Everyday Encounter with God

Pastor Sylvia's Encounters with God in the Midst of Everyday Life


All Our Griefs to Bear

The story of Joseph Scriven is one that frequently comes to my mind around the middle of February. His was a life consecrated to God, but tragically lived with unrequited love. I cannot begin to imagine his pain, and yet his trust that Jesus would carry his sin and grief became one of our most-loved Christian hymns.

Joseph was born in Dublin, Ireland in the 1800’s and at the age of 25 Joseph fell in love, but their wedding was not to be. The night before the ceremony he watched as the body of his fiancée was pulled from a local lake.

Shattered by this tragic loss, he decided to immigrate to Canada. Joseph packed up his belongings and sailed for The Americas, leaving his mother behind.

Ten years later in 1855, he received a telegram that his beloved mother was facing a personal crisis. An amateur poet, he could think of no better way to comfort her from such a long distance except to write to her the words on his still-mending heart.

What a friend we have in Jesus,

All our sins and griefs to bear!

What a privilege to carry,

Everything to God in prayer.

Mrs. Scriven was so moved by her son’s words that she gave them to a friend who had them anonymously published in their entirety. A man by the name of Charles Converse set them to music and it quickly became a popular Irish hymn although no one knew who had written it.

Then the unlikely occurred. Joseph Scriven fell in love a second time. Tragedy struck again. His beloved Eliza Catherine Roche contracted tuberculosis and died in 1860 before their wedding could take place. He was devastated.

I’ve never lost someone with whom I was in love. Adoring, devoted affection is so very fragile. It seems to me that death—which is preventable by our sovereign God—would take me to the very edge of my faith. What good could possibly come from a lovely bride who drowned before her ceremony? What eternal purpose is there in life-stealing disease just when love had appeared again, and hope restored?

In his despair, Joseph poured himself into ministry. He did charity work for the Plymouth Brethren and preached among the Baptists. His life was simple and obscure. Joseph was often seen cutting firewood for the widows in Port Hope, Canada. He gave away his clothing and money to those in need.

Ira Sankey later wrote:

“Until a short time before his death it was not known that he had a poetic gift. A neighbor, sitting up with him in his illness, happened upon a manuscript copy of What a Friend We Have in Jesus. Reading it with great delight and questioning Mr. Scriven about it, he said that he had composed it for his mother, to comfort her in a time of special sorrow, not intending that anyone else should see it. Sometime later, when another Port Hope neighbor asked him if it was true he composed the hymn, his reply was, ‘The Lord and I did it between us.’”

On October 10, 1896, Joseph Scriven became critically ill. In his delirium, he rose from his bed and staggered outdoors where he fell into a small creek and drowned at the age of 66.

But in a moment of unshakeable faith that God will restore all things that are good, Joseph had arranged that his grave was specially positioned. His feet were opposite those of his lost love, Eliza Catherine Roche because at the resurrection he wanted them to arise facing one another again.