The Spirit Gives THAT Too?

Hey everybody … Just FYI I’m thinking about changing the rhythm of my publishing, from Fridays to Wednesdays. I’m going to experiment with it for a couple weeks, but feel free to let me know if you have a preference or any thoughts. 

I was listening to my friend preach recently, and something struck me about one of the Bible texts he used.

In a message about going out to do something in the world to make a positive impact, he used 2 Timothy 1:7 to talk about our tendency towards fear. Paul wrote to a young leader, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives up power, love and self-discipline.”

The thing that stood out to me was the last phrase: “a spirit of self-discipline.” The more I thought about it, the more it struck me that in this one little sentence Saint Paul sums up virtually the entire purpose of spirituality (at least, when spirituality is lived out practically and thoughtfully).

First of all, I think it’s easy for us to understand the need for the Holy Spirit to give us power and love: that seems like a readily identifiable need for most of us. Besides that, Paul is contrasting the gift of the Spirit with timidity and fear. Most of this should be “old hat” for any of us pursuing the spiritual life: we want supernatural empowerment for courage, love and power.

But then Paul curiously adds that last statement. Why would we need a spirit of self-discipline?

Maybe I’ll write it this way: Why would need a spirit of SELF-discipline?

If the whole point of the Holy Spirit is to empower us from “outside” ourselves, then why does Paul turn it back on to us at the last moment and seemingly put things back in our lap?

Paul is hinting at something that is mostly passed over in discussions about faith, particularly in our modern western context (our ancestors in the faith had a lot of this figured out, fortunately), namely that our spiritual growth depends, in a much more substantial way than we realize, on us arranging our lives in such a way that we can “make room” for God’s Spirit to work in us.

Otherwise why would we need the Spirit to give us the gift of “self-discipline?”

We need the gift of self-discipline to put patterns and habits—like prayer, service, generosity, worship and confession, to mention just a few—into our lives. These patterns then “make room” for the Spirit to move (and, consequently, to give us the power, love and freedom from fear that we crave and need).

So two questions:

  1. In regards to your spiritual life, what’s your level of self-discipline? How diligently and consistently do you pursue habits of prayer and worship, service and generosity?
  2. Have you ever considered asking God for the gift—not just of love and power (or whatever else we tend to ask for: jobs, healing, relationships, provision, rescue, etc.)—but of structure and discipline?

 

Thanks for reading; as usual, please feel free to share and comment.

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Paradox + 

A couple weeks ago in my faith community, I talked about how God is a god of “paradox”: there are so many things about YHWH, as He reveals Himself to Moses, that are apparently self-contradictory.

He is the creative Force behind the universe, and yet is also entirely willing to inhabit a humble piece of shrubbery in the backwoods of a place called Midian, far away from the centers of religious and spiritual power.

He has a specific name (“YHWH”), and yet that very name is a mystery. Indeed, one of the ongoing themes in the pages of the Bible is the tension between what we can know and see about this God, and what remains hidden and mysterious (you can read more about that here)

He is eternal and fierce—as one of my favorite theologians says, he is “ultimately free”— and yet He is intimately concerned about the suffering of humanity, so much so that he feels their suffering (and later, he even declares that he is capable of being hurt when His people abandon him).

I can go on and on, but I think we can see where this is all going: at the very least, God is not easily discerned or “nailed down.”

I would even go so far to say that the more comfortable we are with paradox, the more comfortable we will be in the life of faith.

However, as I was studying and preparing for the sermon, I stumbled across the idea of paradox in some additional ways that provoked my thinking, and I thought I would share a bit in this space.

In a TedTalk, psychologist Barry Schwartz started to examine something called the “paradox of choice.” Starting from the number of deodorant choices in a supermarket, Schwartz began to unpack the paradox of how, while psychology actually shows that choice actually causes us to feel anxious and even depressed, the culture in which many of us live (namely, the West) actually espouses freedom of choice as the highest ideal.

This is an odd thing: on the one hand, Christianity (at least as I see it and read it) is decidedly pro-human freedom and dignity. 

On the other hand—leaving dignity aside as a non-negotiable—Biblical freedom does not equal Western, 21st century freedom.

