by Gerald K. Hibbert

Source: Hibbert, Gerald K., ed. Studies in Quaker Thought and Practice, Part II. London: Friends' Home Service, 1936.

This Document is on The Quaker Writings Home Page.

Is there a purpose in the universe ? Has God any Purpose for me ? What is a sense of Vocation ? How can we distinguish it from our own desires ? These are questions that we all ask at times, and we often find it difficult to give a clear answer.

Everything will depend on our own idea of God. In this of course we differ widely among ourselves, but in proportion as our idea of God becomes more like Jesus's conception of Him, we find it more and more natural to believe in "the guiding hand of God," and to feel that He has a purpose for each one of us to fulfill. It is largely a matter of faith (which does not mean credulity) backed up by a steadily deepening experience of the spiritual life. If God is the Father of our spirits, " in whom we live and move and have our being," He will most certainly have a Purpose both for the universe and for each individual soul - the purpose, namely, that is inextricably bound up with Love, the full development and ultimate well-being of every object of that love. Of course, if God be impersonal or not Love, this falls to the ground. It is based entirely on a belief in such a God as the God of Jesus.

Our immediate subject is that of a Purpose for the individual rather than for the universe. We are not now concerned with the question "Is God revealed in History ?" One can only remark here that on a long view of the past it is difficult to resist the conclusion that on the whole nations reap what they sow, that there is a nemesis which attends cruelty, injustice, and oppression, and that loyalty, justice, and magnanimity tend to life. The state of the world to-day (1936) is pretty clear evidence to many of us that there are certain moral principles which cannot be disregarded with impunity, and in this we see a Divine Purpose.

Coming to the question of a Purpose for the individual, it is certain that the men and women who have been the great creative and inspiring personalities have implicitly believed themselves to be not their own, but gripped and commissioned by some Higher Power, whose they are and whom they serve. They give differing names to this Higher Power, and their conceptions of it vary, but there is always this sense of an imperious Call to which they cannot be deaf. Whether it be Amos with his "The Lord God hath spoken; who can but prophesy?" or Paul with his "Woe unto me if I preach not the gospel," or Luther with his "Here stand I; I can no other," it is all the same experience. Nor is this confined to Judaism and Christianity: it is found in all the great religions of the world in varying degree, and also in religions that are neither great nor organized.

This comes out markedly in the case of Jesus himself. Again and again does he use of himself the strong phrase "It is binding on me," "It behoves me." He goes through life as a man under authority, as one who is commissioned by his Father to his great task, and as one who delights to do that Father's Will. It was not a matter of outward compulsion, of course. He could have transgressed his Father's Will had he chosen. It was a sense of fulfilling with utter and complete joy his Father's purpose for him gladly surrendering himself to the fulfillment of that purpose because he and the Father were one in spirit, in mind, and in will. "Lo, I delight to do Thy will, O Lord!"

Should this be the normal experience of every human being? Personally I think it should. As we in our degree and up to our measure yield ourselves fully to the Divine Constraint, placing ourselves gladly at the disposal of God eager to find out His will and then to do it, realising that we are not our own but under His authority and representing Him, it will surely give us a sense of the worth and dignity of human personality such as we never had before, and a joy of abandon that comes from the free surrender of our own will to the highest that it knows. We do our best work when we forget ourselves, when we are in the grip of some high ideal, when (in the language of the Christian) we enter into the joy of our Lord.

There are dangers, you say: of course there are dangers. Is there any life worth living that is without them? The higher we aim, the greater the possible fall: corruptio optimi pessima, the corruption of the best is the worst. Here are some dangers that we must all have faced in our own experience, even if we have not seen them exemplified in others. There is the natural inclination to claim infallibility for oneself and one's message, or at any rate to assume that the message that comes to us is " the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." We tend to magnify our office, to over-stress our authority, to identify our own glimpse of truth with Ultimate Reality. Then there is the possibility that instead of our molding our will to God's, we are twisting His will to suit our own - that what we may deem to be a Call, a Vocation, is merely the tricking out in respectable colours of our own selfish whim or desire. Or again there is the temptation (as is seen in the earliest days of our own Society) to under-value the historical witness of the community, and to trust over-much to our own immediate " openings " or sense of guidance. All these are risks that must be faced, but given honesty and sincerity, a sense of humour and proportion, and a living faith in a loving God, we can avoid them, or at any rate triumph over them, even though we fall occasionally bruised by the way-side.

