Excerpt From “A Serious Call To A Devout And Holy Life” By William Law (1686 - 1761)
As the holiness of Christianity consecrates all states and employments of life unto God, as it requires us to aspire after a universal obedience, doing and using everything as the servants of God, so are we more especially obliged to observe this religious exactness in the use of our estates and fortunes.
The reason of this would appear very plain if we were only to consider that our estate is as much the gift of God as our eyes or our hands, and is no more to be buried or thrown away at pleasure than we are to put out our eyes or throw away our limbs as we please.
But besides this consideration, there are several other great and important reasons why we should be religiously exact in the use our estates.
First, because the manner of using our money or spending our estate enters so far into the business of every day and makes so great a part of our common life that our common life must be much of the same nature as our common way of spending our estate. If reason and religion govern us in this, then reason and religion hath great hold of us; but if humor, pride, and fancy are the measures of our spending our estate, then humor, pride, and fancy will have the direction of the greatest part of our life.
Secondly, another great reason for devoting all our estate to right uses is this, because it is capable of being used to the most excellent purposes and is so great a means of doing good. If we waste it, we don't waste a trifle that signifies little, but we waste that which might be made as eyes to the blind, as a husband to the widow, as a father to the orphan. We waste that which not only enables us to minister worldly comforts to those that are in distress, but that which might purchase for ourselves everlasting treasures in Heaven. So that if we part with our money in foolish ways, we part with a great power of comforting our fellow creatures and of making ourselves forever blessed.
If there be nothing so glorious as doing good, if there is nothing that makes us so like to God, then nothing can be so glorious in the use of our money as to use it all in works of love and goodness, making ourselves friends and fathers and benefactors to all our fellow creatures, imitating the divine love and turning all our power into acts of generosity, care, and kindness, to such as are in need of it.
If a man had eyes and hands and feet that he could give to those that wanted them, if he should either lock them up in a chest or please himself with some needless or ridiculous use of them instead of giving them to his brethren that were blind and lame, would we not justly reckon him an inhuman wretch? If he should rather choose to amuse himself with furnishing his house with those things than to entitle himself to an eternal reward by giving them to those that wanted eyes and hands, might we not justly reckon him mad?
Now money has very much the nature of eyes and feet; if we either lock it up in chests, or waste it in needless and ridiculous expenses upon ourselves whilst the poor and the distressed want it for their necessary uses, if we consume it in the ridiculous ornaments of apparel whilst others are starving in nakedness, we are not far from the cruelty of him that chooses rather to adorn his house with the hands and eyes than to give them to those that want them. If we choose to indulge ourselves in such expensive enjoyments as have no real use in them, such as satisfy no real want, rather than to entitle ourselves to an eternal reward by disposing of our money well, we are guilty of his madness that rather chooses to lock up eyes and hands than to make himself for ever blessed by giving them to those that want them.
For after we have satisfied our own sober and reasonable wants, all the rest of our money is but like spare eyes or hands; it is something that we cannot keep to ourselves without being foolish in the use of it, something that can only be used well by giving it to those that want it.
Two Contrasting Sisters, William Law's Character Study
Flavia and Miranda are two maiden sisters that have each of them two hundred pounds a year. They buried their parents twenty years ago, and have since that time spent their estate as they pleased.
Flavia has been the wonder of all her friends for her excellent management in making so surprising a figure in so moderate a fortune. Several ladies that have twice her fortune are not able to be always so genteel and so constant at all places of pleasure and expense. She has everything that is in the fashion, and is in every place where there is any diversion. Flavia is very orthodox, she talks warmly against heretics and schismatics, is generally at church, and often at the Sacrament. She once commended a sermon that was against the pride and vanity of dress, and thought it was very just against Lucinda, whom she takes to be a great deal finer than she need to be. If anyone asks Flavia to do something in charity, if she likes the person who makes the proposal or happens to be in a right temper, she will toss him half a crown or a crown, and tell him if he knew what a long milliner's bill she had just received he would think it a great deal for her to give. A quarter of a year after this, she hears a sermon upon the necessity of charity; she thinks the man preaches well, that it is a very proper subject, that people want much to be put in mind of it; but she applies nothing to herself because she remembers that she gave a crown some time ago when she could so ill spare it.
As for poor people themselves, she will admit of no complaints from them; she is very positive they are all cheats and liars and will say anything to get relief, and therefore it must be a sin to encourage them in their evil ways.
Thus lives Flavia; and if she lives ten years longer, she will have spent about fifteen hundred and sixty Sundays after this manner. She will have wore 14 about two hundred different suits of clothes. Out of this thirty years of her life, fifteen of them will have been disposed of in bed; and of the remaining fifteen, about fourteen of them will have been consumed in eating, drinking, dressing, visiting, conversation, reading and hearing plays and romances, at operas, assemblies, balls, and diversions. For you may reckon all the time that she is up thus spent, except about an hour and half that is disposed of at church most Sundays in the year. With great management, and under mighty rules of economy, she will have spent sixty hundred pounds upon herself, bating only some shillings, crowns, or half crowns that have gone from her in accidental charities.