As I like to say it, Christian freedom is “freedom, but with rails”. 

As a 21st century, western Christian, I constantly bump against the boundary markers that YHWH (and even Jesus) established, whether I like them or not.

  • rails on how to spend my money (radical generosity)
  • rails on how to treat “the other” (radical hospitality)
  • rails on how to love God (with all my heart, soul, mind and strength)

And on and on and on.

Now, I’m not saying that God is a god of infinite rules. He’s not nit-picky, or waiting around a corner to catch me making a mistake.

That’s not the point…

I guess the potentially mind-blowing point is that God actually knows what’s good for me, not so much specifically, but in a broader sense. Maybe He knows that infinite choice actually produces a melancholy and a sadness in me; that the idea that I can choose everything and anything in my world actually might make me less happy as a human being.

Maybe God knows that human beings don’t do so well with infinite choice. 

And yet, we that’s exactly what our world seems to aspire to. It’s also what we sell to the rest of the world.

One of my favorite teachers/writers/spiritual pilgrims is Richard Rohr. On an episode of On Being With Krista Tippit called “Living in Deep Time”, he referenced how the pattern of the universe is one of “order, to disorder, to re-order.”

This resonated deeply with me, and I have seen it play itself out in my own life. Biblically, it is “life, death and resurrection.” Personally, it resembles the person who does all the right things, believes all the “right things”, goes to the right church, only to see it all collapse in the faith of a health crisis, an addiction, or the loss of a job. These are the moments of disorder, where many of our “false idols”—of success, eternal youth, security, etc.—are cast down. If we can stay faithful to the journey through the crisis (disorder), we begin to turn from those idols to the gift of a resurrected Jesus and a resurrected life.

But Rohr then went a step further, and he declared that anyone born after the late 60s (I was born in 1968, right on the demographic borderland) has never known order. Basically, he was saying that by the time “Generation X” was in full swing (not to mention the generations that followed) so many of our social structures had disintegrated and lost their influence that functionally most of us have never known anything like “order.” 

We’ve grown up in the middle of disorder, and the thing about the pattern of life is that you cannot really jump into the middle.

The pattern only really “works” (in the sense of producing transformed, enlightened, Christ-like people) when you follow it in sequence. It’s almost scarily simplistic: like learning a craft or an instrument:

Learn the basics, break the rules to chaotic results, then learn to assemble them in a new and masterful way. 

So it struck me how much the vision of “disorder” connected with the idea of “infinite choice”.

It’s the supermarket full of a whole row of a selection of toilet paper, and wondering what the basis is for making a choice… 

It’s picking up a guitar for the first time and being overwhelmed at how you’re supposed to move two hands simultaneously—and independently—in order to make some kind of noise…

It’s taking your first drive as a student driver on the 5 lanes of the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago…

It’s not the way we do life; we start off with structure, with rails, with Rohr’s “Order”. But in so many ways, our modern culture throws all of us into the lake of “Disorder”, and then celebrates it as the ideal.

We may know that “Order” is not the destination, but we acknowledge it as a stage to go through, because maybe, just maybe, it’s the way to cultivate an emotionally/psychologically/spiritually healthy life. 

(To state it in the negative, to just jump in to “Disorder” and to declare that “infinite choice” is my right and my destiny as a citizen of the west just may be a short cut to anxiety and depression.)

So we acknowledge “Order” for a while. We know that eventually we will be called out beyond it (because our culture surely has enough of people who have never moved beyond the rules-oriented, black and white world of “Order”), but we accept that maybe it’s not an awful thing if we “learn the rules” (Just how DO I pick just one brand of toilet paper?). 

Maybe “Freedom” is ultimately about moving holistically and healthily through the stages of life, and then turning around in self-extending, compassionate love to help others do the same thing.

 

Blessings.

+e

 

The Theology Left in the Sponge

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Now that my daughter is away at college, it’s just my wife, my son and myself in our house.

And, according to Shana, somebody in the house is really bad about rinsing out the kitchen sponge.

About once a month, Levi and I stare warily at each other, each wondering exactly who is responsible for leaving a damp sponge sitting in the bottom of the sink, rather than drying out on the counter.

(I’m pretty sure I know who I’m suspecting.) 

