Nearer My God to Thee

“Nearer my God to thee, nearer to thee! Ev’n though it be a cross that raiseth me.”

I sang the chorus of the old hymn, hovering above the crib of my daughter’s darkened room. Wistful sadness washed over me, but not depressed sadness this time. This kind was the kind that always comes when it’s finally time to stop singing softly and patting the downy head of a baby, time to back out of the room and shut the door with the slightest ‘click’.

I’d been recovering from postpartum depression for some time, and retreating from Zoe’s room without thinking once about the pain of sending her to daycare the next day was a small victory. Maybe this was it. Maybe God in His mercy had brought me to my Bethel. 

Written in 1841 by poet Sarah Flower Adams, “Nearer My God to Thee’s” melody and first verse are widely regarded as a beloved hymn and one of the most heartbreaking religious songs of all time. It is even rumored that as the Titanic sank, the ship’s musicians played the tune. But most people have never heard the additional verses of the piece, which actually describe the Genesis account of Jacob’s ladder, the famed “stairway to heaven.”

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down/darkness be over me, my rest a stone; Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer my God to thee, nearer my God to thee, nearer to thee!

In the Bible, Jacob is the twin of Esau and the son of Isaac and Rebekah. From the text, neither Jacob nor his brother seem to be paragons of Old Testament virtue. They are already fighting one another before they even leave the womb, causing their mother so much pain she wishes her own death. The Lord answers Rebekah’s plea, not by easing the pain, but by adding to it: her sons, He tells her, will be divided and competitive for the rest of their lives, representing two separate nations.

Esau grows to be a ruddy, wild-looking outdoorsman, obedient to his father but fond of exaggeration and ruled by his appetite. Jacob, on the other hand, is his mother’s favorite: quiet, reserved, and constantly scheming ways to claim the honor Esau has as the firstborn son. Jacob first exploits his hungry brother’s weakness for food and drink, convincing Esau to give away his earthly privileges in exchange for a bowl of stew. Then he impersonates his twin, lying to his blind, dying father in order to get the special blessing that is all Esau has left. Furious, Esau vows to kill Jacob. With the help of his equally sneaky mother, Jacob escapes into the wilderness. This is where the song picks up. Jacob walks alone toward the land of his uncle until the sun goes down. With none of the comforts of home, he lays his head down on a stone to sleep.

Depression is much like Jacob’s journey. We are all sinners before we are even born, but as Christians we are also armed with Our Father’s powerful blessing in baptism. We are sent out into the wilderness of the world to look for another home, but some of us experience this journey as darkness, with no soft place to lay our heads.

There let the way appear steps unto heav’n/All that thou sendest me in mercy giv’n; Angels to beckon me nearer my God to thee, nearer my God to thee, nearer to thee!

While sleeping, Jacob dreams of a stairway reaching from earth to heaven, with “the angels of God … ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said: ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac … Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go … I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.’”

Jacob’s ladder prefigures the cross of Christ, whose struggle and sacrifice bridged forever the uncrossed space between heaven and earth. This is a useful thing to remember when we are in despair. God, not our own effort, is ultimately responsible for accomplishing what we feel is impossible in our lives. He requires our participation, no doubt. He sometimes even asks us to struggle and sacrifice and feel incredible pain to bridge the gaps within ourselves. But He is with us and will keep us wherever we go.

Then with my waking thoughts bright with thy praise/out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise; So by my woes to be nearer my God to thee, nearer my God to thee, nearer to thee!

When Jacob awakes, his problems are not magically erased for having dreamed of God’s promise. Even in that era of miracles, that’s not the way God works. Instead, he is filled with fear and awe, declaring, “This is the house of God; this is the gate of heaven!” He takes the stone on which he slept and pours oil on it, marking the spot as holy. He names it Bethel, literally, “house of God.”

Like Jacob, we who are suffering can allow ourselves to recognize God’s presence and praise him even in our troubles. Like the song, we can assert that being closer to God is our first priority, even if it takes our own personal cross to raise us up to Him. In the end, whatever we struggle is necessary for our salvation, because everything God allows us to experience is full of His mercy. We may have to be raised nearer to Him on a cross, but sometimes the only thing keeping us upright in the first place are the nails through our hands and feet.

Or if on joyful wing, cleaving the sky/Sun, moon and stars forgot, upwards I fly/Still all my song shall be nearer my God to thee, nearer my God to thee, nearer to thee!

I have come to my Bethel, the holy place where I can begin to recognize God’s presence in the midst of my depression. God willing, I have a long way to go before the journey is over and many more steps to take before I reach the top of Jacob’s ladder. Until then, I will continue to pat the downy head of a baby in the dark of the night and sing, with conviction and hope:

“Nearer my God to thee, nearer to thee! Ev’n though it be a cross that raiseth me.”

3 thoughts on “Nearer My God to Thee

  1. This is beautiful, mama. I am so sorry that you are having a difficult time. You are not alone. It is so hard to explain to others who have not or do not go through it. Although I do not know you personally, I will pray for you. You have beautiful gifts from God and this is just a hurdle! Keep singing and soothing. You’re doing great!!! 🙂


  2. Wow, Dymphnasdaughter…I love everything I have read on your site. You have a beautiful heart and deep understanding of depression. I, too, have chronic depression and just the 3-4 articles I have read tonight are so healing and beautiful I want you to write on my blog! Beloved,


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