I shall not take upon me to say that it is impossible for Flavia to be saved; but thus much must be said, that she has no grounds from scripture to think she is in the way of salvation. For her whole life is in direct opposition to all those tempers and practices which the gospel has made necessary to salvation.
And here it is to be well observed that the poor, vain turn of mind, the irreligion, the folly and vanity of this whole life of Flavia is all owing to the manner of using her estate. It is this that has formed her spirit, that has given life to every idle temper, that has supported every trifling passion and kept her from all thoughts of a prudent, useful, and devout life.
When her parents died, she had no thought about her two hundred pounds a year, but that she had so much money to do what she would with, to spend upon herself and purchase the pleasures and gratifications of all her passions.
And it is this setting out, this false judgment and indiscreet use of her fortune, that has filled her whole life with the same indiscretion, and kept her from thinking of what is right and wise and pious in everything else.
She might have been humble, serious, devout, a lover of good books, an admirer of prayer and retirement, careful of her time, diligent in good works, full of charity and the love of God, but that the imprudent use of her estate forced all the contrary tempers upon her.
And it was no wonder that she should turn her time, her mind, her health and strength to the same uses that she turned her fortune. It is owing to her being wrong in so great an article of life that you can see nothing wise, or reasonable, or pious in any other part of it.
Miranda (the sister of Flavia) is a sober reasonable Christian; as soon as she was mistress of her time and fortune, it was her first thought how she might best fulfill everything that God required of her in the use of them, and how she might make the best and happiest use of this short life. She depends upon the truth of what our blessed Lord hath said, "that there is but one thing needful," and therefore makes her whole life but one continual labor after it. She has but one reason for doing or not doing, for liking or not liking anything, and that is the will of God. She is not so weak as to pretend to add what is called the fine lady to the true Christian; Miranda thinks too well to be taken with the sound of such silly words; she has renounced the world to follow Christ in the exercise of humility, charity, devotion, abstinence, and heavenly affections, and that is Miranda's fine breeding.
Miranda does not divide her duty between God, her neighbor, and herself; but she considers all as due to God, and so does everything in His name and for His sake. This makes her consider her fortune as the gift of God that is to be used as everything is that belongs to God for the wise and reasonable ends of a Christian and holy life. Her fortune therefore is divided betwixt herself and several other poor people, and she has only her part of relief from it. She thinks it the same folly to indulge herself in needless vain `Tenses as to give to other people to spend in the same way. Therefore, as she will not give a poor man money to go see a puppet show, neither will she allow herself any to spend in the same manner, thinking it very proper to be as wise herself as she expects poor men should be. For is it a folly and a crime in a poor man, says Miranda, to waste what is given him in foolish trifles, whilst he wants meat, drink, and clothes?"
It may be, says Miranda, that I may often give to those that do not deserve it, or that will make an ill use of my alms. But what then? Is not this the very goodness that is recommended to us in scripture, that by imitating of it we may be children of our Father which is in Heaven, "Who sendeth rain on the just, and on the unjust?" And shall I withhold a little money or food from my fellow creature, for fear he should not be good enough to receive it of me? Do I beg of God to deal with me, not according to my merit, but according to his own great goodness, and shall I be so absurd as to withhold my charity from a poor brother because he may perhaps not deserve it? Shall I use a measure toward him, which I pray God never to use toward me?
You will perhaps say that by this means I encourage people to be beggars. But the same thoughtless objection may be made against all kinds of charities, for they may encourage people to depend upon them. The same may be said against forgiving our enemies, for it may encourage people to do us hurt. The same may be said even against the goodness of God, that by pouring His blessings on the evil and on the good, on the just and on the unjust, evil and unjust men are encouraged in their wicked ways. The same may be said against clothing the naked, or giving medicines to the sick, for that may encourage people to neglect themselves and be careless of their health. But when the love of God dwelleth in you, when it has enlarged your heart and filled you with bowels of mercy and compassion, you will make no more such objections as these.
This is the spirit, and this is the life of the devout Miranda; and if she lives ten years longer, she will have spent sixty hundred pounds in charity, for that which she allows herself may fairly be reckoned amongst her alms.
When she dies, she must shine amongst apostles and saints and martyrs, she must stand amongst the first servants of God and be glorious amongst those that have fought the good fight and finished their course with joy.
(Editor's Note: According to the book Glorious Companions: Five Centuries Of Anglican Spirituality by Richard H. Schmidt, William Law's book, A Serious Call To A Devout And Holy Life, has never been out of print since its publication in 1729.)