A SERIOUS CALL TO A DEVOUT AND HOLY LIFE
by William Law
Recommending devotion at three o'clock, called in Scripture the ninth hour of the day. The subject of prayer at this hour is resignation to the Divine pleasure. The nature and duty of conformity to the will of God, in all our actions and designs.
I HAVE recommended certain subjects to be made the fixed and chief matter of your devotions, at all the hours of prayer that have been already considered.
As thanksgiving and oblation of yourself to God, at your first prayers in the morning; at nine, the great virtue of Christian humility is to be the chief part of your petitions. At twelve, you are called upon to pray for all the graces of universal love, and to raise it in your heart by such general and particular intercessions as your own state and relation to other people seem more particularly to require of you.
At this hour of the afternoon, you are desired to consider the necessity of resignation and conformity to the will of God, and to make this great virtue the principal matter of your prayers.
There is nothing wise, or holy, or just, but the great will of God. This is as strictly true, in the most rigid sense, as to say, that nothing is infinite and eternal but God.
No beings, therefore, whether in Heaven, or on earth, can be wise, or holy, or just, but so far as they conform to this will of God. It is conformity to this will that gives virtue and perfection to the highest services of the angels in heaven; and it is conformity to the same will that makes the ordinary actions of men on earth become an acceptable service unto God.
The whole nature of virtue consists in conforming to, and the whole nature of vice in declining from, the will of God. All God 's creatures are created to fulfil His will; the sun and moon obey His will, by the necessity of their nature; angels conform to His will, by the perfection of their nature; if, therefore, you would show yourself not to be a rebel and apostate from the order of the creation, you must act like beings both above and below you; it must be the great desire of your soul, that God's will may be done by you on earth, as it is done in Heaven. It must be the settled purpose and intention of your heart, to will nothing, design nothing, do nothing, but so far as you have reason to believe that it is the will of God that you should so desire, design, and do.
It is as just and necessary to live in this state of heart, to think thus of God and yourself, as to think that you have any dependence upon Him. And it is as great a rebellion against God, to think that your will may ever differ from His, as to think that you have not received the power of willing for Him.
You are therefore to consider yourself as a being that has no other business in the world, but to be that which God requires you to be; to have no tempers, no rules of your own, to seek no self-designs or self-ends, but to fill some place, and act some part, in strict conformity and thankful resignation to the Divine pleasure.
To think that you are your own, or at your own disposal, is as absurd as to think that you created and can preserve yourself. It is as plain and necessary a first principle, to believe you are thus God's, that you thus belong to Him, and are to act and suffer all in a thankful resignation to His pleasure, as to believe that in Him you "live, and move, and have your being." [Acts xvii. 28]
Resignation to the Divine will signifies a cheerful approbation, and thankful acceptance of everything that comes from God. It is not enough patiently to submit, but we must thankfully receive, and fully approve of everything, that by the order of God's providence happens to us.
For there is no reason why we should be patient, but what is as good and strong a reason why we should be thankful. If we were under the hands of a wise and good physician, that could not mistake, nor do anything to us, but what certainly tended to our benefit; it would not be enough to be patient, and abstain from murmurings against such a physician; but it would be as great a breach of duty and gratitude to him not to be pleased and thankful for what he did, as it would be to murmur at him.
Now this is our true state with relation to God; we cannot be said so much as to believe in Him, unless we believe Him to be of infinite wisdom. Every argument, therefore, for patience under His disposal of us, is as strong an argument for approbation and thankfulness for everything that He does to us. And there needs no more to dispose us to this gratitude towards God, than a full belief in Him, that He is this Being of infinite wisdom, love, and goodness.
Do but assent to this truth, in the same manner as you assent to things of which you have no doubt, and then you will cheerfully approve of everything that God has already approved for you.
For as you cannot possibly be pleased with the behaviour of any person towards you, but because it is for your good, is wise in itself, and the effect of his love and goodness towards you; so when you are satisfied that God does not only do that which is wise, and good, and kind, but that which is the effect of an infinite wisdom and love in the care of you; it will be as necessary, whilst you have this faith, to be thankful and pleased with everything which God chooses for you, as to wish your own happiness.
