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William Law on “The Importance of Intention”

William Law’s classic of devotion to Christ, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (published in 1728) is a rich treasure store of inspiration and practical help for spiritual growth. His chapter on “The Importance of Intention” calls all of us who follow Christ to aim to love God and others in all of our actions.

Do we really want to be fully devoted to pleasing God? It’s easy to observe that many “Christians” do not live as dedicated disciples of the Lord. No doubt, if you and I take a careful look at our lives we’ll find examples where we have not been aiming to love God in all of our actions.

Dallas Willard on the VIM Pattern of Change

Years ago Dallas Willard introduced me to William Law and what blessing it’s been for me to read this ancient devotional master’s work! Dallas teaches in Renovation of the Heart that there is a basic pattern for learning and change — especially being spiritually transformed in Christlikeness — that follows the path of Vision, Intention, and Means.

  • Vision. We need the revelation of the Gospel of Jesus that through him and his grace the Kingdom of the Heavens is available to us.
  • Intention. Motivation to love and follow Christ in all things is formed in response to being captivated by the hope-filled vision of the Gospel.
  • Means. We need activities to help us change. The essential means in the spiritual life are the disciplines for life in Christ. Also we need the ministries of the church like teaching, counseling, and healing prayer.

With the VIM pattern in mind let’s return to our question: Why do we lack wholehearted devotion to Christ?

William Law’s answer is two-fold. First, we do not have the vision that pleasing God in all of our actions would be “the best and happiest life in the world.” Second, and this is the main point of Law’s chapter on intention, it is because we do not “sincerely intend to please God in all of our actions.” He provides practical examples to concretize his teaching, beginning with the example of swearing or vulgar speech.

William Law’s Word on “The Importance of Intention”

Excerpted from A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

Why [are] the lives of even [identified] Christians strangely contrary to the principles of Christianity? [To answer this question] I desire to inquire why swearing is so common a vice among Christians… Do but find the reason why the generality of men live in this notorious vice and you will have found the reason why the generality of professed Christians live so contrary to Christianity.

Now the reason for common swearing is this: Men have not so much as the intention to please God in all their actions. Let a man have so much piety in all the actions of his life and then he will never swear more. It is for lack of this intention that you see men [and women] who profess [Christianity] living in swearing and sensuality. It is for lack of this intention that you see women  [and men] who profess devotion living in all the folly and vanity of dress and wasting their time in idleness and pleasures.

It was this general intention that made the [first] Christians such eminent examples of devotion, that made the goodly fellowship of the saints, and that made all the glorious army of martyrs and confessors. And if you stop here and ask yourself why you are not so devoted as the [first] Christians, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability but purely because you never thoroughly intended it.

Let [pastors] but have this intention and they will converse as if they had been brought up by an apostle. Let [business people] but have this intention and it will make them saints in their offices. Their everyday business will be a course of wise and reasonable actions, made holy to God, by being done in obedience to His will and pleasure.

Again, let [those of wealth] but have this intention and you will see… They will deny themselves the pleasures and indulgences that their estate could procure [for acts of devotion to God and love of neighbor].

Let not anyone look upon this as an imaginary description of the Christian life which looks fine in theory but cannot be put into practice… It has been practiced by great numbers of Christians in former ages who were glad to turn their whole estates into a constant course of charity… If we can find any Christians who sincerely intend to please God in all their actions, as the best and happiest thing in the world, whether they be young or old, single or married, men or women, if they have but this intention, it will be impossible for them to do otherwise…

Let us not vainly content ourselves with the common disorders of our lives — the vanity of our expenses, the folly of our diversions, the pride of our habits — fancying that these are such imperfections as we fall into through the unavoidable weakness and frailty of our nature. Rather let us be assured that these disorders of our daily life are owing to this: that we have not so much Christianity as to intend to please God in all the actions of our life, as the best and happiest thing in the world.

This doctrine does not suppose that we have no need of divine grace or that it is in our power to make ourselves perfect. It only supposes that through the lack of a sincere intention to please God in all our actions we fall into such irregularities of life as by the ordinary means of grace we should have power to avoid; and that we have not that [maturity] which our present state of grace makes us capable of because we do not so much as intend to have it.

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