by Ron Rhodes
Shrouded in a dense fog, a large steamer edged slowly forward off the coast of Newfoundland, its foghorn crying out somber notes of warning. The captain--near exhaustion from lack of sleep--was startled by a gentle tap on his shoulder. He turned and found himself face-to-face with an old man in his late seventies.
The old man said, "Captain, I have come to tell you that I must be in Quebec on Saturday afternoon." (It was then Wednesday). The captain pondered for a moment, and then snorted: "Impossible." "Very well," the old man responded, "if your ship can't take me, God will find some other means to take me. I have never broken an engagement in fifty-seven years."
Lifting his weary hands in a gesture of despair, the captain replied, "I would help if I could--but I am helpless." Undaunted, the old man suggested, "Let's go down to the chart room and pray." The captain raised his eyebrows in utter disbelief, looking at the old man as if he had just escaped from a lunatic asylum. "Do you know how dense the fog is?" the captain demanded. The old man responded, "No, my eye is not on the thickness of the fog but on the living God who controls every circumstance of my life."
Against his better judgment, the captain accompanied the old man to the chart room and kneeled with him in prayer. With simple words a child might use, the old man prayed: "O Lord, if it is consistent with thy will, please remove this fog in five minutes. Thou knowest the engagement thou didst make for me in Quebec on Saturday. I believe it is thy will."
The captain, a nominal Christian at best, thought it wise to humor the old man and recite a short prayer. But before he was able to utter a single word, he felt a tap on his shoulder. The old man requested, "Don't pray, because you do not believe; and as I believe God has already answered, there is no need for you to pray." The captain's mouth dropped open. Then the old man explained: "Captain I have known my Lord for fifty-seven years and there has never been a single day that I have failed to gain an audience with the King. Get up, captain, and open the door, and you will find the fog is gone." The captain did as he was requested, and was astonished to find that the fog had indeed disappeared.
The captain later testified that his encounter with the aged George Muller completely revolutionized his Christian life. He had seen with his own eyes that Muller's God was the true and living God of the Bible. He had seen incredible power flow from a frail old man. . . a power rooted in simple childlike faith in God.1
Ray Stedman once delivered a sermon on Jeremiah in which he said: "Faith has an apparent ridiculousness about it. You are not acting by faith if you are doing what everyone around you is doing. Faith always appears to defy the circumstances. It constitutes a risk and a venture."2
This is the kind of faith George Muller demonstrated decade after decade in his long and fruitful life. During the final year of his earthly sojourn, he wrote that his faith had been increasing over the years little by little, but he emphatically insisted that there was nothing unique about him or his faith. He believed that a life of trust was open to virtually all of God's children if only they would endure when trials came instead of giving up. It was this kind of faith that enabled Muller to enjoy the Lord on a non-stop basis, regardless of the punches life threw his way.
Perceiving Unseen Realities
Scientists tell us that the earth is spinning on its axis at a speed of over 1000 miles per hour at this very moment. Yet we have no sensation of motion. At the same time, the earth is rotating around the sun at a speed of 66,000 miles per hour. Do you feel anything? The earth is moving at an incredible speed but we do not perceive it. Einstein made this point by striking two consecutive blows with his fist and saying, "Between those two strokes, we traveled thirty miles." Incredible motion with no perception! Yet we accept by faith that it is nevertheless true.
The Apostle Paul defines faith as "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1). I like John Wesley's paraphrase of this verse: "[Faith] is the power to see into the world of spirits, into things invisible and eternal. It is the power to understand those things which are not perceived by worldly senses."3
Of course, the big problem for most of us is that we tend to base everything on what our five senses tell us. And since the spiritual world is not subject to any of these, our faith is often weak and impotent. A. W. Tozer analyzes the problem this way: "The world of sense intrudes upon our attention day and night for the whole of our lifetime. It is clamorous, insistent and self-demonstrating. It does not appeal to our faith; it is here, assaulting our five senses, demanding to be accepted as real and final. But sin has so clouded the lenses of our hearts that we cannot see that other reality, the City of God, shining around us. The world of sense triumphs."4
The eye of faith, however, perceives this unseen reality. Tozer is right when he says that "a spiritual kingdom lies all about us, enclosing us, embracing us, altogether within reach of our inner selves, waiting for us to recognize it. God Himself is here waiting our response to His Presence. This eternal world will come alive to us the moment we begin to reckon upon its reality."5
Do you remember the story of Elisha in 2 Kings 6:8-23? Elisha found himself in a situation where he was completely surrounded by enemy troops, yet he remained calm and relaxed. His servant, however, must have been climbing the walls at the sight of this hostile army with vicious-looking warriors and innumerable battle-chariots on every side.