Whenever, therefore, you find yourself disposed to uneasiness, or murmuring at anything that is the effect of God's providence over us, you must look upon yourself as denying either the wisdom or goodness of God. For every complaint necessarily supposes this. You would never complain of your neighbour, but that you suppose you can show either his unwise, unjust, or unkind behaviour towards you.
Now every murmuring, impatient reflection, under the providence of God, is the same accusation of God. A complaint always supposes ill-usage.
Hence also you may see the great necessity and piety of this thankful state of heart, because the want of it implies an accusation of God's want either of wisdom, or goodness, in His disposal of us. It is not, therefore, any high degree of perfection, founded in any uncommon nicety of thinking, or refined notions, but a plain principle, founded in this plain belief, that God is a Being of infinite wisdom and goodness.
Now this resignation to the Divine will may be considered in two respects; First, as it signifies a thankful approbation of God's general providence over the world; Secondly, as it signifies a thankful acceptance of His particular providence over us.
First, Every man is, by the law of his creation, by the first article of his creed, obliged to consent to, and acknowledge the wisdom and goodness of God in His general providence over the whole world. He is to believe, that it is the effect of God's great wisdom and goodness, that the world itself was formed at such a particular time, and in such a manner; that the general order of nature, the whole frame of things, is contrived and formed in the best manner. He is to believe that God's providence over states and kingdoms, times and seasons, is all for the best: that the revolutions of state and changes of empire, the rise and fall of monarchies, persecutions, wars, famines, and plagues, are all permitted and conducted by God 's providence to the general good of man in this state of trial.
A good man is to believe all this, with the same fulness of assent as he believes that God is in every place, though he neither sees, nor can comprehend the manner of His presence.
This is a noble magnificence of thought, a true religious greatness of mind, to be thus affected with God's general providence, admiring and magnifying His wisdom in all things; never murmuring at the course of the world, or the state of things, but looking upon all around, at heaven and earth, as a pleased spectator, and adoring that invisible hand, which gives laws to all motions, and overrules all events to ends suitable to the highest wisdom and goodness.
It is very common for people to allow themselves great liberty in finding fault with such things as have only God for their cause.
Every one thinks he may justly say, what a wretched abominable climate he lives in. This man is frequently telling you, what a dismal cursed day it is, and what intolerable seasons we have. Another thinks he has very little to thank God for, that it is hardly worth his while to live in a world so full of changes and revolutions. But these are tempers of great impiety, and show that religion has not yet its seat in the heart of those that have them.
It sounds indeed much better to murmur at the course of the world, or the state of things, than to murmur at Providence; to complain of the seasons and weather than to complain of God; but if these have no other cause but God and His providence, it is a poor distinction to say, that you are only angry at the things, but not at the Cause and Director of them.
How sacred the whole frame of the world is, how all things are to be considered as God's, and referred to Him, is fully taught by our Blessed Lord in the case of oaths: "But I say unto you, Swear not at all, neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; neither by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King; neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black"; [Matt. v. 34-36] that is, because the whiteness or blackness of thy hair is not thine, but God's.
Here you see all things in the whole order of nature, from the highest heavens to the smallest hair, are always to be considered, not separately as they are in themselves, but as in some relation to God. And if this be good reasoning, thou shalt not swear by the earth, a city, or thy hair, because these things are God's, and in a certain manner belong to Him; is it not exactly the same reasoning to say, Thou shalt not murmur at the seasons of the earth, the states of cities, and the change of times, because all these things are in the hands of God, have Him for their Author, are directed and governed by Him to such ends as are most suitable to His wise providence?
If you think you can murmur at the state of things without murmuring at Providence, or complain of seasons without complaining of God, hear what our Blessed Lord says further upon oaths: "Whoso shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon; and whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by Him that dwelleth therein; and he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by Him that sitteth thereon." [Matt. xxiii. 20-22]
Now does not this Scripture plainly oblige us to reason after this manner? Whoso murmurs at the course of the world murmurs at God that governs the course of the world. Whoso repines at seasons and weather, and speaks impatiently of times and events, repines and speaketh impatiently of God, who is the sole Lord and Governor of times, seasons, and events.
