Foreword to The Secret of Guidance

Dallas Willard

A contribution to the book The Secret of Guidance by F.B. Meyer

F.B. Meyer’s The Secret of Guidance is one of those rare and great treasures that God brings into the world through an individual uniquely blessed to know and live life in Christ for their special time and place. It is to be hoped that this new edition of the book by Moody Publishers will bring it before many new readers. They will certainly benefit greatly from the gentle but clear light that it casts upon the path of discipleship to Christ today. Meyer and Dwight L. Moody were close friends and associates in Christian ministry for many years, beginning in 1870, on both sides of the Atlantic. Nothing could be more fitting than to see their joint ministry carried on into the twenty-first century through continued publications of Meyer’s writings by Moody Publishers.

Now exactly what is this book, The Secret of Guidance? The title is apt to be misleading, for it easily suggests that the entire book is dealing with the special topic of God’s guidance in life, or what is also frequently treated today under the heading of knowing the will of God for me. In fact only the first chapter, which shares its title with the book, is focused narrowly on that issue and the problem it represents for many people of yesterday and today. Instead, the book as a whole deals with eight closely interconnected matters that tend to become problems for Christians seriously undertaking to live the kind of life clearly intended for them by their Master. It is a powerful exercise in pastoral ministry at its very best, and that is why it has had and continues to have such an influence for good on the hearts, minds, and lives of those who open themselves to it.

The best way to understand Meyer and this book is to see him as engaged in pastoral spiritual formation, but in the manner so effectively and widely practiced by conservative Christian teachers in the pre-World War I period, when it was assumed that Christianity—being a Christian—was a life to be lived, not just a doctrine to be professed. The aim, at that time, was to bring the Christ-life to people, lead them into it, and guide them (by example and teaching) into its every-greater development. That was “spiritual formation” in Christ, but without the name, and it was extremely effective.

Thus, Meyer naturally became identified with what is sometimes referred to as the “deeper life” movement within late nineteenth-century evangelical Christianity. But in his case, as with many others of that time and tendency, this did not mean a retreat from the active life of church and society. Just the opposite. It meant going beyond the superficial life of the nominal Christian into the depths of the powerful life of God that—embracing the individual—cannot but break into the life of church and community, with a transforming force that only the presence of God can explain. And that is what actually happened around Meyer and the churches and groups he led and influenced. So much so that his most recent biographer, Stephen Timms, describes him as “virtually a Christian Socialist.” You need to keep this in mind as you read The Secret of Guidance. Those who know what “Christian Socialism” meant in the England of Meyer’s day will not be put off by the thought of socialism as a merely political or governmental arrangement. It was primarily a teaching about how we are to live together following the teachings of Christ and out of vital union with Christ—variously understood, to be sure.

In this book Meyer takes up eight interconnected problems of the spiritual life that the pastor will need to help people with as they live the life of faith. In the first chapter, of course, it is the problem of knowing what God wants believers to do with reference to the specific decisions that must be made in the course of their lives. First, the author brings from Scripture—his never wavering source—the assurance that God will guide disciples, regardless of whatever limitations of ability and circumstance they may labor under. Then he explains five conditions in the inner life that can hinder or help the reception of the guidance that God wants to give in particular circumstances: (1) Our motives may be our personal advantage only, (2) We must be completely surrendered to God’s will, whatever it proves to be, (3) We must seek out reliable information of all kinds, but above all from the Word of God, (4) We must ask God—“be much in prayer”—for guidance, and (5) We must wait for the gradual unfolding of God’s plan in our circumstances. It is under this last point that Meyer gives his famous teaching about the concurrence of “the three witnesses” or “lights”—the Spirit, the Word, and Circumstances: “God’s impression within and his Word without are always corroborated by His providence around, and we should quietly wait until these three focus into one point.” His final point in this first chapter is that in searching for guidance we are only to look for the next step, not “the distant scene.”

