Resignation: success as becoming nothing

by Julie Lunn

In a previous blog Martin Turner helpfully prompted us to ask ‘what’s wrong with success?’ describing the difficulty Methodists have at times with being successful.  A key emphasis at the heart of the theology of Charles Wesley indicates a fundamental spiritual disposition offering a radical concept of ‘success’.

For Charles Wesley, particularly evident in his poetic texts, but present in his prose writings too, is the centrality of the believer’s resignation to God.  Resignation for Charles is an anagogic word, it has spiritual intention, and denotes an essential spiritual attitude which enables the eventual fulfilment of God’s economy of salvation for each believer in the believer’s sanctification.

The spiritual intention Charles invested in this word was familiar in his time and culture.  The etymology of resignation indicates that from the thirteenth century in British sources it could mean ‘[t]he action or an act of relinquishing, surrendering, or giving up something;’ or ‘[t]he action or fact of resigning from one’s employment, from an office, as a member of an organization, etc.’, originally particularly used ‘with reference to the relinquishment of a benefice or office by a priest’.[1]  However, from the early fifteenth century à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, introduced a new meaning of resignation, ‘the action or fact of giving oneself up to God’.[2]  Resignation as relinquishing something is evident in Charles’ use of the word, but almost used exclusively within this framework of relinquishing to God.  It is for Charles a spiritual matter.

Resignation, as a spiritual discipline, is a positive attribute for Charles Wesley, not a negative one.  It involves an act of intention and desire; it is an offering given to God, of things and people, of the will and heart and even of life itself.  Clearly its meaning in Charles’ context is significantly different to the way it is used today.  Resignation for Charles Wesley does not imply a powerless, passive acquiescence or surrender; indeed, surrender is a word Charles rarely uses.  Resignation and to be resigned for Charles, is an active, deliberate act, choice and state.

Resignation is therefore something of a paradoxical concept for Charles.  It embraces an active passivity, and strength in abandonment, to God. This paradox finds a parallel in Mack’s work on agency and passivity in early Methodism.  Mack explores the two-fold characteristic of Wesleyan soteriology, ‘[i]n conversion, the sinner must be roused and actively willing to accept God, who then takes control of the individual and transforms him or her.’[3]  Whilst Mack does not analyse Charles Wesley’s role in great depth, she does refer to the complexity of agency and passivity as it appears in some Methodist hymns, Mack comments,

“… their impact was to instill in the worshipper a movement toward self-effacement and surrender to God’s power on the one hand, and a heroic energy, both in conquering the self and in serving God, on the other.  In certain hymns the fusion between surrender and agency is total, both style and substance conveying the essential paradox of Methodist soteriology.”[4]

The active resignation Charles promotes echoes the agency and passivity of the believer in Mack’s analysis.  But just as she sees this in relation to conversion, so the pattern is the same for sanctification.  For Charles active resignation is the predominant process through which the believer can prepare herself to receive God’s gift of sanctification.   The attitude of resignation at the heart of holiness means, ironically perhaps, that the anagogic progression upwards to a heavenly realm is an act of resigning, letting go, divesting; a downward movement of the will, desires, and the self.  Success is seen in nothingness, in becoming nothing, in the emptying of self, which mirrors the kenosis of the Incarnation. Spiritual ‘success’ is in becoming as nothing, so that Christ may be all in all.  Perhaps this inherent Wesleyan spirituality, attested to each year in our Covenant service, explains our struggle with ‘success’?

28 Now let me gain perfection’s height!
Now let me into nothing fall!
Be less than nothing in thy sight,
And feel that Christ is all in all.[5]

[1] OED online, s.v. ‘resignation,’ 163604#eid25632292, accessed May 17, 2015.

[2] ‘15th cent. in à Kempis De Imitatione.OED online, s.v. ‘resignation,’ /Entry/#eid25632292, accessed May 17, 2015.

[3] Phyllis Mack, Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 49.

[4] Mack, Heart Religion, 48.

[5] Charles Wesley, ‘The Promise of Sanctification’ in John Wesley’s Christian Perfection, a Sermon (London: Strahan, 1741), 44-48, st.28.

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