George Mueller's Strategy for Showing GodSimplicity of Faith, Sacred Scripture, and Satisfaction in God
George Mueller was a native German (a Prussian). He was born in Kroppenstaedt on September 27, 1805 and lived almost the entire nineteenth century. He died March 10, 1898 at the age of 92. He saw the great awakening of 1859 which he said “led to the conversion of hundreds of thousands.”1 He did follow up work for D. L. Moody,2 preached for Charles Spurgeon,3 and inspired the missionary faith of Hudson Taylor.4
He spent most of his life in Bristol, England and pastored the same church there for over sixty-six years—a kind of independent, premillennial,5 Calvinistic6 Baptist7 church that celebrated the Lord's supper weekly8 and admitted non-baptized people into membership.9 If this sounds unconventional, that would be accurate. He was a maverick not only in his church life but in almost all the areas of his life. But his eccentricities were almost all large-hearted and directed outward for the good of others. A. T. Pierson, who wrote the biography that Mueller's son-in-law endorsed as authoritative,10 captured the focus of this big-hearted eccentricity when he said, George Mueller “devised large and liberal things for the Lord's cause.”11
In 1834 (when he was 28) he founded The Scripture Knowledge Institute for Home and Abroad,12 because he was disillusioned with the post-millennialism, the liberalism, and the worldly strategies (like going into debt13) of existing mission organizations.14 Five branches of this Institute developed: 1) Schools for children and adults to teach Bible knowledge, 2) Bible distribution, 3) missionary support, 4) tract and book distribution, and 5) “to board, clothe and Scripturally educate destitute children who have lost both parents by death.”15
The accomplishments of all five branches were significant,16 but the one he was known for around the world in his own lifetime, and still today, was the orphan ministry. He built five large orphan houses and cared for 10,024 orphans in his life. When he started in 1834 there were accommodations for 3,600 orphans in all of England and twice that many children under eight were in prison.17 One of the great effects of Mueller's ministry was to inspire others so that “fifty years after Mr. Mueller began his work, at least one hundred thousand orphans were cared for in England alone.”18
He did all this while he was preaching three times a week from 1830 to 1898, at least 10,000 times.19 And when he turned 70 he fulfilled a life-long dream of missionary work for the next 17 years until he was 87. He traveled to 42 countries,20 preaching on average of once a day,21 and addressing some three million people.22 He preached nine times here in Minneapolis in 1880 (nine years after the founding of Bethlehem Baptist Church).
From the end of his travels in 1892 (when he was 87) until his death in March of 1898 he preached in his church and worked for the Scripture Knowledge Institute. At age 92, not long before he died, he wrote, “I have been able, every day and all the day to work, and that with ease, as seventy years since.”23 He led a prayer meeting at his church on the evening of Wednesday, March 9, 1898. The next day a cup of tea was taken to him at seven in the morning but no answer came to the knock on the door. He was found dead on the floor beside his bed. 24
The funeral was held the following Monday in Bristol, where he had served for sixty-six years. “Tens of thousands of people reverently stood along the route of the simple procession; men left their workshops and offices, women left their elegant homes or humble kitchens, all seeking to pay a last token of respect.”25 A thousand children gathered for a service at the Orphan House No. 3. They had now “for a second time lost a ‘father'.”26
He had read his Bible from end to end almost 200 times.27 He had prayed in millions of dollars (in today's currency28) for the Orphans and never asked anyone directly for money. He never took a salary in the last 68 years of his ministry, but trusted God to put in people's hearts to send him what he needed. He never took out a loan or went into debt.29 And neither he nor the orphans were ever hungry. The eccentric pastor and orphan-lover was gone.
He had been married twice: to Mary Groves when he was 25, and to Susannah Sangar when he was 66. Mary bore him four children. Two were stillborn. One son Elijah died when he was a year old. His daughter Lydia married James Wright who succeeded Mueller as the head of the Institute. But she died in 1890 at 57 years old. Five years later Mueller lost his second wife, just three years before he died. And so he outlived his family and was left alone with his Savior, his church, and two thousand children. He had been married to Mary for 39 years and to Susannah for 23 years. He preached Mary's funeral sermon when he was 64,30 and he preached Susannah's funeral sermon when he was 90.31 It's what he said in the face of this loss and pain that gives us the key to his life.
