From A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728)
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 to 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.”
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 behavior 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 neighbor, but that you suppose you can show either his unwise, unjust, or unkind behavior 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. Everyone 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 to 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 shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black,” Matthew 5, that is, because the whiteness or blackness of your hair is not yours, 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…
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…
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.
William Law (1686-1761) was an English Anglican priest and spiritual writer. He lost his position as a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge when he refused to take an oath of allegiance to King George I, and worked for most of his life as a private tutor. He wrote a series of influential treatises on Christian discipleship and mysticism, urging a life of holiness. A Serious Call was his most influential work, and deeply influenced many later church leaders, especially John Wesley and John Keble. He is commemorated on the liturgical calendars of several Anglican churches on dates around his date of death, April 9.