Starting Again After Tough Times: Thoughts on Nearer, My God, To Thee


“Out of my stony griefs, Bethel I’ll raise”

This is the line that jumps out at me when I sing the hymn “Nearer, My God, To Thee”. The words are by Sarah F. Adams, inspired by the words of Genesis 28. Sarah Adams was no stranger to suffering. Her mother died when she was 5 years old. Her dream was to be an actress, not because she wanted attention, but because she felt that could be a ministry to people. But her health prevented her from doing this, so she turned to writing. She wrote this hymn at the age of 36. She died seven years later of tuberculosis.

The hymn itself has a storied history. In 1901, President McKinley, after being fatally shot, was reported to have said as his last words “‘Nearer, my God, to Thee, e’en though it be a cross’ has been my constant prayer”. In 1912, survivors of the Titanic recounted that this is what the ship’s band played as they knew they were dying.

But when you sing the lyrics of the hymn, you’ll find that it’s not so much about dying, as it is about living. About new beginnings. About brushing the dust off and going on.

The inspiration for this hymn was Genesis 28.

Jacob had just left home for the first time. He had just left his family. The brother he had grown up with now wanted to kill him. His mother told him to leave home because of that. His father’s health was ailing.

So, he set out, not sure of what was in store for him. Years later, he would refer to these days as “the day of my distress”.

Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.

For all of his life, Jacob had been surrounded by his family, by servants, by animals, by good food, by a life filled with all his heart desired. Now, for the first time, he was alone, with nothing. He found a stone to use as a pillow and slept on the ground. One can only imagine how many tears this young man, suddenly so alone in the world, shed on that stone as he fell asleep.

And that’s when God gave him His promise. “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go.”

Jacob did something right. He woke up, and then he took the stone on which he was sleeping, and he built an altar. He made a vow. He vowed that if the Lord did all He said, then the Lord would be his God, and the stone he set up would be God’s house (Beth-El), and he would dedicate a tenth of all he was given to the Lord.

When I first wrote this a few years ago, I was reeling from a broken engagement and I was in the process of moving to a new state. So these words had special significance to me, just as they did when I read them after I first left home eighteen years ago, and when my mom passed away fourteen years ago, and my dad passed away two years ago.

Perhaps you’re in a similar situation. If you’re not, you will be, probably many times in your life. And when you are, read these words again. But instead of reading the ones that God said to Jacob, read the ones that His son says to you:

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

If you’ve encountered a tremendous loss, a loss beyond what words can express, nothing anyone says or does can bring what you’ve lost back. But where to go from here is your choice.

You have two choices. You can continue to wallow in self-pity and regret. You can dwell on the past, trying whatever you can do to conjure back a past which is gone forever. Trust me, I know the temptation is great to do this.

Or you can wake up, and remember what it is that the Lord told you. And from there, you can make a new beginning. You can take your stony griefs and raise your own Bethel, the house of God, in your heart.

What does this mean? Well, there’s an interesting thing about enduring terrible loss. Prayer suddenly becomes a lot easier. Why? Because it’s only in the rough times that we realize that only God has the ability to understand us and help us. Like Joseph took that heavy stone on which he laid his head, take your griefs and lay them before God.

Use them to build that altar–that marker in the ground which marks the first day of a new beginning.

No matter what has happened in the past, no matter what mistakes you’ve made, or losses you’ve endured…there’s one thing you can do. Make a clean new start. Pray a prayer like Jacob did. Ask God to watch over you on the journey you are taking. Ask God to give you what you need to sustain you through the journey, wherever it takes you.

Years later, Jacob returned to that same spot. Only this time, he returned married, children in tow, having been blessed immeasurably by God. It was here that he looked back and thought back to that day as a young man when he slept alone on this ground. He knew that God had indeed been with him wherever he had gone. And it was not long after that when Jacob was renamed Israel by God, and that he heard from God Himself how vast his descendants would be, and how from him nations and kings would come.

Whatever state you’re in today, sing this hymn. Think of how despite the loss you’ve gone through, that out of your stony griefs, God is waiting to hear that prayer from you. That prayer that turns to him for help. That prayer that says that you wish nothing more than to be Nearer to Him and to have Him be with you…from your own Bethel to the end of the age.

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1.
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.

Refrain
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee!

2.
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.

Refrain

3.
There let the way appear, steps unto Heav’n;
All that Thou sendest me, in mercy given;
Angels to beckon me
Nearer, my God, to Thee.

Refrain

4.
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.

Refrain

5.
Or, if on joyful wing cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I’ll fly,
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to Thee.

Refrain

6.
There in my Father’s home, safe and at rest,
There in my Savior’s love, perfectly blest;
Age after age to be,
Nearer my God to Thee.

Refrain

Comment (1)

  1. Rusty Shackelford wrote::

    What an amazing hymn! I never knew the backstory to it before now. Thank you for your uplifting words and for helping me as I have read today.

    Monday, November 23, 2015 at 2:36 pm #