A sponge is a funny thing: on the surface, it may look dry and clean, but when you put pressure on it, well, you see what is really going on.

It’s only when you squeeze it that you see what’s really inside. 

Kind of like theology.

I think our practical theology—the things that we really believe about God—emerges when we get squeezed.  “Squeezing” happens in so many ways in life…

It happens when the unexpected and/or unthinkable happens; when the phone call from the doctor includes the words you’d never thought you’d hear.

It happens when the ground shifts, and we go from solid ground to shifting sand in an instant; when a relationship or job or career that we thought was solid and reliable evaporates. 

It happens when the pressure is on, when the stakes are high and we are acutely aware that people, maybe a lot of people, are relying on us. 

It can also happen when we our guards are down, and we react instinctively to a situation. 

We can get “squeezed” in big ways and small, in really heavy and not-so-heavy situations, and when we do we tend to display or maybe betray what we really believe about God and life.

For years, I have been processing the idea that we are “saved”, not only by Jesus death and resurrection, but also by his life. He came to show us what life really could be like (or, even more to the point, what life really IS, when we choose to embrace and live into that Kingdom of God reality).

But also, for years, when I would get squeezed, for one reason or another, I found my language constantly retreating to the theological waters I had swum in for years, but had vowed to leave behind, waters that focused solely on the Cross as the act that saves us, that neglected the richness and spiritual/theological reality of the incarnation as the beginning (and beginnings of stories are no less important than middles and ends) of the great saving act of God.

So my prayers might be reduced to things like, “God thank you for the Cross. Thank you for saving us through the death of Jesus…”

And on and on.

Sometimes, however, the squeezing was more intense, and my thoughts were much more personal. Some darkness would fall, and I would find myself thinking things like…

“What have I done to deserve this?”

“I should have prayed more.” 

“I think I’m being punished.” 

In my heart of hearts I “knew” that God was a god of infinite love and mercy, and that to introduce a sort of “tit-for-tat” mentality into my relationship with Him was to negate the radical grace that characterizes His essence. But still I was tempted to do it.

What about you? What thoughts do you think about God when you are squeezed? What statements do you ask? What prayers do you pray, what questions do you ask when you are squeezed?

If they align with your deepest thoughts and hopes and dreams about God, it just might mean that (like me) you have a little more work to do, a little more to discover about yourself as well as God.

If you ever find yourself in a situation like this, I’d encourage you to do a few simple things:

  • Reflect and review. Be aware of your words and your thoughts about God. Now, this may not always be possible while the pressure is on and you are in the midst of “the squeezing.” But eventually, when you can breathe again, take some time and evaluate what your words actually said about the spiritual life, and ask yourself if that’s the reality you truly seeking.
  • Explore. Again, life is pretty much a “classroom” for us to learn more about ourselves and God, and when the pressure is on, we get an opportunity to see what’s really going on inside of us. In turn, we then get to react by exploring more deeply and thoughtfully: Why did my thoughts go to this place? What do I need to learn or experience in order to make my bedrock/core beliefs about God more of a reality? Ask a mentor to help unpack or explore more about God. Read a book. Pray.
  • Be Grateful. In general, nobody likes to be squeezed. Life sometimes happens in such a way that feels like we are being robbed of something. But there are also countless opportunities for us to be grateful for the pressure, for the curveballs, for the bumps in the road. They give us opportunities to learn more about what is actually capable in this life with God.

One more thought: it’s important to note that beliefs about God are not merely abstract thoughts that have no outward expression. Somehow, our core ideas about God and the universe have a way of finding their way outward, and affecting the way we live our lives.

Believe in a punishing God and you will respond in fear.

Believe in a tit-for-tat, reciprocal equation to God and the universe and you will try desperately to keep the math equation “zeroed out”, so that nothing bad will happen to you.

But what if God is a god of infinite love, who will never abandon you? 

What if God is as close to you in your suffering—when you are being squeezed—as He is when you are in the safest, most loved environment you can imagine? 

What if God just gives, no matter what or where we are? 

 

Just some thoughts. Blessings.

+e

 

Two Things That Christ Desperately Wants You to Know, Part 2

Welcome to Part 2!