Undaunted, Elisha said to him: "Don't be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them" (2 Kings 6:16). Elisha then prayed to God, "'O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.' Then the Lord opened the servant's eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha" (2 Kings 6:17). God was protecting Elisha and his servant with a whole army of magnificent angelic beings!
The reason Elisha never let his feathers get ruffled was because he was "sure of what he hoped for and certain of what he did not see" (cf. Hebrews 11:1). Unlike many Christians today, Elisha was not a slave to the visible and the tangible.
George Muller was a man after Elisha's own heart. As his autobiography informs us, he had many orphans under his care; too many--in fact--for one man to financially support without God's intervention. At the orphanage one morning the tables were all set for breakfast, but the cupboard was completely bare. There was no food! And there was no money! The children were all standing around waiting for their breakfasts, and Mr. Muller said to them, "Children, you know we must be in time for school." He then lifted his head and prayed, "Dear Father, we thank Thee for what Thou art going to give us to eat."
Almost immediately after this, there was a knock at the door. It was a local baker who said, "Mr. Muller, I could not sleep last night. Somehow I felt you didn't have any bread for breakfast, and the Lord wanted me to send you some. So I got up at 2:00 am and baked some fresh bread and here it is." Mr. Muller humbly thanked the baker and then offered praise to God for providing so miraculously for him and the orphans.
Moments later there was a second knock at the door. It was the local milkman whose milk wagon had just broken down in front of Muller's orphanage. He offered all his milk to Muller and the orphans so he could have his wagon hauled to the nearest repair shop.6 Coincidence? No way!
Muller had a simple, childlike faith in a living God. He knew beyond any doubt that an unseen spiritual world existed around him. And in spite of what his physical senses told him (i.e., no food and no money), he was confident that God could be trusted for all of his temporal needs.
Hope: The Fuel of Faith
Paul tells us that faith involves "being sure of what we hope for" (Hebrews 11:1). In his classic Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin delineates for us how hope relates to faith: "Hope refreshes faith, that it may not become weary. It sustains faith to the final goal, that it may not fail in midcourse, or even at the starting gate. In short, by unremitting renewing and restoring, it invigorates faith again and again with perseverance."7
One of my favorite Old Testament characters is Moses. His life illustrates how hope can feed and sustain faith: "By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible" (Hebrews 11:24-27).
Moses could have had immeasurable power, authority, and riches if he had chosen to stay in Egypt. Yet he gave it all up because of his faith in God. And his faith was nourished by his hope of a future reward, a hope which gave him an eternal perspective on life.
Was this kind of hope characteristic of George Muller's faith? I am sure of it! I recently discovered that after Muller's death, his son-in-law and successor in the ministry--James Wright--disclosed that "the mysterious name of a generous donor which had appeared on the Annual Reports for many years as 'from a servant of the Lord Jesus who, constrained by the love of Christ, seeks to lay up treasures in heaven,' was none other than George Muller himself."8 Muller's future hope had fanned his faith into a flame! Do you have a hope?
Faith in God Alone
Faith is only as good as the object of that faith. The story is told of a small boy in England who was asked by a scientist to allow himself to be lowered down the side of a cliff by a rope in order to recover some important specimens. "We will pay a lot of money," said the scientist. But the boy replied that he wasn't interested. The scientist was persistent, however, and finally persuaded the boy to do it. But only on one condition: that his father would be the one to hold the ropes by which he would be lowered. He felt safe going down the side of the cliff because the object of his faith was his own father who had never let him down.
