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!)

 

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The Rule Behind the Freedom Behind the Rule…

I don’t know about you, but there is a constant tension in my life of faith between my efforts to grow, and the call to rest in God’s love, forgiveness, and grace (“unmerited favor”). Most of us would readily say that Jesus came to set us free from “rules” and works-based faith, but the reality is much more subtle than that simple platitude.

In the first place, most Jews of Jesus’ day had no illusions that they (just like the Christians) were children of grace. They knew that their very existence—as a people—was as a result of God’s preemptive action in the Exodus. The law came after God set them free; their obedience came out gratitude for God’s liberating action. They knew that YHWH was a God of lavish mercy and forgiveness, and they rejoiced and celebrated that forgiveness.  So when Paul (or Peter, or the Gospel writers) proclaims that God freely forgives, and that forgiveness is based not based on our works, he is not actually proclaiming anything radically new to a Jew.

But there’s more.

Paul has a troubling habit of talking a lot about “works”—these works from which Paul is (supposedly) telling us we have been freed. Paul never really says, “Don’t do works.” However, he does constantly say, “Don’t trust your works to save you; work, but still trust in Jesus’ saving work on the cross, and God’s faithfulness.”

A great example of this tension is in Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae, particularly in the section between 2:6 and 3:18.

In this section, Paul constantly emphasizes our freedom in Christ. It culminates with verses 20-23:

You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, ‘Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!’? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.

Paul certainly wants us to avoid relying only on rules and “discipline” to transform us. But it’s not quite that simple, because shortly after telling us to not rely on “rules”, Paul reminds his readers (and us) that we do need to do a few things, and one thing in particular.

For Paul, it all revolves around 3:10: “Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him.”

In other words, though we should not rely on rules for our salvation, it is our responsibility to:

  • Put on our new nature
  • Learn to know our Creator
  • Become like him

Paul goes further in the verses before and after this one (all from chapter 3):

  • set our sights on—and think about—the realities of heaven (vv2-3)
  • put sinful things to death (v5)
  • get rid of anger, rage, etc. (v8)
  • don’t lie (v9)
  • clothe yourself with tender-hearted mercy, etc. (v12)
  • make allowance for each other’s faults (v13)
  • teach and counsel each other (v16)
  • sing psalms and hymns (v16)

Actually seems like an awful lot to do!

But as I read this passage this morning, it seems it all flows from the three things in 3:10 (put on our new nature, learn to know our Creator, and become like him). That verse struck me as the culmination of the passage; everything—the lists that Paul writes before and after—flows from that.

Still, that’s no small thing.

In summary, I’d say that, even though entry into God’s Kingdom and His people is utterly free, with the only requirement being humility and a belief in Jesus’ work and faithfulness, God (through Paul) actually does expect His people to have a character and presence in the world.

He expects us to be different, specifically by putting on our new nature (identity in Christ), learning to know Him, and becoming like Him.

So, today:

  • are you willing to embrace the notion that God wants to partner with you in your change?
  • are you willing to orient your life around the three things in 3:10 in order to allow Him to change you?