Equip me for the war,
And teach my hands to fight;
My simple, upright heart prepare,
And guide my words aright;
Cast out each thought untrue;
Remove all sin, I pray.
Let all my works be forged in You,
In love may all be made.
O arm me with the mind,
Meek Lamb, which was in You;
And let my living zeal be joined
With love, perfect and true.
With calm and sober zeal
Let me enforce Your call;
And so support Your gracious will,
Which offers life to all.
No other let me trust,
Your arm is strong, divine,
O humble, humble to the dust,
This stubborn soul of mine!
For I am nothing, Lord--
With lowly shame I groan.
All help which is on Earth outpoured,
It comes from You alone.
O may I love like You!
Walk in the path You laid!
You hate all kinds of sin untrue
But love all You have made.
O may I learn the art,
To meekly truth reveal;
To hate the sin with all my heart,
But love the sinner still.
It is very easy for the breezy modern to note that Wesley uses the word 'war' in the first line and to assume that this is some kind of spiritually militant hymn along the lines of 'Sound the Battle Cry' or 'Onward, Christian Soldiers.' Certainly, the Wesleys were not afraid of a militant feeling in Christianity, but it is wrong to read that kind of feeling into this hymn. It is a song for soldiers, but it is not a song of war or, at any rate, it is not a war song. This is not a song to be sung after the battle nor during the battle, but "just before the battle." The attributes of a soldier at which this song looks are not his courage or endurance, but his diligence and preparation. "Equip me for the war/And teach my hands to fight." This is the essence the of song (and incidentally may have been inspired by Psalm 144:1); it is a prayer that we may be prepared for the battle which lies ahead--rather, not so much for the battle, but for the war, as throughout the language suggests a long campaign not a single skirmish. That was one thing the Wesleys understood, perhaps too well--that preparation, carefulness, and thought are important for everything, and therefore especially important for the life of a Christian. John Wesley wrote " Men are generally lost in the hurry of life, in the business or pleasures of it, and seem to think that their regeneration, their new nature, will spring and grow within them, with as little care and thought of their own as their bodies were conceived and have attained their full stature." Just as a soldier, going into scenarios where his own life, the life of comrades, and the fate of his country may rest on his actions, subjects himself to rigourous training and discipline so that he may succeed, so the Christian, going into a far greater war, must be prepared. But having said that, we should notice something else pivotal about this hymn. The primary thing about this hymn to remember is that it is a prayer: throughout we have the language of invocation. The soldier is not preparing himself so much as asking God to prepare him.
We also should note exactly what the battle is. This is not a song about "spiritual warfare" as usually understood (though Wesley did write about that elsewhere). The Christian soldier in this hymn might truly be termed a "freedom fighter" and his war a "war of liberation." The battlecry of this war is: "Life to our enemies!" The whole point of this arming, as it says in the third stanza is to "enforce Your call." What call is that? It the call which arises from God's "gracious will,/Which offers life to all." The aim of this warfare is a different kind of conquest--it is to win the hearts of people to our God. This is done, incidentally, primarily through speaking which is why the first stanza prays: "Guide my words aright."
This is a peculiar kind of war and it for this reason that the preparations prayed for are of a particular kind. Courage is a noble thing, but courage, though it may make you unwilling to surrender to your enemy, will not make your enemy surrender to you. For this kind of war, we need something beyond mere courage.
In this hymn, Wesley pictures the soldier praying for three particular things. The first is purity. "Cast out each thought untrue;/Remove all sin, I pray." Just as a soldier must be single-heartedly and completely loyal to his country, so a Christian soldier must have a complete and unadulterated loyalty to God. If the enemy has any foothold in our soul, it will lead to trouble. But this purity is not an abstract purity, a mere removal of all impurity. Rather this purity is a positive quality, rooted in God. "Let all my works be forged in you." "O arm me with the mind,/Meek Lamb, which was in You." We can have complete purity (and therefore loyalty) because the God of all purity is living in us. A soldier fights with the image of his homeland in his head, but we can fight with our God living in our hearts.
Closely allied with this purity is humility. "For I am nothing, Lord." This kind of line may strike us a odd, particularly when accompanied by the strangely brutal phrase: "O humble, humble to the dust,/This stubborn soul of mine!" The whole thing seems morbid. And while I will not deny that the Wesleys (or at least Wesleyanism) sometimes strayed into morbidity, there is an obvious, perfectly healthy explanation of this attitude in this hymn. We must pray to be humbled and to recognize ourselves as nothing because, well, we are nothing. We do not possess, within ourselves, the resources necessary to do anything, least of all to win in this kind of battle. If we think we do, then we are bound for defeat. That is why we must trust "no other" than He whose "arm is strong, divine." But this humility is not an end in itself. We are nothing to be nothing for the sake of being nothing. God desires us to recognize our own limitations so that He may give us His strength. I saw a quote once (attributed to Martin Luther, I believe) to the affect that "God made the universe out of nothing, and if we are nothing, God can make something out of us." We can have the strength to do all things once we recognize that we don't have it but that we do know the One who is the source of "All help which is on Earth outpoured" (c.p. Isaiah 40:28-31).
Finally, the third thing this hymn prays for--perhaps, the main thrust of this hymn--is love. We are to pray, in regards to our actions, "in love may all be made." Our zeal is to "be joined/With love, perfect and true." This connection of warfare with love may seem strange to us, but it is not original with Wesley. In 1 Corinthians 16, Paul spoke in the language of warfare, telling the Corinthians to watch and be strong--and in the very next breath adds, "Let all your things be done with charity." (1 Corinthians 16:14) There is always a danger that in our passion for God we will lose sight of the passion of God--which is love. John Wesley noted that Christians sometimes feel "anger or unkind temper" towards the sinner and listed this as a proof a defect in their experience. (Works, 1:562) If we are to know God fully, we must know that He is love. If we are to "walk in the path You laid" then we must "love like You!" This is not a universal, sentimental love, but a very narrow, specific love. Just as God love His own work and yet hates "all kinds of sin untrue" so we are "to hate the sin with all my heart,/But love the sinner still." This is a very difficult distinction (and arguably cannot be practiced without the humility and purity mentioned above) but one which is vital to make. God is love and yet God also hates; we are to be made loving like God and yet also to hate. And while a moments knowledge of reality will tell you that to love one thing always necessitates hating something else, it is a hard thing to practice when the thing loved and the thing hated are so closely conjoined, so seemingly synonymous. And yet we can love the sinner without loving the sin for the reason Wesley gives here--that the sinner was made by God but the sin was not. It is only when we realize that that we "may learn the art,/To meekly truth reveal."