Mary's Death and the Key to His Life
We have the full text of the message at Mary's funeral and we have his own recollections of this loss. To feel the force of what he says, we have to know that they loved each other deeply and enjoyed each other in the work they shared.
Were we happy? Verily we were. With every year our happiness increased more and more. I never saw my beloved wife at any time, when I met her unexpectedly anywhere in Bristol, without being delighted so to do. I never met her even in the Orphan Houses, without my heart being delighted so to do. Day by day, as we met in our dressing room, at the Orphan Houses, to wash our hands before dinner and tea, I was delighted to meet her, and she was equally pleased to seeme. Thousands of times I told her—“My darling, I never saw you at any time, since you became my wife, without my being delighted to see you.”32
Then came the diagnosis: “When I heard what Mr. Pritchard's judgment was, viz., that the malady was rheumatic fever, I naturally expected the worst. . . . My heart was nigh to be broken on account of the depth of my affection.”33 The one who had seen God answer 10,000 prayers for the support of the orphan, this time did not get what he asked. Or did he?
Twenty minutes after four, Lord's Day, February 6, 1870, Mary died. “I fell on my knees and thanked God for her release, and for having taken her to Himself, and asked the Lord to help and support us.”34 He recalled later how he strengthened himself during these hours. And here we see the key to his life.
The last portion of scripture which I read to my precious wife was this: “The Lord God is a sun and shield, the Lord will give grace and glory, no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.” Now, if we have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, we have received grace, we are partakers of grace, and to all such he will give glory also. I said to myself, with regard to the latter part, “no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly”—I am in myself a poor worthless sinner, but I have been saved by the blood of Christ; and I do not live in sin, I walk uprightly before God. Therefore, if it is really good for me, my darling wife will be raised up again; sick as she is. God will restore her again. But if she is not restored again, then it would not be a good thing for me. And so my heart was at rest. I was satisfied with God. And all this springs, as I have often said before, from taking God at his word, believing what he says.35
Here is the cluster of unshakable convictions and experiences that are the key to this remarkable life. “I am in myself a poor worthless sinner.”I have been saved by the blood of Christ.” “I do not live in sin.”God is sovereign over life and death. If it is good for her and for me, she will be restored again. If not she won't.”My heart is at rest.”I am satisfied with God.” All this comes from taking God at his word. There you see the innermost being of George Mueller and the key to his life. The word of God, revealing his sin, revealing his Savior, revealing God's sovereignty, revealing God's goodness, revealing God's promise, awakening his faith, satisfying his soul. “I was satisfied with God.”
The Gift of Faith vs. the Grace of Faith
So were his prayers for Mary answered? To understand how Mueller himself would answer this question, we have to see the way he distinguished between the extraordinary gift of faith and the more ordinary grace of faith. He constantly insisted that he did not have the gift of faith when people put him on a pedestal just because he would pray for his own needs and the needs of the orphans, and the money would arrive in remarkable ways.
Think not, dear reader, that Ihave the gift of faith, that is, that gift of which we read in 1 Corinthians 12:9, and which is mentioned along with “the gifts of healing,” “the working of miracles,”prophecy,” and that on that account I am able to trust in the Lord. It is true that the faith, which I am enabled to exercise, is altogether God's own gift; it is true that He alone supports it, and that He alone can increase it; it is true that, moment by moment, I depend upon Him for it, and that, if I were only one moment left to myself, my faith would utterly fail; but it is not true that my faith is that gift of faith which is spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12:9.36
The reason he is so adamant about this is that his whole life—especially in the way he supported the orphans by faith and prayer without asking anyone but God for money—was consciously planned to encourage Christians that God could really be trusted to meet their needs. We will never understand George Mueller's passion for the orphan ministry if we don't see that the good of the orphans was second to this.
