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  • Writer's pictureKevin Anselmo

Lessons from Horatio Spafford on Career Disappointments

Updated: Jan 2, 2022

By Kevin Anselmo

Imagine you invest in real estate - let’s say buildings. You put a significant amount of your net worth into the investment. Then a short time later, the investment literally burns to the ground. Following this, just two years later you face the hardship of losing a number of loved ones in a travel related accident.

What would you do? Would you proclaim the words “It is well with my soul”? Would you decide to move abroad to serve the needy?

This is essentially what Horatio Spafford did. A senior partner of a large law firm, Horatio lost a significant financial investment during the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871. Then in 1873, his four daughters were killed as their ship set sail from the United States to England. Horatio learned about the death of his daughters via a telegram from his wife who survived the shipwreck. As he travelled for Europe from the United States to meet with his wife, he penned what I think are some of most beautiful words ever put to song:

"When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

A few years following the tragedy, the Spaffords left the United States and settled in Jerusalem. They served the needy, cared for the sick and took in homeless children with the goal of living out their Christian faith.

How is a person able to do this? I was hoping to find some remnant from Horatio’s life in which he would explain how he was able to respond to such a major career disappointment exacerbated by personal tragedy. No such interview exists; after all it was some 140 years ago when this happened and unfortunately there is no Horatio Spafford blog or YouTube channel that exists.

That said, maybe it isn’t necessary to sift through hundreds of articles or videos, as would be the case if this were to happen to someone today and people are trying to glean insights 140 years from now. Perhaps the hymn tells us everything we need to know about Horatio Spafford. The words underscore one key point: God is in control.

Natural Responses to Disappointments

Obviously, something went terribly wrong for a ship to wreck. Horatio could have harbored incredible resentment towards the other players involved in the accident.

The Chicago fire killed approximately 300 people, destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles of the city including over 17,000 structures, and left more than 100,000 residents homeless. The fire is claimed to have started in or around a small barn belonging to the family called the O'Learys. The initial response by the fire department was quick, but due to an error by the watchman, Matthias Schaffer, the firefighters were sent to the wrong place, allowing the fire to grow unchecked.

Horatio could have spent years venting in anger at these perpetrators of the fire.

He could have been plagued by jealousy as he looked at other buildings in Chicago that were unscathed by the fire and were able to grow their investments.

He could have assumed that the Lord was punishing him and rejected the faith he had lived by for many years.

He could have worked tirelessly to recuperate his lost wealth.

From my readings of Horatio’s life, none of these hypotheticals played out. While not covered in the content I read online, I am sure that there were times of intense grieving and questioning God. That would only be a natural human reaction. But ultimately he realized there was a higher being in control and lived out his remaining years in the most commendable of ways given the trials he encountered.

Funny enough, as I write this, I just learned that one of my biggest stock positions is down 28% in one day due to poor earnings! Writing this article is helping me to keep perspective!

Important Question for You to Consider

We all face career disappointments. We can choose to use our energy to store up resentment against the boss who didn’t give us the promotion or the prospective client who rejected our brilliant idea. We can direct our ire to the policies of government officials whose actions are somehow related to our professional setback. We can question why a just God would allow us hard-working and well-intended people to face trials.

While there may be an appropriate place for grieving a setback, harboring these types of feelings over the long-term will result in never-ending misery. If we are ever able to say and mean: “Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul” we will surely be able to find peace and contentment in the midst of the setback and the motivation to make a difference in new or existing calling.

You may be thinking that theoretically Horatio’s mindset and response to trials is admirable. You can see the merit of such an approach. But how does one practically live this out?

The reality is that if I lost a significant amount of my life savings to some type of mishap and if that was coupled with some sort of family tragedy, I very much question if, after a grieving process, I could truly proclaim “it is well with my soul” and dedicate my remaining years to the service of others.

While this doesn’t come from experience, my guess would be that adopting such an approach entails some universal principles that we can tailor and personalize based on our own personalities and strengths.

For me, I believe that I am better equipped to deal with career disappointments by focusing regularly on the truths of the Bible, submitting to God’s will regularly through prayer and meditation, volunteering and incorporating people in my network who appreciate spiritual impact over earthly accomplishments. For me, writing about these topics on this blog is very helpful in thinking about career goals and the spiritual dimension. There is something about writing that forces me to wrestle with different topics, gain clarity and attempt to communicate such ideas as coherently as possible.

What about you? What practices should you adopt so that you can best prepare yourself for when career disappointments - large or small - inevitably come your way? As you consider this question, I encourage you to listen to the classical version of It Is Well With my Soul at this clip or the modern version sung by Kristene DiMarco. I welcome your feedback. Feel free to write to me at kevin.anselmo (at) or leave your response in the comments. If you think others need to hear this message, please share this content on your social media channels! To make this easier for you, here is a suggested post that you can simply copy and paste into Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or whatever other social channel you use:

Imagine you suffer the worse imaginable career setback. Could you say "it is well with my soul"?

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