Editor's note:

I am end­less­ly moved by the writ­ings of William Law because he so obvi­ous­ly be­lieved in prayer and was so utter­ly com­mit­ted to liv­ing out his faith in the ordi­nary junc­tures of dai­ly life. He knew that true prayer nev­er ends at the altar; rather it trans­forms the inner per­son­al­i­ty in such a way that we are enabled to love ene­mies and do good to all peo­ple. Prayer that does not pro­found­ly affect dai­ly life is not prayer at all but mere­ly lip labor” as Law him­self put it. 

This inter­pen­e­tra­tion of our spir­i­tu­al life with our dai­ly life is a win­some com­bination but one that I eas­i­ly for­get. My temp­ta­tions are at the extremes: either I want to pray only and watch God act, or I want to go out and do it all myself Far too sel­dom do I enter the won­der­ful equi­lib­ri­um that the old writ­ers called ora et lab­o­ra, prayer and work. I am grate­ful to William Law for reteach­ing me this valu­able les­son — one that it seems I must learn repeat­ed­ly.

—Richard J. Foster
Renovaré Founder

Excerpt from Devotional Classics

1. A Life Devoted 

Devo­tion is nei­ther pri­vate nor pub­lic prayer, though pub­lic and pri­vate prayers are a part of devo­tion. Devo­tion sig­ni­fies a life giv­en or devot­ed to God. 

The devout, there­fore, are peo­ple who do not live to their own will, or in the way and spir­it of the world, but only to the will of God. Such peo­ple con­sid­er God in every­thing, serve God in every­thing, and make every aspect of their lives holy by doing every­thing in the name of God and in a way that con­forms to God’s glory. 

We read­i­ly acknowl­edge that God alone is to be the rule and mea­sure of our prayers. In our prayers we are to look total­ly unto him and act total­ly for him, and we must pray in this man­ner and for such ends as are suit­able to his glory. 

2. God the Rule and Measure 

Now if we con­clude that we must be pious in our prayers, we must also con­clude that we must be pious in all the oth­er aspects of our lives. For there is no rea­son why we should make God the rule and mea­sure of our prayers, why we should look whol­ly unto him and pray accord­ing to his will, and yet not make him the rule and mea­sure of all the oth­er actions of our life. For any ways of life, any employ­ment of our tal­ents whether of our bod­ies, our time, or mon­ey that are not strict­ly accord­ing to the will of God, that are not done to his glo­ry are sim­ply absur­di­ties, and our prayers fail because they are not accord­ing to the will of God. For there is no oth­er rea­son why our prayers should be accord­ing to the will of God unless our lives may also be of the same nature. Our lives should be as holy and heav­en­ly as our prayers. It is our strict duty to live by rea­son, to devote all of the action of our lives to God, to walk before him in wis­dom and holi­ness and all heav­en­ly con­ver­sa­tion, and to do every­thing in his name and for his glo­ry. If our prayers do not lead us to this, they are of no val­ue no mat­ter how wise or heav­en­ly. No, such prayers would be absur­di­ties. They would be like prayers for wings though we nev­er intend­ed to fly. 

If we are going to pray for the Spir­it of God, we must make that Spir­it the rule of all our actions. Just as it is our duty to look whol­ly unto God in our prayers, so it is our duty to live whol­ly unto God in our lives. But we can­not live whol­ly unto God unless we live unto him in all the ordi­nary actions of our life, un­less he is the rule and mea­sure of all our ways, just as we can­not pray whol­ly unto God unless our prayers look whol­ly unto him. 

3. Ridicule in the Life 

This is the rea­son that we see such ridicule in the lives of many peo­ple. Many peo­ple are strict when it comes to times and places of de­votion, but when the ser­vice and the church is over, they live like those that sel­dom or nev­er come there. In their way of life, their man­ner of spend­ing their time and mon­ey, in their cares and fears, in their plea­sure and indul­gences, in their labors and diver­sions, they are like the rest of the world. This leads the world to make light of those who are devout because they see their devo­tion goes no fur­ther than their prayers. When their prayers are over, they stop liv­ing unto God until the next time they pray. In between they live with the same atti­tudes and desires as oth­er peo­ple. This is the rea­son why they are scoffed at by world­ly peo­ple, not because they are real­ly devot­ed to God, but be­cause they appear to have no oth­er devo­tion than their occa­sion­al prayers. 

4. The Fail­ure of Julius 

For instance, there is a man named Julius who is very fear­ful of miss­ing his prayers. Every­one in his church assumes Julius to be sick if he is not at church. But if you were to ask him why he spends the rest of his time play­ing games, why he spends the rest of his time with world­ly peo­ple and world­ly plea­sures, why he is eager to engage in sin­ful diver­sion, why he engages in idle, gos­sip­ing con­ver­sa­tion, or why he nev­er puts his con­ver­sa­tion, his time, and mon­ey under the rules of reli­gion, Julius has no more to say for him­self than the most dis­or­der­ly per­son. For the whole tenor of Scrip­ture lies direct­ly against a life of debauch­ery and intem­per­ance. One who lives in such a man­ner lives no more accord­ing to the reli­gion of Jesus Christ than the per­son who lives in glut­tony and intemperance. 