The three chief reasons for establishing an Orphan-House are: 1. That God may be glorified, should He be pleased to furnish me with the means, in its being seen that it is not a vain thing to trust in Him; and that thus the faith of His children may be strengthened. 2. The spiritual welfare of fatherless and motherless children. 3. Their temporal welfare.37
And make no mistake about it: the order of those three goals is intentional. He makes that explicit over and over in his Narrative. The orphan houses exist to display that God can be trusted and to encourage believers to take him at his word. This was a deep sense of calling with Mueller. He said that God had given him the mercy in “being able to take God by His word and to rely upon it.”38 He was grieved that “so many believers . . . were harassed and distressed in mind, or brought guilt on their consciences, on account of not trusting in the Lord.” This grace that he had to trust God's promises, and this grief that so many believers didn't trust his promises, shaped Mueller's entire life. This was his supreme passion: to display with open proofs that God could be trusted with the practical affairs of life. This was the higher aim of building the orphan houses and supporting them by asking God, not people, for money.
It seemed to me best done, by the establishing of an Orphan-House. It needed to be something which could be seen, even by the natural eye. Now, if I, a poor man, simply by prayer and faith, obtained, without asking any individual, the means for establishing and carrying on an Orphan-House: there would be something which, with the Lord's blessing, might be instrumental in strengthening the faith of the children of God besides being a testimony to the consciences of the unconverted, of the reality of the things of God. This, then, was the primary reason, for establishing the Orphan-House. . . The first and primary object of the work was, (and still is) that God might be magnified by the fact, that the orphans under my care are provided, with all they need, only by prayer and faith, without any one being asked by me or my fellow-laborers, whereby it may be seen, that God is FAITHFUL STILL, and HEARS PRAYER STILL.39
That was the chief passion and unifying aim of Mueller's ministry: live a life and lead a ministry in a way that proves God is real, God is trustworthy, God answers prayer. He built orphanages the way he did to help Christians trust God. He says it over and over again.40
Now we see why he is so adamant that his faith is not the gift of faith in 1 Corinthians 12:9 that only some people have, but was the grace of faith that all Christians should have.41 Now we are ready to see this crucial distinction he made between the gift of faith and the grace of faith. His entire aim in life hung on this. If Christians simply said: “Mueller is in a class by himself. He has the gift of faith,” then we are all off the hook and he is no longer a prod and proof and inspiration for how we ought to live. Here is what he says
The difference between the gift and the grace of faith seems to me this. According to the gift of faith I am able to do a thing, or believe that a thing will come to pass, the not doing of which, or the not believing of which would not be sin; according to the grace of faith I am able to do a thing, or believe that a thing will come to pass, respecting which I have the word of God as the ground to rest upon, and, therefore, the not doing it, or the not believing it would be sin. For instance, the gift of faith would be needed, to believe that a sick person should be restored again though there is no human probability: for there is no promise to that effect; the grace of faith is needed to believe that the Lord will give me the necessaries of life, if I first seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness: for there is a promise to that effect. Matthew 6:33.42
Mueller did not think he had any biblical ground for being certain that God would spare his wife Mary. He admits that a few times in his life he was given “something like the gift (not grace) of faith so that unconditionally I could ask and look for an answer,”43 but he did not have that rare gift in Mary's case. And so he prayed for her healing conditionally—namely, if it would be good for them and for God's glory. But most deeply he prayed that they would be satisfied in God whatever he did. And God did answer that prayer by helping Mueller believe Psalm 84:11. No good thing will God withhold. God withheld no good thing from him, and he was satisfied with God's sovereign will. All this, he says, “springs from taking God at his word, believing what he says.”
How Did Mueller Get to this Position?
Let's go back and let him tell the story—essential parts of which are omitted from all the biographies I have looked at.
