This past Sunday, we welcomed 9 sixth-graders into the church as baptized and confirmed Christians. The worship theme of the day focused on how God works within us, changing us from the inside out, to do His work in the world. Our middle hymn in the service was a one of those special hymns on this theme that speaks to people in all places of their faith journey: UMH #650, “Give Me the Faith Which Can Remove,” written by Charles Wesley in 1749.
When I was researching the hymn to write my bulletin notes, I discovered that the context of this text gives it a completely new dimension. Charles Wesley frequently drew from experiences of his personal faith in the composition of his hymns, and this hymn, first published in 8 stanzas in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1749), came out of a personal faith struggle.
In 1749, Wesley was in his 40s and was wrestling with some “cooling off of his zeal,” revealed in the stanzas that are excluded from our modern hymnal. He was longing for the days of the brothers’ early ministry, filled with passion, energy, and fire, and was working through this change in his faith and his experience with God as he matured.
The hymn was rarely reprinted in its entirety after that initial publication in 1749; the censored stanzas were first redacted by his brother John in their very next published hymnal, and it’s not surprising that those stanzas were never included again even in hymnals compiled by others. The church has historically had difficulty acknowledging or dealing with doubt in faith life; it’s exceedingly rare to find a church that accepts those low times that are an inevitable part of a healthy faith– even when a supportive church community would be the best place for someone experiencing doubt, someone maybe figuring out changes in their faith as their life changes, or perhaps dealing with a cooling of youthful passions.
Nevertheless, the positive, “happy Christian” stanzas of this hymn are the ones that have stood the test of time in our hymnals. The 1989 United Methodist hymnal has 4 of Wesley’s original stanzas, and I’ve always loved this text for its honest plea for faith, for assurance, for God’s love and grace to be made known in our lives, and for God to use us for His purpose. But after learning about the context of the hymn, I think the version in our hymnal lacks the power and profundity of the complete, contextualized hymn.
When put into context, this text takes on a new dimension. At this time in his life, Charles Wesley was lamenting a loss of the passion and fire of his youth, and the first thing he did was turn to God and ask again for that “faith which can remove and sink the mountain to a plain,” for a “child-like praying love,” and for God to use all of his “talents, gifts, and graces” to direct him in Christian love and service. Wesley acknowledged his struggle, but rather than turn from faith, or blame God for his trials and uncertainty, he called on God to “enlarge, inflame, and fill my heart with boundless charity divine.”
This is an example that new confirmands, life-long Christians, and everyone inbetween can learn from. Wherever you are in your faith journey, there will be times of doubt and struggle, there will be times when your faith changes and matures, and that’s all part and parcel of a healthy faith. Through this hymn, Charles Wesley demonstrated a practical faith that honestly acknowledges the struggles of Christian life, and simply turns to God for relief. We would do well to emulate him.
1. Give me the faith which can remove and sink the mountain to a plain;
give me the childlike praying love, which longs to build thy house again;
thy love, let it my heart o’er-power, and all my simple soul devour.
2. I would the precious time redeem, and longer live for this alone,
to spend and to be spent for them who have not yet my Savior known;
fully on these my mission prove, and only breathe, to breathe thy love.
3. My talents, gifts, and graces, Lord, into thy blessed hands receive;
and let me live to preach thy word, and let me to thy glory live;
my every sacred moment spend in publishing the sinner’s Friend.
4. Enlarge, inflame, and fill my heart with boundless charity divine,
so shall I all my strength exert, and love them with a zeal like thine,
and lead them to thy open side, the sheep for whom the Shepherd died.