O Love that Wilt Not Let Me Go
Christian Hope in the Christian's Sorrows

Despite being absent of any real musical ability, I have always been fascinated with the hymn lyrics and the history behind them. Some of these stories are legendary among Christians. For example, who can forget the tragic events that precipitated the writing of “It Is Well” by Horatio Spafford? In God’s providence, the hymn born out of Spafford’s tragedy has provided great comfort for Christians for well over a century.

However, it is a lesser-known hymn with a tragic story that I want to highlight today, as it too has provided me with great comfort. On June 6, 1882, George Matheson sat alone a day before his sister’s wedding and penned “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.” Though delighted for his sister, the Scottish minister felt sorrow mixed in with joy before the wedding festivities. At age 20, Matheson lost his eyesight, and his fiancé at the time decided that she could not be married to a blind man. His sister had taken him in to care for him, and through her love and support of him, Matheson became an effective preacher and minister of the gospel. His sister learned Greek and Hebrew, and she helped Matheson study the biblical text every day. Some have reported that he knew the biblical text so well – and was such a gifted preacher – that unless you knew he was blind, you would not have suspected such to be the case.

Now with his sister to be married, Matheson found himself alone again. It was out of this moment of bittersweetness – even deep despondency – that Matheson wrote such comforting lyrics: “O Love that wilt not let me go, I rest my weary soul in Thee. I give Thee back the life I owe, that in Thine ocean depths its flow may richer, fuller be.” Matheson later shared that it took him all of five minutes to write the lyrics, saying that it was almost as if it the words were dictated to him. Of his own admission, he said that he was not gifted with a natural sense of rhythm – again, something I can certainly relate to!

Give Your People Something to Sing

Within the broader evangelical church landscape, there lies an unhealthy trend that everything in worship, whether it’s the sermon or the music, should be uplifting, exciting, and vibrant. The problem of course, is that the Christian life doesn’t always feel like an upward movement towards the greater and better. Very often, the Christian experience doesn’t seem like “your best life now.” So – quite frankly – I don’t want to, nor can I, sing songs that lie and tell you that it is! Rather, the Christian life is one which has its ebbs and its flows, its valleys and its mountains – just look at the Psalms! It’s a pilgrimage, and a difficult one at that.

Such being the case, we need to sing hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs that are expressive and reflective of God’s Word and true to the Christian experience. Our people come into corporate worship every week in different emotional and spiritual states. Sometimes we need to sing triumphantly as the church militant that Jesus is reigning and the gates of Hades will never prevail. Other times we need to limp into the service and be reminded that we are not lost or forsaken. This hymn by George Matheson is one well suited to the latter occasion as the congregation sings together the truth that we can “trace the rainbow through the rain, And feel the promise is not vain.” In a way, hymns like this serve to preach the gospel to us, no matter where we are in our Christian life. They remind those who are weary and heavy-laden that Christ offers rest (Matt 11:28).

What we sing in corporate worship has a great effect on our daily lives. What we take in on the Lord’s Day will no doubt shape what we put out during the work week. Thus, we need to give people something they can sing, something that will fit the moment. I remember hearing a story along these lines from John MacArthur. He had received a phone call that his beloved wife was in a terrible car accident and was being airlifted to the hospital. Her earthly life was in jeopardy. MacArthur said that upon hanging up the phone, he sang hymns the whole way to the hospital, knowing very well it may be the last time he ever saw his wife before glory – thankfully, it wasn’t! Yet, such trials are precisely why we must sing songs that are theologically faithful and hit on the entire spectrum of the Christian life. Singing 75 stanzas of “fire fall down” just won’t cut it.

A Final Thought

In a seminary class several years ago, Derek Thomas once mentioned that we should “preach the gospel to ourselves every day.” He said that he recites the third stanza to “Rock of Ages” every morning. I was rather shocked and frankly puzzled by his admission. I simply couldn’t believe that this gifted theologian and preacher would need to be reminded of the gospel every day. How naïve I was! After some hard lessons and resultant sanctification, I have aimed to apply his advice to my own life. Reciting the opening stanza to “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go” every morning before my feet hit the floor has become a balm to my soul and a reminder of the gospel in my own life. I thank God that in His kind providence, He uses even the most trying of circumstances to encourage weary believers like me, Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day, until He returns.