My Faith Looks Up to Thee

Ray Palmer, 1830
Addressed to God the Son
My faith looks up to thee,Heb. 12:2; John 1:36
thou Lamb of Calvary,
   Savior divine:
now hear me while I pray,
take all my guilt away,
oh, let me from this day
   be wholly thine.Rom. 14:7–8; 1 Cor. 6:19
May thy rich grace impart
strength to my fainting heart,2 Tim. 2:1; Heb. 13:9
   my zeal inspire;
as thou hast died for me,2 Cor. 5:15
oh, may my love to thee
pure, warm, and changeless be,Lev. 6:13
   a living fire.Song 8:6
While life’s dark maze I tread,
and griefs around me spread,
   be thou my guide;Ps. 31:3; Luke 1:79
bid darkness turn to day,Ps. 112:4; Rom. 13:12
wipe sorrow’s tears away,Is. 25:8; Rev. 7:17; 21:4
nor let me ever strayJob 23:11; Ps. 119:110
   from thee aside.
When ends life’s transient dream,
when death’s cold, sullen streamJob 26:5; Ps. 18:4
   shall o’er me roll,
blest Savior, then, in love,
fear and distrust remove;Ps. 23:4; Rom. 4:19–20
oh, bear me safe above,
   a ransomed soul.Ps. 49:15

The process of sanctification involves the work of all three persons of the Trinity as well as the effort of believers themselves. Jesus taught, “Whoever abides in me and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Believers, if they are to grow in their faith, must abide in Christ, but they are enabled to do so only by Christ’s abiding in them through his word and Spirit. It is therefore fitting that the two most enduring English-language hymns on the topic of sanctification complement one another in this respect: whereas “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” is a prayer asking Christ to abide in us, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee” is a prayer asking that the believer might abide in Christ—a prayer for the kind of zeal (stanza 2), guidance (stanza 3), and death (stanza 4) proper to one who is wholly Christ’s (stanza 1, lines 6–7).

Like John the Baptist’s disciples who obeyed the command to “behold the Lamb of God” (then followed him, see John 1:35–37) and like the runner of the race in Hebrews 12, the singer of this hymn fixes his gaze on Jesus. Actually, it is “my faith” (and not simply “I”) that does the looking, for the whole point of the previous chapter in Hebrews is that faith sees what eyes cannot. Specifically, my faith sees Jesus as the “Lamb” and thereby finds in him more than just an example after which to model my own life and death; I find a “Savior divine” who in fact atones for my sins (“take all my guilt away”) and perfects my faith (“let me from this day be wholly thine”).

Having begun with an image that is as lucid as it is biblically rich, the poem progresses through increasingly vivid metaphors. I pray that Christ’s Spirit will fan the flames of my love for God into a “living fire,” reminiscent of a burning offering made unto the Lord or of the flames in which one destroys idols. But, oh, how those prayed-for flames contrast with the “dark maze” of life! It would be absurd to think that I could find my own way through such a maze. I need Christ to guide me as my prophet and king “until the day dawns and the morning star rises” in my heart (2 Pet. 1:19). In fact it turns out that the life sinful man has made for himself is even worse than a dark maze: the temporal things for which he is tempted to live are only a dream that passes away—flotsam overwhelmed by the unyielding and gloomy flood of death. But what is that to me? My loving savior has ransomed my soul to give me life that is eternal, not transient, and that leads to a glorious day when fear and distrust will be entirely removed. The adverb “above” in the penultimate line, as Christ bears me safe, is the fulfillment of the “up”-ward gaze of the opening line.

The poem’s unusual meter and rhyme scheme (66.4.666.4, rhyming aabcccb) produce in the third line, with its truncated rhythm of only four syllables and its orphaned terminal sound, a sense that symmetry has been withheld and that there is more to ask for. This sense is strong enough to persist through not just two but three additional lines of six syllables each, to be resolved emphatically in the last line. Note how the poet places the key terms of every stanza (“Savior divine,” “my zeal inspire,” “be thou my guide,” and “shall o’er me roll”) in that pregnant third line.

Lowell Mason composed the tune OLIVET especially for “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” and it shows. It shows in the graphic ascent of Mason’s headmotif (“My faith looks up”). It shows in Mason’s placing of the peak tone to coincide with the exclamatory “oh” of line 6 in the first and last stanzas. And it shows in the way Mason’s harmonic scheme complements the poem’s potential energy in line 3 and its momentum in lines 4–6. The melody is easy to sing, with the same rhythm sung five times in lines 1–2 and 4–6; but it is also memorable. Convincing motivic development and muscular cadences make the most of the poem’s special stanza structure: they enhance the third line’s antecedent relationship with the seventh line, even as they also enhance the climactic force of the “extra” line in the second half of the stanza (line 6).