Essay / Misc.

“Fact, Faith, Feeling” as Ancient Wisdom

F. B. Meyer (1847 — 1929) was a well-known Baptist pastor back around the turn of the twentieth century, but less famous today. Like so many of the great evangelicals of a hundred years ago, he combined in his life things that we have sadly learned to think of as incompatible: a classical education, a romantic attitude to life, a profound spirituality which he called “practical mysticism,” a sense of ecumenical unity across denominational borders, a concern for social action, and a zeal for the preaching of holiness. Did I mention he was a Baptist? Yes, and one who knew what he was about.

He is also probably the person who took an ancient tradition of Christian spirituality and boiled it down to three unforgettable words in an irreversible order: fact, faith, feeling. One of the chapters in his book The Secret of Guidance is called “Fact! Faith! Feeling!” complete with the exclamation points. It may seem like a long way from the Carmelite John of the Cross, with his counsel on the dark night of the soul, and the advice of Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright with his Four Spiritual Laws admonition to keep first things first, fact before faith before feelings. But go back a hundred years and spend a little time with F. B. Meyer, and you begin to see how they are connected.

Meyer’s chapter “Fact! Faith! Feeling!” devotes time to each of the terms in the title, but the whole chapter is concerned above all to show that the sequence is irreversible:

The only possible order that will bring blessing and comfort to the heart is that indicated in our title: ——
God’s Facts, laid like a foundation of adamant.
Our Faith, apprehending and resting on them.
Joyous Feelings, coming, it may be at once, or after the lapse of days and months, as God will.

Under the heading of “Fact,” Meyer is keen to emphasize the accomplished work of salvation carried out in Christ, and the immutable divine act of uniting us with Christ:

It is a fact that in Jesus Christ we are seated in heavenly places. We cannot alter this. We may not believe it, or avail ourselves of all the privileges which it implies, or enjoy the blessedness of nearness to Jesus; but such is, nevertheless, our rightful position in the divine order. … In Him we died on the cross, and so met the righteous demands of the holy law. In Him we lay in the grave, and so passed out of the region ruled by the Prince of the Power of the air. In Him we rose and ascended far above all might and dominion, principality and power.

This unilateral action of God secures for the believer blessings which can never be exhausted, which Meyer describes in a mix of scriptural allusions, unembarrassedly fiscal metaphors, and exhortations:

All thing are yours. God has made over to you the unsearchable riches of Christ. Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, all the stores of grace and love and power which are yours in Christ, accumulating for you in the Divine Deposit Bank. It seems a thousand pities that you should live a beggar’s life when such wealth and power are yours…

Under the heading of “Faith,” Meyer is especially concerned to keep his readers from focusing on some quality of belief which is their own possession; instead he points away to the object of faith (fides quae rather than fides qua), God himself:

Do not trouble about your Faith; reckon on God’s Faithfulness. If He bids you step out on the water, He knows that He can bring you safely back to the boat.

And he provides insight into how our faith is nourished:

Be careful of the tender plant which has thus been planted within you. Give it plenty of sunshine. Live outside yourself in the consideration of what Christ is. Feed faith on her native food of promise, and let her breathe her native air on the hills of communion.

Before moving on from the subject of faith, Meyer hits one of the high notes which are so frequent in his writing, this time as an extended metaphor on the land of promise:

Oh! settler on the boundless continent of God’s fulness in Jesus, get thee up into the high mountain. Look northward, southward, eastward and westward, over the lengths, and breadths, and depths, and heights of the love of God. It is all yours from the river of Time which rises at your foot to the utmost sea of Eternity. Be not slack to go up and possess the land, and to inherit all which God has freely bestowed on you in the Son of His love.

Coming finally to the subject of feelings, Meyer begins with a warning:

Our feelings are very deceptive, because so easily wrought on from without. They are affected by the state of our health, changes in the weather, the society or absence of those who love. When the air is light, and the sun shines, and we have slept well, we are more likely to feel disposed towards God than when the dripping November fog drenches the woodlands.

He goes on to praise feelings highly, saying that in the normal course of things they flow from faith, and that the Holy Spirit does cause raptures of emotional response in the redeemed heart. But that is not to be his main point in a work called “Fact! Faith! Feeling!,” where the task is to keep feeling in its proper place, and also to counsel and guide those who are currently experiencing a dearth of proper feeling. If you wonder why the spiritual realities which you have received by faith have been withdrawn from your emotional experience, Meyer suggests:

It may be that Christ would teach us to distinguish between love and the emotion of love, between joy and the rapture of joy, between peace and the sense of peace. Or perhaps He may desire to ascertain whether we cling to Him for Himself or for His gifts.

The whole section is filled with moments of insight and careful pastoral application. But Meyer does especially well when he turns to the medium of a homey parable:

Children greet their father from the window, as he turns the corner and comes down the street. He hears the rush of their feet along the passage as he inserts his latch—key in the door. But one day he begins to question whether they greet him for the love they bear him or for the gifts with which he never forgets to fill his pockets. One day, therefore, he gives them due notice that there will be no gifts when he returns at night. Their faces fall, but when the hour of return arrives they are at the window as usual, and there is the same trampling of little feet to the door. Ah,” he says, “my children love me for myself,” and he is glad.

Our Father sometimes cuts off the supply of joy, and suffers us to hunger, that He may know what is in our hearts, and whether we love Him for Himself.

And after arguing by allegory, he concludes with a statement of the principle at work here:

Seek feeling and you will miss it; be content to live without it, and you will have all you require. If you are always noticing your heart—beats, you will bring on heart—disease. If you are ever muffling against cold, you will become very subject to chills. If you are perpetually thinking about your health, you will induce disease. If you are always consulting your feelings, you will live in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is. He that saveth his soul shall lose it.

This is the counsel of F. B. Meyer, and it is no accident that his doctrine is so similar to medieval and monastic predecessors. A glance around his works show him quoting widely from much older sources (Catherine of Siena is cited in this same book), and Ian M. Randall’s excellent 2002 article in Baptist History and Heritage suggests some ways in which Meyer’s message of Fact! Faith! Feeling! was “constructed with the aim of connecting Keswick spirituality with an older tradition of religious life.” Meyer once said that “he had to tell himself a hundred times a day that his experience of spiritual blessing was true, because he did not feel it and had ‘no joy of it.'” “Because” of the lack of feeling is surely an overstatement, but anyone steeped in the literature of the dark night will recognize the emphasis.

The transition between the Carmelite mystic John of the Cross and the businessman-for-Jesus Bill Bright is admittedly abrupt, but it can be eased by listening to the Victorian romantic Baptist Meyer. Meyer’s purple prose helps smooth the transition a lot, which is why I’ve quoted him at length. But I’ve also quoted him at length because he is an evangelical forebear unjustly neglected.

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