The Life of Faith
Excerpted from Norman’s classic The Law of Faith, the following article clears away the mystery and misconceptions often associated with the topic of faith—to reveal how faith works in everyday life and can be applied to the problems around us.
A Personal Explanation
The life of faith has had a fascination for me for over twenty-five years. So far as I remember, this interest was first quickened through the study of George Müller’s life; then by the fact of a clear call from God to join a “faith” mission, which was at that time best known by its earlier name of Heart of Africa Mission, but is now known by its enlarged, though clumsier, title of Worldwide Evangelization Crusade. Obedience to this call meant that fascinating theory must now be translated into action. Straight away the challenge came from the one who had toiled and sacrificed to give me a good start in life: Would I not be wiser to join some society, enter some denomination, which, if ill-health invalided me from the mission field, I might find some guaranteed sphere of ministry and livelihood at home?
But the call had been so clear that adherence to it was not difficult, except for the momentary pain it caused to loved ones, and that was not of long duration, for when they saw that the decision was definite, they gladly and warmly commended me to the will of God.
Twelve years passed, spent partly in the Belgian Congo, partly on journeyings oft as emissary from field to home-end on mission matters, and partly in translation work. Not much opportunity was afforded for the practice of faith in any specialized sense, or rather it may be more correct to say that the secret of the application of Scriptural and achieving faith had not yet been seen, and therefore the many opportunities for applying it were not perceived. Personal needs were regularly supplied, mainly through the channel of the mission; and, as I have just said, the meaning and use of faith as God’s instrument of deliverance in all the other problems of life, internal and external, had not yet dawned upon me. The pull of faith, however, its attraction and fascination, never left me. It had become a deep inner conviction. I had glimpsed and tasted. It is my belief that in each member of Christ’s body, from the time of the new birth, the Holy Spirit begins to develop some special characteristic through which God may be glorified in a particular way, some aspect of His grace and truth through which the whole body may be edified and enlightened. Such are the gifts of the Spirit, about which more will be said later: and in one’s own case I humbly believe that it was God who maintained in one this special thirst and attraction for the way of faith, this readiness to absorb all light concerning it, and to venture one’s life in the exercise of it. Real opportunities were bound to come, as well as real enlightenment, at the right moment, and that moment was when I was ready to see and take them; for the real fact was that those intervening years had first to be spent in internal adjustments: the secrets of faith had to be discovered and applied in the solution of one’s own inner problems, in the satisfaction of one’s own soul-thirst, in the snapping of the chain of one’s own self-centredness, in the transference of oppressing heart burdens to the One who had given Himself to bear them. These experiences also will be woven later into our whole examination of the texture of faith, for that aspect of the life of faith is antecedent to all others. A faith that works first in our own lives can then, and only then, be applied to the problems around us.
There is a school of faith, and there is a life of faith. At school we are private individuals: we learn, we experiment, we try things out by ourselves and on ourselves, we gradually grasp a technique. In life we take responsibility, we are in the public eye; other lives depend on us; we are supposed to know our job and apply our knowledge; the wheels of our particular industry are kept going by us. My years in the school of faith lasted till 1931, my thirteenth year as a missionary. As I now look back, I can see quite clearly when the transition took place in my experience; the school was left (although in another sense we are very much permanent pupils), the life of faith begun. With the key to my inner problems in my hands through the grace of God and illumination of the Spirit, a clearcut position of faith was taken in a certain matter, under pressure of the Spirit, involving my wife and myself to our financial limit. There is no need to go into details which were comparatively trivial. The duration of the test was six months. The day of crisis came in the middle when I almost succumbed and was only saved by walking to the post office and sending off a letter which once again staked everything on God’s faithfulness. The deliverance actually began to come to me within ten minutes, on the pavement outside that post office, starting with a trickle and rising to a flood. It was all very mundane but to me it was a landmark. Schooldays were nearing their end. The master key which could open a very little material door could just as easily be applied to great gateways of world-wide opportunity in the Kingdom of God.
