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!)

 

Advertisements

When I Grow Up

bible-1866564_960_720.jpg

In late 1988 (more from “The Vapor”) a folk singer named Michelle Shocked released a single called “When I Grow Up.” Since she was “home grown” (from Texas, where I was raised… mostly), we heard a lot of the song in Fort Worth. At the time, I thought it had a pretty solid groove, and a unique perspective, but at the same time a little quirky.

Here are the lyircs:

When I grow up I want to be an old woman
When I grow up I want to be an old woman
Oh, an old, an old, old woman

Then I think I’m gonna find myself an old man
Then I think I’m gonna marry myself that old man
An old, an old, an old, an old, a really old man

We’re gonna have a hundred and twenty babies
A hundred and five, ten, fifteen, twenty babies
Uh huh, that’s what I said a hundred and twenty babies

We’ll raise ’em on tiger’s milk and green bananas
Mangoes and coconuts and watermelon
We’re gonna give ’em that watermelon when they starts yellin’
Here’s what they’ll yell…

In the summer we’ll sit in a field and watch the sun melt
In the winter we’ll sit by a fire and watch the moon freeze
Me my old man and a hundred and twenty babies
Me my old man and a hundred and twenty babies
I said, me my old man and a hundred and twenty babies
Oh, when I grow up I want to be an old woman
When I grow up I want to be an oooooold…

Pretty cool.

Now, as I stare down a 49th year walking this planet, I’ve been thinking a bit about this song, and I hear it a little differently now. The lyric asks me questions now that I’m not sure I heard 30 odd years ago.

When I hear the song now I think about how being an “old woman” (or in my case, an old man) is so much more than an age:

Now I think about elders. 

More specifically, I wonder two things:

  1. Are people willing to seek out the wisdom of the elders?
  2. Where are all of our elders?

But here’s the deal: Question 1 is a bit out of my control, and frankly I’m just not that interested today in “complaining about the young generation”.

So, older people, I’m talking to US today.

Are we aspiring to be ELDERS? 

(For clarity, I’m not talking here about a position in a church. I’m using the term in a more global, traditional sense, of men and women who have…

… walked the paths of life

… probably fallen down once or twice (or 14 times)

… chosen to grow beyond their own egos and agendas

… (and consequently) have walked the road to die to themselves

… have begun the journey to separate from their earthly concerns and choose the peace that comes from detached loveing

… understand that life is more about what you can give than what you get…

THAT kind of “elder”.)

So, yeah, that’s what I’m wondering. The older I get, the more I look around me and wonder, “Where are the elders?”

I’ve been blessed to stumble across a handful here and there, but make no mistake, there are a lot of people out there who, even as the decades fall away behind them, are deciding not to grow up and be “an old woman/man.”

(And without going on another rant, our culture really doesn’t help much to discourage this resistance… Sometimes it seems that if you choose to remain immature and bound to your ego, and your agendas and small-self concerns well into your 60s, 70s or even 80s(!), then there’s an APP or a 24-hour news cycle or an echo chamber that will help you do that.)

But for me, the cost is too high. I think that I’m with Michelle on this one: “When I grow up I want to be an old man.”

The cost is just too high. I’d rather have the peace. I’d rather have the contentment. I’d rather have the patience. Maybe that would help someone younger; but that’s not up to me. What I can control is my availability to God and those closest to me.

God, make me an elder.

 

As usual… thanks for commenting and sharing …

 

 

Design Decisions

Design Decisions

Okay so I’m a sucker for design, especially modern design.

I could stare at Dwell for hours.

Frankly, I find great beauty in the clean lines and sharp definition; I feel peace when I see the discipline of editing and minimalism.

(p.s. These things are not always present in my life.)

One of the striking features about excellent design is the forethought that goes into material selection and function. Over and over again, you can see this played out in spaces with features that actually look better now than they did when they were new (in some cases maybe 40 or 50 years ago).

In other words, good designers make choices today with the future in mind. They are asking, “How will this doorknob, this pull, this frame look when it has been used 5,000 times by children’s hands…

…when it has been beaten by the wind…

…when it has been broken and repaired…

The point is this: The best design decisions—and materials—age well. It’s not about price or perfection, it’s about what a building, or a piece of art (or anything with intentional design) will look like when it has aged. When “life has happened” to it.

This is profoundly similar to our lives.

Most of our lives—both in terms of our “stuff” we have and the decisions we make—isn’t designed to age well, if at all. 

We buy for the short term; we organize and decide for the here and now.

Cheaply designed bookshelves break rather than age…

Hasty choices can be the same way. 

But what if we took a step back and asked, “What are the one year implications for the way my life is designed now?”

How will my life’s “design decisions” age over five years? Ten? Twenty?

Because that is the evidence of good design. We’re not supposed to look perfect; but we do have the opportunity to show the scratches and weathering of good use and design with a long view.

“Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds on a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is build on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds his house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.” (Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel, 7:24-27)

peace

===============================================

Wanted: Pastor of Wisdom

Recently I was talking to a friend of mine. He was the lead pastor of a church we started together up in Chicago, however he left a couple of years ago just to take some time off and consider some possible new directions for himself in ministry.

Unfortunately, the economy dropped into the pooper, and church budgets are definitely hurting; finding potential jobs in ministry (or anywhere, for that matter) has been difficult. Not only that, but my buddy definitely doesn’t fit the mold of a “typical” evangelical pastor, personality-wise. Quite like me, he’s not really a “Type A” personality. He’s contemplative, quiet. He’s content to not dominate a room when he walks into it.

We were reflecting on the culture of pastoring nowadays: even though he’s successfully planted and sustained a church (which is more than a lot of pastors can claim), he’s readily passed over due to his relatively mild personality and also, his gift mix.

“You know,” he said, “when I took my spiritual gifts inventory years ago, I was told that I have the spiritual gift of wisdom, and I totally resonate with that, but you know what? Today’s church seems to not need wisdom.”

We laughed, but it’s a bit scary. The gifts that seems to be sought after by the church nowadays are definitely leadership, apostleship, and creativity (in the form of communicating or playing music). Combine any of these with a hard-charging personality and any obvious skill or ability in your chosen ministry field, and you can pretty much guarantee yourself a job on staff somewhere.

But my buddy and I also have been reading the Book of the Acts lately (that’s right, I said the “Book of The Acts”: it’s a more accurate title), and we were struck by Acts 6:

2So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”5This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit…

Wow. So the first criteria to run a “food pantry” for the early church was not a passion for the homeless and/or the gift of administration. It was that you be “full of the Spirit and wisdom.”

I repeatedly encounter church staff that are incredibly skilled individuals, but not as many that could be considered “wise.” Maybe it’s just me, but I connect “wisdom” with a depth of knowledge, and a quiet willingness to apply that knowledge to life in a gentle, practical way.

I wonder how different our churches would appear if the staff that they sought out were wise before they were skillful. If they were encouraged to develop the work of the Spirit in their lives rather than to merely “get things done.” If you are blessed to serve on a church staff already, are you leading out of a depth of wisdom, or merely dispensing your duties? Are you seeking to engage in discussions that develop the deep places of your life, or merely interested in “playing that guitar, monkey boy?!?”