Last week I suggested that there were two things that Jesus wanted you to know, and that these two simple concepts have the potential to jumpstart, restart, or simpley START your spiritual journey.

The first thing that we need to understand about reality (and ultimately, any spirituality worth its salt is in the end about REALITY)  is that “salvation is a life,” and you obviously you can read the rest of that post if you’d like.

The second reality that Jesus would love for his followers to understand is that not only is salvation a life, but we are active participants in that life.

(Or, at least, we should  be.)

Yep… this is the part where Jesus tells most of us to get off our butts and start engaging in our lives in such a way that he can be present in it with us.

Because the life we have to live can only be lived by one person, and one person only…

YOU.

You can’t live someone else’s life. Christ comes to no other person in the same way he has come to you, and what that means is that Christ comes to YOUR job…

… YOUR family…

… YOUR school…

… YOUR financial situation…

This is significant because there’s an insidious tendancy in matters of faith to think that spiritual things happen to, well, spiritual people

(and almost all of the time the “spiritual people” = not me).

But the thing is that the life Jesus comes to save and dwell in is not anyone else’s life. It’s yours.

Not only do you not have to wait until you “get right” with Jesus to start experiencing salvation, you actually can only do what you can do right now, in this moment.

Good spirituality is only ever about how you can experience the Kingdom of God now, in this moment and in this circumsances, not in “someone else’s” life, who is supposedly “more spiritual” than you.

(To be clear: I’m not saying that there’s not more spiritually mature people in the world: I know there are, and I’ve been blessed to experience life with some of them. What I am saying, however, is that some of us use our “UN-spirituality” as an excuse to stay dormant and stuck, when actually God says that

RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE…

                                                    RIGHT HERE,

                              RIGHT NOW,

YOU

          ARE

                    BLESSED.

(And that, my friends, is called GRACE.) 

 

The actual question is, what are you gonna do about it? What will you do with this life that is given to you?

Jesus wants to live his life in your life.

IF you want that, if you want to experience Jesus life in the midst of your life, what you actually have to do is arrange this life of yours in patterns and rhythms and experiences that actually resemble Jesus’ patterns and rhythm and experiences.

(There’s an old cliché here that actually is appropriate: If you want to do the things that Jesus did—meaning his miracles and such—than you have to do the things that Jesus did… meaning his rhythms and patterns and habits of life.)

A lot of us don’t think that way.

We’re stuck. We’ve been trying this “faith thing” for a while now, but instead of Jesus’ life of love, peace, transcendance we still seem to have “Eric’s life” of jealousy, laziness and too many chips and salsa.

It feels mundane, and definitely not spiritual.

We pray for something, and we try harder, but if we haven’t actually arranged our lives to look more like Jesus’ this practically amounts to a Christian version of crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.

In just the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, we are told that Jesus hangs out in “lonely places” to be with God. He rises before dawn to pray.

That’s just a hint of what we’re getting at: Jesus is able to do the things he does and experience his Father the way he does in because he makes himself available to the Father.

(It’s not about Jesus “working” for his father’s love, and it’s not about that for us either. God gives His love freely; it’s about what to do with this life that we are living.)

To put it yet another way, salvation is a life, and we are invited to practice it in particular ways, ways that Jesus (and other spiritual masters throughout the years) are very familiar with.

Metaphors and examples from art and sports serve well here:

You can call yourself a “musician,” but if you don’t practice the necessary skills to make music, it will be largely hit-or-miss as to whether or not you can actually make a piece of music.

You can call yourself a Christian (and remember, God does love you, regardless; His love is not optional here), but if you don’t practice the skills necessary to do live the life that Jesus wants to live within your life, it will be largely hit or miss as to whether you’ll be able to respond with compassion, peace, and love when the time comes.

You can call yourself a decathlete, but if you don’t practice … 

(I think you get the point.)

The “training regimen”, or practices that Jesus engaged in are historically called “Spiritual Disciplines.”

“Discipline” has now taken on a largely negative connotation in our culture (being sent to the principal’s office for “discipline”, usually involving—in my day—a swat with a board), but it’s original meaning has much more to do with instruction or knowledge, and even now in some contexts it can still refer to the idea of training yourself to do something in a habitual way.

