Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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Be Still, My Soul

Dannah Gresh: In times of fear and uncertainty, it’s important to talk—not listen—to ourselves. Here’s Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Sometimes we just have to take ourselves and look ourselves in the face and say, “Soul, be still.” 

Dannah: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of The Quiet Place, for Monday, April 27, 2020. I'm Dannah Gresh.

Can you guess who’s playing the piano? This is from the first piano album by our host, Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth. She’s about to explain how this recording came about, and she’ll show you how to have a still, quiet soul in the Lord, even when it seems like there’s no solution in sight to your problems. I think we all need that today, don’t you? Nancy’s beginning a series called "Hymns of Hope in Troubled Times."

Nancy: My first conscious memory took place on May 14, 1963, when I knelt by my bed as a four-year-old little girl and trusted Jesus to save me. I didn’t know a lot of theology—I probably didn’t know that word. I didn’t know a lot of fancy terms, but I knew that He was Lord and that I needed a Savior and that He was a great Savior.

I gave all that I knew of me to all that I knew of Him, and that day God planted in my heart seeds of a new life that have continued to take root and grow, to this day. It still amazes me that Jesus would have wanted to save me—or anyone, for that matter.

That’s the first conscious memory I have. But that same year, with the encouragement of a musically gifted mother, I started taking piano lessons. My legs didn’t even reach the floor. So you can picture this little girl with legs dangling from the piano bench.

That became a really important part of my growing-up experience—practicing every day, going to piano lessons every week, playing recitals every year. Some of you have been there; some of you have children who are doing that now. That was a big part of the rhythm of my childhood and teenage years.

I went on after high school to get a college degree in piano performance. I played my senior recital, and then I didn’t play for thirty-five years—hardly at all. I just did not often play. I have a beautiful piano that my parents gave me when I graduated from college, but life went on in other directions, and I did very little on the piano—as much as a part of my earlier life as it had been.

Now, another piece of the fabric that was part of those early years of my life was faithful church attendance as a family. In the course of going to church over all those years, I grew to know and to love many, many hymns and gospel songs—singing all the different stanzas, and learning the great, rich theology that so many of those hymns and gospel songs teach us.

So for some time over the years—thinking about all that great background of knowing Jesus, and studying the piano, and loving Him—I’ve thought, Someday I would like to record a piano hymns CD. I don’t really have a “bucket list,” but I did have one, that would be the one thing that would be on there. Someday I’d like to do that.

So, I did! I made a piano CD of hymns, with a great deal of nervousness and trepidation. I’m much more comfortable in this role of teaching God’s Word than that of sitting at the keyboard and playing. But I wanted this CD to be an expression of my heartfelt gratitude to the Lord—for His faithfulness, His covenant-keeping love—for all that He has meant to me over all these years.

One of problem is, I don’t play by ear. So I’m pretty much a non-functional musician when it comes to a lot of contemporary church music. But I selected ten of my favorite hymns (and that was hard, because I have so many favorites, but we had to narrow it down to ten) . . .

Then a friend of a friend who does have talents in this area wrote some arrangements so that I could play them on the piano. I worked on the arrangements, and it was such a joy to me to go back to practicing the piano! I would do this sometimes late at night in my living room.

I’d work on other things until late at night, and then I’d kind of reward myself by saying, “Now you can go play the piano.” I’d go downstairs, sometimes midnight or eleven o’clock, and just play and play and play. I so enjoyed it, especially with these words of these hymns just kind of coursing through my soul and my heart.

A lot of these hymns you hear very seldom today, but they were an important part of the foundation of my theological understanding of who God is and of His redemptive work.

So I worked on learning those arrangements for a number of weeks, and then we went to Nashville and a studio there and actually recorded them with the help of some very gifted musicians—as you’ll hear, through the course of these next days.

And, now that CD is available! It’s called Be Still. 

I was listening this morning before I came in to record to this CD and the title song, "Be Still, My Soul." I thought, That is so slow and simple. You see, my fingers can’t do the things they could thirty-five years ago when I was studying piano seriously. I said, “These arrangements have to be really simple,” and they are.

The arrangements are slow. One of my thoughts was, Can you even play these on Christian radio and have anybody listen to them? They’re so different than what you typically hear. Then I thought, You know what? I think our hearts long for something—not just the music—but for moments in our lives when we slow down and we simplify things, where we just are still before the Lord.

So my prayer for this series over the next several days is that God will use this music and these reflections on these hymns to minister grace and encouragement and peace to God’s children.

So today I want to talk about the first song, and the title song on this CD. The song is "Be Still, My Soul." This was not the title we originally had in mind, but as we were in the studio recording, first I played the piano parts, and then these musicians came in and added what you’ll hear (this one has an oboe player with the piano). As we listened to this oboe player play "Be Still, My Soul," the producer and I were standing in the studio listening. It was just gorgeous; it was so beautiful. We looked at each other, and the producer said, “Do you think we should change the title to Be Still?”