When all is said and done, however, it is at times extremely difficult to know whether guidance is real or imagined, whether a sense of Vocation is really God calling or our own longing (though often the two coincide), whether in taking a certain important step we are really fulfilling God's will or not. I do not want to under-rate the difficulties: at certain times in life they become acute. I would suggest one word, not as a solution of all our problems, but as pointing the way we might well travel in the hope of solving some of them - the word Discipline. Is it not possible that in our re-action against the morbid and excessive types of Discipline so often obtaining in the past, we have gone to the other extreme? Surely nothing great is achieved without discipline, a true self-discipline, gladly and voluntarily imposed on oneself because one sees that without it one can - not rise to the highest. This does not mean the hair shirt of the ascetic, nor the looking around for extra troubles and mortifications in life: there are quite enough of these in the ordinary course of existence! But it does mean I think, an attempt to weigh up the values of life as one surveys it as a whole, and a realization that as a rule one will have to give up certain things that are in themselves good, in order to attain something else which is still better. For example, we find that our time and energy are limited; we cannot do everything we should like to do. What then are we going to give up ? How are we going to spend our evenings and our leisure time? What about Sundays, when we do get some time that we can call our own? We do not lay down rules for others, but each of us must face up to questions like these, and answer them honestly. I suspect that most of us will find that we let ourselves off too easily, and that a little more toughness of fiber and firmness of will would open out undreamt of realms of service and growth.

Another way in which we might usefully discipline ourselves is in our manner of spending money. This is not a question for the wealthy only it concerns us all. It is as important to spend rightly as it is to earn our livelihood by honorable means. The Christian will do his spending as all other things, "to the glory of God." Much of our spending is careless, useless, possibly actually harmful. Simplicity is surely the ideal, but how easy to depart from! How insidiously does the passion for possessing grow upon us, and how quickly do luxury and ease tend to hinder us from "sitting loose" to the things of this world! There is much room for thought and discussion here.

Other ways in which we might profitably discipline ourselves will readily occur to us. The whole point is that the disciplined life becomes by degrees a life of insight and sensitiveness and balance, and so it is enabled more fully to interpret God's will than the unregulated life of license. We need coherence, we must have our higher faculties controlling our lower, each self must be a unity and not a chaos of warring elements, and this can only come through self-discipline. The whole history of the spiritual life shows that it is the disciplined soul which is the best interpreter of God's Will. We shall be less likely to make mistakes about our Vocation as we become more and more disciplined. " Woolliness," whether of the intellect or of the emotions, is a poor guide to Truth.

This leads us, in conclusion, to consider what is meant by Surrender. What really happens when we surrender to the Divine Will? Clearly it does not mean the annihilation of our own will, but the blending of that will with the Will of God. Our own becomes the fuller and the deeper in the process, only it ceases to be in the narrow sense "our own." As we practice the presence of God we realize we are in contact with a greater enfolding Personality, and so our own personality is stimulated. This contact raises us to a higher level, gives us new powers and strengthens old ones, endows us with insight and foresight, so that we become "super-normal." We see the right thing to do, we sense the need of a fellow-man unrealized before, we acquire a flair for reading the hearts of our comrades. There is nothing weird or uncanny about it; it should be the most natural thing in life.

As we thus get deeper into the life of God, we get to understand Him better as we come to love Him more. Just as we learn to read the heart of a loved one on earth, and to anticipate his wishes before they are expressed, so it is with us and God. We get more and more to look at things from His point of view, to regard this world "in the light of eternity," to put first things first and second things second. We become more sensitive to His call, and so find it easier to distinguish between His Will and our own selfish desire. We are not guaranteed infallibility, but we are guaranteed a sensitiveness to the things of the spirit as an increasing result of our walk with God.

Learning the Will of God is not like turning up a Ready Reckoner or looking up a train in Bradshaw: God is not the Supreme Convenience of the Universe. Our knowledge of His Will and purpose for us can only come through communion with Him, and communion implies discipline and surrender. There are no short cuts in the spiritual realm. "He called for my Will: and I resigned it at His Call; but He returned me His own in token of His love" (Thomas Story, "Song of Praise to the Saints in Zion ").