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Conformity to the Will of God

CONFORMITY TO THE WILL OF GOD

The idea that human goodness involves a harmonious relationship between the human will and the will of God is a commonplace of Christian thought. In its most obvious application it is realized in obedience to the divine will as this is made known through prohibition and command; but there is a sense in which conformity goes beyond obedience, which it supposes, and signifies not only exterior compliance to an order, but also interior attitudes of harmony in willing and thinking.

The notions of conformity, abandonment, and resignation are closely related. Abandonment is generally understood to differ from simple conformity in implying the renunciation of one's own judgment and will, and allowing God to lead one blindly, without one's having any desire to know the reasons or ends God has in view. Abandonment, therefore, describes a passive or mystical state, while conformity is usually associated with the idea of an active state. The terms are, however, used differently by different authors, and it is necessary to discover just what a given writer means when he is using them. Resignation differs from conformity and abandonment in referring only to the willing acceptance of unpleasant things.

Scripture and the Fathers. There are numerous passages in Scripture in which there is reference to conformity to the will of God. Among the principal ones can be noted Heb 10.59, with its reference to Ps 39.7; Jn5.30 and 6.38; Acts 9.6, but these passages all seem to refer simply to obedience and hence do not involve conformity in the more technical sense.

Most of the Fathers also touched upon the idea of conformity only under the more general notion of obedience to the Commandments. A few expressions are, however, worthy of particular note. Origen (In Rom. 12.1, Patrologia Graeca, ed J. P. Migne [Paris 185766] 14:1207) remarked that to discover without error what the will of God is requires the illumination of wisdom and the possession of the gnosis. He implied that this is quite rare and not found in the ordinary Christian. Among the Fathers writing in the tradition of Oriental monastic spirituality, SS. Pachomius, Basil, and John Chrysostom, a relationship is established between conformity to the will of God and Christian perfection. St. Augustine spoke of the importance of willing what God directs (Conf. 10.26 and In Psalm. 44.17, Patrologia Latina, ed. j. p. migne [Paris 187890] 36:503504), and in his Enchiridion he discussed the possibility of a good man willing what God does not will. This last passage was incorporated by Peter Lombard into his Sentences (1.48) and thus served as a starting point for much of the later medieval speculation on the problem of man's conformity to the divine will.

Medieval Theologians. St. Bernard seems to be the first to have used the term conformitas, in his 83d sermon on the Canticle, but he used the expression simply to describe the love whereby the soul is joined to God in spiritual marriage. St. Albert the Great spoke of conformity as the highest rule of moral action and distinguished three grades of the spiritual life according to three degrees of conformity: the conformity of imperfection, of sufficiency, and of perfection (Summa theologiae 1.20.80.3). It is with Peter Lombard, however, and his commentators that one finds the first real development of the idea of conformity. The Master of the Sentences spoke of the distinction of the divine will of good pleasure (voluntas beneplaciti ) and of the signified will (voluntas signi ) with its various subdivisions (1.45), while elsewhere (1.48) he raised the question, suggested by the remark of St. Augustine in the Enchiridion, of how there can be some disagreement between the will of God and that of a good man, and indicated the distinction, to be developed by the later scholastics, between conformity relative to the thing willed and conformity in the motive or end of willing.

This distinction received its clearest treatment in St. Thomas Aquinas, who discussed it in his Commentary on the Sentences as well as in the De veritate (23.78) and more compendiously in the Summa theologiae (1a2a[a-z], [0-9]9.910). St. Thomas noted that the goodness of the divine will is the measure and norm of every good will. A created will is good when it wills what God wants it to will. The problem of conformity, then, consists in discovering the obligation to will objects and events that God wills and wants men to will. Here St. Thomas proposed some distinctions. Since the goodness of an object or event depends upon the end, that which is formally good about any object or event is its order to a right end and ultimately its order to the end for which God wills all things, namely His own divine goodness. Concerning this end, a man is obliged to conform his will to the divine will simply speaking and absolutely; i.e., he cannot, without sin, refuse to will this order or will anything contrary to it. Regarding particular objects or events, it is of obligation to will them only as they come under this order and, indeed, only as man sees them as coming under this order. Regarded from this viewpoint, any object or event willed by God must be agreeable to man; but regarded from a different viewpoint, such an object or event may, and perhaps even should, displease man.

