Usually, when someone comes to me seeking advice or counseling, he or she will ask, “What should I do?” rather than “What is God’s will?” But since they’re asking me—a priest—I kind of figure that they are the same question. In a religious context, when we seek the “right” direction for our lives, we’re searching for God’s will in the circumstance. I think there’s an implicit acceptance that if we choose to do that which is God’s will then we will have made the correct choice and, for the most part, good things will happen.
But that makes me wonder: can I ever choose something that isn’t God’s will? Before we jump to extreme examples, let’s start simply. Chocolate or vanilla? Which ice cream should I choose? Well, I’m not sure how that decision affects the divine order of things, but I’m pretty sure that whichever one I choose will be God’s will for me in that moment. Either way, I’ll likely be happy, and I think God, like the late George Steinbrenner, likes ice cream. Let’s take it up a notch. Should I quit my job and go back to school full-time to pursue a dream I have? Ah, that’s a little bit trickier. Or is it? Can one make the “wrong” choice?
That depends on how one defines right and wrong choices. If I quit my job, go to school, eventually find a new job that pays more and gives me more fulfillment, one might consider that a “right” choice—doing God’s will. If I quit my job, go to school, fail to graduate, fail to find another job, and bring my family to financial ruin, one might consider that a “wrong” choice—not doing God’s will. But to look at it that way would be to evaluate the outcome on purely human criteria. In other words, that’s to say that God’s will is only to produce human success and that any other outcome couldn’t be God’s will. Surely God’s providence isn’t quantifiable purely in terms of financial, emotional, or even physical terms.
Can we ever choose to do that which isn’t God’s will? Or, to put it another way, are our wills free enough to choose a path that God has not planned for us?
In today’s lesson from the New Testament (1 John 5:13-21), we read about aligning our will with God’s will in an argument that sounds circular: “And this is the confidence which we have in him [Christ], that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.” I’ve sat and stared at those lines for a while this morning. And this is what they’re saying to me: If we ask something that accords with God’s will, then God will hear us…and whatever we ask that is in accordance with God’s will shall be given to us.
On the surface, that seems obvious. If we ask God for a new car but the new car isn’t God’s will for us, then we probably won’t get a new car. But, if for some strange reason God wants a new car to fall from the sky and land in my driveway, then it’s going to happen. Perhaps an easier way to state that is this: if we ask it and it’s God’s will then it will happen. Or, to take it one step back, if it happens and we are in a position to see the connection then it is God will. Right?
As Christians, we’re supposed to turn over our lives (cares, concerns, worries, choices, etc.) to God. How does that happen? I think by getting out of the way and trusting that whatever happens is God’s will—even the bad things. Sometimes adversity is a gift of God. And we can usually see that…as long as the adversity is temporary and not too painful. For example, being turned down at a job one really wants can often be seen as God’s will. The challenge is realizing that, in even the most difficult moments of our lives, God is still in control. Although almost unmentionable, that says something about illness, death, poverty, destruction, and more. We don’t like associating God with struggle. We like thinking that when bad things happen it’s our fault, and when good things happen it’s God’s will. But that’s a pretty shallow view of both us and God.