I was 40 and friendless. Struggling with a new job. Drifting in a large church. Feeling envy at others’ warm friendships. Yet I couldn’t find my own. Childhood pals had drifted away, and grownup buddies seemed hard to make.
So I finally did something about it—I dropped to my knees and prayed. Send me a friend, O Lord. Not a fancy prayer, but it was honest. I need a friend. A real friend, someone loyal, good, and true.
Then with mercy, the Lord answered. Through a family connection, a warm-hearted woman new to our town crossed my path. Almost instantly, it seemed, we were joined in spirit. Friends in Christ. And we still are even today.
Looking back, however, I reflect on the deeper Friend I had forgotten to pursue all those years.
This neglectful pursuit takes on special meaning when we explore the life of Irish poet Joseph Scriven, author of the beloved hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” As he wrote:
“O what peace we often forfeit. O what needless pain we bear. All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”
Those heartfelt words offer a glimpse into Scriven’s soul—this man who, at age 25, lost his beloved fiancée to drowning the night before they were to be married. Grief stricken, Scriven moved to Canada, where he fell in love a second time. Astonishingly, that fiancé also died—from pneumonia—soon before they were to marry.
The two tragedies forever changed Scriven’s life. But what could such heartbreak teach believers about friendship with God—especially when many of us struggle in our fast-paced world to find true connections?
Paging through history on Scriven, I almost missed the lesson his life longs to share.
After all, he started out with great prospects. Born in Dublin in 1819—the son of a captain in the British Royal Marines—Scriven earned a degree from Trinity College, settled himself in his hometown as a teacher and set out toward a successful life.
Yet following the loss of his second fiancée, he devoted himself to prayer and Bible study, joining the Plymouth Brethren and preaching at a church in Port Hope, Ontario. Most notably, Scriven took a vow of poverty—selling all his earthly possessions to help the poor and physically disabled.
But was he friendless? Are we? Scriven answered that question with a poem.
Titled “Pray Without Ceasing,” it was written for his mother back in Ireland who had become very ill. Lacking the money to visit yet wanting to comfort her, Scriven wrote his mother a poem on the friendship of God.
Friendship with God? This man who endured such tragedy?
In fact, as Charles F. Stanley points out, it is by walking with God through “life’s darkest valleys” we gain tremendous insight into the character of the Lord’s friendship. “Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned have come as a result of inexpressible heartache,” he writes. “God could have spared me from disappointment…but He had greater things He wanted to teach me, and they could be learned only through sorrow and suffering.”
In our valleys indeed we learn of our Savior’s faithfulness. As He promised: “Lo, I am with you always.” When others are gone or have abandoned us, or when life’s circumstances hit us hardest, who is our abiding friend? Jesus Christ—through His indwelling Holy Spirit.
Scriven understood this deeply. As he wrote his mother: “Can we find a friend so faithful, Who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness; Take it to the Lord in prayer.”
Those words didn’t only bless Scriven’s mother. Put to music years later by an American attorney and composer and renamed “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” the song became beloved by evangelist D.L. Moody, whose enthusiasm hastened its popularity around the world.
In Japan, a version is sung at weddings. In Indonesia, where most of the population is Muslim, the tune nevertheless was adapted as a popular patriotic song, “Ibu Pertiwi."
Scriven never knew the impact, as he died of drowning in 1886. Yet Scriven’s life wasn’t just a sad loss—his song still teaches worldwide. The lesson? We’ve always got a Friend, one Who is loyal, good and true. Forever.