We Must Not Confuse Our Will With God’s Will

We Must Not Confuse Our Will With God’s Will August 31, 2022

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek: Saint Ammonas/ picryl

St. Ammonas, a disciple of St. Antony of Egypt, eventually found himself in a position of authority and leadership in his community. His spiritual experiences gave him a charism that allowed him to direct other monks. He helped them receive spiritual experiences of their own. Once, he heard about some monks who were getting restless, thinking it was time for them to go somewhere else. Ammonas believed they were letting their passions get the best of them, that is, that they confused their restlessness as indicating that God was wanting them to move and find a new place to be, when in reality, it was not God who was suggesting this, but their desire. They confused their own thoughts and wishes with the voice of God. When someone does so, they risk losing all the blessings God can bestow upon them, because they become so attached to their own desires, they do not heed the changes they need to make in their own lives to receive such grace:

If we follow our own will, God will no longer send His power which prospers and establishes all the ways of men. For if a man does something, imagining that it comes from God, when really his own will is involved in it, then God does not help him and you will find his heart embittered and feeble in everything to which he sets his hand. It is on the pretext of better progress that the believer can go wrong and end up by being mocked.[1]

We can see this is a problem which is with us today. Many Christians, who should know better, fall for this deception. They conflate their own will, their own private, inordinate desires, for their conscience, and so claim they should be free to do as they desire as a matter of conscience.  This is exactly what we saw happen (and continue to happen) with COVID19, as many Christians, for many bad reasons, did not want to take the COVID19 vaccine. They claimed it was a matter of conscience, but it wasn’t their conscience doing that, it was their own inordinate desires; many just did not like anyone telling them they had to do something, even if it was for their own good. Pride, certainly, lies in the midst of such confusion, for it suggested to them that their ignorant desires should not be repressed by anyone. If we let things continue this way, it is easy to see where it can lead. We can desire to be rich, and so think our conscience says it is fine to steal millions of dollars, because it is what we want. We can desire someone no longer causes us problems in our lives, and so think it is fine to kill them. So long as we confuse desire with conscience, we will justify all kinds of evil to get what we want. And if we do so, we should not be surprised if others see what is going on, and ridicule us for our claims (as many ridiculed those who tried to use conscience as a justification to ignore their obligation to society when they were not willing to get vaccinated for COVID19).

Christians must make sure they do not treat God as some sort of wish-fulfilling gem who will give them everything they ask, whether or not it is for their own benefit. When God is treated in this way it should not be surprising that people will end up losing their faith, for they will quickly find what they wanted did not come to pass. This is a problem which Christianity had to face from the very beginning, which is why James had to write to believers, not to boast about the future but rather, to open themselves up to God’s will:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain”; whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.  Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (Jas. 4:13-17 RSV).

When we turn our hopes and desires over to God, we must accept God’s reply to them. We must accept God’s will for our lives. We must not presume God’s will is the same as our us, that is, God’s will is manifested in our desires. God might have reason to fulfill them, and give us what we ask. After all, many of our desires are good and just. But, we must never presume, for when we do so, we begin presuming the wrong things, that is, we begin to presume our own will is exactly one and the same as God’s will. We must realize they are not, and so we must not confuse our own desires as being what God intends for us. Ammonas, therefore, said there are three sources for such desires:

There are three motivations which accompany a man everywhere, and most monks are ignorant of them, excepting only those who have become perfect, of whom Scripture says, ‘Solid food is for the perfect, who by reason of their conscience have their senses exercised to discern good and evil’ (Heb. 5:14). What then are these three? One is introduced by the enemy, another is begotten by the heart, while the things is sown by God in a man. Of these three, God only accepts that which is His own. [2]

Even monks, with all their spiritual discipline and training, can be led astray by their own heart. It is just as easy for them as for us to confuse their desires with God’s will. Ammonas suggested that when we feel motivated to do something, we should confirm it is God’s will for us, and such confirmation should be made by someone who has proper spiritual discernment so as to make sure we do not lead ourselves astray. This means, we should seek people we can trust, holy, kind, caring people with wisdom who will help us discern for ourselves what truly is best. They will guide us, but still give us freedom to make decisions for ourselves; because we listen to them and not only ourselves, we have the help we need to not be trapped by our own concupiscence. If we will not listen to anyone, if we will not learn from anyone other than ourselves, we will only make our problems worse. It is pride which suggests we can do it all by ourselves. We can’t. We are in this world together. We are interdependent with each other.

To properly develop ourselves, we must be open to God, not presuming our thoughts and desires have been given to us by God. Until we learn this lesson, we will suffer from great prelest, great spiritual delusion, because our presumption will lead us to idolatry, as we will worship ourselves rather than God.

[1] Ammonas, The Letters of Ammonas. Trans. Derwas J. Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1995), 16 [Letter XI].

[2] Ammonas, The Letters of Ammonas, 16-17 [Letter XI].


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