Monday, July 26, 2010

Getting a Handle on God's Will

“I wish God would just tell me what to do.” If you’ve ever found yourself between a rock and a hard place, you’ve probably said those words. Sometimes, it would be nice to get a little extra help from above. Especially when there are no easy answers and we know the choice we make will have far-reaching consequences. When we’re carrying the burden of making a heavy decision, we may wish that God would just make the decision for us.

Although an arrangement like that sounds like it would bring some relief to our inner turmoil, we all know darn good and well that we wouldn’t like it one bit if God moved us around like pieces on a chessboard. And, anyway, that’s not how God operates. God gives us free will and that means that we have choices to make for ourselves; he’s not going to dictate them to us. And yet we struggle because, even when we make our own choices, we’d still like to know what God’s will for us is so it can, at the very least, inform our choices.

Many people seem to have a default setting that says whatever happens must be God’s will. You hear this at funerals or when a natural disaster strikes. They’ll say, “It was God’s will.” The assumption is that God’s will is always done. But God’s will is not always done. There are other forces at work in the world. There are bad choices people make that have nothing to do with God, choices that are careless or unjust or harmful to others. Was it God’s will that a jet crash into a tall building and kill everybody inside? There are also natural laws in this world that cannot be changed, and so we have earthquakes, and diseases. And some of what happens in our world is just random luck, like being born in the United States instead of Haiti.

Often, when we’re the beneficiaries of what we conclude must be God’s will, we’re quick to point it out, as if it’s a sign that we’ve found favor with God. “God is good” I hear people say, as if God’s goodness is evident when things go the way we’d like them to go. When I hear this, I want to snap back, “Yeah, well tell me God is good when your world is falling apart and then I'll believe you, because that’s when God’s goodness matters the most.”

This God-is-good-because-he-gives-me-what-I-want theology bugs me almost as much as hearing people comfort themselves, as they look at someone who’s going through a lot of difficulties in life, by saying something like, “there but by the grace of God go I.” Have you ever thought about what words like that really mean? What about the grace of God for the other person? Why would God be selective with his grace, showering certain people with it but not others? How can we say that it’s God’s will that we enjoy a relatively easy way of life without also noticing that other people are living in misery? Are we ready to say that their misery also is God’s will? I suspect that a lot of what we consider God’s will may have nothing at all to do with what God wants for our lives and everything to do with what we want for our lives. We like to believe God sees eye-to-eye with us on things. But we’re standing on shaky ground when we notice that God tends to answer our prayers much in the way we had hoped they would be answered all along. The first step to understanding God’s will may be an acknowledgment that we’re not the center of the universe and it’s not all about us.

Well, despite our feeble attempts to understand God’s will for our lives, I know we’d all like to get a better handle on it. It seems that we can often see it in hindsight. After the fact, we can look back and see how God’s will was done. But what would be more helpful is a little foresight. How can we discern what God’s will is for us before we make important decisions in life? Let me offer three truths about discerning God’s will that I’ve found helpful in my life; you might find them helpful as well. (They all start with the letter “f”, which I hope will help you remember them.)

1. Know the framework. God doesn’t leave us floating in the air without anything to grab onto. He gives us a framework for discerning his will. We may not know what God’s will is for us on the particulars, but we do know what God’s will is for us in the big scheme of things. We know the framework. It’s God’s will that we love one another. So, it’s love that guides our decisions. As long as a decision is based on love, no matter what that decision is, God can use it to accomplish his will.

2. Know the forgiveness. Sometimes we can be so afraid of making the wrong decision that it paralyzes us and we do nothing. But we don’t have to be held captive to our potential mistakes, because we have a God whose essence is grace. God doesn’t love us despite our mistakes. He loves us even with our mistakes. No matter how badly we mess up, we can be assured of forgiveness. So we can take risks, we can move forward, unsure of whether we’re doing the right thing or not sometimes, but trusting that even if we’ve made the wrong decision, it’s not the end of the world. It’s the sort of thing Luther was talking about when he said, “If you must sin, sin boldly.” The assurance we have of God’s forgiveness gives us the freedom to go for it!

3. Know the future. Now I’m not talking about the kind of stuff you get from your daily horoscope here. And I’m not talking about whether or not you should quit your job and go back to school, or buy that time-share in Hawaii. I’m talking about something much larger than that. I’m talking about the future God has promised us. The future we can count on, no matter what choices we might make in this life. God has promised us that nothing can separate us from his love. Even if the choices we make aren’t God’s will. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. God will accomplish his purposes for the sake of his love for us, for the sake of his love for all creation. The future is certain. Come hell or high water, God will always be who God is. And God is love.

God’s will being done doesn’t depend upon us. God’s purposes don’t collapse when we do the wrong thing. We can be assured that God accomplishes his purpose, even when we mess things up. God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do. We may not always get the details right, but God has the bigger picture in mind and let there be no doubt that God’s will will be done. Sometimes it may be done despite us. It’s our prayer that it might be done through us.

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