And I said, “I think we’ve got it. That’s it.” Because that’s what so many of our hearts want—to be still and know that He is God.

In fact, I got an email recently from a woman to whom I had sent an advance copy of the CD. She said,

I listened to it over and over, and God’s sweet peace rains down on me each time I hear it. Several months ago, in the midst of some extremely difficult life circumstances, the Lord impressed on me Psalm 46:10. Over and over throughout these days, the Lord has continually whispered, "Be still and know that I am God."

When I opened your CD and saw the title, I smiled. Even the title ministered to me! I love how God knows just when we need encouragement.

And I hope it will be that for you, too.

Now, a little bit of background on this hymn, "Be Still, My Soul." Revival among God’s people often results in an outpouring of new songs and singing. In the mid-1700s there was the Puritan and the Wesleyan movement going on in England.

There was also taking place in Germany something that was called the Pietistic Revival. Katharina von Schlegel was a poet who was involved in this revival movement in Germany. She wrote nearly thirty hymns. She may have known Johann Sebastian Bach. He was born twelve years before she was and lived eighty miles away. We don’t know if she knew him or not.

Then, one hundred years after her poem was first published, it was translated into English by a scholar in Scotland named Jane Borkwit. Then, the hymn tune that is most familiar to us, that goes with this set of words is Finlandia. That tune is originally part of a symphonic poem written by Finland’s best-known composer, Jean Sebelius, in 1899.

In 1927, Katharina’s hymn text from the mid-1700s, that had been translated by Jane Borkwit, was paired with Jean Sebelius’ melody, Finlandia, and the three were put together. Isn’t it interesting how God used three people, from three different countries and eras, to give us this hymn that has ministered such grace to God’s people?

"Be Still, My Soul" was a favorite hymn of Eric Liddell. You may remember hymn as the hero—or the figure—in the movie Chariots of Fire, which tells the story of how he refused to run one of his races on a Sunday in the 1924 summer Olympics in Paris—although he ended up winning the gold medal in another event for which he had not trained.

After the Olympics, the next year—1925—Eric returned to China, where he had grown up in a missionary family. He went back to China to serve as a missionary. In 1941, the situation in China became dangerous due to Japanese aggression, and the British nationals were all encouraged to leave the country.

Liddell’s pregnant wife and children left for Canada to go stay with her family, but Eric decided to stay in China and continue his mission efforts. In 1943, the Japanese took over the mission where he was working, and Liddell was interned in a prisoner of war camp.

This was a camp that measured about 150 by 200 yards, that had 1500 people packed into it. Liddell lived in a crowded men’s dorm, where each man had a space of three by six feet. Eric was in charge of a building that housed missionary children who had been separated from their parents by the war.

During his time in the POW camp, he continued to serve and pour out his life for others. This hymn, "Be Still, My Soul," is one he taught to the other prisoners. Just before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, by the way, the Chinese government revealed that Liddell had been given an opportunity to leave the camp in a prisoner exchange between the Japanese and the British, but he had turned down the offer because he wanted to give his place to a pregnant woman so she could get out of the camp. Apparently, not even his family members had been aware of this sacrificial choice that he made.

In 1945, Liddell was taken to the camp hospital. He thought he was having a nervous breakdown due to overwork, but it turned out that he had an inoperable brain tumor. The Salvation Army had a band in that prison that played hymns around the camp on Sunday afternoons.

One Sunday afternoon in February of 1945, the band was playing outside the camp hospital. The nurse on duty sent a note out to the band saying that Eric Liddell was requesting that they play "Be Still, My Soul." Let me just read a couple of stanzas to you from that hymn, and you’ll see why it was so meaningful to him in that situation:

Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best, thy Heavenly Friend 
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul; thy God doth undertake 
To guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence, let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright [or clear] at last.
Be still my soul; the waves and winds still knows 
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below. 

Well, during the week that followed, Eric Liddell died—just five months before the end of the war. It was then that he experienced the reality of that third stanza . . . remember the words?

Be still, my soul; the hour is hastening on 
When we shall be forever with the Lord, 
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

One of the things I love about this hymn, and many other great hymns, is that they acknowledge the reality of difficult life circumstances. They’re unavoidable, and there are lots of different kinds. Represented in this room are many difficult life circumstances, but this hymn talks about a cross of grief or pain. It talks about thorny ways, about an uncertain future when you can’t see what lies ahead. 

It talks about when everything now is mysterious—you can’t see what God’s doing, where He’s leading you, what’s happening in your life. You can’t figure it out. It talks about the waves and the winds, the stormy seasons. It talks in the last stanza about disappointment and grief and fear and sorrow and change and tears.

Now, our natural response to all these kinds of struggles and challenges, is it to be still? Not really. Actually, our natural response is more often, probably, just the opposite of that—to be restless, to be agitated, to be like a fretful child, to worry, to be anxious, to murmur, to chafe against our circumstances, to manipulate our circumstances, to squirm under the pressure.

