All Christians should seek the will of God. That’s what preachers tell us, and they’re right, but they leave out half the story.
One, you have to know what God’s will is before you can do anything about it; two, you then have to choose to do what God is willing.
Three, you have to live with the consequences—and they may not all be hunky-dory. Chances are they won’t be.
Martin Luther King Jr. figured out God’s will, chose to do it as best he could, and got assassinated.
The “cost of discipleship” is one of many reasons we’re usually disinclined to ask a lot of questions about God’s will. The less we know what it is, the fewer the unexpected consequences. (Of course, the fewer rewards, too.) Thus most of us seldom ask.
Today I think the figure of speech we use may be part of the problem. In human terms, a God who’s willing people to do stuff all the time starts to sound like a dictator: “Thou shalt do this! Come here, go there! Hey you, why aren’t you a missionary in Melanesia already? I told you, that’s what I will!”
No wonder we don’t do his will very often. This God sounds kind of crabby. “Hey you, shine my shoes!”
But this is a caricature of God, a cartoon. The real God isn’t so much a dictator as a lover filled with desire.
What God wants is closeness, communion, agapé. God wants us to snuggle up, with each other and with him. Once we do that, he’s less into ordering us about than being open to our suggestions.
“Lord, I’ve been thinking about Melanesia lately. I’d kind of like to go and be a missionary, but I’m not sure if that’s your will or not.”
To which God may well say, “Sure, that’d be great. I need more missionaries in Melanesia. It’s hard there, but you’ll really love the culture and the people.”
Thus the person with Melanesia in mind can feel free to go and see what happens, what the consequences are, whether he or she is fitted to that work in that place.
After awhile this leads to one or two conclusions: “Lord, this isn’t working out, I don’t think I belong here. They don’t seem to appreciate what I try to do and I don’t understand them any better than the day I got here.”
In which case God probably says, “Well, thanks for trying, I’m sure you learned some things, and those will be useful in the future.” (The other conclusion might be, “Wow, God, I love this place! I want to stay here forever.” In which case God says, “I told you the people are fabulous. Enjoy every minute.”)
For myself I don’t feel called to Melanesia. There’s too much walking from village to village and I’m not so good anymore at walking. So I don’t figure God “wills” me to that place, although I’m glad I’ve learned a little bit about it in the past few days. (Terry Brown, an American-Canadian, is the bishop of Malaita and openly Gay.)
The fact is, God desires for us many things; peace, prosperity, happiness, love, communion, good health, good work; yet suffering may also be part of the deal. In a world of hatred, peacemaking is hard work. Dag Hammarskjold had to suffer repeatedly for it, just like Martin King and countless others. Were they prosperous? Sort of. Were they happy? At times. Did they know love? Undoubtedly. Did they commune? Every chance they got.
God’s “will” is related to our sense of being “called.” We are called to be activists and/or parents and/or healers. But God’s call often feels diffuse and we may well be uncertain about it. Seldom does God get on the heavenly loudspeaker and say, “Hey you! Go to Chicago!”
To be sure there are times we feel more certain of our call than others. Last winter, as I got so worried about Davis Mac-Iyalla’s death threats in Africa, I tried to get others to help him, but no one would do it. So it became clear in a few weeks that if anyone was going to get him to safety, I’d have to be the one. I was “called.”
After Davis got here he said, “I bet God called a lot of people, but you were the only one who listened.”
That shocked me, but I knew as soon as he said it he was right.
I also knew (like I know my own name), sometime between the call and Davis’s arrival, that God willed (capital W) that Davis come to safety in America. I knew that because the job was way too much for me, yet God made everything fall into place: the visa, the money, the helpers, the logistics, the invitations and publicity, the local hosts, everything. I didn’t do all that; God put everyone who listened to him in touch with each other. (Well, except for St. Bart’s, New York.)
So there are calls and there are desires; we all have our own gifts, then certain opportunities arise. Did God “will” that I start a prayer website called dailyoffice.org? If so, it seems a bit odd in hindsight, because a similar site already exists called Mission St. Clare; same Office, prayers, readings, saints, everything. Why does the world need two such websites? (Of course, we have different styles, but the world could muddle on quite well without mine.) Instead, I think God “desired” that I get closer to him, and the site was one way to do that; it also took advantage of my knowledge and background in the Office. So MSC has its fans and I’ve got mine; no problem. I am closer to God because of dailyoffice.org.
The site gave me some credibility when the call about Davis came through. Site members’ donations over the years gave me a little financial cushion to work with. God took advantage of the opportunity when Davis’s crisis came along, and I had a prayer community to back me up. (Actually more than one; people at Fr. Jake’s were great and Davis has his own prayer people.)
Now I wonder about a “call” to join the monastery. Certainly I have an opportunity there; the monks have suggested I consider it, and a week from today I’ll be there unpacking in my guestroom.
But “call” in its traditional language may be pushing it. God called Fr. Huntington to start the place back in the 1880’s, but for me this may be more in the nature of “desire,” both on God’s part and on mine. I do rather want a new “assignment,” because the Davis one was rather successful and significant. So I have a desire to snuggle up, and that is God’s desire for me as well.
How we do it, though, may be more subject to circumstance (and the monastic community’s desire; maybe they won’t like me!) than anything as hard and fast as a call.
Today I have prayed about the monastery and said, “If this is your desire, I will do it.” It’s a sunny day, and no thunderclap occured.
Instead I drew a distinction between God the decree-giver and God of great desire. It doesn’t matter how we get close to him, only that we do.
The how may well be contained in the tradition we’ve received (prayer, sacraments, the communal church) and in the new things God creates with us. Either way, “All is well, and all is well, and all is wonderfully well.”++