His father was an unbeliever and George grew up a liar and a thief, by his own testimony.44 His mother died when he was 14, and he records no impact that this loss had on him except that while she was dying he was roving the streets with his friends “half intoxicated.”45 He went on living a bawdy life, and then found himself in prison for stealing when he was 16 years old. His father paid to get him out, beat him, and took him to live in another town (Schoenbeck). Mueller used his academic skills to make money by tutoring in Latin, French, and mathematics. Finally his father sent him to the University of Halle to study divinity and prepare for the ministry because that would be a good living. Neither he nor George had any spiritual aspirations. Of the 900 divinity students in Halle, Mueller later estimated that maybe nine feared the Lord. 46
Then on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of November, 1825, when Mueller was 20 years old, he was invited to a Bible study and, by the grace of God, felt the desire to go. “It was to me as if I had found something after which I had been seeking all my life long. I immediately wished to go.”47 “They read the Bible, sang, prayed, and read a printed sermon.”48 To his amazement Mueller said, “The whole made a deep impression on me. I was happy; though, if I had been asked, why I was happy I could not have clearly explained it. “I have not the least doubt, that on that evening, [God] began a work of grace in me. . . . That evening was the turning point in my life.”49
That's true. But there was another turning point four years later that the biographies do not open for the reader, but which for Mueller was absolutely decisive in shaping the way he viewed God and the way he did ministry.
A Decisive Turning Point: Confidence in the Sovereign Goodness of God
He came to England in the hope of being a missionary with the London Missionary Society. Soon he found his theology and ministry convictions turning away from the LMS, until there was a break. In the meantime, a momentous encounter happened.
Mueller became sick (thank God for providential sickness!) and in the summer of 1829 he went for recovery to a town called Teignmouth. There in a little chapel called Ebenezer at least two crucial discoveries were made: the preciousness of reading and meditating on the word of God,50 and the truth of the doctrines of grace.51 For ten days Mueller lived with a nameless man who change his life forever: “Through the instrumentality of this brother the Lord bestowed a great blessing upon me, for which I shall have cause to thank Him throughout eternity.”52
Before this period I had been much opposed to the doctrines of election, particular redemption, and final persevering grace; so much so that, a few days after my arrival at Teignmouth, I called election a devilish doctrine. . . I knew nothing about the choice of God's people, and did not believe that the child of God, when once made so, was safe for ever. . . . But now I was brought to examine these precious truths by the word of God.53
He was led to embrace the doctrines of grace—the robust, mission-minded, soul-winning, orphan-loving Calvinism that marked William Carey, who died in 1834, and that would mark Charles Spurgeon, who was born in 1834.54 About forty years later, in 1870, Mueller spoke to some young believers about the importance of what had happened to him at Teignmouth. He said that his preaching had been fruitless for four years from 1825 to 1829 in Germany, but then he came to England and was taught the doctrines of grace.
In the course of time I came to this country, and it pleased God then to show to me the doctrines of grace in a way in which I had not seen them before. At first I hated them, “If this were true I could do nothing at all in the conversion of sinners, as all would depend upon God and the working of His Spirit.” But when it pleased God to reveal these truths to me, and my heart was brought to such a state that I could say, “I am not only content simply to be a hammer, an axe, or a saw, in God's hands; but I shall count it an honor to be taken up and used by Him in any way; and if sinners are converted through my instrumentality, from my inmost soul I will give Him all the glory; the Lord gave me to see fruit; the Lord gave me to see fruit in abundance; sinners were converted by scores; and ever since God has used me in one way or other in His service.”55
This discovery of the all-encompassing sovereignty of God became the foundation of Mueller's confidence in God to answer his prayers for money. He gave up his regular salary.56 He refused to ask people directly for money.57 He prayed and published his reports about the goodness of God and the answers to his prayer.58 These yearly reports were circulated around the world, and they clearly had a huge effect in motivating people to give to the orphan work.59 Mueller knew that God used means. In fact, he loved to say, “Work with all your might; but trust not in the least in your work.”60 But he also insisted that his hope was in God alone, not his exertions and not the published reports. These means could not account for the remarkable answers that he received.
Mueller's faith that his prayers for money would be answered was rooted in the sovereignty of God. When faced with a crisis in having the means to pay a bill he would say, “How the means are to come, I know not; but I know that God is almighty, that the hearts of all are in His hands, and that, if He pleaseth to influence persons, they will send help.”61 That is the root of his confidence: God is almighty, the hearts of all men are in his hands,62 and when God chooses to influence their hearts they will give.
