Well, now, there’s a provocative headline for you, n’est-ce pas? I’m sure you agree, I mean, about the title being provocative. But seriously, I have had many a friend ask me how one can determine God’s will. It’s a scary question, in a sense, even otherworldly, especially if you turn around the possessive from “God’s will” (friendly sounding) to “the will of God” or “the will of the Lord” (more august, a touch scarier). Some of those friends are spiritual folks, like a good friend of mine from Montana, who earnestly tries to do the right thing and sometimes calls me for advice, advice ultimately about what God’s will might be for the next big decision, the next step in that friend’s life. Other folks, who themselves are quite skeptical about spiritual things, ask me a bit more petulantly, almost mockingly, as if I couldn’t possibly really know what God’s will is. And they’re right to think that I am no oracle or even a holy, religious man. I am just a Christian, and a boring one (Lutheran) at that, which may obliquely make the title of this blog even more provocative.
I write this week, I confess, somewhat autobiographically, which is fitting, I suppose, for a website entitled The Curious Autobiography. I myself have often faced big decisions, and who knows, I may even have to do again soon. In any case, I recently found myself asking how I may know what the will of God is. And I thought about what I have done in the past when confronted with a big decision: what worked and what didn’t work. In thinking about the question of God’s will, the answer simply donned on me, so I thought I would share it cathartically with you.
That answer—the short version at least—lies in what one might call “overlaying” or “mapping.” For me that begins with prayer and knowing some key bible passages well enough to have them at my fingertips; if you’re a sceptic, perhaps I’ve already lost you. Perhaps you think the Bible just an old and irrelevant book and you haven’t prayed since you were six years old. But, I think I will just tell you anyway, if you’ll keep reading. Because I believe God to be a loving, kind, and tender person (an opinion about him I have largely derived from the comportment of his Son), I ask Him not that I may know precisely what His will is, or for a sign that would confirm that x or y or z is His will, but rather I ask Him to equip me to learn from this new challenge what I need to learn and, most of all, ultimately to seek to do His will, even when I don’t know what it is or even why it is. In other words, I ask God to make me like a character from the Bible who behaved in a similar fashion, particularly one whom I perceive to have been in a similar situation.
Such mapping can vary widely, as the situations of the assorted characters of the Bible so vary. So, to take a banal example, a few weeks ago I invited a friend over to dinner whose spouse had been out of town for quite a while and I thought it would be nice to share a meal together. So I perhaps was thinking of Zacchaeus, the wee little man who welcomed Jesus to dinner on short notice. Or perhaps I thought of him the first time I did that kind of thing on short notice and now have simply become Zacchaeus to some extent. I am so used to imitating him that I don’t have to look at my arm-band and think, “WWZD?” (“What would Zacchaeus do?”). That’s a rather mundane example. But when I moved with my family to Texas from New Jersey, a long time ago now, the mapping was more extreme—it was more like Abram leaving Ur of the Chaldeans, where he and Sarai had been, I suppose, more or less happy Chaldeans minding their own Chaldean business, hoping to have a large Chaldean family but being entirely unsuccessful. Yet, perhaps they were content with just trying to do so when they were young. And yes, no doubt as time wore on they were frustrated by their lack of success. But maybe not having children allowed them to amass wealth that might not have happened otherwise. I’m not sure. It seems from Scripture that Abraham eventually became pretty wealthy, and I imagine that my wife and I would be a much wealthier if we had not had children or, if we had had, as Abraham and Sarah (and Hagar) eventually did, only two children, one of whom was sent packing with no alimony payments. Poor Ishmael, and Hagar, too; at least, though I’ve always found it strange, Hagar got some nice double-knit slacks named after her.
And there is, of course, in these paradigms, also anti-paradigms. Each of these folks were not perfect, so we have to learn from their mistakes as much as from their steps of faith. But in the end, I want to remember as we look at their lives, what they did that was noble and good and was clearly “doing God’s will,” and I seek to do likewise. Moses obeyed God and, even though he was happy herding sheep on Mount Horeb, he listened to God and did what God told him to do. Joseph was an obnoxious teenager as I suppose I was, but when God rescued him from the pit and had him sold into slavery, he remembered the faithful God of his youth and obeyed Him and received God’s special gifts and blessings—even though he was in jail. Gosh, I’ve felt like Joseph a time or two.
And David was minding his own business until he saw Goliath making a fool of the army of God. He could bare it no longer and became the highest paradigm of faithful heroism. Inspired by David’s bravery, no doubt many a soldier has dived on a grenade to save others in the foxhole.And Abraham of the Chaldeans, he is the one that St. Paul holds up as the best example of all: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). The writer of Hebrews, too, speaks of Abraham’s faithfulness “by faith, Abraham, when he was called to go … went out, not knowing whither he went.…” (Hebrews 11:8).
“Now you’re waxing theological,” someone from the skeptical set might say, “and you’re losing me.” I apologize but, seriously, what do you expect from a blog entitled, “How to Determine God’s Will”? And with that I will close. I determine God’s will simply by studying characters in the Bible who I perceive to have done God’s will and then I try to do likewise. And I will do that same thing with my next big decision. In the meantime, I will try at every opportunity to show good hospitality like Zacchaeus, a wee little man with, no doubt, a big heart.