As therefore when we think of God Himself we are to have no sentiments but of praise and thanksgiving; so when we look at those things which are under the direction of God, and governed by His providence, we are to receive them with the same tempers of praise and gratitude.
And though we are not to think all things right, and just, and lawful, which the providence of God permits; for then nothing could be unjust, because nothing is without His permission; yet we must adore God in the greatest public calamities, the most grievous persecutions, as things that are suffered by God, like plagues and famines, for ends suitable to his wisdom and glory in the government of the world.
There is nothing more suitable to the piety of a reasonable creature, or to the spirit of a Christian, than thus to approve, admire, and glorify God in all the acts of His general providence; considering the whole world as His particular family, and all events as directed by His wisdom.
Every one seems to consent to this, as an undeniable truth, that all things must be as God pleases; and is not this enough to make every man pleased with them himself? And how can a man be a peevish complainer of anything that is the effect of Providence, but by showing that his own self-will and self-wisdom is of more weight with him than the will and wisdom of God? And what can religion be said to have done for a man whose heart is in this state?
For if he cannot thank and praise God, as well in calamities and sufferings as in prosperity and happiness, he is as far from the piety of a Christian as he that only loves them that love him, is from the charity of a Christian. For to thank God only for such things as you like, is no more a proper act of piety, than to believe only what you see is an act of faith.
Resignation and thanksgiving to God are only acts of piety, when they are acts of faith, trust, and confidence in the Divine goodness.
The faith of Abraham was an act of true piety, because it stopped at no difficulties, was not altered or lessened by any human appearances. It first of all carried him, against all show of happiness, from his own kindred and country, into a strange land, not knowing whither he went. It afterwards made him, against all appearances of nature, when his body was dead, when he was about an hundred years old, depend upon the promise of God, being fully persuaded that what God had promised, He was able to perform. It was this same faith, that, against so many pleas of nature, so many appearances of reason, prevailed upon him to offer up Isaac -- "accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead." [Heb. xi. 17, 19]
Now this faith is the true pattern of Christian resignation to the Divine pleasure; you are to thank and praise God, not only for things agreeable to you, that have the appearance of happiness and comfort; but when you are, like Abraham, called from all appearances of comfort to be a pilgrim in a strange land, to part with an only son; being as fully persuaded of the Divine goodness in all things that happen to you, as Abraham was of the Divine promise when there was the least appearance of its being performed.
This is true Christian resignation to God, which requires no more to the support of it, than such a plain assurance of the goodness of God, as Abraham had of His veracity. And if you ask yourself, what greater reason Abraham had to depend upon the Divine veracity, than you have to depend upon the Divine goodness, you will find that none can be given.
You cannot therefore look upon this as an unnecessary high pitch of perfection, since the want of it implies the want, not of any high notions, but of a plain and ordinary faith in the most certain doctrines both of natural and revealed religion.
Thus much concerning resignation to the Divine will, as it signifies a thankful approbation of God's general providence: it is now to be considered as it signifies a thankful acceptance of God 's particular providence over us.
Every man is to consider himself as a particular object of God's providence; under the same care and protection of God as if the world had been made for him alone. It is not by chance that any man is born at such a time, of such parents, and in such a place and condition. It is as certain that every soul comes into the body at such a time, and in such circumstances, by the express designment of God, according to some purposes of His will, and for some particular ends; this is as certain as that it is by the express designment of God that some beings are Angels, and others are men.
It is as much by the counsel and eternal purpose of God that you should be born in your particular state, and that Isaac should be the son of Abraham, as that Gabriel should be an Angel, and Isaac a man.
