Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Will of God

It's always kinda awkward whenever someone in a conversation begins talking about "the Will of God." For one thing, these people often seem to be speaking with far too much boldness in relation to their ability to actually discern the mind of God. Seems like such conversations need to be peppered with lots of humility. Instead, the phrase "the Will of God" is often used as a sort of "trump card show of confidence" in order to end any conversation or debate on a given subject.

It's also awkward because this phrase also sounds like some kind of divine magic 8 ball. As if people are directed to behave or act in certain ways because they received a message from on high, and it is "the Will of God." Kind of difficult these conversations often go after that. I usually want to ask lots of questions to discover how it is that person is so certain that they've stumbled upon the road map for the rest of their life.

Because we all want that. We face all kinds of decisions every day. Am I going to go to bed early? Or am I going to bang out a blog entry at 3 in the morning? Am I going to eat healthy? Or am I going to indulge? Am I going to be kind? Or does this person really need to be needled right now? All sorts of decisions we face & make on a daily basis. But there are some decisions that are big. That are weighty. Decisions that will be determinative for our lives and will decide which direction we go from this point we're at now. And in the midst of those decisions, it would be phenomenally fortuitous if we had access to a divine magic 8 ball! Right? Because we're sitting there, and we've been praying our brains out, and it seems even foggier about which road to take. It's Monty Hall's "Let's Make a Deal," and we get nervous about the notion that some of the roads we go down could really suck.

So we want God's guidance. Because we don't want our major decision to result in something that sucks. And I'm convinced that sometimes we just pretend that we did receive that guidance from on High to make ourselves feel better about whatever road we ourselves chose.

But there is more than just the fear of our choice sucking. I think we have a genuine desire to be in the center of God's Will. We know that God has a master plan for the universe. And that God is detail-oriented. And we want precisely what God had in mind for us all along. I think there's this noble sense, too, in which we want to discover and live in God's plan for our lives.

But this noble notion can clash with our own well-laid plans too, right? Because we all may believe that God has a place in mind for you where you can be your best for Him. But how that works itself out in our mind is that WE (not God) have a place in mind for ourselves where we can be our best for our own success and fortune, and hopefully God too. Because even though we know God has his scheme, we have our schemes too. We've got our own ideas about how we'd be happy and which direction we would like for our life to go in. And we get discouraged when our schemes don't come to pass. We wonder about the Will of God. We begin to question it, and doubt even the existence of God.

I appreciated a sermon I read (and subsequently tweaked & turned around and preached) that engaged this very idea. Let's consider Paul here for a moment, and his background. He used to be called Saul, remember. He was a Jewish Pharisee who'd been converted to Christianity. But even before that, he'd experienced great privilege. He'd been born a Roman citizen in Tarsus. He studied under a great Jewish scholar named Gamaliel, which today would be like bragging you graduated from Princeton. Paul was bred as a cultural & theological thoroughbred.

And yet instead, God decided to use him like a work horse. Check out how Paul talks of being humbled in 2nd Corinthians 11:

What anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham's descendants? So am I. 23Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. 27I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.

Quite a lot happened to Paul. And yet, Paul didn't take that as an opportunity to re-evaluate how plausible or reliable his faith was. He didn't doubt God. Or even the Will of God. He didn't question whether God was mis-allocating resources. Because thoroughbreds were born to run the Kentucky Derby, not get flogged like a work horse. And Paul here isn't bragging so much about accomplishments. Rather, he's taking pride in being right at the center of God's Will.

In relation to this, I think about the kinds of trials we face in America in the 21st century. Financial "stress." (The quotation marks are there because if you gripe about that, you're still probably reading this on your personal computer via your own internet connection. I'm gonna say that "tightening the belt" isn't as bad as a lot of people have it right now) Cancer, and other health issues. And just the basic human condition. We stress out over way less than Paul had to deal with, don't we? We hear about one scary doctor's visit, and it's got us re-evaluating whether or not there's a God in Heaven. Or we have a few lean months financially -- probably because we could have been more responsible with our money -- and we begin to wonder whether God still loves us or not. Sometimes I think we just need to toughen up. I know I'm a wimp. A lot. And I think we just need to become more comfortable with how the Will of God unfolds even if it's most unpleasant and uncomfortable. Especially when it's most unpleasant and uncomfortable. Because Paul was.

And Paul didn't even mind if the road ahead was foggy or seemed impeded. I know this because of how the 2nd Missionary Journey unfolded. It began in Acts 15 with Paul's random idea, "Hey... how 'bout we go visit those churches we planted way back yonder?" Let's check out how it progresses in Acts 16:

4As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. 5So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.

6Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." 10After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

Fascinating here how Paul and his Mission Team are blocked at every turn from heading into Asia, isn't it?

Little did they know it at the time, but this was a turning point moment. Paul seemed convinced that it was time to go make in-roads for the Gospel in Asia. It seems he thought that there was to be the great frontier for faith. But God had another place in mind: Europe. Macedonia was the gateway into that influential continent. And from his adventure in Europe would come churches to whom Paul would end up writing weighty letters. Epistles upon which we hang on every word. So for this and many other reasons -- many of which are still perhaps a mystery -- God directed Paul up toward Europe.

But Paul & Co. didn't know that until at least verse 9. These guys are HUNDREDS of miles into their missionary until they get clued into this fact. It wasn't so easy for Paul, an inspired writer of Scripture, to discern the Will of God.

I think we could conclude this for ourselves as well: God's Will is not always easily discerned. Or to put it in terms of this story: God's Will is often not the shortest distance between two points.

Wouldn't it be great if it was? Wouldn't it be great if living life was like cooking by picture, where you receive an image that shows "here's step ONE," and then "that's step TWO," and so on? Seems like that'd make life fantastically easier to execute. And yet, we're a people called to live by faith, not by sight.

I think we're in need of understanding that our sight is pretty dim anyway. As Paul said in 1st Corinthians 13, "we see as through a mirror dimly," or "as through a glass darkly." It's DIFFICULT to discern the Will of God. I liked how N.T. Wright (in his oft-praised book, "Surprised by Hope") explained that the things that even seem so literal & mapped out in Scripture perhaps aren't so clear as cooking by picture:

We must remind ourselves yet once more that all Christian language about the future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist. Signposts don't normally provide you with advanced photographs of what you'll find at the end of the road, but that doesn't mean they aren't pointing in the right direction. They are telling you the truth, the particular sort of truth that can be told about the future.

But to bring it back to Paul and Macedonia, I liked how Mr. Deem (the author of that sermon) framed the different elements of God's Will. Military people will understand this language well. Mr. Deem says that God provides mainly general direction, but also specific direction only when needed.

When you're in the military, you live under general orders. If you're a sentry in a watchtower, general orders says you are not to fall asleep. You don't have to be given a special order to stay awake on your watch. That's part of general orders.

Paul was operating out of the general direction sense of the Will of God by even being on this Missionary Journey. We don't have an indication from Scripture that Paul was given a special revelation to go on this trip. They just decided to go, because they were living under the general mandate that God's Will is to "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." They didn't have to wait around for God to give them a clear mind & a warm feeling to go do their job for the Kingdom.

There are those who excuse their inactivity from the life of God by saying to themselves, "Well I haven't heard from Him regarding His will for my life." Well, if that's your self-talk, I'm here to tell you that you just did.

Look at Paul & Silas. It was God's ultimate plan that they go to Macedonia & visit all those places in Europe. But His will took a circuitous route.

And I think this is an important point as well. So often, we want to know from God what the specific direction of his will is for our lives, but we don't even bother ourselves with managing the general direction sense of God's Will. We are desperate to know where to go next, what to do next, what's over the next horizon. When maybe things would actually fall into place if we cared more about God's general will, like the Great Commission or becoming more Christ-like. Some of us want the vision of the Man of Macedonia, but we wouldn't have even been on the missionary journey to receive it in the first place! We're up in the watchtower asleep, and we're wondering why we're not getting the special orders for the super-cool secret missions that all the good, disciplined soldiers get.

Do you want to know the Will of God for your life? Get off the sidelines and get in the game! God's up to something in the world, and He could use you to make a difference in other people's lives. That's what His will is for you. And I feel safe saying that it's often a whole lot less glamorous and a whole lot more ugly than we imagine it in our mind's eye when we're dreaming ahead.

But that's not to say that there aren't some just beautifully rewarding moments. Because there are. Because I do believe that God has a place in mind for you where you can be your best for Him. And when you discover that place, revel in it. No matter how painful it might seem on any given day. Because, like Paul showed us back there in 2nd Corinthians 11, there's a great pride and satisfaction to be had in being right at the center of the Will of God.


Emily :) said...

Philip, this was a message for me! I have been blessed by reading those verses in 1 Corinthians all week.

Anonymous said...

Well, I finally got around to reading this post. I think this is one of your very best. Great thoughts, and they are particularly encouraging to me right now.

It's great to hear the message that I need to do work, and if God throws me a curveball, praise Him for it! It's more direction than I had before.

Thanks, III.