Let’s talk for a moment about this nebulous yet paramount Christian concept known as “the will of God.”
You may have heard the term used before in a variety of situations, but most often it is yanked from its holster when someone is trying to determine how to properly prepare for his or her future, or perhaps when people are discussing a specific turn of events in someone else’s life. “Well, you know, if it’s God’s will, you’ll get that promotion…” “There’s nothing more I can do – we’ll be together if God wills it…” “He’s in the hospital right now, but I suppose, God-willing, he’ll get better…”
It’s a kind of fate-and-fortune catch-all, really. If something happens, it happens because God willed that it should happen. If something fails to happen, it is generally considered to be “outside of” God’s will, i.e. what he desires to take place in the course of human history. A lot of religious folks – including most Christians – use this as the all-inclusive explanation for why some things happen and other things do not. However, problems arise when we attempt to apply the explanation to misfortune or difficult circumstances. The greater the trial, the more this explanation seems platitudinous and disconnected from reality. As a result, God’s concern for, and activity within, human experience is attacked.
For the last eleven months, I have been searching for a position on a church staff. I have applied for all kinds of associate positions that seemed like a good fit, as well as student ministry positions that gel with my ten-year background in church work. I have even sent my resume out to a few dozen churches looking for lead pastors. All in all, I have applied to almost one hundred churches. As of today, however, I remain unemployed. Occasionally, an acquaintance will ask me how the job hunt is going. Early on, I was optimistic that a good job was right around the corner, and I answered as the same vein. After eleven months, however, my optimism has almost completely dissolved, and in my mounting frustration, it’s hard not to fill that vacancy with cynicism and anger.
These days, I respond honestly – that the search is not going well at all and times are very, very tough. The response I receive from people is almost always the same stock response I hear every time (whether I answer with positivity or negativity); it’s one of the Christian subculture’s greatest hits, and it is, in essence, the thoughtless application of this thing known as “God’s will.”
“Well, I just know God’s got a place for you.”
Care to venture a guess as to where that might be, or what I’m supposed to do in the meantime, or why he has chosen not to reveal this secret location over the past eleven months?
Like I said, cynicism is hard to avoid.
Let us dissect this ambiguous concept of God’s will, shall we? Especially why God apparently feels the need to play his cards so close to his chest. To give our analysis some form we can clearly recognize, let’s think of it in terms of dating. Now, the abiding belief in our culture is that there is one special someone out there for everybody (not counting the people who we brush off as unfortunate souls cursed into singleness like the remainder in a long division problem) and one of the main priorities of life is to identify who exactly this is. Dating is, in essence, sleuthing. Gathering evidence to solve the mystery known as “Who is my soul mate?”
Don’t want to accept this? Consider every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen. How many times did one of these movies end with Jennifer Aniston realizing this chiseled yet sensitive dude with perfect teeth wasn’t ”the one” after all, but rather only one possibility in a thousand? How many times do eHarmony or Match.com testimonials feature a guy talking about how perfect five different girls were followed by footage of him walking in the park with a blonde, then sharing a drink with a redhead, and then visiting a carnival with a brunette, and so on?
It’s hard for some people – whether they are single or already married – to hear that the idea of that one special someone might be bogus, that there might be hundreds or thousands of special someones out there for them, and the determining factor in finding who they will commit to boils down not to the magical hand of God (in non-religious terms, “fate”), but to the choices they made that landed them in a certain place with a certain set of circumstances (“free will”).
Am I rejecting the notion that God has a purpose for our lives? I am not. Does this imply that God is not involved? It does not. On the contrary, I’m trying to elevate our level of personal responsibility in the lives with which we have been blessed. God gave us the ability to choose, to make decisions, to sometimes effect change according to our level of effort. Most of us would agree with this. We would never fully discount the existence of free will. But when, for better or for worse, we want to validate something (or someone) as having a distinct purpose, we tend to stick the “God’s will” decal on it in an attempt to authenticate the experience.