Then followed three years of great illumination in the way of faith. It was as if that which had been seen dimly as a series of separate peaks of faith which might occasionally, with much effort, be scaled, was now seen to be a broad high road in the uplands, a route of the Spirit, a way of life to be steadily traversed, and no range of rugged peaks at all. The Scriptures were marvelously opened up: Hebrews 11 especially became alive, and faith was seen to be the permanent element in which the men of God lived, men who themselves had first to pass through the school into the life of faith—Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, David, and so through all the list into New Testament days. They were days of great revelation; it was like the thrill of a new discovery, the exaltation of the explorer whose eyes are resting for the first time in history on some magnificent landscape. Experiments were made, feebly made, but the feet were not firm enough yet on their new road to take one to the destination, and nothing came of it. But the light had truly dawned, Scriptural light, borne witness to by the inner assurance of the Spirit, the consummation without doubt of the gropings and inner preparations of years. Failures could not quench those certainties. All that was needed was a firmer grasp of method, and, above all, those special sorts of circumstances in which living faith through all history has thrived, those necessary conditions for its healthy growth— difficulties, frustrations, impossibilities, for “when I am weak, then I am strong”: “in hopeless circumstances he hopefully believed.”
And they came. There is no need to go into them in detail! Days of agony and darkness. Days when one’s life’s work seemed in ruin around one, when the mission one loved seemed collapsing, when the hand of practically all friends and fellow Christians seemed against a tiny remnant of us. And I myself, with my wife, was called to take a stand completely alone, on behalf of the few on the field, surrounded by criticism and fierce opposition.
Then in the travail, I cannot tell how (indeed I have learned that one usually cannot trace the “how” of God’s deepest dealings), what I had seen and rejoiced in in theory became my own in practice. I saw how to walk the broad road of faith, how to have and maintain that touch with God, that living fruitful union with Him which in infinite grace and condescension He has given us as our inheritance in Christ; and we began to go that way.
Fifteen more years have now passed, years when, by God’s grace, these vital principles have been ever more strongly built into one’s life. Others, many others, have learned them, practiced them, and rejoice with us to see the marvellous truth of them in their concrete result. In the ranks of the Crusade, tremendous transformations have taken place: God’s work has forged ahead, increased and abounded: souls have been saved world-wide: tens of thousands have heard the Gospel who had never before heard the blessed Name: Christians by the hundred have been revived and stirred into action: Christ Himself has become increasingly the all in all; all fresh springs have been found in Him; all hunger and thirst satisfied according to His Word; desire increased beyond measure that He only should be glorified; His Word become the joy and rejoicing of the heart.
Details need not be given, for this is no place for them: but gradually this truth and that, concerning the inner life abiding in Christ, and the outer life of service in His name, have fitted into place, have been tested, examined, adjusted. Much has been learned by failures, and some things remain inexplicable: until the time seems to have come to try and put on paper something of what one has learned. “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”
That is the touchstone. We believe that the Scriptures are God’s final revelation to man, the words that He speaks which are spirit and life; and all that we say here is only reliable in so far as it is an exposition of God’s revealed truth. This is not autobiography. It is to be a humble examination of faith, what it is and how it works. It seemed necessary, however, to give this brief preliminary sketch of how and why such as I, who am not a trained theologian but a missionary secretary, should write on such a subject. It is just my contribution, I trust to God’s glory, of one ray of God’s truth which has steadily shone in my heart and on my pathway these twenty-five years.
Faith a Natural Faculty
We will start at the beginning. One of the chief hindrances to the understanding and exercise of faith is the separation in our thinking between the natural and spiritual, due to the fall. There is a flesh and there is Spirit. Flesh draws upon one set of energies, Spirit upon another. Faith, it is argued, belongs to the realm of the Spirit. It is a “gift of God,” and therefore can only be exercised under divine stimulation. We must pray for it (“Lord, increase our faith”), wait for it, use it only according as God has dealt to us the measure of faith. When and where it is not thus given, we are helpless, becalmed, immobile.
A grave misapprehension lies at the root of this devitalizing outlook. How did God make man? A living soul, we are told, in His own image: that is to say, with all the attributes of personality. A man feels and desires: he thinks, he wills, he speaks, he acts. All these marvellous faculties combine to make a person; but the point to note is that in themselves they are neutral powers. They are neither good nor evil: they are the raw material of human nature, the mighty forces directed to weal or woe by the spirit that is in man. To love, to hate; to admire, to despise; to boast, to be humble; to be angry, to be calm; to have fear, to have faith; to be stern, to be gentle; any of these can be right, any can be wrong. They are the elemental gifts of God in nature to His human offspring. By these men are made “after the similitude of God,” and by them they walk the course of this world. What matters is, do they walk after the flesh, or after the Spirit?
