There was a profoundly spiritual aspect to Wilberforce’s program of self-education. He firmly believed the most important means of measuring one’s progress as a Christian was by one’s “improvement in love to God and man.” This idea sounds rather mysterious, but Wilberforce viewed it in practical terms. For him, seeking to improve in love to God and man meant that he was to “employ . . . his talents for the benefit of his fellow-creatures” (love to man). He could do this best by cultivating his talents as an act of devotion and realizing their potential (love to God).
Late in life he explained this by saying: “My religion taught me the duty of devoting all my faculties and powers as a debt of gratitude to my reconciled Father in Christ Jesus, as well as of reasonable service to my Creator, Preserver, and continual Benefactor.”
Seasons of study, rest, and renewal furthered the transformation that had commenced with Wilberforce’s great change. He had always admired his friend Pitt’s scholarly training and intellect, and he moved to cultivate this side of his own character. In study, he found he reconnected with all he truly valued in life. He later reflected:
I have lately been led to think of that part of my life wherein I lived without God in the world, wasting and even abusing all the faculties He had given me for His glory. Surely when I think of the way in which I went on for many years, from about [age] sixteen to 1785-86, I can only fall down with astonishment as well as humiliation before the throne of grace. . . . [I] adore with wonder, no less than remorse and gratitude, that infinite mercy of God which did not cast me off, but on the contrary, guiding me by a way which I knew not, led me to those from whom I was to receive the knowledge of salvation (not more manifestly His work was St. Paul’s instruction by Ananias), and above all, softened my heart.
Wilberforce wrote about this subject in greater detail in his book A Practical View of Christianity. “When summoned to give an account of our stewardship,” he stated, “we shall be called upon to answer for the use which we have made of our nature, of invention, and judgment, and memory, and for our employment of all the instruments and opportunities of diligent application, and serious reflection, and honest decision.”
Wilberforce viewed this practice of stewardship as “the means of relieving the wants and necessities of our fellow-creatures. His was not the service of an ascetic, but a consuming desire to exhibit “a disposition honourable to God, and useful to man; a temper composed of reverence, humility, and gratitude, and delighting to be . . . employed in the benevolent service of the universal Benefactor.” He had discovered God to be his “patron and benefactor and friend, ‘who loved us, and gave himself for us.'” The “labours of a whole life,’ he wrote, are “but an imperfect expression of . . . thankfulness.”
-Kevin Belmonte in William Wilberforce: Hero for Humanity, p. 208-209.