Recall with me the story of David and Goliath. To the eye of sense David had no earthly chance of conquering the mighty giant who had been arrogantly defying the armies of Israel. But David, looking at the situation through the eye of faith, could perceive the unseen divine forces that were fighting on his side.
Saul--who was blind to all of this--warned David: "You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth" (1 Samuel 17:33). But David asserted, "The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine" (1 Samuel 17:37). Then when David came face-to-face with the giant warrior, he declared: "This day the Lord will hand you over to me, and I'll strike you down. . . the battle is the Lord's, and he will give all of you into our hands" (1 Samuel 17:46-47).
And the rest is history. Goliath lost the fight before it had even begun. Why? Because the object of David's faith was a mighty God who once declared: "Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for me?" (Jeremiah 32:27). The object of David's faith spelled D-E-F-E-A-T for Goliath.
In his book The Pursuit of God, A. W. Tozer commented: "Like the eye which sees everything in front of it and never sees itself, faith is occupied with the Object upon which it rests and pays no attention to itself at all. While we are looking at God we do not see ourselves--blessed riddance."9 This was David's secret. He payed no attention to his own weakness and inability. His eye of faith was solely on his Deliverer.
This was also Hudson Taylor's secret. I recall that he once set sail from Liverpool to China on a small sailing-ship, the "Dumfries." When sailing to the north of New Guinea, the captain of the Dumfries discovered that although a breeze would usually spring up after sundown and last until dawn, there was rarely any wind during the daylight hours. Not exactly what you would call ideal sailing conditions!
On one particular day, the captain became noticeably anxious, and when Hudson asked what was bothering him, he explained that a strong undercurrent was pulling them towards some sunken reefs. To make matters worse, there was no wind to give them the power to withstand the undercurrent. All they could do, said the captain, was to wait for the inevitable to happen. "No," replied young Hudson, "there is one thing we have not done yet--we have not prayed."10
There were three other spirit-filled believers aboard the ship, and Hudson suggested that each of them retire to their cabins and pray for a breeze. Hudson had prayed for just a few minutes when he gained assurance that their prayers were answered. "Without further ado he went up on deck and asked the first officer ( a rank unbeliever) to set the sail to catch the coming wind. The man nearly exploded at such an apparently ridiculous suggestion--especially coming from this stripling of a landlubber, who, to cap this farcical nonsense, was religious."11 Yet Hudson persuaded him to give it a try. With a curse in his mouth and contempt in his eyes, the first officer gave the order and his men jumped to obey.
At that moment, the captain came on deck to see what all the commotion was about. And he witnessed God's response to Taylor's faith. "No sooner was the sail set than the prayer-answering breeze filled it and the ship was soon pulling away from the reef to the safety of the open sea."12
Taylor's attention was not on the weakness and inability of puny man. His attention was not on uncontrollable circumstances like the strong undercurrent and lack of wind. The object of his faith was the all-powerful God of the Bible. Taylor believed; God responded!
Conditioning the Faith Muscle
I've always been taught that faith is like a muscle. A muscle has to be repeatedly stretched to its limit of endurance in order to build more strength. Without increased stress in training, the muscle will simply not grow. In the same way, faith must be repeatedly tested to the limit of its endurance in order to expand and develop. Very often, God allows His children to go through trying experiences in order to develop this muscle.
George Muller put it this way: "God delights to increase the faith [or condition the faith-muscle] of His children. We ought, instead of wanting no trials before victory, no exercise for patience, to be willing to take them from God's hand as a means. I say--and say it deliberately--trials, obstacles, difficulties, and sometimes defeats, are the very food of faith."13
This principle is beautifully illustrated in the book of Exodus. Following Israel's deliverance from Egypt, God first led them to Marah--a place where they would have to trust God to heal the water to make it drinkable--before leading them to Elim, a gorgeous oasis with plenty of good water (Exodus 15:22-27). The important thing to observe is that God could have bypassed Marah altogether and brought them directly to Elim if He had wanted to. But--as is characteristic of God--He purposefully led them through the route which would yield maximum conditioning of their faith-muscles.
