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“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” TLH 457, LSB 770

Written by | April, 2018
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A HYMN OF GLORY LET US SING (TWENTY-NINTH IN A SERIES)

Several years ago on a family vacation, we were traveling Highway 401 between Toronto and Montreal around one o’clock in the morning. The children were drifting in and out of restless sleep when the headlights illuminated a blue and white sign announcing the “Joseph Scriven Monument.” I jumped a little in the driver’s seat and prodded my wife, “Look! Joseph Scriven! I had no idea that was here!” She mumbled, “What are you talking about?” I said, “You know—’What a Friend We Have in Jesus!’ We really, really should stop!” She answered something like, “It’s the middle of the night. It’s pitch dark. Would they still give us one phone call when they catch us in a cemetery with flashlights and cameras?” She prevailed, and we didn’t stop; but that sign appearing out of nowhere was a sudden reminder of one of the most beloved hymns in all Christendom.

Joseph Medlicott Scriven (1819-1886) was born and educated in Ireland. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Trinity College, Dublin, he emigrated to Canada and lived the last quarter-century of his life in Bewdley and Port Hope, Ontario. His was a life of tragedy and trouble. His first fiancée died by drowning the night before their wedding. His second fiancée, Eliza Roche, contracted pneumonia and also died shortly before their intended marriage. Scriven, keenly aware of the world’s sorrows, joined the Plymouth Brethren church and devoted his life to serving the poor.

He would be little known to history were it not for a poem he wrote to his ill mother in 1855 that was accidentally discovered by a neighbor. It began, “What a Friend we have in Jesus, / All our sins and griefs to bear! / What a privilege to carry / Ev’rything to God in prayer!” Those four simple phrases comfort the suffering Christian with four great truths:
1) Jesus is a Friend to us. He is not “out to get us” no matter how difficult our circumstances may seem, but He stands by His believers and holds them in His loving care. 2) He bears all our sins and griefs. He Himself went to the cross carrying all our sin, suffering for us so that those very things which trouble us today will not be able to trouble us in eternity. 3) What a privilege we have to
pray to Jesus! It is a privilege indeed. Without His shed blood to cleanse us of our sinful stains, we would have no right to address the very Son of God. 4)
We can bring everything to God in prayer! There is nothing we cannot tell our dear Savior—no guilt so great, no worry so small that we cannot share it with Him and make it His concern too.

The poem continues along those same lines, urging us to prayer by highlighting what a blessing it is to take our troubles to the Lord. “We should never be discouraged, / Take it to the Lord in prayer. / Can we find a Friend so faithful / Who will all our sorrows share?” True friends do share one another’s sorrows, don’t they? “Carry each other’s burdens . . . .” (Galatians 6:2 NIV).

Are we weak and heavy laden, / Cumbered with a load of care? / Precious Savior, still our Refuge— / Take it to the Lord in prayer.” Scriven’s death was mysterious. He disappeared from his room the night of August 9, 1886, and was found drowned the next day. The plaque at the Joseph Scriven Monument today contains the full text of his poem, ending with the famous line, “In His arms He’ll take and shield thee, / Thou wilt find a solace there.

David Schaller is pastor of Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sister Lakes, Michigan. He also prepares the ‘Bread of Life’ devotions for the Lutheran Spokesman.