The Scriptures assure us, that it was by Divine appointment that our blessed Saviour was born at Bethlehem, and at such a time. Now although it was owing to the dignity of His person, and the great importance of His birth, that thus much of the Divine counsel was declared to the world, concerning the time and manner of it; yet we are as sure, from the same Scriptures, that the time and manner of every man's coming into the world is according to some eternal purposes and direction of Divine providence, and in such time, and place, and circumstances, as are directed and governed by God for particular ends of His wisdom and goodness.
This we are as certain of, from plain revelation, as we can be of anything. For if we are told, that not a sparrow falleth to the ground without our Heavenly Father; can anything more strongly teach us, that much greater beings, such as human souls, come not into the world without the care and direction of our Heavenly Father? If it is said, "The very hairs of your head are all numbered": is it not to teach us, that nothing, not the smallest things imaginable, happen to us by chance? But if the smallest things we can conceive are declared to be under the Divine direction, need we, or can we, be more plainly taught, that the greatest things of life, such as the manner of our coming into the world, our parents, the time, and other circumstances of our birth and condition, are all according to the eternal purposes, direction, and appointment of Divine providence?
When the disciples put this question to our blessed Lord concerning the blind man, saying, "Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" He that was the eternal Wisdom of God, made this answer, "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." [John ix. 2, 3] Plainly declaring, that the particular circumstances of every man's birth, the body that he receives, and the condition and state of life into which he is born, are appointed by a secret Providence, which directs all things to their particular times and seasons, and manner of existence, that the wisdom and works of God may be made manifest in them all.
As therefore it is thus certain, that we are what we are, as to birth, time, and condition of entering into the world; since all that is particular in our state is the effect of God's particular providence over us, and intended for some particular ends both of His glory and our own happiness; we are, by the greatest obligations of gratitude, called upon to conform and resign our will to the will of God in all these respects; thankfully approving and accepting everything that is particular in our state; praising and glorifying His Name for our birth of such parents, and in such circumstances of state and condition; being fully assured, that it was for some reasons of infinite wisdom and goodness, that we were so born into such particular states of life.
If the man above mentioned was born blind, that the works of God might be manifested in him, had he not great reason to praise God for appointing him, in such a particular manner, to be the instrument of His glory? And if one person is born here, and another there; if one falls amongst riches, and another into poverty; if one receives his flesh and blood from these parents, and another from those, for as particular ends as the man was born blind; have not all people the greatest reason to bless God, and to be thankful for their particular state and condition, because all that is particular in it, is as directly intended for the glory of God, and their own good, as the particular blindness of that man who was so born, that the works of God might be manifested in him?
How noble an idea does this give us of the Divine omniscience presiding over the whole world, and governing such a long chain and combination of seeming accidents and chances, to the common and particular advantage of all beings! So that all persons, in such a wonderful variety of causes, accidents, and events, should all fall into such particular states as were foreseen and foreordained to their best advantage and so as to be most serviceable to the wise and glorious ends of God's government of all the world.
Had you been anything else than what you are, you had, all things considered, been less wisely provided for than you are now: you had wanted some circumstances and conditions that are best fitted to make you happy yourself, and serviceable to the glory of God.
Could you see all that which God sees, all that happy chain of causes and motives which are to move and invite you to a right course of life, you would see something to make you like that state you are in, as fitter for you than any other.
But as you cannot see this, so it is here that your Christian faith and trust in God is to exercise itself, and render you as grateful and thankful for the happiness of your state, as if you saw everything that contributes to it with your own eyes.
But now if this is the case of every man in the world, thus blessed with some particular state that is most convenient for him, how reasonable is it for every man to will that which God has already willed for him! And by a pious faith and trust in the Divine goodness; thankfully to adore and magnify that wise providence, which he is sure has made the best choice for him of those things which he could not choose for himself!
Every uneasiness at our own state is founded upon comparing it with that of other people; which is full as unreasonable as if a man in a dropsy should be angry at those that prescribe different things to him from those which are prescribed to people in health. For all the different states of life are like the different states of diseases; what is a remedy to one man in his state, may be poison to another.
So that to murmur because you are not as some others are, is as if a man in one disease should murmur that he is not treated like him that is in another. Whereas, if he was to have his will, he would be killed by that which will prove the cure of another.