Instead, this hymn—as does God’s Word—calls us to be still, to stop fretting, to trust in the Lord and wait for Him to act, knowing that in His way and in His time He will do just that.

The title phrase, "be still, my soul," occurs six times in the three stanzas of this hymn, and it’s a reminder that sometimes you need to talk to your soul. Do you know what I mean by that? “Be still, my soul.” Sometimes we just need to take ourselves and look ourselves in the face and say, “Soul, be still.”

I think of something that Martyn Lloyd-Jones (the great preacher of the last century) said in a message on Psalm 42. He said,

The main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression is this: That we allow our self to talk to us, instead of talking to our self. Do you realize that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?

Most unhappiness is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself.

Would you think about that? How often do we start to rehearse the circumstances—and as women, we especially do this. It just snowballs, and we think about it. Some of you keep yourselves awake at night, just mulling and pondering and going over and over and over and over again. You're listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself.

You say, “People would think I’m crazy if I talk to myself!” But there are certain things we need to tell our self, and one of them is, “Be still, my soul!” Lloyd-Jones goes on to say,

Now this man’s treatment in Psalm 42 was this: Instead of allowing himself to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. "Why art thou cast down, o my soul?" he asks. You must say to your soul, "Why are you cast down? What business have you to be disquieted?" You must say to yourself, "Hope thou in God," instead of muttering in this depressed unhappy way.

I need to post this somewhere where I can see it often! Because I do tend to mutter in a depressed, unhappy way so many times over so many circumstances. He says,

No! Instead, you need to tell yourself, "Hope in God." You must go on to remind yourself of God—who God is, what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do.

Those three things that we’re supposed to remind ourselves of—you see those three things in this hymn. We need to remind ourselves who God is. If we want our souls to be still and know that He is God, we need to remind ourselves who God is. There are, in the three stanzas of this hymn, eight references to God.

And so we remind ourselves of His character, His presence, His activity. “The Lord is on thy side,” this song says. “He is faithful,” it says. It says that everything around us may change, but He remains the same. It says that He orders and provides for our lives, that He’s a friend, that He guides the past and the future. Remind yourself of what you know about God.

And then, remind yourself of what God has done in the past. “Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know His voice, who ruled them while He dwelt below.” Go to the Scriptures! See what God has done. See how He calmed the storm in His way and in His time.

See how He provided food in the wilderness for His people for those forty years. And then, look back over the landscape of your own life and remind yourself what God has done—how He has met, how He has provided for you, how He has directed you.

When your way seems messed-up and hopeless right now, look back and remind yourself. Talk to yourself about what God has done in the past. God hasn’t changed. He is still God. He is still faithful. He still provides. He still guides. Remind yourself of that.

And then, remind yourself, as Lloyd-Jones says, of what God has pledged Himself to do in the future—what he will do. When we get into these hard circumstances, especially the ones that seem to go on and on and on (there seems to be no solution), we think, This will go on forever. No, it won’t! It won’t!

The truth is—and this is what we need to tell our souls—we will be with the Lord forever! This circumstance is a momentary, light affliction, Paul says in 2 Corinthians. You say, “It doesn’t seem very ‘momentary.’ This is a long moment! These twenty-seven years I’ve been in this circumstance.”

But in light of eternity, it’s momentary. You say, "It doesn’t feel like it’s a light affliction." Well, it may not feel light, but in contrast with the weight of glory that God is preparing for us in heaven, all these afflictions will one day seem to have been very, very light.

So remind yourself of what we read in the Scripture. Again, as I was reading in the Book of Revelation recently, counsel your heart with these promises:

I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more. Neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also, he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Rev. 21:3–5).

Remind yourself what God has pledged to do, and then counsel your heart, speak to yourself—“be still, my soul.”

Dannah: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has been showing you how to have a still soul before the Lord, even when you want to worry. That message is part of a series called "Hymns of Hope in Troubled Times." Be Still is the name of the piano album Nancy recorded in 2014. Let’s listen to part of the track "Be Still, My Soul."

That’s Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth on the piano from her album Be Still. It includes ten of Nancy’s favorite hymns. I don’t know about you, but for some of us, the recent shelter-at-home orders actually made me busier than ever. Or maybe you’ve spent a lot of time feeling bored or afraid. Either way, listening to Be Still is like getting an invitation to rest in God’s peace and have a calm heart before Him, regardless of the craziness of our world.

We’d like to help you download a copy of Nancy’s piano album Be Still when you support the ministry of Revive Our Hearts with a gift of any amount. You can donate when you visit ReviveOurHearts.com. As our thank-you for your donation, you’ll be able to download the songs from Be Still.

So how can you find perfect peace in the center of a storm? Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth will show you the example of a woman who was hit with one hardship after another, yet she knew where to find peace. She’ll tell you the story tomorrow, on Revive Our Hearts.

Helping you counsel your own soul, Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is an outreach of Life Action Ministries. 

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.

About the Speaker

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has touched the lives of millions of women through Revive Our Hearts and the True Woman movement, calling them to heart revival and biblical womanhood. Her love …

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