This beautiful and well-loved hymn was first written as a poem by Joseph M. Scriven (1819-1896) to his mother who was ill. He could not visit her as they lived on different sides of the continent and so he sent her this poem. Joseph himself had suffered a couple of setbacks in life. At age 25, on the eve of his marriage, his fiancée died in a tragic drowning accident. Heartbroken, he left his hometown in Ireland to start a new life as a teacher in Ontario, Canada. His hopes and dreams were again shattered when his second fiancée also died suddenly from an illness shortly before their wedding. He never remarried but instead dedicated his life to help the less fortunate and to spread the love of Jesus wherever he went. But he was abandoned by many of his so-called friends as they disassociated themselves from him. He was later found drown in a lake after suffering from depression and an illness in his later years. No one knew for certain whether it was accidental or suicide. A classic sad and tragic story of a man who had been dealt multiple misfortunes in his life time but he left behind his poem as a legacy. It was later composed into a hymn and now translated into many other languages that uplifted many souls whenever and wherever it is being sung – even to this day.
I first heard this hymn way back in 1973 at a gospel rally. The lyrics resonated within my heart and soul. I remember I broke down and sobbed quietly mid way through the singing. The idea of a god wanting to be a friend with a mortal being was totally incomprehensible and alien to me. I could never imagine a god who would ever want to be my friend – to bear my pains and to share my sorrows. Growing up with a idol worshipping background, my pre-conceived notion of ‘God’ is that of some supernatural and all powerful deity who is ever ready to punish you for all imaginable types of sins you dare to commit. This notion of punishment was reinforced during every Chinese New Year period as my parents would bring us to the temples to pray for family blessings and also to the Haw Par Villa (then popularly known as the Tiger Balm Gardens) to witness for ourselves the gruesome punishments awaiting every man at the Ten Gates of Hell after death. That evening, this hymn changed my life and liberated me from my fear of eternal condemnation in hell as I accepted Jesus into my life as my Friend and Saviour “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins”. (Col 1:13-14)
Romans 8 reminded us, that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We are called to be the children of God – fellow heirs with Christ. We are further assured in v. 38-39 “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”.
Our church’s theme for this year “We are God’s workmanship” (Eph 2:10) is a timely reminder of my privileged and secured relationship with our Lord. I can testify that during the last 40 years or so of my discipleship journey, Christ Jesus walked with me; in my lowest and darkest moments, He even carried me. I may have failed Him on countless occasions but He didn’t give up on me. As the Good Shepherd, he would go out of his way to bring me back to the fold. He is a Friend who humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of dying on the cross for sinners like you and me. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Indeed, what a friend we have in Jesus!
By Vincent Lim, Deacon (YCKC Bulletin 12&13 September 2015)