We want to habitually respond to life the way Jesus would. We want to make it a habit to allow him to reign and rule—to live—in our lives.

The group of training habits and practices (disciplines) are fairly well defined. They include:

  • prayer
  • solitude
  • silence
  • celebration
  • service
  • worship

There are more, but these are a foundational core. (Actually Dallas Willard would say that an even more essential core would be: prayer, solitude and silence. You can see these lived out constantly in portrait of Jesus’ life that we see in our four gospels.)

This is our training regimen.

This is our practice. 

This is the life that we are called to, in order to see the salvation life that God holds out for us.

These two thoughts—that salvation is a life, not an “after-life promise”, and that we are called to actively participate in this life through practice and training—consistently have taken people beyond their circumstances and more deeply into the Kingdom of God. If we let them have a tangible impact on our day-to-day lives, they actually bring about the Kingdom within and among us. Jesus saw it and lived it in his day, and he wants us to know that we can see it and live it in ours as well.

That is a wonderful, subversive, revolutionary invitation, and one that is still desperately needed for the world today.

 

blessings and peace… as usual, please comment, like and share…

under the mercy

+e

 

 

 

Two Things That Christ Desperately Wants You to Know, Part 1

I don’t know if that title qualifies as “click bait” or not, but whatever: that’s the title that came to me, and what’s more, I believe it.

On one hand, I think Jesus lived in an utterly different reality compared to most of us. I think he dwelled in what might be called “the sacred now.” He lived in a dynamic, living interplay with his Heavenly Father, and I think that reality and relationship was on of the defining characteristics of his life and his ministry.

On the other hand, one of the things that I have come to understand through the years of seeking the Kingdom and pursuing Christ is that Jesus came to show us that we can live in that same reality. 

It’s available to us. Now. 

(As opposed to later, when we die.)

Throughout the stories and reports of his life, Jesus makes these remarks about the potential of life here and now, on this earth: 

One of his favorite “pronouncements” is that the Kingdom of God—a way of life that is soaked through with divine, loving potential—is available and present now, in and among us (Matthew chapter 4, Mark chapter 1, Luke chapter 17).

In John’s gospel, Jesus repeatedly refers to a life that is characterized by a “stream of living water” (that is, water that is flowing and moving) that is, again, available to human beings in their present reality, not distant. 

So, what if Jesus was telling the truth? 

I know for myself, much of my life has been marked by anything but that type of reality. Most of the time I found myself either waiting for a “magical” transformation (that never seemed to happen), or a simple resignation that I could/would never change until I died and then I could go “be with Jesus in heaven”, at which point I would:

  • get a harp to play and a toga to wear
  • sing some sort of vague worship song while living on a cloud
  • finally” be changed

This reality seems pretty counter to what Jesus was saying. According to Jesus, “salvation” is actually a life: a God-bathed, Spirit-directed life.

“Salvation is a life.” This is one of two closely-related ideas that I think Jesus desperately wants his followers to know. Furthermore, I think that if we had a conversation with him right now, he would tell us that to the degree that we can make this (and next week’s) truth a present reality in our lives, we would find ourselves radically, revolutionarily changed.

In fact, I think that one of the important reasons we have these “Gospels” (“Good News” stories about who Jesus was and what he did and why he was our long-awaited Messiah) is that they show just what a “salvation life” actually looks like.

(Hint: it looks like Jesus’ life: helping other people; healing others; being radically compassionate to the hurting; experiencing a joyful dynamic intimacy with his Father; the ability to endure setbacks and suffering; and finally the willingness to offer the totality of his life and body as an instrument to be used for the sake of others.)

The Biblical, Jesus-exemplified salvation is a life, not a death.

It is potentially now, not then. 

It is potentially here, not there.

I don’t know how that strikes you, but I remembered that when I began to wake up and open up to that reality a couple of things happened inside me:

First, I realized how much I had “settled” for something less than the Kingdom of God here and now. My sights had lowered, and I had given up hope that change was possible. I had nearly completely resigned myself to the idea that I would limp and stumble through my earthly life, repeating the same old mistakes and sins I had always committed, experiencing relief only when I breathed my last, and could finally “lay my burden down.” (Don’t get me wrong: I will be happy to lay aside some of my burdens, but it was really about where and how I was settling in my current spiritual life.)