He had come to know and love this absolute sovereignty of God in the context of the doctrines of grace, and therefore he cherished it mainly as sovereign goodness.63 This gave him a way to maintain a personal peace beyond human understanding in the midst of tremendous stress and occasional tragedy. “The Lord never lays more on us,” he said, “in the way of chastisement, than our state of heart makes needful; so that whilst He smites with the one hand, He supports with the other.”64 In the face of painful circumstances he says, “I bow, I am satisfied with the will of my Heavenly Father, I seek by perfect submission to His holy will to glorify Him, I kiss continually the hand that has thus afflicted me.”65
And when he is about to lose a piece of property that he wants for the next orphan house, he says, “If the Lord were to take this piece of land from me, it would be only for the purpose of giving me a still better one; for our Heavenly Father never takes any earthly thing from His children except He means to give them something better instead.”66 This is what I mean by confidence in God's sovereign goodness. This is the root of Mueller's faith and ministry.
The Aroma of Mueller's Calvinism: Satisfaction and Glad Self-Denial
But there was an aroma about Mueller's Calvinism that was different from many stereotypes. For him the sovereign goodness of God served, first and foremost, the satisfaction of the soul. And then the satisfied soul was freed to sacrifice and live a life of simplicity and risk and self-denial and love. But everything flowed from the soul that is first satisfied in the gracious, sovereign God. Mueller is clearer on this than anyone I have ever read. He is unashamed to sound almost childishly simple:
According to my judgement the most important point to be attended to is this: above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord. Other things may press upon you, the Lord's work may even have urgent claims upon your attention, but I deliberately repeat, it is of supreme and paramount importance that you should seek above all things to have your souls truly happy in God Himself! Day by day seek to make this the most important business of your life. This has been my firm and settled condition for the last five and thirty years. For the first four years after my conversion I knew not its vast importance, but now after much experience I specially commend this point to the notice of my younger brethren and sisters in Christ: the secret of all true effectual service is joy in God, having experimental acquaintance and fellowship with God Himself.67
Why is this “the most important thing”? Why is daily happiness in God “of supreme and paramount importance”? One answer he gives is that it glorifies God. After telling about one of his wife's illnesses when he almost lost her, he says, “I have . . . stated this case so fully, to show the deep importance to be satisfied with the will of God, not only for the sake of glorifying Him, but as the best way, in the end, of having given to us the desire of our hearts.”68 Being satisfied in God is “of supreme and paramount importance” because it glorifies God. It shows that God is gloriously satisfying.
But there is another answer: namely, that happiness in God is the only source of durable and God-honoring self-denial and sacrifice and love. In reference to life-style changes and simplicity he says:
We should begin the thing in a right way, i.e. aim after the right state of heart; begin inwardly instead of outwardly. If otherwise, it will not last. We shall look back, or even get into a worse state than we were before. But oh! how different if joy in God leads us to any little act of self denial. How gladly do we do it then!69
“Glad self-denial” is the aroma of Mueller's Calvinism. How can there be such a thing? He answers: “Self-denial is not so much an impoverishment as a postponement: we make a sacrifice of a present good for the sake of a future and greater good.”70 Therefore, happiness in God is of “supreme importance” because it is the key to love that sacrifices and takes risks. “Whatever be done . . . in the way of giving up, or self-denial, or deadness to the world, should result from the joy we have in God.”71
A well-to-do woman visited him once to discuss a possible gift to the Institute. He did not ask her for the money. But when she was gone he asked God for it. And the way he did reveals his understanding of how the heart human works.
After she was gone, I asked the Lord, that He would be pleased to make this dear sister so happy in Himself and enable her so to realize her true riches and inheritance in the Lord Jesus, and the reality of her heavenly calling, that she might be constrained by the love of Christ, cheerfully to lay down this 500 [pounds] at His feet.72
How Do We Get and Keep Our Happiness in God?
If happiness in God is “of supreme and paramount importance” because it is the spring of sacrificial love that honors God, then the crucial question becomes how do we get it and keep it?