God also allows His children to confront obstacles and difficulties in order to prove His sufficiency when they dare to flex their faith-muscles. F. B. Meyer suggests that "very often God allows our helplessness and failure to become extraordinarily acute in order that His grace may have a larger opportunity."14
This is illustrated for us in the historical account in 2 Chronicles 20 where the Moabites and Ammonites came to make war on Jehoshaphat. In his prayer to God, Jehoshaphat said: "we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you" (2 Chronicles 20:12).
Jehoshaphat was helpless in the face of what seemed to the physical eye to be sure defeat. Yet his eye of faith was not on the problem but on God. The result? God promised: "Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God's.. . . You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you. . . Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you" (2 Chronicles 20:15-17).
The rest is history. The Moabites and Ammonites were completely destroyed the following day. God purposefully allowed this situation to develop so that He could demonstrate His sufficiency to Jehoshaphat. And as a result of this event, Jehoshaphat's faith-muscle became even stronger.
I can't help but think of how God used this same basic strategy with Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. Elisabeth had been feeling quite ill for a time and went to see a doctor. Following her doctor visit, she recalls: "We were informed that, according to X-rays, I had an active case of tuberculosis. Knowing as well as Jim did that he was called to the Indians of the jungle, I felt that this news spelled the cancellation of our marriage plans, for, even if I should recover, life in the jungle would not be recommended."15
But Jim's attitude was unchanged. "If I had any plans," he wrote in his journal, "they are not changed. I will marry her in God's time, and it will be the very best for us, even if it means waiting years. God has not led us this far to frustrate us or turn us back, and He knows all about how to handle T.B."16
"According to your faith be it unto you," Elisabeth later exulted. "Jim's [faith] was rewarded--a week's further tests showed nothing whatever wrong with my lung."17 God seemingly allowed this event to transpire in order to demonstrate His sufficiency to Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. Jim flexed his faith-muscle; God moved into action.
Faith and the Word of God
John Calvin once said that "we must be reminded that there is a permanent relationship between faith and the Word. [God] could not separate one from the other any more than we could separate the rays from the sun from which they come."18 Calvin assures his readers that God's Word "is the basis whereby faith is supported and sustained; if it turns away from the Word, it falls. Therefore, take away the Word and no faith will then remain."19
Calvin recognized that the New Testament writers were adamant on this issue. John's Gospel tells us that "these things have been written that you may believe. . ." (John 20:31). Paul tells us that "faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17). If someone should ask, "How can I increase my faith?" the answer is: SATURATE YOUR MIND WITH GOD'S WORD.
We have looked at several inspiring examples of how George Muller's faith reaped incredible results. It is no surprise that Muller sees a cause and effect relationship between the Word of God and faith. Based on what he has learned over the years, he offers two pieces of advice for Christians who want to see powerful results from their faith.
First, since true faith is solidly anchored upon Scriptural facts, we must not allow ourselves to be influenced by impressions. "Impressions have neither one thing nor the other to do with faith," says Muller. "Faith has to do with the Word of God. It is not impressions, strong or weak, which will make the difference. We have to do with the Written Word and not ourselves or impressions."20
And second, we must beware of letting probabilities hinder our faith. Muller warns: "Many people are willing to believe regarding those things that seem probable to them. Faith has nothing to do with probabilities. The province of faith begins where probabilities cease and sight and sense fail. Appearances are not to be taken into account. The question is--whether God has spoken it in His Word."21
So what does all of this boil down to? Perhaps Miles Stanford sums it up best when he says that "there can be no steadfastness [in faith] apart from immovable facts."22 And these "immovable facts" are found in God's unchanging Word. Regardless of how impressions and probabilities relentlessly assault the physical eye, the immovable facts contained in Scripture keep the eye of faith in proper focus.
Mark it down! Without a regular feeding on God's Word, your faith will shrivel up like a dead leaf and blow away in the wind of adversity.