The next pastoral issue Meyer addresses is the problem of the Christian whose life is not flowing with the blessedness he or she knows it should have. After a very sensible and helpful discussion of some “natural” causes of this unhappy condition, he points out how too much attention to feelings, and not to our standing in Christ and how our will is set toward Him, prevents our abiding in the continual peace and blessing of God. Disobedience on some point also staunches the flow, as does “morbid self scrutiny” in place of a mind and heart directed upon Jesus. Extensive time in communion with God through his Word opens the flow of blessing. “It is essential to be much alone with God.” Accepting the Lordship of Jesus is fundamental to the blessed life. “Those who ignore the lordship of Jesus cannot build a strong or happy life . . . Consecration is the indispensible condition of blessedness.”

This may convey something of the spirit and substance of Meyer’s treatment of how one actually leads a radiant life in Christ. In chapter 3 he explains what Christ indwelling the disciple is, and how it is attained as an abiding reality. Chapter 4 explains how to keep feeling, fact, and faith in the right order, putting fact first and feeling last. Simply, we put our faith in the divine facts and feeling takes care of itself. Putting feeling first, by contrast, leads to endless confusions and grief. At one time this fact/faith/feeling language was widely used and almost universally understood among evangelical Christians. But it lost much of its meaning as Meyer understood it. One especially important statement of his about faith deserves emphasis for today: “Faith concerns itself with a person. We are saved and blessed by the faith that passes beyond the fact of our Savior’s life to Himself. We rest not on the atonement, but on Him who made it; not on the death, but on Him who died; not on the resurrection, but on Him who rose, ascended, and ever lives to make intercession; not in statements about Him, but in Him of whom they are made.”

Chapter 5 concerns “Burdens, and What to Do with Them,” which is a study of soul-rest in the Lord and of how to “cast” burdens off without bringing them into your soul. The author minds us that “somehow, suffering rightly borne enriches and helps mankind.” Chapter 6 distinguishes “sorrows” from “burdens” and gives excellent advice on “How to Bear Sorrows.” In chapter 7, following the lead of Brother Lawrence and others, Meyer instructs and encourages us to live “In the Secret of His Presence.” And the final chapter provides a vision of what it is like to live in “The fullness of the Spirit”—a vision that makes that scripturally commanded condition both sane and accessible to everyone who seeks it in a biblical manner.

Now you do not need to read these chapters in any particular order, nor does the understanding of one presuppose the understanding of others. But if you do read them all in some proximity to the others, the realization well may creep upon you that you have before you a powerful Summa of the spiritual life that comes through Christ. The author writes with a disarming elegance and simplicity. He does not put aside nature and common sense, but elevates them and gives them divine life by subsuming all under the interactive life of human personality with God. He is a deft surgeon of the soul who is operating with dazzling precision to bring a redemptive wholeness to lives ravaged by rebellion and disastrous choices and habits. He provides in several places invaluable discussions of feeling in relationship to will, and teaches in some depth concerning what we today might call “spiritual disciplines.” In these matters he stands in solidarity with the wisdom of Christ’s people through the ages. He is full of profound theological and psychological insights, and of excellent practical advice on how to proceed in the life of the disciple. If we get what he gives, most everything else we might need by way of instruction will come with it.

Some, I think, may regard him as unrealistic or as—dread term—“triumphalistic.” He says, for example: “If you do not know what you ought to do, stand still until you do. And when the time comes for action, circumstances, like glowworms, will sparkle along your path. You will become so sure that you are right, when God’s three witnesses concur, that you could not be surer though an angel beckoned you on. The circumstances of our daily life are to us an infallible indication of God’s will when they concur with the inward promptings of the Spirit and with the Word of God.”

Some, certainly, will find that they just are not there, and may have doubts about anyone who claims to be there. But his is the testimony of a sober and informed man, of lifelong Christian experience, who is giving the testimony of his experience. As such, his claims are to be tested by experience in real life. Dare we put them to the test? Dare we not? Just how good is the good news, after all?

Dallas Willard. “Foreword.” In The Secret of Guidance by F.B. Meyer. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2010.