If a per­son were to tell Julius that he can­not live that way and still remain a Chris­t­ian, Julius would con­clude that the per­son was not a Chris­t­ian and reject his com­pa­ny. But if a per­son tells him that he may live as the rest of the world does, that he may enjoy him­self as oth­ers do, that he may con­form to the rest of the world and grat­i­fy his desires and pas­sions as most peo­ple do, Julius would nev­er sus­pect that such a per­son is not a Chris­t­ian or that he is doing the dev­il’s work.

And yet if Julius were to read all of the New Tes­ta­ment from the begin­ning to the end, he would find his course of life con­demned in every page of it. 

5. The Great Absurdity 

And indeed noth­ing more absurd can be imag­ined than wise, sub­lime, and heav­en­ly prayers added to a life where nei­ther work nor play, nei­ther time nor mon­ey are under the direc­tion of our prayers. If we were to see a per­son pre­tending to act whol­ly with regard to God in every thing that this per­son did and yet at the same time this per­son nev­er prayed — whether pub­lic or pri­vate — would­n’t we be amazed? 

Yet this is the same thing as when one is very strict in devo­tion, being care­ful to observe times and places of prayer, and yet in the rest of one’s life — time, labor, tal­ents, and mon­ey — com­plete­ly neglects the will of God. It is as great an absur­di­ty to offer up holy prayers with­out a holy life as it is to live a holy life with­out prayer. 

Just as we can­not live a holy life with­out prayer, so we can­not have prayer with­out a holy life. To be fool­ish in the way we spend our time and mon­ey is no greater a mis­take than to be fool­ish in rela­tion to our prayers. If our lives can­not be offered to God, how can our prayers? 

6. Rules for Dai­ly Life 

The sim­ple point is this: either Chris­tian­i­ty pre­scribes rules to live by in our dai­ly lives, or it does not. If it does, then we must gov­ern all our actions by those rules if we are to wor­ship God. For if Chris­tian­i­ty teach­es any­thing about eat­ing and drink­ing, spend­ing our time and mon­ey, how we are to live in the world, what atti­tudes we are to have in dai­ly life, how we are to be dis­posed toward all peo­ple, how we are to behave toward the sick, the poor, the old, and des­ti­tute, whom we are to treat with partic­ular love, whom we are to regard with a partic­ular esteem, how we are to treat our ene­mies, and how we are to deny our­selves, we would be fool­ish to think that these teach­ings are not to be observed with the same strict­ness as those teach­ings that relate to prayer. 

It is very observ­able that there is not one com­mand in all the gospel for pub­lic wor­ship. One could say that it is the duty that is least in­sisted upon in Scrip­ture. Fre­quent church at­tendance is nev­er so much as men­tioned in all of the New Tes­ta­ment. But the com­mand to have a faith which gov­erns the ordi­nary ac­tions of our lives is to be found in almost every verse of Scrip­ture. Our blessed Sav­ior and his Apos­tles were very intent on giv­ing us teach­ings that relate to dai­ly life. They teach us: to renounce the world and be dif­fer­ent in our atti­tudes and ways of life; to renounce all its goods, to fear none of its evils, to reject its joys, and have no val­ue for its hap­pi­ness; to be as new­born babes who are born into a new state of things; to live as pil­grims in spir­i­tu­al watch­ing, in holy fear, and heav­en­ly aspir­ing after anoth­er life; to take up our cross dai­ly, to deny our­selves, to pro­fess the blessed­ness of mourn­ing, to seek the blessed­ness of pover­ty of spir­it; to for­sake the pride and van­i­ty of rich­es, to take no thought for the mor­row, to live in the pro­found­est state of humil­i­ty, to rejoice in world­ly suf­fer­ings; to reject the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life; to bear injuries, to for­give and bless our ene­mies, and to love all peo­ple as God loves them; to give up our whole hearts and affec­tions to God, and to strive to enter through the straight gate into a life of eter­nal glory. 

Isn’t it strange that peo­ple place so much empha­sis upon going to church when there is not one com­mand from Jesus to do so, and yet neglect the basic duties of our ordi­nary life which are com­mand­ed in every page of the Gospels? 

7. Walk­ing the Talk 

If self-denial is a con­di­tion for sal­va­tion, all who desire to be saved must make self-denial a part of every­day life. If humil­i­ty is a Chris­t­ian duty, then the every­day life of a Chris­t­ian must show forth humil­i­ty. If we are called to care for the sick, the naked, and the impris­oned, these expres­sions of love must be a con­stant effort in our lives. If we are to love our ene­mies, our dai­ly life must demon­strate that love. If we are called to be thank­ful, to be wise, to be holy, they must show forth in our lives. If we are to be new peo­ple in Christ, then we must show our new­ness to the world. If we are to fol­low Christ, it must be in the way we spend each day. 

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From Devo­tion­al Clas­sics, edit­ed by Richard Fos­ter and James Bryan Smith (Harper­Collins, 2005). Used with per­mis­sion. A Seri­ous Call to a Devout and Holy Life was first pub­lished in 1729. This excerpt is from the 1978 Paulist Press edi­tion.

Originally published December 1977