This song came up again in the course of my study this morning and I thought I just had to share it.
The poem was written by Henry Kirk White sometime around 1805. Henry White was born in 1785, his father, a butcher in Nottingham, and mother who ran a girl’s boarding school. From an early age Henry excelled in his studies, learning Latin and Greek, and was a published and awarded poet at the age of 15. Through his friend, R.W. Almond, White came to faith in Jesus, and planned to study for ministry. He attended St. John’s College in Cambridge, but soon became ill and died at the age of 22 on Oct. 19, 1806 before he could graduate. Shortly after his death, the manuscript for his poem “Oft in Sorrow” was found and by 1812 had been adapted as a hymn for the church.
The song is a reminder that often the Christian’s journey in this world is filled with tears, sorrow, pain and loss. We are called to join the war, to walk the walk, to take up the cross. Often we are met with failures; our own and those around us. The song is one of encouragement, that the strength for the journey, the victory in battle, the triumph in the end is not ours, but the Lord’s; and because it is His it is sure and certain. “Onward then to battle move; more than conquerors ye shall prove: though opposed by many a foe, Christian soldiers, onward go.”
Here is his poem, and there is a video of the hymn as well.
Oft in danger, oft in woe, Onward, Christians, onward go, Fight the fight, maintain the strife, Strengthened with the Bread of Life.
Onward, Christians, onward go, Join the war, and face the foe; Faint not, much doth yet remain; Dreary is the long campaign.
Shrink not, Christians: will ye yield? Will ye quit the painful field? Will ye flee in danger’s hour? Know ye not your Captain’s pow’r?
Let your drooping hearts be glad; March, in heav’nly armor clad; Fight, nor think the battle long; Vict’ry soon shall tune your song.
Let not sorrow dim your eye, Soon shall ev’ry tear be dry; Let not woe your course impede, Great your strength, if great your need.
Onward then to battle move; More than conqu’rors ye shall prove: Though opposed by many a foe, Christian soldiers, onward go.
Nearly 30 years ago, when I was a freshman at Sterling College, I was selected as a member of a group of students to take part in a research project about youth and faith. I don’t remember the name of the doctoral student who was doing the research, and I don’t think that I ever saw the results of the study or paper he was writing, but I still vividly remember the conversation, and one particular question that he asked that day.
As I was talking about my “Christian experience” I had routinely mentioned wanting to grow stronger in my faith. At one point the researcher broke from his prepared questions and asked me what I meant by that. I didn’t really know.
And that became a point of concern for me.
I had used the phrase “strong faith” all the time, but I never really stopped to think about what it meant. Did I mean “strong” as in muscular, able to say to the mountain, “Up,” and then watch the mountain walk away? Or did I mean “strong” as in unmoving, resilient, able to face whatever came my way.
Keep in mind, I was only 18 at the time, and barely that. I was naive, having grown up in the church and been sheltered from most of the ugliness of the world. I think I hoped that a strong faith would help me “Just say no!” to sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. I thought a strong faith meant never having any doubts, never struggling to make sense of things, never wrestling with what I believed and what I saw in the world around me.
In reality, I had no idea what I was talking about. I was ignoring much of the revelation of Scripture, that showed the faith of those who believed but needed God to help them in their unbelief. I overlooked the fact that the disciples, who witnesses the mighty acts of Jesus firsthand, still often struggled to have any faith at all. I was oblivious to the truth that it was these experiences (times of loss, pain, hardship, and doubt) that were often the means through which God worked to strengthen the faith of His people. Consider the example of the passage above: Abraham was as good as dead, but he did not waver, for he considered the promise of God, and grew strong in faith (Rom 4:19-21).
If I could go back and talk to 18 year old me – I’d have a lot to say. But on this matter of a strong faith, I’d try to tidy things up a bit.
For faith to be strong, you must know what you believe. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). To grow strong in faith you must have a thorough and deep knowledge of the Bible, which tells us what God says about who He is, who we are, and how we are to get right with Him. To be strong in the faith is to continue to grow in understanding of God’s Word.
But the other side of this is equally true. A strong faith is not just knowing a set of teachings; Satan himself knows the word of God, probably better than most of us, and yet he has no faith. A strong faith is knowing God as He is revealed in His Word, and trusting God in all that He says. To grow in strength in faith is to take God at His Word. Like Abraham, who had questions and struggles along the way, but he continued to trust in the promises of God, convinced that God could do all that he promised.
But the most essential thing for strengthening one’s faith, and it almost seems contradictory. If you were to start body building, you would want to constantly look to your muscles to see how you are growing. If you want to improve as a runner, you track your miles and times. But that’s not how faith grows – you don’t think more about your own faith.
Instead, faith is a holding on to the faithfulness of God. Martin Lloyd-Jones once wrote, “Faith does not look at itself. Faith is never interested in itself and never talks about itself. That to me is a very good test. I always distrust people who talk about their faith. That is the characteristic of the cults. They always direct attention to themselves and to what they are don for have done. You have to be ‘thinking positively,’ or you have to be doing this, that or the other. The emphasis is always upon self. but faith does not look at itself or at the person who is exercising it. Faith looks at God, holds on to the faithfulness of God. The big thing about faith is not what I am doing, but God’s faithfulness. Faith is interested in God only, and it talks about God and it praises God and it extols the virtues of God.”
Beloved, trusting in the knowledge and the promise of God, may you be strengthened in your faith as you glorify Him.