Second, I realized how desperately hungry I was for this life. If Jesus really was offering me a life that looked just like his, and he was offering me that now, rather than later, I wanted it. I needed it. I was beginning to leave a trail of destruction, both in my personal life as well as in the life of those who were closest and most important to me. I wanted and needed this change.

So I guess the questions this morning are:

  • What does “salvation” mean to you? Is it “here and now”, or is “there and later”? 
  • What is your life capable of becoming? Do you believe that Jesus thinks you are capable of living a life like his?

Next week: the other thing that Jesus wants you to know.

Under the mercy,

+e

I’m so grateful for each and everyone of you. As usual: please like, comment and share. 

 

 

What Passes for Faith

NOTE: I’m on vacation this week in North Carolina, so I haven’t been writing a ton, but I stumbled across this short thought on faith, and thought I’d pass it on. As usual: enjoy, comment, and share. 

 

Let’s face it: if you want to fake something, “faith” is a pretty tempting place to start.

Faith: it can’t be seen, and currently the very concept is so confused and diluted that it’s pretty easy to just throw out an idea or two and slap a title on it that says, “faith,” and you’re in business.

(Maybe I’m doing that now?)

In my context, “faith” can easily be confused with:

  • going to the “cool church
  • signing on to the correct political agenda
  • seeking tight and easy answers to issues, ideas and concepts that are more easily represented by mystery and unknowing

Too often, faith actually seems like a journey or quest into certainty and control, rather than what it seems to be in the Bible…

… which is actually a journey into uncertainty towards a release of control.

It’s even more ironic when you consider that perhaps two of the most destructive drives—all the way back to Genesis 1—in our human nature are the drive to *control* and the drive to be certain, to “know“.

What’s more, sometimes I think that our faith leaders in the West are complicit in this confusion. We sell certainty and control through a variety of different mechanisms. Let’s face it: it’s easy to do, and it keeps people satisfied.

But I suspect some of us (clergy included) suspect, even hope that there’s something more hiding on the other side of all this apparent concreteness.

And, again, we need it. We need something more than this false security. Look around at our culture: we are still dominated by agendas that lack compassion, that seek domination, power and control, that are still primarily concerned with “yes but what do I get out of it? How do I protect my Kingdom?”

I think the message we hear from Jesus in the Bible takes issue with this perspective, and I wonder (a) if “Jesus people” even want what He wants (and let’s face it, Jesus wants a lot); and (b) if we church leaders are willing to go the extra mile to point people towards this deeper way of living.

I’m not excluding myself from this conversation: I know how hard it is to offer up everything to Jesus, and I confess that sometimes I also balk at this offer to surrender my selfish desires. And I also know that sometimes this Gospel doesn’t always sound like—on the surface at least—”good news” to the West, a culture that is build on more and more and more and radical individualistic freedom.

“This may cost you everything you think you need” is a difficult sell.

“The reward waiting for you after you have freed yourself from your desires is unbelievable, but unfortunately largely unseen” isn’t much easier.

And that’s what faith is.

For me, from what I’ve seen and heard and discovered in the few truly “holy” people I’ve encountered in my life, what passes for faith is a gentle detachment and acceptance of life on life’s terms, and an unencumbered dive into the mystery of life, and God.

It’s beautiful to behold, and I’d like to experience more of it in my life.

 

+e

 

Will Versus Wisdom

If you are a pastor, you may be a spiritual leader.

(Notice I said, sadly, “you may be”.)

If you are a spiritual leader, people may ask to meet with you.

If people ask to meet with you, they may ask you to speak into their lives.

If people ask you to speak into their lives, they might specifically want to know your opinion on exactly (more or less) they should be doing with their lives.

If they want to know all that, they may put it this way:

“I just want to know what God’s will is for my life.”

(This portion of the blog post brought to you by If You Give a Moose a Muffin.)

This desire to “know” looms so large in peoples’ lives, particularly in those under 35. There is some kind of nagging uncertainty about how to make decisions, and also a certain assumption that there is a “right” path (and, therefore, a wrong one as well).

