Embrace God’s Will to Grow in Spiritual Perfection

When we are thinking of the things we would like to do in the spiritual order — the faults we would like to overcome and the virtues we would like to acquire — it is beneficial for us to ask, “Why would I like to do these things?”

In liking to do these things, is God really in our plan? Is His will in our considerations at all? There can be many motives for our wanting to do all those things that we “would like to do,” many motives for our wanting to acquire certain virtues or overcome particular faults. We could want to do so because we would feel good about it; we would be able to taste the sweet fruits of success in the spiritual combat. Or, we would like to overcome these faults so that we could look good, so that never again would we be embarrassed by having someone see us fall into them; or never again would we be humiliated by being admonished or corrected for the particular fault that weighs us down.

Our motive might be to have a kind of peace of mind by being able to look God in the face without having our failure loom up between us.

All these are possible motives for wanting to do “all the things we would like to do.” All of these could be motives for wanting to overcome faults or acquire virtues.

But none of them is a true supernatural motive. None of these motives is truly a motive of faith or of love of God, because all the motives mentioned for overcoming our faults leave God out of the picture or have God only vaguely connected with the goal.

We make a mistake in viewing our own perfection as an objective to be sought apart, somehow, from God — as separate from God — as if our perfection had objective reality independent of God, which, of course, it does not have, nor will it ever have.

Because we fail to see our perfection as being achieved only when we are being absorbed in God, because God is only vaguely connected with our true goal, therefore God’s help in achieving that goal is forgotten, is not thought of, is not ad­verted to. And when God’s help is not thought of or adverted to, when it is not constantly in our minds, the inevitable result follows. The task seems too great for us because we depend on ourselves.

In such a situation, we are like St. Peter walking on the water. Confident, a victim of indiscreet zeal, trusting in himself, he started to climb out of the boat and walk on the water toward our Savior. Our divine Lord let him fall into the inevitable result of self-trust, which is faintheartedness and discouragement. Peter began to be afraid of the wind and the waves; he began to sink. Only when he forgot his self-confidence and his trust in himself and his own efforts, and turned to Christ humbly and trustfully, only then was he saved.

So, like Peter, we confidently plan all the things that we would like to do, all the faults that we would like to overcome and the virtues that we would like to acquire. In our self-confidence, we decide we are literally going to run on our way to sanctity. But we no sooner have one foot over the gunwale of the boat when we find ourselves beginning to sink. Then we quickly become discouraged.

As with St. Peter, so in our case, the only answer to the problem is to confide in God and avoid trusting in ourselves and our own efforts. We must develop absolute confidence in the infinite wisdom and power and goodness of God. He is infinitely wise, and He knows what is best for us; He is infinitely good, and He wants what is best for us; He is infinitely powerful, and He can do and will do what is best for us.

Therefore, the only answer to our difficulty in this problem of our growth in perfection, as in all problems, is to conform to the will of God. For the perfection that we seek and the perfection that God wants for us is nothing other than the union of our will with His will. It consists only in wanting at every moment what God wants.

Perfection is wanting what is

This article is a preview of The Handbook of Spiritual Perfection.

We prepare best and most perfectly for union with God in the moment to come by accepting completely and absolutely every one of the circumstances of this precise moment now. That very attitude, having our minds and wills united with God, is, in itself, perfection. It is in itself union. Without it, there can be no perfection. There cannot be even the seeking of perfection if our wills are not united with God’s will. This union of our will with God’s will must extend even to the condition of our soul, even to the degree of perfection we have reached at any given moment, because all of those circumstances are God’s will.

“But suppose I am in sin; suppose I feel miserable?” Well, we should thank God, then, for the way we feel. For the way we feel is part of the circumstances of the moment. That circumstance and all other circumstances in the world, from the buzzing of a mosquito’s wings to the length of the stride of an ant on the sidewalk, are God’s will. Therefore, they are the best things that can be at that moment. They reflect God’s glory, and they work unto good for those who love God, who wants things that way at that moment and has arranged them so. So, in exact proportion to the extent that we want what God wants, including our own spiritual state at this precise moment, our next moment will be better. So, also, we will be better, because perfection and holiness are synonymous with union of our will with God’s will.

You may still desire holiness

“But,” we say, “suppose I really want to be a saint; suppose I desire perfection. Shouldn’t I be unbearable to myself as I am? Shouldn’t things be different from what they are now? How can I be satisfied with what I am now if I want to be a saint?” Well, the answer to that question is both yes and no.

In your desires for holiness, yes! Go as far as you want; go as far as you can. Desire the very stars! Desire to be holy, and let your desires carry you into eternity, into the very arms of God Himself! In desire, covet as much holiness as you possibly can. In effort, also, put forth as much as you can! Strive for holiness as much as you are able; strive as if everything depended on you, and pray as if everything depended on God.

But in our will, here and now, we must want what is — now! We must want what is now, because that is what God wants, and that is what God has arranged; otherwise it could not be that way. So, no matter what our desires for holiness might be at any moment, we are, in fact, what God has willed us to be.

If now, at 4:15, we are what we are, it is God’s will.

Thank God for it. Desire to be a canonizable saint at five o’clock; work with all you have to become a canonizable saint by five o’clock. You may be worse by then than you are now; you may be better. But whatever you are, thank God for it, be­cause that is what He wills; that is what He wants. It is His will; otherwise it could not be that way. But no matter what we are at five o’clock, desire, by six o’clock, to be a saint all over again. If by six o’clock, you are much nearer sanctity, thank God for that; if not, thank Him also, for that is His will.