But in what way shall we attain to this settled happiness of soul? How shall we learn to enjoy God? How obtain such an all-sufficient soul-satisfying portion in him as shall enable us to let go the things of this world as vain and worthless in comparison? I answer, This happiness is to be obtained through the study of the Holy Scriptures. God has therein revealed Himself unto us in the face of Jesus Christ.73
Happiness in God comes from seeing God revealed to us in the face of Jesus Christ through the Scriptures. “In them . . . we become acquainted with the character of God. Our eyes are divinely opened to see what a lovely Being God is! And this good, gracious, loving, heavenly Father is ours, our portion for time and for eternity.”74 Knowing God is the key to being happy in God.
The more we know of God, the happier we are. . . . When we became a little acquainted with God . . . our true happiness . . . commenced; and the more we become acquainted with him, the more truly happy we become. What will make us so exceedingly happy in heaven? It will be the fuller knowledge of God.75
Therefore the most crucial means of fighting for joy in God is to immerse oneself in the Scriptures where we see God in Christ most clearly. When he was 71 years old, Mueller spoke to younger believers:
Now in brotherly love and affection I would give a few hints to my younger fellow-believers as to the way in which to keep up spiritual enjoyment. It is absolutely needful in order that happiness in the Lord may continue, that the Scriptures be regularly read. These are God's appointed means for the nourishment of the inner man. . . .Consider it, and ponder over it. . . . Especially we should read regularly through the Scriptures, consecutively, and not pick out here and there a chapter. If we do, we remain spiritual dwarfs. I tell you so affectionately. For the first four years after my conversion I made no progress, because I neglected the Bible. But when I regularly read on through the whole with reference to my own heart and soul, I directly made progress. Then my peace and joy continued more and more. Now I have been doing this for 47 years. I have read through the whole Bible about 100 times and I always find it fresh when I begin again. Thus my peace and joy have increased more and more.76
He was seventy-one and he would live and read on for another twenty-one years. But he never changed his strategy for satisfaction in God. When he was seventy-six he wrote the same thing he did when he was sixty, “I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord.”77 And the means stayed the same:
I saw that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the word of God, and to meditation on it. . . . What is the food of the inner man? Not prayer, but the word of God; and . . . not the simple reading of the word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts.78
Which brings us back now the satisfaction of Mueller's soul at the death of his wife, Mary. Remember, he said, “My heart was at rest. I was satisfied with God. And all this springs, as I have often said before, from taking God at his word, believing what he says.” 79
The aim of George Mueller's life was to glorify God by helping people take God at his word.80 To that end he saturated his soul with the word of God. At one point he said that he reads the Bible five or ten times more than he reads any other books.81 His aim was to see God in Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead in order that he might maintain the happiness of his soul in God. By this deep satisfaction in God George Mueller was set free from the fears and lusts of the world. And in this freedom of love he chose a strategy of ministry and style of life that put the reality and trustworthiness and beauty of God on display. To use his own words, his life became a “visible proof to the unchangeable faithfulness of the Lord.”82
He was sustained in this extraordinary life by his deep convictions that God is sovereign over the human heart and can turn it where he wills in answer to prayer; and that God is sovereign over life and death; and that God is good in his sovereignty and withholds no good thing from those who walk uprightly. He strengthened himself continually in his wife's final illness with the hymn:
Best of blessings he'll provide us
Nought but good shall e'er betide us,
Safe to glory He will guide us,
Oh how He loves!83
An Exhortation and Plea from Mueller
I will let him have the closing word of exhortation and plea for us to join him in the path of radical, joyful faith:
My dear Christian reader, will you not try this way? Will you not know for yourself . . . the preciousness and the happiness of this way of casting all your cares and burdens and necessities upon God? This way is as open to you as to me. . . . Every one is invited and commanded to trust in the Lord, to trust in Him with all his heart, and to cast his burden upon Him, and to call upon Him in the day of trouble. Will you not do this, my dear brethren in Christ? I long that you may do so. I desire that you may taste the sweetness of that state of heart, in which, while surrounded by difficulties and necessities, you can yet be at peace, because you know that the living God, your Father in heaven, cares for you. I just had to post this article because George Mueller was amazing in his faith in God. I pray that we all would have this kind of faith that would love others and build the kingdom of God. Pam