Abide with Me

I don’t like change, and I know I’m not the only one. Change, even if it is a good and needful change, carries with it a tinge of sorrow and uncertainty. As we reflect upon the goodness we’ve enjoyed and so often overlooked, we wonder if that same goodness will be on the far side of change. “Will my children make new friends after the move? How will I handle being an empty nester? What if my new career ends up being worse than my old one? How will I spend my time when I’m not going into the office every day?”

The feelings of sorrow and uncertainty are only magnified when the change is unexpected and unwelcome. “What happens if our country goes to war? What will the world look like for my children and grandchildren? How can I get out of bed in the morning without my spouse by my side?” As time changes everything about us and around us, the hymn “Abide with Me” provides special comfort to those who long for something constant, something that forever remains the same.

“Abide with Me” was written by the Scottish Anglican priest Henry F. Lyte (1793-1847). Lyte was a reputed poet and hymnodist (“Jesus I Thy Cross Have Taken” and “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” come to us from Lyte’s pen), and a faithful minister serving All Saints Church in Lower Brixham, Devonshire, England for 23 years.

Lyte’s health was always fragile; asthma and tuberculosis were constant threats to his wellbeing. Shortly before journeying to Italy to escape the biting cold of winter, Lyte preached what would be his final sermon. The story goes that “Lyte nearly had to crawl to the pulpit and his message came as from a dying man. His final words made a deep impact upon his people when he said that it was his desire to ‘induce you to prepare for the solemn hour which must come to all by a timely appreciation and dependence upon Christ.’”[1] Lyte’s daughter tells us that it was on that same night that he placed the words of “Abide with Me” into the hands of a family member, together with a tune of his own composing. Two months later, Lyte succumbed to tuberculosis and died in Nice, France on November 20th, 1847.

Lyte preached as a dying man to dying men. He knew that life was but a vapor and that sinful man must make haste to close with Christ. And even as his own life began to fade, Lyte pointed others to the solace that he found in knowing that our unchangeable God abides with all His people in life and in death. The second stanza of “Abide with Me” speaks to this fortifying truth:

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away.
Change and decay in all around I see.
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Life is short and its joys are all short-lived. The temporary glories of our finite lives cannot satisfy our soul’s need for certainty and stability both in this life and that which is to come. How could they? When Paul warned the church in Corinth against clinging to the things of this world too firmly, his reason was, “For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31b).

Like one grasping onto a floating limb that is carried away by a raging flood is the one who places his hope and trust in the transitory things of this world, however good they may be.
The Christian needs lasting, unchangeable goodness in a fallen world that is subject to change and decay, and that goodness is found only in the immutable God of the Bible. Reformed Dutch-American theologian Louis Berkhof (1873-1957) wrote of God’s immutability, “It is that perfection of God by which He is devoid of all change, not only in His Being, but also in His perfections, and in His purposes and promises. In virtue of this attribute He is exalted above all becoming, and is free from all accession or diminution and from all growth or decay in His being or perfections.”[2] Here we see the value and use of studying systematic theology; the knowledge of God’s unchangeableness is meant to buttress the faith and assurance of believers.

Consider the psalms and how frequently they look to the immutability of God’s being and purposes as a source of comfort. In Psalm 102, after considering his own frailty and vulnerability, “My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass” (v.11), the psalmist turns to God and says of Him, “Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but You are the same, and Your years have no end. The children of Your servants shall dwell secure; their offspring shall be established before You” (v.25-28).

The children of God dwell secure because God is forever the same. He is invulnerable in His being and immovable in His saving purposes for His people. He is not like the princes of this world “in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish” (146:3-4). No, “Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases” (Ps. 115:3) and all that He pleases is unchangeably good.

One cannot speak of God’s unchangeableness without also mentioning Hebrews 6, “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of His purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (Heb 6:17-18). God’s desire is that His people would know Him and in knowing Him, find refuge for their souls. The Christian cannot afford to neglect this precious doctrine. Without it, the Christian life will feel little different than the experience of walking on a tightrope without a safety net—you may make it, you may not.

The Christian’s hope is secure because his future is secure, because the God who changes not abides with His people always. Take heart, dear Christian. In a world full of change, your God and His love for you never will.

[1] Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids, Mich: Kregel Publications, 1982), 17.

[2] https://www.ccel.org/ccel/berkhof/systematictheology.iii.i.vi.html