Our footsteps along the road to perfection, of course, are bound to lag behind our desires. It cannot help being that way. For example, if we are to make a trip to our home in New York from Baltimore, we are foolish not to desire to reach there; we are foolish if we are not there already in our mind, wishing we were there and thinking of when we shall be there. But the reality is we are still in Baltimore, or near Baltimore, and all the fretting and worrying about it in the world won’t get us home to New York any faster. It will only distract our attention from the essential business of travel. It will hinder our getting there as fast as we otherwise would if we were not worrying.

Progress requires conformity to God’s will

Conditions are the same on the road to sanctity, on the way to Heaven, on the way to holiness. If our desires did not run ahead of our actual steps, we would never reach our goal. But remember this: we are on a journey, and we cannot get there overnight; it is a lifetime’s journey. Each day we should thank God for the progress we have made up to that point. However much we may strain in desire and want to be at the goal, each day we make only the mileage that God would have us make. Today, perhaps, we made only five miles. Tomorrow we might want to advance ten miles, but actually we accomplish only two because of the snow of self-will or bad habit. So, independent of our aspirations, wherever we are at any given moment of our journey, we are at the point God wants us to be, plan as we will otherwise. For our progress is according to God’s will and God’s plan, and not according to our own.

We, on our part, must cooperate with God’s will and with all His inspirations. We must be led by the Spirit of God. As St. Paul tells us, “Whoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” We must be docile to His directions at every note. That is all any of the saints ever did. A saint never wants to advance one step faster or further than God wills; he never wants even to put his foot into Heaven before God’s sweet Providence would have it so, for the saints lived only in accord with God’s Providence and His will.

Perfection necessarily implies our wanting to make the progress that God would have us make; but this necessarily means we must conform our will to the progress that we have made at any given moment of our lives.

That very conformity is a major part of the progress that God wants us to make. All contrary thoughts are merely manifestations of the impatience of our own will to have God hasten our journey to holiness according to our own ideas, instead of according to His plan. This, note well, is one of Satan’s most subtle temptations, with which he tries to delude those who are striving to be holy and who are really seeking perfection.

As long as he can keep them stirred up and unconformed to God’s will, at least in the matter of their spiritual state at any given moment, to that extent Satan has disunited them from God’s will; to that extent they have failed to reach the perfection that God would have them reach, because perfection consists in uniting our will with God’s will in everything, including our degree of perfection, even though we with our puny minds cannot see the wisdom of what God wills.

So, what God wants of us is to want what is. In particular, He wants us to want what is in regard to our spiritual state, because whatever that is, is God’s will, unless we are in sin. Even in that event, the guilt of that sin is His permissive will from which He intends to draw greater good by our repentance. Those who want everything, every single thing, every single circumstance, every single action, above all, everything about their spiritual state exactly as it is now, at this moment, because God has arranged it so — they are the saints.

You may wonder, “Why try?”

But an answer must be given now to an objection that might occur to many: “Because God has willed that I be what I am now, and holiness consists in my wanting that, does it mean that I must want to stay the way I am now?” God forbid! As has been said, it merely means that God wants me to be what I am now, and therefore I must thank Him for it. But that is this now. I do not know yet what He wants me to be in the next now. In the next now, He may want me to be something completely different. I know with certainty that He wants me to try to be something better in the next now, for He has said, “Be holy because I am holy.” Again, He said, “Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Again, “This is the will of God, your sanctification.”

But, the objection continues, if we will be what God wants us to be at any given moment, what is the use of our trying to be more perfect? Such a question is reminiscent of the Pilgrim who was starting out through the woods without his gun. His wife remonstrated at his temerity, pointing out that he might be killed by Indians. He answered that if God willed him to be killed, he would be killed whether he had his gun or not. His wife replied, “But suppose God wills you to be killed on condition that you don’t have your gun with you.” In her wisdom, she knew that God wills some things absolutely and other things He wills conditionally. The condition, in many instances, is something that depends on us, such as our prayers or our acting in a certain way. Thus, we must try to be perfect because that is God’s will for us. We know with certainty that unless we try to be perfect, we cannot be united with His will at all.

Therefore, this doctrine is in no wise a case of fatalism or quietism. Catholic teaching is that whatever is, whatever has happened, is God’s will, with the sole exception of the guilt of sin, which is His permissive will. Otherwise, whatever is could not have happened, for God is the universal cause of all things, except for the guilt of sin. But it is also true that no perfection is possible for us without our doing God’s will. And His will is that we strive each moment to be better.

Consequently, thanking God for what we are now does not mean that we want to stay what we are now. It does not, above all, mean that we can stay such with impunity. We must want to be better in the next now, and we must work to be better. God will give us the grace to be better, to be completely different. We must strive to cooperate with that grace as much as we can. But, an hour from now, we must again rejoice in what we are at that now. And so on to the following now, and the succeeding now; always, at every now, our will must be completely united with the will of God for all time and for eternity.

Therefore, as has been said, things cannot be different from what they are at any given now, or moment, because they are the way that God has arranged them. To want what God wants, particularly for ourselves, is to fulfill the counsel to cast our cares upon the Lord.

To want what we are now, and to strive to be a saint in the next moment; and as the next now comes along, to want what is at that new now, but strive to be better in the following now — what is that but finding Heaven right here on earth? For what is Heaven? Heaven is where there is no past and no future, but only the present — an endless, eternal, infinite succession of nows, in which our will will be completely united with the will of God.

Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in The Handbook of Spiritual Perfectionwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press.


Philip E. Dion (1910-1994) was a gifted teacher, writer, and retreat master. He wrote five books and numerous articles that reflect his humor, compassion, and strong ability to encourage. Formerly Dean of the Graduate School of St. John's University, New York and the Seminary of Our Lady of the Angels in Albany, N.Y., Fr. Dion taught and worked at universities and parishes across the world.

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