The Faith-Joy Connection
Those who have been mightily used by God down through the centuries have consistently testified to the close connection between faith and joy. Martin Luther said that "a Christian who possesses faith in God does everything with liberty and joy; while the man who is not at one with God is full of care and kept in bondage."23 John Wesley commented that "with faith comes. . . the fulfillment of the promise of holiness and happiness."24 German writer Erich Sauer proclaimed that "holy joy, heavenly nature, and everlasting glory is our blessed lot where faith in the Crucified One is the true possession of our heart and the center of our life."25 Missionary Jim Elliot wrote in his journal that "joy and peace can only come in believing."26 The verdict is unanimous: the life of faith is a life of joy.
Of course, this should not surprise us since it is the clear teaching of Scripture. When Paul and Silas were thrown in jail in Philippi, for example, they sang praises to God as they flexed their faith-muscles. They even managed to lead the jailer to faith in Christ, after which "the jailer brought them into his house and sat a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God--he and his whole family" (Acts 16:34).
Paul later prayed that this kind of joy would be a reality in the lives of the Roman Christians: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:13).
Some time after this, Paul assured the Philippian believers: "I know that I shall remain and stay by you all, to promote your progress and joy in believing" (Philippians 1:25). Paul apparently considered faith and joy inseparable!
John Bunyan, one of the most influential authors of the seventeenth century, was convinced that Paul was right on target. Bunyan had been unfairly imprisoned for twelve years for preaching God's Word. Declining to be freed on the condition that he no longer preach, his famous reply was: "If I am freed today I will preach tomorrow."27 It was during his long imprisonment that he wrote his classic book Pilgrim's Progress.
Among the virtuous characters in this allegorical book are Christian, Faithful, Goodwill, Evangelist, and Charity. Less virtuous characters include Worldly, Formalist, Hypocrisy, Timorous, Ignorance, and Great Despair. At an important juncture in the book, Faithful made the statement that "according to the strength of one's faith in Him [God], one will have joy and peace."28 Faithful's statement is no doubt a reflection of what John Bunyan had discovered to be true in his own experience--even when he was in jail. The faith-life is a joyful life.
How is it with you? Is your joy in life 'running on empty'? If so, why not take to heart the advice of Hannah Whitall Smith, who in 1870 wrote: "Trust in Him now for everything, and see if He does not do for you exceeding abundantly, above all that you could ever have asked or even thought, not according to your power or capacity, but according to His own mighty power, working in you all the good pleasure of His most blessed will."29 Selah!
1 Colin Whittaker, Seven Guides to Effective Prayer, S.v. "George Muller" (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1987), pp. 15-16.
2 Ray Stedman, Sermon on Jeremiah 32-33 entitled "Is Anything Too Hard For God."
3 John Wesley, The Nature of Spiritual Growth (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1977), insert mine, p. 188.
4 A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, n.d.), p. 56.
5 Tozer, p. 52.
6 Whittaker p. 33.
7 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Edited by John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, n.d.), p. 590.
8 Whittaker, p. 43.
9 Tozer, p. 91.
10 J. Hudson Taylor, Hudson Taylor (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, n.d.), p. 57.
11 Whittaker, p. 64.
12 Whittaker, p. 65.
13 George Muller, cited by Miles Stanford in Principles of Spiritual Growth (Lincoln, Nebraska: Back to the Bible, 1976), insert mine, p. 9.
14 F. B. Meyer, The Call and Challenge of the Unseen (London: Morgan and Scott, 1928), p. 152.
15 Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970), p. 199.
16 Elliot, p. 199.
17 Elliot, p. 199.
18 Calvin, p. 548.
19 Calvin, p. 549.
20 Stanford, p. 8.
21 Stanford, p. 8.
22 Stanford, p. 9.
23 J. H. Merle D'Aubigne, The Life and Times of Martin Luther (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978), p. 301.
24 Wesley, p. 189.
25 Erich Sauer, In the Arena of Faith (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), p. 27.
26 Elliot, p. 70.
27 Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell, S.v. "Bunyan, John" (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), p. 181.
28 Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Christiana's Progress: For Devotional Reading, edited by Clara E. Murray (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), p. 78.
29 Hannah Whitall Smith, The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life (Old Tappan: Spire Books, 1976), p. 54.