‘God’s will’ filtered through our eyes
I must confess to a good deal of discomfort when in a conversation where someone professes to know that a certain happening was “God’s will.” Even if that experience was a positive one, slapping the “God’s will” label on it both takes personal responsibility out of the equation, and closes down further conversation.
Too bad. What if there is more to God’s will than we usually settle for? (Even if “more” might actually mean “less.”) I think we often work too hard to make our perception of God’s will more complicated than it needs to be. And that’s not even counting the spiritual arrogance involved in deciding what God’s will is.
At the height of German bombing of London during World War II, Leslie Weatherhead preached five sermons on “The Will of God.” Those sermons became a classic little book that countless Christians have read since. He speaks of God’s will in three ways: Intentional, circumstantial and ultimate. Helpful? Yes. Complete? No.
There will always be more to God’s will than we usually settle for – because it is God’s will, even though we like to substitute our own will and put God’s name on it. Our views are limited by our limited grasp of mystery, as well as our difficulty in embracing the loose-end paradoxes of spirituality. We want certainty. God gives us paradox.
A more recent book (2003) that explores the paradoxes and our penchant for misunderstanding the term “God’s will” is by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, “If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person.” I find their reasoned perceptions very stimulating; but their out-of-the-ortho-box thinking is scandalous to many.
They rightly caution Christians to be aware that using God-talk and other religious language can carry very heavy baggage, so be caring about what we say. They also speak to the contradictions present in what we say about God.
For instance: Is God’s will to love people unconditionally as our interpretation of “grace” usually means? If so, why do we stick the “God’s will” label on events or actions that do incidental or intentional harm to people? Some folks think there is no contradiction here. I believe there can be big, unnecessary contradictions.
I think we can emotionally and intellectually tie ourselves into knots when we try to submit ourselves to “God’s will” that covers every decision – big and small – that we as persons make. What if God’s will for us is simply to do “the loving thing” and take responsibility for our own decisions? (It sounds valid to me.)
To better reflect on God’s will in your own life and how it impacts the people around us (and beyond), it’s important to also reflect on the very character of God. How do you – deep-down – understand the very essence, the character of God? For it is that character of God that helps us see “God’s will” a bit more clearly.
As I’ve said for years in these columns, my take on God’s character is wrapped up in my term “God’s radical hospitality.” That’s where my understanding, limited as it certainly is, of God’s will begins. I try to keep the character and the will of God together in consistent, integrated ways in my thinking.
But what is God’s character like for you? Always loving? Angry? Does the love temper anger, maybe vice-versa? What else? Pick your own words that describe God for yourself. Wrestle with your words – and with God’s character and will. I believe God enjoys your effort.
God’s character and will are always more than we settle for.
The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is the founder of Elder Advocates. He can be contacted at email@example.com.