John Newton (1725-1807) on God’s will and our ambitions

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“It is indeed natural for us to wish and to plan, and it is merciful of the Lord to disappoint our plans and to cross our wishes. For we cannot be safe, much less happy, except in proportion as we are weaned from our own wills, and made simply desirous of being directed by His guidance. This truth (when we are enlightened by His Word) is sufficiently familiar to the judgment; but we seldom learn to reduce it to practice without being trained awhile in the school of disappointment. The schemes we form look so plausible and convenient that when they are broken we are ready to say: ‘What a pity!’ We try again, and with no better success. We are grieved, and perhaps angry and plan out another, and so on. At length, in the course of time, experience and observation begin to convince us that we are not more able than we are worthy to choose aright for ourselves. Then the Lord’s invitation to cast our cares upon Him and His promise to take care of us appear valuable; and when we have done planning, His plan in our favour gradually opens, and he does more and better for us than we could either ask or think.

I can hardly recollect a single plan of mine of which I have not since seen reason to be satisfied that had it taken place in season and circumstance just as I proposed, it would, humanly speaking, have proved my ruin. Or at least it would have deprived me of the greater good the Lord had designed for me. We judge of things by their present appearances, but the Lord sees them in their consequences. If we could do so likewise, we should be perfectly of His mind; but as we cannot, it is an unspeakable mercy that He will manage for us, whether we are pleased with His management or not. And it is spoken of as one of his heaviest judgments when He gives any person or people up to the way of their own hearts and to walk after their own counsels.

Indeed, we may admire His patience towards us. If we were blind, and reduced to desire a person to lead us, and should yet pretend to dispute with him and direct him at every step, we should probably soon weary him, and provoke him to leave us to find the way by ourselves if we could. But our gracious Lord is long-suffering and full of compassion; He bears with our impertinence, yet He will take methods both to shame and to humble us, and to bring us to a confession that He is wiser than we. The great and unexpected benefit He intends us by all the discipline we meet with is to tread down our wills and bring them into subjection to His. So far as we attain to this we are out of the reach of disappointment, for when the will of God can please us we shall be pleased every day and from morning to night – I mean with respect to His dispensations.

O the happiness of such a life! I have an idea of it; I hope I am aiming at it, but surely I have not attained it. Self is active in my heart, if it does not absolutely reign there. I profess to believe that one thing is needful and sufficient, and yet my thoughts are prone to wander after a hundred more. If it be true that the light of His countenance is better than life, why am I solicitous about anything else? If He be all-sufficient and gives me liberty to call Him mine, why do I go a-begging to creatures for help? If the smallest as well as the greatest events in which I am concerned are under His immediate direction, if the very hairs of my head are numbered, then my care (any further than a care to walk in the paths of His precepts and to follow the openings of His providence) must be useless and needless – yea indeed sinful and heathenish, burdensome to myself and dishonourable to my profession. Let us cast down the load we are unable to carry, and if the Lord be our Shepherd, refer all and trust all to Him. Let us endeavour to live to Him and for Him today and be glad that tomorrow, with all that is behind it, is in His hands.

It is storied of Pompey that when his friends would have dissuaded him from putting to sea in a storm he answered, ‘It is necessary for me to sail, but it is not necessary for me to live.’ A pompous speech, in Pompey’s sense! He was full of the idea of his own importance, and would rather have died than have taken a step beneath his supposed dignity. But it may be accommodated with propriety to a believer’s case. It becomes us to say: ‘It is not necessary for me to be rich, or what the world accounts wise; to be healthy, or admired by my fellow-worms; to pass through life in a state of prosperity and outward comfort. These things may be, or they may be otherwise, as the Lord in His wisdom shall appoint. But it is necessary for me to be humble and spiritual, to seek communion with God, to adorn my profession of the Gospel, and to yield submissively to His disposal in whatever way, whether of service or suffering, He shall be pleased to call me to glorify Him in the world. It is not necessary for me to live long, but highly expedient that whilst I do live I should live to Him. Here then I would bound my desires; and here, having His word both for my rule and my warrant, I am secured from asking amiss. Let me have His presence and His Spirit, wisdom to know my calling, and opportunities and faithfulness to improve them; and as to the rest, Lord, help me to say, ‘What Thou wilt, when Thou wilt, and how Thou wilt’.”

– John Newton (1725-1807), The Letters of John Newton, Two Letters to Miss P, Letter I, August 17, 1767.

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