Editorial: Knowing and claiming God’s will

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How specific is God’s will?

How should we discern God’s will?

To what degree can a person claim to know God’s will?

A friend and I have been talking and trading emails about divine discernment. Our conversation started when he told me he’s interested in taking another job and moving his family.

knox newEditor Marv KnoxWell, that’s not exactly accurate. He said God has been telling his wife and him they need to be open about making a move. God is the instigator.

It’s a challenge

See? Talking about God’s will is a challenge, because people of faith and goodwill experience it and explain it differently.

For years, my friend has described his divine discernment directly. “God told me … ,” he’s said.

I wish I could share his clarity. A few times, I’ve even tried. “God told me … ,” I’d declare. But I never could proclaim it with conviction.

For one thing, when I claimed to know God’s will, it always neatly coincided with my own self-interest. That’s often how it seems when other people say it, too. And they play it like a trump card. How are you going to argue when God Almighty weighs in? “God told me …” would sound more credible if the speaker divined divine will counter to his or her own good.

I don’t trust myself

For another, I don’t trust myself. I get so many other things wrong; why should anyone trust me to be an infallible conduit of sanctified will?

So, while I pray for God’s guidance practically every day, I’m not mystical about God’s will. Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve ever absolutely discerned God’s will about anything up for grabs.

I know it’s absolutely God’s will to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind and strength; to love others as myself; to love my family unconditionally; to love the church; to serve “the least”; to do my best not to commit sins of commission (hard) and omission (even harder); and to work faithfully at my vocation.

Beyond that, everything seems ephemeral. For example, God’s “calling” to one place or one job seems ambiguous. God blesses us with gifts and passion and commitment. We may invest those in multiple places, and God gives us leeway in the particulars. God also gives us interests and desires. Our challenge is to be pure, honest and transparent with them. That’s part of the discerning process: God has given me X gifts, which can be invested in Y place/job. If I follow up, that will serve Y well and fill me with joy. But maybe I really want work at Z. It might reasonably take the place of Y. And God would say, “Well done” to either choice.

Comfortable with ambiguity

Ironically—and I didn’t see this coming—God gets more confusing as I grow older. But paradoxically, I’m more comfortable with God’s ambiguity now than I was with what I expected to be God’s certainty back then.

I’ve learned from the countless times I worked hard to discern God clearly. The outcomes often made me wonder. Either (a) I misunderstood God, (b) God didn’t fulfill the promises that seemed inherent in God’s “answer” or (c) God’s just not that concerned with all the details.

So, maybe the Christian’s challenge is not to find and declaim God’s solitary will, but to focus on the task at hand, realizing God is a God of options. When it comes to specifics—take this job or that job; live here or there; marry this person or that person; have two children or three—God’s will is free and open.

As long as we live faithfully and place God and others ahead of ourselves, God will be fine with our answers. At least that’s what experience has taught me.

God is big

My friend received my long arguments and responded briefly, yet eloquently: “Well, I’m more mystical in my approach to God’s will, but that is me. Your approach is you. I don’t think either is wrong. God is way too big to have to work with all of us the same way.”

He’s got a great point. There is a wideness in God’s mercy. Each of us approaches God personally, and we communicate with God—and God communicates with us—in ways we understand.

But sometimes, that means we have a hard time understanding each other.

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