This diversity of viewpoints can come from either of two sources. First, since men in this life, even the just, do not see the divine goodness perfectly, they do not clearly perceive the order of all things as related to the divine goodness. Consequently, the possibility of conforming one's will to that of God is limited by one's lack of ability to recognize in all cases the relationship of a particular object or event to the end that is the divine goodness. Until this relationship is clear, man can without fault, albeit conditionally, will otherwise than God has willed. Secondly, things that are good when viewed simply according to their particular nature may be bad when viewed as part of a more universal picture, and vice versa. God's viewpoint is, of course, the universal one; man's is more frequently a limited and particular one, concerned with a particular good suited to him according to his nature. This may make for some differences between the divine and the human will, and for a certain lack of complete conformity, even though it may become clear to man, at least after something unpleasant to him has taken place, that it has indeed been willed by God as part of a more general plan. St. Thomas remarks that this contrary affection of will in the just man may even be termed praiseworthy because of the other viewpoint from which the object can be regarded. Yet he notes that this affection is not pursued with obstinacy, but supposes an acceptance of the divine will, since it is pleasing to the just man that the divine will be fulfilled in all things. In a more basic sense, moreover, these movements of appetite, so long as they are not immoderate, are themselves in conformity with the divine will, since God has given His creatures these appetites and wills them to be attracted to their proper objects. It is in this sense that St. Thomas explained the reluctance in the will of Christ relative to the sufferings of His Passion, even though He knew that it was His Father's will that He should suffer, and also the "dissent" relative to the Passion in the will of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

St. Thomas also treated explicitly one of the more obvious difficulties about conformity: the problem of conforming to God's will when He has willed a man's eternal punishment. He answers by saying, first of all, that no one in this life can know that God has so willed; but even if this should be revealed to him, he should regard the revelation rather as a warning than as an indication of accomplished fact. Even granting that the fact were revealed as a certainty, one would not be obliged to will his own damnation absolutely, but only according to the order of justice whereby God wills to punish those who persist in sin.

This idea of conforming to the divine will relative to damnation, and more particularly relative to sin, gave rise to certain errors in the late medieval and early modern period. Among these are the 14th and 15th condemned propositions attributed to Meister Eckhart (Enchiridion symbolorum 964, 965), and the proposition attributed to Peter of Bonagenta and condemned by the Spanish Inquisition [De Guibert, Documenta ecclesiastica christianae perfectionis spectantia (Rome 1931) 313]. Quietist notions about the total suppression of human willing in order to achieve perfect conformity can be found in the work of Benet of Canfield and in the 61st of the condemned propositions of Miguel de Molinos (Enchiridion symbolorum 2261). Similar exaggerations were attributed to the French semiquietists, as is evidenced in the 26th of the Articles of Issy (De Guibert, op. cit. 496) and in the condemned propositions taken from the works of Fénelon (Enchiridion symbolorum 235455).

On the positive side, an active and wholly orthodox notion of conformity was proposed by St. ignatius loy ola, whose spiritual exercises reach their climax in leading the soul to make "a choice in conformity to His most holy will and good pleasure" (Second Week). This teaching was further elaborated by Alfonso rodriguez, who developed the idea in Ejercicio de perfección y virtudes cristianas and by Jeremias drexel, who, in his Heliotropium, saw the soul, under the symbolism of that flower, constantly keeping itself turned to God in conformity to the divine will.

Bibliography: f. m. catherinet, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932) 2:144169. thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 19.910; De ver. 23.78; In 1 sent. 48.

[p. m. starrs]

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