The response of the human will is easily tested. It is simply a question of whether we make, to the point of acting on it, the divine will our own or whether the words “Thy will be done” are no more than a presumed passport.
You may object that even this fails as a touchstone because it is by no means clear what is meant by “making God’s will one’s own.” All right, by way of explanation we can once again draw upon the relationship between two people who are fond of one another.
When a husband or wife says, “Leave my wishes out of this: you should know by now that in marrying you, I made your happiness more important than my own,” we have a reasonably clear idea of what is implied. Such a remark must, if it is sincere, come from a heart that is not greedy for its own satisfaction. There has been self-giving here; there has been recognition not merely of an-other’s rights as a married person but of something else that, although obviously suggested by the marriage vow, is not explicitly demanded in the contract. The handing over has been complete. “Whatever makes you happy, that I choose. As far as I am concerned, alternatives no longer present themselves: I follow a single course — the one that pleases you.”
In man’s relationship with God, the situation is much the same. By implication, the Christian is committed to what pious books used to call the “good-pleasure” of God. The graces of Baptism are such that they destine the soul that makes proper use of them to the highest holiness and to the fulfillment of God’s good-pleasure. The Christian obligation admits of a minimal service, but it calls to a maximal one. Just as a married person, by satisfying his responsibilities and not being unfaithful, is honoring the requirements of marriage, so the Christian, by trying to keep out of mortal sin, is fulfilling the letter of the law. Such a Christian is obeying the will of God, but he can hardly be said to have made God’s will his own. He is not putting God’s good-pleasure first.
To “make God’s will one’s own” is accordingly to establish a single criterion. It is to forget about rights and personal inclinations; it is to look only to one guiding principle. On the negative side, it is to discount prejudice, worldly standards of judgment, and material advantage; on the positive side, it is to make love the final arbiter. When the human will has surrendered to the divine will as fully as this, then God’s purpose in creating the soul has been achieved and life for that soul assumes balance and order; until such a surrender has taken place, balance and order are uncertain. (This point will be developed in a later chapter, when the effects of conformity to God’s will are examined.)
When St. Paul urges the Corinthians to “do all their works in charity” this is exactly what he means. If they love the will of God more than they love their own wills, they must inevitably be doing works of charity all day long. They will be willing what is best; they will be loving God and their neighbor in the ordinary things they have to do. And the things that are done to them, whether bringing joy or sorrow, will be received in charity. Having chosen God’s will in everything, they see everything as evidence of God’s will.
In the eighty-third psalm, the sacred writer expresses this interaction between the human and the divine will. “My heart and body have rejoiced in the living God . . . Blessed is the man whose help is from You, O God, for in his heart he has purposed to mount by the degrees appointed. . . The lawgiver shall bestow his blessing, and they shall go from virtue to virtue. . . Better is one day in God’s house above thousands. I have chosen to be abject in the house of my God, rather than to dwell in the tents of sinners.” The soul has made the choice of God’s will in preference to temporal pleasure, so it can rejoice in being abject if abjection is the state God bestows. God is the lawgiver, and whatever comes from the lawgiver, be it pleasing or painful, is a blessing. Those thus blessed go, inevitably, from virtue to virtue; God’s help, which is His will, goes with them.
The serious choice of God’s interests in preference to self-interest involves a considerable reorientation. It means that self’s whole interest is pleasing God. Self is pushed out of the picture. Nor can self, still looking around for satisfaction as it will go on doing without willing to, claim any great merit for what seems so heroic a choice. Self recognizes the full truth of our Lord’s words: “You have not chosen me, but I have first chosen you.” In the practical order, the change of focus is found to make a great difference. It means that instead of serving God in the way we think He ought to like, we serve Him in any way we can — which will be the way He wants. We let God choose the way. Instead of putting our confidence in various practices of prayer, penance, charity, and so on that we have devised for ourselves, we shall be putting our confidence in His handling of our lives. What we would draw up in the way of a scheme or rule of life may objectively look far more “perfect” than what in fact is required of us by God’s will. But “perfection” now denotes only one thing: God’s will. When the soul has surrendered to all that is God’s will, there is no longer any need to bother about different interpretations of perfection.
A would-be saint cannot always be certain that extra fasting is going to please God, but he can always be certain that self-surrender will. Hours spent in prayer may be a form of self-indulgence; surrender to God’s will can never be. It is the substitution of the whole for the parts; it is directing attention to the end instead of to the means. The service of God is not to be restricted to performance; it looks to the attitude of mind and heart. Outward execution follows the inward actuation; it is no substitute for the activity of the will. When a man’s will is united with the will of God, the acts he performs flow from a more significant source than ingenuity in devising a form of service.
People, and especially beginners in the spiritual life, so often mistake the theoretical and idealized will of God for the actual. A girl, for instance, will judge that the most perfect thing for her to do is to leave the world and become a nun. In the counsels of perfection, there is every justification for this: “If thou wilt be perfect,” our Lord said, “sell what thou hast, give to the poor, and follow me.” But the point is it may not be the vocation for her. She has been right to judge that she is called to perfection, but mistaken in judging that the convent life was to be the setting for it.
She makes a trial of the life and after a period of trial comes away. The test of her essential vocation is still going on, and is perhaps more searching now than when she entered the novitiate: What is her attitude now toward the will of God? Much will depend upon whether she looks back with resentment or with gratitude; whether she looks forward trusting to luck or believing in God’s providence. She can say either, “The whole thing was a delusion. I was a fool to aim at perfection. I gave myself to God, and He has shown that He does not want me. In future I make no offers, thank you, and will follow my own will,” or, as she is being given the grace to say, “I went in because I thought it was the will of God: I can assume, therefore, that although He did not mean me to persevere He did mean me to try: I came out because it was God’s will that I should: all I have to do now is to find out what kind of perfection He wants from me, and where I can best realize it; what I want above all is His satisfaction; my happiness is His will, and His glory is my will.”
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Dom van Zeller’s Prayer and the Will of God, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.