"Lord, is she the one I should marry?" "Lord, which job should I take?" "Lord, where do you want me to live?" "Lord, what's your will for my life?"
You've all heard those sorts of questions. Maybe you've asked some of them yourself. I have. In fact, I used to ask those sorts of questions quite a bit, especially in college. That's not strange, I suppose, given that the idea of discerning God's will permeates mainstream Christianity. But why does it? There are scriptures that speak of God's will but not in the context of someone petitioning God to know if He has an itinerary set for the ordinary matters of his or her life.
Of course, it's commonly considered a demonstration of the strength of one's faith to "let go, and let God." To an extent, there's scriptural support for such an approach--"Don't worry about tomorrow..." "Be anxious in nothing..."--but those teachings aren't an invitation to inaction. And isn't spending inordinate amounts of time praying to God to reveal His will for mundane aspects of my life just a spiritually-disguised form of worry? To me, surrendering my will to God is not a call for me to postpone making decisions until He gives me insight into some meticulously arranged plan for my life, it's giving up my sinful and selfish behavior and ACTIVELY setting about living as Christ.
So, again, why is the idea of discerning God's will for your life so popular in contemporary Christianity?
Well, in one sense it functions as a security blanket, relieving us of the fear that we may make a bad choice. I admit I still pray for wisdom when I face a difficult decision, but I don't pray for some signpost from God to delineate which choice is His will. Isn't passively waiting for some clear indication of God's will in some ways similar to the guy who buries the talent his master gives him? *
The belief not only relieves us of the fear of making a bad choice, it provides the security of meaning, giving special significance to our ordinary endeavors and making those things matter in God's design for the cosmos. I believe there is meaning in life and that it comes ultimately from God; however, I haven't found any compelling reason to believe that God has laid out some individualized plan for my life. I suspect that if God had verbally responded to one of my "Lord, what's your will for . . .?" prayers, the conversation would've gone something like this:
"Lord, what's your will for my life?"
"Live as Christ."
"But, what about my job?"
"Live as Christ."
"Live as Christ."
"Where should I live?"
"Live as Christ."
"So, you don't have a plan for my life?"
"Jason, I'm growing tired of repeating myself."
I'm not saying God doesn't work through and in the lives of people--He does--but that's not the same as laying out specified plans for everyone.
Ah, but Jason, what about the people in the Bible that God had specific plans for? Sure, there are plenty of such people in the Bible, and I don't discount the possibility that God can call people to specific tasks today, but as the biblical examples show, God gives those people blatant signs. He comes to them with instructions; they don't petition him for glimpses of a plan.
Most importantly, whenever God called one of those people to a specific task, his plans were large in scope. To me, the biggest problem with asking God what His will is for things like who we should marry, where we should work, etc. (well, besides the fact I don't believe He has one) is that it fosters self-absorption. How can I possibly place others above myself if all I think about is what God is going to do for me?
* I'd pondered this topic for a while but was remiss to write anything on it. To my surprise, I discovered last night that Richard Beck's latest post on his blog, Experimental Theology, addressed the very same issue--albeit more articulately. I think his assessment of absolving ourselves from decision-making as a means of comfort is insightful, so I'll include it here:
"To be a people of deep, hard won character we have to make choices without signs and support from God. Further, I think God demands this of us, just as we demand it from our children. At some point in moral development we stop making choices for the child and begin to ask, "What do you think you should do?" Forcing the child to make the choice and accept the consequences. Of course, the child resists this. As we do as adults. But to rescue the child from this anxiety is to do a disservice to the moral development of the child. And I ask, would not God be doing the same thing for us? If God gives out signs on a regular basis, constantly rescuing people from hard choices, would God not be turning Christians into dependent, needy, and passive persons?"
My student: Hey, did you know George Wilson kills Gatsby?
Other student: Man, don't tell me about the end of the book; we're still reading it!
My student: You're actually reading the book?
Other student: Yeah, it's pretty good.
My student: I've only read the Spark Notes. I've heard it's a good book, though. I just haven't had time to read it.
Other student: Yeah, it's good. The thing I don't like about it though is when he goes into all those details. I wish writers wouldn't go into so much detail. If they just focused on the plot, you know, like sort of a summary, I'd like reading better.