Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Knowing God's will

God's will is not hard to understand, it is often said, only hard to do. Well, it is not all that easy to understand either. The most frequent question I was asked in pastoral ministry was, What is God's will for my life and the decisions I have to make. We wish there was an app for that. Instead, there are numerous books, courses, and sermons that would help us discover the way to know God's will. Having read some, taken some and preached some, I can say there is no definitive answer.

In an interesting chapter in his new book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N.T.Wright suggests Paul struggled with this issue, too. In Paul's day, knowing the will of the gods was a growth industry. It was a concern of everyone from the Emperor down to the lowliest servant. So, there were many people you could consult. There were diviners, and wise men who could tell you the will of the gods by consulting an animal's entrails or the flight path of a bird. These priests could explain what seemingly ordinary events like a thunder clap might mean for you. There were sacred texts which in the hands of the right interpreter could show you the path to take. It was a very religious age and people did not want to end up on the wrong side of a god. It could mean a poor harvest, or infertility, or famine or some other catastrophe.

Paul did not practice the ways of his religious culture to determine God's will. But, he certainly believed God guided him, and us. In Acts, there were a few definite times when God directed Paul's way with a word or vision. There were other times when Paul saw the hand of God after the fact. There were also times when he gave it his best guess like when he wrote to Philemon about Onesimus and said, maybe this is the reason he was separated from you… Wright comments, "to believe in providence often means saying perhaps".

Wright's point is that even though there are those moments when God is crystal clear about what His will was for Paul, those times were infrequent. Most of the time God's guidance for Paul was "oblique". That's why Paul urged his readers to work hard on thinking things through, and try to develop a wise Christian mind, Wright says. Paul was doing the same thing himself. It would seem that Paul was less sure of God's guidance on a day to day basis than his pagan counterparts were - or thought they were, Wright adds.

But we have to keep in mind Paul believed our minds were being renewed daily (Rom 12:1) and that the Holy Spirit is always with us guiding us, even if it is tough for us to sense that all the time. We have the Scriptures, as well, which is no small matter in the work of knowing God's will for us. Here is Wright's perspective: "Paul saw the Scriptures as much more than a rag-bag of sayings and cryptic wisdom, oracles waiting to be decoded and applied randomly to this or that situation. They told the story of God, his world, and his people, in such a way, as to lead the eye not only up to Jesus but on beyond, all the way, to the expanding apostolic mission." Knowing Jesus, Wright suggests, gave Paul a  clear sense of how his own life and calling were to be shaped.

That's a key thought. There is more than enough in what Jesus said and did to show us what God's will is. There are issues of everyday life in which God's will seems not so clear. We may not know for sure whether to move or not, or to take this job or that, or which church to attend. We might not be certain if we are to marry or if so, whom? But, if we do, we know how to treat that person, and how to treat others. We know what to do with the money we make from that job we decided to take. And if we move to a new community, and attend a different church, we know what the shape of our lives will look like. Be imitators of us and the LORD, Paul wrote to the church (1 Thess 1). That's about the best guidance anyone could have.