So, the dialogues happen:

“I have this job opportunity before me, and I don’t know if I want it; I just want to know what God’s will is for my life.”

“I thought I was going to get married to this person, but it fell apart, and now I’m afraid I won’t have another relationship. I just want to know what God’s will is for my life.”

And so on, and so on.

I get it; I’ve been right there before.

I wanted to “know”.

When I was about 30, I was on the phone with a friend of mine who was weighing—guess what—a decision about a job. She had a job in the marketplace, and an opportunity came up to work at a church organization. She liked her other job just fine, but she also wanted to be more directly involved in ministry.

So she told me: “I just want to know what God’s will is for my life.”

Since then, I’ve sat down with countless individuals who have been processing the same question and, as I’ve navigated my own “high stakes” decisions (some of them great decisions, some of them not so great), my thoughts and feelings about just how to help my friends have been growing and evolving.

To put it simply: maybe it’s not about God’s WILL as much as it is about God’s WISDOM. Both of these concepts are squarely Biblical, but there are slight differences. (And no, this won’t be exhaustive, just meant to provoke some thought and consideration.)

WILL

Most of the time, the desire to know God’s “will” for our lives is a fairly binary, “yes” or “no” question. It’s one or the other; this or that.

Consequently, finding/getting/knowing that will is a pretty important thing, so many of us experiment with combinations of prayer, fasting, studying, guessing and closing our eyes and hoping for the best, because who wants to miss God’s will? 

(Answer: no one!)

Furthermore, oftentimes the “thought behind the thought” is that if I miss God’s will or go on the wrong path, it will mean suffering and misery (and conversely, the right path will equal peace and contentment). 

The problem with this thinking is that it brushes up against some pretty powerful stories and thoughts in Scripture that would push back on it.

One thought that runs a bit counter to this approach is that God created us with this thing called “agency”. In Genesis 1 we are told that we are created to “rule” over the earth. We are created with the ability to act, and while that ability has to be redeemed and refined in a post Genesis 2 world, nevertheless we are made to have agency and responsibility in this world.

But the search for “God’s will” can be paralyzing, and so many of us sit back and do nothing (abdicating our charge to reign in God’s name) while we wait to know…

It can make us passive, in a world that is begging for loving, gospel-oriented action.

And that waiting, that searching, can actually become an anxiety-producing circle. Will we ever really know? God tells us that His ways are not our ways, so certainty may never actually come.

Once I was talking with a 20-something woman who desperately wanted to be in a relationship, to be married the gap between her dream and the uncertainty was causing her pain and anxiety. She said, “I just want to know whether God has a husband out there for me.” (Translation: “Is it God’s will that I would be in a relationship and get married?”)

I gently responded by shrugging my shoulders and saying as lovingly as I could, “Who knows?”

We talked a little about how maybe what she could be focusing on instead was how she was growing now, and how she could cultivate God’s presence and healing in her life now, as opposed to focusing on a future that she could not control.

WISDOM

“Wisdom” is actually a genre of writing in the Bible, consisting mainly of Proverbs, but also Job, Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon), Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms.

Wisdom literature in the Bible is explicitly concerned with “how to live well.” How do you live a God-oriented life in the world?

Because some of the writing is imminently, almost annoyingly practical, for a long time, I considered these passages the most boring in the Bible. (Give me the Gospels, or Paul’s writing on mysticism and community, or the anger and urgency of the Prophets.)

But now I see them differently.

Now I see them as advice and tools for, well, living rightly.

(Once again, Eric is humbled by God and the Bible. By now I’m used to it.)

How do I grow spiritually?

How do I heal emotionally?

How do I make wise decisions?

What do I do with money?

How do I approach friendships?

Sure, some of the responses are short and almost anecdotal, but that does not make them any less effective for my life, provided I’m able to be humble enough to hear them.

So a “wisdom” approach to life and decision-making would focus on making decisions as best you can, learning from them, and incrementally getting better and growing.

You could say that wisdom assumes agency.

You could also say that wisdom assumes learning, and growth and evolution.

(It also assumes occasionally failing and stumbling, but that’s how we learn.)

