayer!
Do your friends despise, forsake you? Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In his arms he’ll take and shield you; you wilt find a solace there.
The story behind this hymn:
Irish born Joseph M. Scriven (1819-1896) was 25 years old, in love and to be married. The day before his wedding his fiancee died in a tragic drowning accident.
Heartbroken, Joseph sailed from his homeland to start a new life in Canada. While there working as a teacher, he fell in love again and became engaged to Eliza Roche, a relative of one of his students. Once more, Joseph’s dreams were shattered when Eliza died of tuberculosis in 1860 before the wedding could take place.
In between these two tragedies one night in 1855, Scriven, in loneliness and sadness, poured out his heart to God. God heard his prayer and Scriven felt the burden miraculously lifted from his heart. In his newfound joy, he hurriedly dashed off a simple poem that today became the famous and much loved hymn – What a Friend We Have in Jesus.
Around the same time that Eliza died, Joseph received word from Ireland that his mother was ill. He could not go to be with her, so he wrote a letter of comfort and enclosed this same poem, What a Friend We Have in Jesus.
Although one can only imagine the turmoil within this young man, history tells us that his faith in God sustained him. Soon after Eliza’s death Joseph joined the Plymouth Brethren and began preaching for a Baptist church. He never married, but spent the rest of his life giving all his time, money and all that he had to help the less fortunate and to spread the love and compassion of Jesus wherever he went. Truly his Master was his best friend!
Many years later a friend was sitting with Joseph who was very ill. During this visit, the friend was very impressed when he came across his poems, including What a Friend We Have in Jesus. As a result of this visit, almost 30 years after his letter of comfort to his mother, Joseph’s poems were published in a book called Hymns and Other Verses.
Soon thereafter, famous musician Charles C. Converse (1834-1918) put music to the poem: What a Friend We Have in Jesus. Ira D. Sankey (1840-1908) who was a well-known musician and revivalist was also a great admirer of Joseph Scriven. In 1875, Sankey came across the music and words for What a Friend We Have in Jesus. He included it as the very last entry into the publication Sankey’s Gospel Hymns Number 1.
Lessons – there are many and below are just three personal lessons:
- When things do not turn out well in our lives, we need to remember that God grieves with us. In this fallen world, death as well as tears will come. But this is not God’s fault so don’t blame Him who is actually the God of comfort: Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort (2 Cor 1:3)The Christian can take refuge in God for His love and faithfulness is new every morning. Indeed the promise in His Word is that He will “give unto them beautyfor ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.” (Isaiah 61: 3)
- When we do something for God, He can multiply its effect in wonderful ways and sometimes we do not even realise or get to see how far-reaching the impact of what we do is. When Scriven wrote the lyrics, he did not expect that the poem would become a hymn and that today, the poem still brings much comfort to God’s people. It is translated into many languages and I am sure we will sing it in heaven one day! Let us labour continually in His vineyard.
- In Christian work, there should be that support and co-operation among the saints. We are gifted differently by the Lord and we ought to work together harmoniously. Scriven’s poem could have stayed hidden among all his notes and writings but an unnamed friend urged the publication of his writings. The baton was later picked up by Converse who wrote the music and it was Sankey that brought the Christian world’s attention to this wonderful hymn. Of course, all this came about through Divine Providence! But the Lord also needs to find like-minded Christians to work together for His glory.