It will be seen later that a proper grasp of the neutral condition of this raw material of human nature, and its relationship to the spirit that controls it, gives the key to the understanding of many problems concerning the walk and warfare of a Christian, the understanding, conquest and proper use of temptation, release from false condemnation, proper discernment between flesh and Spirit, the solution to the vexed problems of sanctification. These we will examine later on. But at the moment we will concentrate on this one point. Amongst the major faculties with which human nature is basically endowed, is faith.
The greatest faculty of all is love. God is love. The whole creation is God’s love manifested in innumerable forms. All is love, or love in its reverse form, hate. Love is the consuming fire, which is God. Man is love likewise, perverted or purified. Love of the world or love of the Father must dominate the human heart; he must love, for he is love. He loves long before he is redeemed. He loves from the time he becomes a living soul. But what does he love?
Next to love in importance comes faith. Love is the driving force. Desire (love pure or perverted) controls, contrives, creates all that ever comes to pass. Emotion, not reason, is at humanity’s helm. Love motivates, but faith acts. Faith is action. By faith alone can a man act. Faith carries out the urges of love. Faith works by love.
Consider the importance of faith. Consider its place in human behaviour. Is there one single act that man has ever taken, from the trivial to the sublime, which has not love as its driving force, and faith as its method of performance? A man eats. Why? Because he wants to. Love, desire, is the motive power. How then does he eat, and what? He sees some food which is both pleasant and nutritious, he believes in its value; he takes, masticates, swallows, digests, every action of which is pure faith and nothing but faith. At any moment in any of these actions, if his faith in the food were shaken, if he were caused to change his faith into its reversebelieving that it was bad for himhe would immediately and automatically cease to take, masticate, swallow, or even digest (if he could!). Faith is human action. Faith is the God-implanted, natural and only way by which a man can go through all the processes of doing or obtaining the things he desires.
And, by implication, if man is made in the image of God, and if man’s fundamental God-given faculties are those of love and faith, they are also God’s ways of action, even of creation. The Scripture gives plain indication of this, and it has its importance when we carry the examination of faith still further.
Apply this formula of faith to every single human action, from breathing right up the scale to great scientific discoveries, and, finally, across the gulf to the realm of the Spirit; and it will be seen that there is no other conceivable method of human activity. A purchase in a shop, taking a seat on a chair, breathing a breath, picking up an article, all are sheer acts of faith.
Likewise, historic achievements, such as the discovery of radium. Certain investigations, we read, drew Mme. Curie’s attention to the probability of another element, not yet known to science, in a material called pitchblende, a throw-out from certain Austrian mines. The more she investigates, the more the conviction grows. Her fellow-scientists scoff, but she believes. She feels sure that the evidence justifies such faith.
But living faith is action, only dead faith has no works accompanying it. So, quietly, secretly, she and her husband put all the money they can spare into buying truckloads of pitchblende and having them brought to the hut at the back of their house. There they labour, one year, two years, until one evening she calls her husband into their homemade laboratory, and there for the first time in history is seen the glowing tube of radium.
Here is natural faith, inherent faith, inspired by the glimpse of a scientific truth, directed to a natural, so-called secular objective; but it is a higher type of faith, or rather a higher form of the exercise of faith, than such simple acts as eating, breathing, sitting: for, in this case, the object of faith was by no means so self-evident; some indeed ridiculed it; it took time and careful study to come to a conviction solid enough to justify the decisive action which is faith: and when the decision to act had been made, it took time, patience, self-denial, for the hypothesis of faith to be demonstrated as fact. And equally, it will be seen, as we move on to things spiritual, that in the realm of the Spirit there are simpler, more obvious stimuli to faith; and more advanced, more exacting forms of its exercise.
That faith is an inherent capacity in all men is also made plain in the Scriptures. “Cursed is he that trusteth in man.” “Put not your trust in princes.” “Trust not in uncertain riches.” “Because thou has relied on the King of Syria and not relied on the Lord thy God….”
Sufficient, I hope, has now been said to bring home this first point of fundamental importance: that faith is a natural faculty of man: that, next to love, it is the most important faculty that man possesses, for faith is the core of decisive action: that man, while he lives and breathes, can never cease exercising faith, and has never performed one single action in the world’s history which is not energized by faith: that to seek faith or ask for faith is as ridiculous as asking for lungs to breathe with, or mouth to eat with. Man is compounded of faith, and can do no other than exercise it in one direction or another.