Unfortunately, like a sixteen-month-old left unattended in a scrapbook store, we’ve become sticker-happy. We slap the “God’s will” explanation on everything from finding a spouse to finding a good parking space at Target. We’re as comfortable using it as a reason for category five hurricanes as we are for our minivan breaking down.
Is God to blame for why I have spent eleven months searching for a church position with nothing to show for it? And if the people who point me to his lofty plan are correct and he does have a special place somehow set aside for me, am I supposed to sit on my parents’ couch in the meantime watching Sportscenter until I get the portentous phone call or e-mail? I mean, if it all boils down to God’s will – unalterable fate – do I even have a role? Or am I just the receiver waiting for the quarterback to spot me and toss-up a pass?
I realize I’m dancing around the bang-your-head-against-the-pew-rail topic of predestination, specifically the age-old “vs.” debate: fate vs. free will. But my interest is not in opening that can of unconditionally elected worms. Rather, my goal is to remind all of us – especially Christians – that while it is possible for God to purpose something outside of humanity’s involvement, he does not work that way. He chooses to interact with our own choices. He wants us to make the effort, rather than wait for him to do the work.
Think of the most defining, pivotal moment in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. There he is in the little hillside garden called Gethsemane. He is kneeling in prayer, face to the ground. He is so anxious and fearful of what he has discerned is coming that blood seeps from his sweat glands. He’s crying. He’s struggling. He’s asking God – who remains silent just like he so often is with us – if there is any way for his will to play out differently. Would the Father please devise another way for humanity to be reconciled to its Creator? In the end, and I’m sure the words were some of the most difficult Jesus ever prayed, he blinks away more tears, clears the phlegm from his throat, and says, “Not my will, Father, but yours be done.”
What did Jesus recognize to be God’s will? Was it not that God desired to fulfill his purpose through humanity rather than separate from it? The divine work of reconciliation was to be intimately wrapped up in human choices no matter where it may lead, even to the point of physical torture and death. Could God have devised another way? Some of us might believe that, yes, he could – after all, he’s God. But because he is not one who stands far off from our world and our experiences, he rejects doing things another way. He subjects his will to the choices of humans, because he knows us well enough to know that his purposes will be fulfilled eventually.
He places Jesus’ safety in the hands of a betrayer who chooses to sell out his master. He subjects Jesus’ sentencing to Pilate’s jurisdiction, who chooses even against his better judgement to condemn him to death. What if Judas had relented before leading the temple guard to the garden? What if Pilate had heeded the words of his wife? Did God force them into one specific course of action? Frederick Buechner writes of free will, “The fact that I know you so well that I know what you are going to do before you do it doesn’t mean you aren’t free to do whatever you damn well please.”
What if I never find a ministry job? What if what I interpreted as a call to ministry finds me working in a university office or as an English teacher in a public high school? I’ve already begun looking for employment in those places, because the reality is that I need a job. I need to support my family which will very soon increase by twenty-five percent. I need to stop waiting on God to do all the work, and start making decisions I trust to be the right ones. I won’t throw God for a loop. If anything, I’ll give him more opportunity to get involved.
These days, when I think of God’s will, it’s not as some unascertainable force that influences us like a manipulator does his marionettes. Instead, I think of God’s willingness to trust me, even when I act in untrustworthy ways. I think of the faith he has in me to find a job even when I collapse in despair from rejection after rejection. I think of the confidence he has in his purpose for me, even when my own confidence is shattered, duct-taped back together, and then shattered again. I think of the way he doesn’t fault me when my prayers turn into rants and I question his concern for me.
I’m not saying it’s always comforting to think this way, nor is it easy to face failure when I know God could step in and nudge a situation into working out a bit differently. I haven’t learned how to find joy in this interaction between God’s holy will and my own fitful capabilities, and I’m not sure I ever will. I suppose accepting the mysterious cooperation, though, is a good first step.
Sometimes, though … Ah!
It is a terribly irksome thing to be so trusted by God.