Oh Love That Will Not Let Me Go

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Sometimes I think of the great hymn writers as other-worldly.

Having lived in another time and place than me, they can seem almost machine-like in their productivity, artistry and vocabulary. I think of Wesley who wrote 6,000 hymns; or Fanny Crosby - 8,000 hymns and countless other poems! Who can do that?

And yet the more I dig into the great hymns and their stories, the more I realize that oftentimes there is a deeper origin for these songs, beyond sheer will power and songwriting proficiency. Many hymns come from broken people in extremely difficult circumstances, and are the result of suffering and pain in their own personal lives.

This is the case for George Matheson and “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.”


Years ago, I was a young songwriter desperately trying to figure out how to die to self on a stage and actually lead others in worship as opposed to what I was doing on most nights, which was, if I’m honest, trying to impress a crowd with creative musical offerings that didn’t resemble much of a sacrifice to Christ at all. 


One night as I walked offstage after an event in Texas, an older man approached me, introduced himself, and handed me a manilla folder. I was skeptical at first as to why this stranger was handing me documents, but he went on to explain that he had appreciated our re-working of the old hymn, “Come Ye Sinners,” and wanted me to consider another old hymn: “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go”. The lyrics and story to that hymn were in the folder he handed me that night. 


Though I grew up singing hymns in church, I did not recognize the title. I thanked him and told him I would consider it, only to leave that folder in a road case for many months without ever reading the story and lyrics. I stumbled upon that folder a few weeks before we were scheduled to record our next album as a band, and I opened it and began to read these stunning lyrics:


O love that will not let me go

I rest my weary soul in Thee

I give Thee back this life I owe

And in Thy ocean depths it flows

May richer, fuller be


I was immediately captivated by the beauty and honesty of the poem written by Matheson. I went on to read the story about how this hymn came to life.


George Matheson, while studying to become a minister in Scotland in the mid 1800’s, began to slowly lose his sight. Within months, he was completely blind. When he wrote to share the news with his then fiancée, she broke off the engagement and Matheson was left alone trying to navigate this new life of blindness as a young minister. His sister moved in to care for him and often helped transcribe sermons and care for his daily needs. Eventually, it was time for the sister to marry and move to a new city. It was on the eve of her departure that George Matheson found himself alone and wrestling with anxiety and fear. In his own words, he later tells the story of the writing of this great poem:


“My hymn was composed on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882…Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression rather of having it dictated to me by some inward voice than of working it out myself…I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure it never received at my hands any retouching or correction…this came like a dayspring from on high.”


In a dark, quiet moment of suffering, God gave George Matheson the gift of this song, which has ministered to millions for the last 150 years, many of whom (myself included) were fighting their own battles of loss, despair or anxiety. This stirring poem is a reminder of the hope we have in Christ - true hope, even in the midst of earthly heartache. All of us can relate in some way to losing someone or going through dark trials, and yet we are called back to Jesus and invited to rest in him. That is the call of “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go”.


As Michael Hawn points out, the hymn has a beautiful lyrical arc that paints several word pictures of what this hope looks like tangibly in our lives:


“Each of the four stanzas begins with a key word—Love, Light, Joy and Cross—that are not only attributes of his relationship with Christ, but also names given to Christ. Love is a haven for a “weary soul” and is as deep as the “ocean.” The second stanza focuses on Light that illumines the way of the singer. Our “flickering torch” is augmented by the “sunshine’s blaze” of Christ, the Light of the world.Stanza three is one of Joy—a joy that seeks for us “through pain.” The “rainbow” is a promise of hope following the rain indicating that the “morn shall tearless be.” The Cross is the theme of the concluding stanza. Through Christ’s suffering on the cross, “blossoms red” are formed that lead to the birth of new life.”


After stumbling upon that manilla folder, I scrambled to re-work this hymn in hopes of introducing it to new audiences who might enjoy the incredible imagery that Matheson gave to us. I added a simple prayer to the text that re-emphasizes the joy found in Christ coming into my life and being my source of Love, Light, Joy and Sacrifice on the cross. 


This is the prayer we pray for you as well - that you, as you sing and lead this song with your community, will rejoice in Him no matter the circumstances, and sing this from a place of true hope found only in Jesus Christ. It is true - He has come to you, He can make you whole again. and He will not let you go - no matter what you are facing today! Let’s rejoice together in that, friends. Amen.


Rejoice my heart

Rejoice my soul

My savior God has come to thee

Rejoice my heart

You’ve been made whole

By a love that will not let me go