It is just thus in the various conditions of life; if you give yourself up to uneasiness, or complain at anything in your state, you may, for aught you know, be so ungrateful to God, as to murmur at that very thing which is to prove the cause of your salvation. Had you it in your power to get that which you think it is so grievous to want, it might perhaps be that very thing which, of all others, would most expose you to eternal damnation.
So that whether we consider the infinite goodness of God, that cannot choose amiss for us, or our own great ignorance of what is most advantageous to us, there can be nothing so reasonable and pious, as to have no will but that of God's, and to desire nothing for ourselves, in our persons, our state, and condition, but that which the good providence of God appoints us.
Farther, as the good providence of God thus introduces us into the world, into such states and conditions of life as are most convenient for us, so the same unerring wisdom orders all events and changes in the whole course of our lives, in such a manner, as to render them the fittest means to exercise and improve our virtue.
Nothing hurts us, nothing destroys us, but the ill use of that liberty with which God has entrusted us.
We are as sure that nothing happens to us by chance, as that the world itself was not made by chance; we are as certain that all things happen, and work together for our good, as that God is goodness itself. So that a man has as much reason to will everything that happens to him, because God wills it, as to think that is wisest which is directed by infinite wisdom.
This is not cheating or soothing ourselves into any false content, or imaginary happiness; but is a satisfaction grounded upon as great a certainty as the being and attributes of God.
For if we are right in believing God to act over us with infinite wisdom and goodness, we cannot carry our notions of conformity and resignation to the Divine will too high; nor can we ever be deceived, by thinking that to be best for us, which God has brought upon us.
For the providence of God is not more concerned in the government of night and day, and the variety of seasons, than in the common course of events that seem most to depend upon the mere wills of men. So that it is as strictly right to look upon all worldly accidents and changes, all the various turns and alternations in your own life, to be as truly the effects of Divine providence, as the rising and setting of the sun, or the alternations of the seasons of the year. As you are, therefore, always to adore the wisdom of God in the direction of these things; so it is the same reasonable duty always to magnify God, as an equal Director of everything that happens to you in the course of your own life.
This holy resignation and conformity of your will to the will of God being so much the true state of piety, I hope you will think it proper to make this hour of prayer a constant season of applying to God for so great a gift; that by thus constantly praying for it, your heart may be habitually disposed towards it, and always in a state of readiness to look at everything as God's, and to consider Him in everything; that so everything that befalls you may be received in the spirit of piety, and made a means of exercising some virtue.
There is nothing that so powerfully governs the heart, that so strongly excites us to wise and reasonable actions, as a true sense of God's presence. But as we cannot see, or apprehend the essence of God, so nothing will so constantly keep us under a lively sense of the presence of God, as this holy resignation which attributes everything to Him, and receives everything as from Him.
Could we see a miracle from God, how would our thoughts be affected with an holy awe and veneration of His presence! But if we consider everything as God's doing, either by order or permission, we shall then be affected with common things, as they would be who saw a miracle.
For as there is nothing to affect you in a miracle, but as it is the action of God, and bespeaks His presence; so when you consider God as acting in all things, and all events, then all things will become venerable to you, like miracles, and fill you with the same awful sentiments of the Divine presence.
Now you must not reserve the exercise of this pious temper to any particular times or occasions, or fancy how resigned you will be to God, if such or such trials should happen. For this is amusing yourself with the notion or idea of resignation, instead of the virtue itself.
Do not therefore please yourself with thinking how piously you would act and submit to God in a plague, or famine, or persecution, but be intent upon the perfection of the present day; and be assured, that the best way of showing a true zeal is to make little things the occasions of great piety.
Begin therefore in the smallest matters, and most ordinary occasions, and accustom your mind to the daily exercise of this pious temper, in the lowest occurrences of life. And when a contempt, an affront, a little injury, loss, or disappointment, or the smallest events of every day, continually raise your mind to God in proper acts of resignation, then you may justly hope that you shall be numbered amongst those that are resigned and thankful to God in the greatest trials and afflictions.
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