Lastly, It also assumes a vital, dynamic connection to the Holy Spirit. The Bible refers the Spirit as a “guide” who will help us, and I take that pretty seriously. The Spirit does amazing, supernatural things (like healing and instant discernment), but She/He also is there as a daily, moment-to-moment guide for living.

SUFFERING AND SOVEREIGNTY

Before we get too far, let me try to clear something up: whether you embrace the way of wisdom or not, suffering does not mean that we have somehow missed the “will of God.”

All you have to do is to look at the Garden of Gethsemane, and eventually the cross.

I still believe that the garden (and then the Cross) are still very uncomfortable for those of us who would rather avoid the thought that a faithful Christian life can somehow lead to suffering.

And yet, there Jesus is, in the garden of Gethsemane. I can only assume that his intimate connection with his Father in Heaven has consistently lead him to do the right things at the right time with the right motivations.

(Or you could say, “He is squarely in the will of God.”)

But in this hour, he is suffering, and afraid, and prays, “Please take this cup from me.” The cup is the suffering, the agony, and the anticipation of what’s about to happen.

Jesus asks if maybe it can be avoided (I’d actually suggest that he knows it cannot.)

But God says, “No.”

And so Jesus does it: he allows himself to be arrested; he submits to the torture, to the humiliations, and eventually to the execution.

And the whole time, he is both walking the way of wisdom and he is in the “will of God.”

The two related lessons here are:

  1. (1)The way of wisdom accounts for failure: the presence of suffering in your life does not mean that you are somehow diminished or a “bad person”. It doesn’t even always mean that you are being persecuted. What it does mean is that you have something you can learn. There is opportunity to learn from mistakes.
  2. (2)Just because life is going “down and to the right” does not mean that somehow you have missed something, or have made a mistake. The sad and mostly painful truth is that sometimes life brings suffering; but because of the Story we live in we can know that suffering can bring about amazing, redemptive events.

Lastly, as we journey through life and walk through decisions, I think we can keep in mind that God’s sovereignty and power tell us that if we really are on the wrong track we can trust that He will let us know if He wants (as usual, pray for “open eyes and open ears.”). As I heard Erwin McManus once say, “Do you really not think that God can’t stop you from doing something that He really doesn’t want you to do?”

(See Acts: 16:6-8 for an example.)

BACK TO THE 90s

At the time I talked to my friend almost 20 years ago, I had just read a little passage in Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae. He tells this little group of believers,

since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. (Colossians 1)

In this little passage, Paul seems to say something pretty important about “God’s will” as it pertains to our every day lives. To restate, Paul says, “I’m praying that God fills you with the knowledge of his will through WISDOM, UNDERSTANDING and the Spirit.”

In other words, we can know God’s will through wisdom, understanding, and the Holy Spirit.

But then Paul goes on, telling the church that they come to know God’s will so that they can live a life worthy of the Lord and please him.

In other words, the question may not be so much, “Where should I work?” but “How well am I growing? Am I coming to resemble Christ?”

Paul goes on to unpack it even further. Living a life worthy of Christ and “pleasing him” means:

  • bearing fruit
  • growing in knowledge
  • so that (again with the results!) we can have great endurance and patience, AND (last, but not least)
  • be joyously thankful.

What’s so amazing about this is that when you think about God’s will in this way, guess what: you can enter “God’s will” whenever you want. 

When we choose to bear fruit, grow in gratitude, choose joy and patience, we are “in” the will of God. We don’t have to wait. 

So, if you’re in “decision mode” right now, here are some helpful questions that I would process, instead of “What is God’s will for my life?”

  • Where will I grow in patience and endurance? Am I growing in it right now? 
  • Am I being “joyously thankful” now? What about this potential change will make me joyously thankful
  • If I make this decision and it goes “south”, what can I learn from it? 
  • Are there trusted people around me (an aspect of “wisdom) that could give me advice on unforeseen outcomes of this decision? Have I talked to them? 

(Because His will for your life is that you grow to know Him more, that you bear fruit, that grow in patience and endurance, that you grow in thankfulness/gratitude.)

May you seek God’s will today. And be wise.

And make a decision.

+e

(As usual, thanks for sharing, commenting and spreading the word!)