George MacDonald: Obedience, Duty and Love

The aim of the Christian life is, when we get down to basics, to conform our will to the will of God – to gradually allow our rebellious, self-oriented wills to be aligned with the will of the One who is Love, that we might will what He wills and love the way He does, and that in this way we may become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). Thus the ideal situation will be one where we do things out of a pure love of God, living out His will for us simply because it is His will, and delighting in it because of the intimate relationship with Him that has developed over the years of grace-enabled discipleship.

This is the ideal situation, but of course ideals are things we work towards, yet seldom attain. We need them to look to and to lift us up, to give us something to reach towards and inspire us to greater things, but we do not often reach those goals, and when we do it is rarer still that we persist in living on that higher plane. This is why the virtue of obedience is so important. C. S. Lewis collected and edited an anthology of excerpts from the writings of the Scottish poet, novelist and minister George MacDonald, and in that collection MacDonald shows a great deal of insight into our need for this particular virtue, and of the difficulty we find in accepting that need. For example:

Man finds it hard to get what he wants, because he does not want the best; God finds it hard to give, because He would give the best, and man will not take it…

…These relations are facts of man’s nature. He is so constituted as to understand them at first more than he can love them, with the resulting advantage of thereby the opportunity of choosing them purely because they are true: so doing he chooses to love them, and is enabled to love them in the doing, which alone can truly reveal them to him and make the loving of them possible. Then they cease to show themselves in the form of duties and appear as they more truly are, absolute truths, essential realities, eternal delights. The man is a true man who chooses duty: he is a perfect man who at length never thinks of duty, who forgets the name of it.

George MacDonald: An Anthology (1983), pp.58&83, Fount Paperbacks.

            We know in theory that the more we allow our wills to be conformed to God’s will, the more we obey His commandments, the more we will grow to love them and then be like the man who no longer does things simply for the sake of duty, but ‘forgets the name of it.’ However, to jump ahead and attempt to do God’s will because of what we think is a pure disposition of love for Him, will inevitably result in either disappointment (because we realise we are not there yet), or in a paradoxical combination of complacency and self-righteousness, where we presume to be doing things out of a pure motive (becoming puffed up in the process), whilst unnoticeably reducing the amount of obligations that we actually fulfil.

It is an unavoidable fact that we must first learn to love the will of God, and this means going through a long process where it is obeyed for the sake of duty alone, even (and perhaps, for some periods, often) though the tasks that are set before us appear distasteful or dull. It is this schooling in duty for duty’s sake that helps us to lose ourselves that we might find our true self in Christ (c.f.; Luke 9:24; Galatians 2:20) – if we do not go through this process of faithful obedience our wills will continue to assert themselves and we will never be able to be brought in to that divine pattern of life where we can freely choose the will of God for love’s sake. It is thus most important to continue in obedience when the temptation to re-assert our will is greatest:

The highest condition of the human will is in sight. I say not the highest condition of the Human Being; that surely lies in the Beatific Vision, in the sight of God. But the highest condition of the Human Will, as distinct, not as separated from God, is when, not seeing God, not seeming to grasp Him at all, it yet holds Him fast.

ibid, p.18.

            This is a recurring theme in MacDonald’s writings (at least in those presented in Lewis’ anthology) and yet is certainly not original to him. The holding fast to God even when (especially when) all delight in His will is gone and all sense of His presence has left us, is the essence of faith. This is not blind faith – we place our trust in Him for good reasons, but once having accepted the reasons we have for our belief, we then must live them out, and that means continuing to trust when our emotional state or personal circumstances make us feel like giving in. Doing this can involve reminding oneself why one did choose to believe in the first place, but the end result must involve an act of the will – to obey or not to obey, to choose His will or our own:

Do you ask “What is faith in Him?” I answer, The leaving of your way, your objects, your self, and the taking of His and Him; the leaving of your trust in men, in money, in opinion, in character, in atonement itself, and doing as He tells you. I can find no words strong enough to serve for the weight of this obedience.

ibid, p.73

            Whilst it is hard enough to accept this, especially as we live in an age where obedience and the relinquishment of self-will is tantamount to heresy, harder to accept still is the fact that there is no method for this – whilst there are manifold spiritual disciplines available which can help dispose us towards obeying God (and also towards loving Him), the actual act of choosing to follow His will can only be learned by doing it, by just biting the bullet and obeying:

By obeying one learns how to obey.

ibid, p.135

            The good news is that the Church offers many means of grace (pre-eminently the sacraments) to help us along the way, and also that gradually, if we continue to immerse ourselves in the life of grace, allowing ourselves to be shaped by Scripture, the Eucharist, prayers and spiritual disciplines, the lives and intercessions of the saints, our disposition will change – we will grow to like, and eventually to love, the will of God. But this requires our dedication and the commitment of our will – there are no magic wands to be waved, and we must cooperate with what is offered; that is we must trust that as the One we obey is Love, and that He promises to draw us into His very life, we will certainly taste of that love as well, and in the end, ‘forget the name’ of duty.

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One thought on “George MacDonald: Obedience, Duty and Love

  1. Pingback: Saint John of the Cross: The Choice Between God and Self | Journey Towards Easter

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