Finding Faith

The engagement correspondence of Eberhard Arnold and Emmy von Hollander shows a young couple searching to find the true meaning of faith and to strengthen each other in discipleship.

Eberhard Arnold and Emmy von Hollander were engaged on Good Friday, 1907 in the city of Halle. Each put pen to paper not long after their first parting – and thus began a flurry of letters that would continue for almost three years as Eberhard finished his studies in Breslau.

Breslau might be hours away from Halle, but corresponding was easy for a young couple newly in love. Thanks to the efficient German postal system, letters mailed from a train station generally arrived within a day, even on weekends. Eberhard and Emmy wrote almost daily; Eberhard’s close acquaintance with the leaders of the Halle revival, and Emmy’s own intense involvement in it, gave them both plenty to tell each other. But beyond such news, both wanted much more – a relationship based on discovering what it means to follow Jesus. These were no ordinary love letters. In their correspondence each could help the other to strengthen their faith.

April 3, 1907

My dearest beloved Eberhard,

…The delightful roses you gave me for our engagement are in front of me, and still beautiful. I look at them constantly; they make me so happy. By the way, when being photographed, I held my hand in such a way that you can see my ring. I hope you like the way that the pictures turn out. Do the violets come from your garden?

I wanted to write to you about your articles – actually, I would rather talk to you about them in person. The thought I liked best was this: “God wants all people to be helped: this means a personal decision either for Christ or against Christ.” Most people tend toward a half-hearted decision, which is a terrible thing. I also think it is better to have no Christ than half a Christ. Another sentence that flashed out at me was: “We believe that the power of the blood of Jesus Christ, of his dying and living, can show itself powerfully even in youth, during one’s student days. We believe that young men and women can find their greatest fulfillment through giving themselves over to Jesus in trust and obedience.” This sentence made plenty of sense to me, especially since I had formerly thought that Christianity lacked real power; I guess I believed in a Christianity based on feelings. To me, the way you describe conversion makes it all so simple and clear.

There is just one thing I can’t quite understand. You write: “Young people are inclined most of all to put their inner feelings in place of the obedience of faith.” I thought this was basically the same thing – surely, the obedience of faith comes out of an inner feeling. God usually speaks to us through an inner feeling, and if one listens to that, I call that the obedience of faith. I don’t mean by this that there can’t be obedience of faith without inner feeling. But it isn’t wholly clear to me.

Tomorrow I will write more.…

A thousand greetings,

your warmly and endlessly loving Emmy

 


Breslau

April 6, 1907

My beloved Emmy,

It’s impossible to say how happy it always makes me when your letters arrive.…You know, I read your letters over and over. Even if later we can’t correspond as often, we will always have the letters from these wonderful, rich, first weeks. It is splendid that we can tell each other everything – the deep, the beautiful, and the marvelous, but also the difficult and sad things. And we can be grateful there are so few sad things to tell each other, and so many infinitely joyful ones.

Dear Emmy, faith does not depend on feelings. It is not feelings but the will that forms the character, especially the Christian character. Often we must continue on the way simply through strict obedience, quite soberly, while at other times the Lord will overwhelm us with floods of joy. He does both in order to teach us. The peace of God is not a feeling. It is the relationship of the soul to God, and an expression of the fact that a reborn person is a child of God.…

Endlessly happy in Jesus and in you,

your loyal Ebbo

 


Several months and dozens of letters later Eberhard wrote again on a similar theme:

June 9, 1907

Jesus!

Emmy, my darling,

…You know that I want my whole heart to be yours so completely that you know everything in it and will finally know more about it than even I. Maybe this is already the case.

I am concerned, though, that you greatly overestimate me, and I don’t want that. You must be my helper in such a way that I gain full mastery over myself, also in those areas where I don’t yet see clearly. I’m sure there are plenty of those! I know that you’ll want to do this. I’m indescribably thankful for the way you point me upwards, and I will praise Jesus for it my whole life long and into eternity.…It occurred to me today that through the very fact of being separated we will be greatly blessed: we will always have our letters from this glorious time.

I’m so happy, my love, that you could write, “The less I am, the more Jesus can do in me,” and that you repeatedly express your complete trust in him.

I have laid before the Lord what you wrote about your fear that there’s something in you that hinders the Spirit. But I think you should let go of such gloomy brooding. If you’re downcast and feel burdened by your sins and your incapacity to serve – if the sort of mood overcomes you in which the Enemy seems to sow doubt in your heart about whether you’re saved – then, Emmy, go to Jesus as you are, as a poor, weak human child, and praise, honor, and thank him for granting full salvation even to the most wretched soul. You don’t need to do anything. God gives us everything. Ask his forgiveness for having grieved him by mistrust (as if he demanded more than openness) and thank him that forgiveness is yours, since you’ve been redeemed by his death. Then ask him to relentlessly show you everything that is evil about yourself, and tell him firmly that you want to give it all up immediately. Finally, reflect quietly and do what you have to do in joyful confidence in him, fully determined to do whatever it takes and assured of forgiveness and grace even before you’ve carried anything out. If the Lord doesn’t show you anything, that’s all the more reason to be truly joyful! By this he’s telling you, “Rejoice in my grace! I know you love me, and I am in you. In my time, the right time, I will show you everything and lead you onward.” Then continue on your way full of joy and thanks.

Little darling: be joyful! And realize that if you’re not, you’re disgracing Jesus. Doesn’t each of us always have reason to rejoice? Yes, always rejoice! If the longing for me tries to rob you of your happiness, then bring it before Jesus and thank him that I am completely yours and that our souls are one, even at a distance.…So don’t let yourself be robbed of what the Lord has given, but use it instead to bear even more glorious fruit.…

Let us become quiet, my dearest, and go our way in joy, praying earnestly for God’s spirit, trusting him in every service we undertake, and thus glorifying Jesus by our peace. That is my prayer for you, my best beloved, and I know that the Lord will answer it and make you a witness who will praise and glorify him with her whole life!

…My Emmy, I hope you’ve finally stopped relying on feelings. Faith stands on the Word and thereby on the cross and the resurrection. The rock is outside of us, not in us. Psalm 40:2-4: “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord. Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust, who does not look to the proud, to those who turn aside to false gods.”

…Recently we had a wonderful bible class about waiting for him. I trust in him fully, for my future as well. He will lead us surely and clearly and prepare a sun-bright way for us. I pray for you with joy, and love you more and more, if that’s possible.

Belonging unreservedly to you,

your bridegroom

PS. I am fine. I just scraped my knee falling off my bicycle. Greet everyone a thousand times. This letter will surely do for a week? You’ll get a shorter one in the meantime.


As published in Love Letters (Plough Publishing, 2007).

Article edited for length and clarity.