No question is either more poignant nor more misguided on the lips of a Christian. It cuts particularly deep because it is most often spoken by the young or by those who feel they have lost their way. It is misguided because it makes a large number of false assumptions about the nature of our relationship with God as well as false assumptions about our human capacity to know what God wants. It is a question that has been created by a culture of Christian pietism within the context of a secular culture that expects absurd decisions on the part of individuals.
The Culture of Pietism
Classical Protestantism, rooted in the thought of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, had very definite things to say about the authority of Scripture and the nature of our salvation. However, none of them were particularly keen on individual experience or private revelations. Their most immediate followers tended to systematize their thought into very rigid doctrinal expressions. It was designed for creating catechisms and training people in “sound doctrine.” That training was not unlike learning the multiplication tables. It produced good Lutherans, Calvinists and Zwinglians.
But it also produced a reaction. Coming from various directions, the reaction was a rejection of “dry” dogma and the promotion of a “religion of the heart.” What mattered was emotional devotion to Christ – religious experience. This “Pietist Movement” had examples throughout the Protestant world, and even examples within Catholicism. In time, it became the basis of the modern Evangelical Movement (as well as Pentecostalism, Charismatic, and various modern “Renewals”).
One deep aspect of individual pious experience was “doing the will of God.” The freedoms that accompanied the breakdown of the Medieval world, particularly in the vast opportunities of America, heightened the sense of private direction from God. The success of many, in wealth and inventiveness, and in other aspects of life, served to suggest that some had been more properly guided than others.
The great revivals in America created a “success” model within Christianity itself. Larger crowds, larger Churches, popular influence were all seen not as unique, but as products of guidance and obedience. “If you do the right thing, good things will come.”
There are certainly stories within the Scriptures of individuals being guided by God. Most often, these are prophets with specific missions and tasks given to them by God. Other times, they are rulers with the need for specific things. The New Testament (particularly in the Book of Acts) gives examples of God’s intervention. He speaks to individuals and sends them places, even telling them what to expect and do. These isolated examples were universalized in the teaching of Pietism.
It is not that Christians haven’t always made decisions or wanted Divine guidance in the process. Wesley (as I recall) admitted to have used the method of randomly opening the Bible and pointing to a verse for guidance (he was not proud of it). Such practices can sometimes be little more than a fetish.
What Is the Will of God?
But should an individual expect to know the “will of God?” The answer is both yes and no. The Scripture actually tells us what the will of God is:
In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1Th 5:18)
Some will be disappointed by this revelation. Popular Christian culture has subscribed to many of the myths of our times. Those surrounding success and happiness are among the deepest. We are taught in various places that by choosing the right path (job, marriage, vocation) and pursuing it with commitment (education, patience) will be rewarded with success and good outcomes. We are told, “What could be better than making a living doing something you like?”
But this is tragically flawed. Imagine saying to a child, “What could be a better Christmas present than getting a toy you like?” And then, as we all learn, every toy becomes dull in time. Likewise, all jobs become work.
It doesn’t mean that all jobs are equal or that we would not rather do some forms of work rather than others, but happiness is not the product of our choices and their rewards.
The underlying message of modern pietism in its various forms (including Orthodox) is that there is nothing wrong with us that the right choices and right rewards will not fix. All that is needed is right information.
But this is not the teaching of the Christian faith. This brings me to the harder word of this article: we generally do not “know the will of God” because we are sinful, broken, full of pride, anger and the other passions. We do not know the will of God because we do not know God Himself. And that knowledge, in whatever measure, comes as the fruit of repentance (meekness, humility, self-emptying).
Some seek to get around this spiritual disability by getting a word from someone “holy.” Thus the guidance of an “elder” is sought, much like our pagan ancestors turned to oracles. The sure word of an elder can indeed work wonders in our lives – but not as information (we are not saved by information). The word of an elder may very well set in motion the cascade of life events that works to our salvation. If it does this, it has done well. If it has not done this, then our lives have received no benefit. For our salvation is the will of God.
For this is the will of God, your sanctification [being made holy]: (1Th 4:3 NKJ)
There are, of course, many decisions in life for which we seek guidance. “Should I marry this person?” “Where should I go to school?” “What should I major in?”
As a priest people come to me with such questions from time to time. I tremble. Who am I to know the answers to such things? But I often think, “If you need a word from God to know whether to marry a person, then you’re not ready to get married.” It would be a better situation if you needed a word from God not to marry someone.
Should I become a monk? Do you like doing what monks do? If you don’t like it even a little, then I would think not. But there is a reason that the monastic life doesn’t begin with vows. Unlike marriage, you get a trial period.
Should I become a priest? Does anyone else think it would be a good idea? If you want to do it in order to make a living, then do something else.
Most people throughout most of history have done with their lives as they have, because they had very few choices. The diversity of modern economies creates a range of choices never imagined in human history. It also “works” because it can ignore those who “choose badly” and provide them with welfare or minimum wage. The messiness and inefficiency of the modern system is paid for by the failures of those who do not succeed. The guy flipping hamburgers helped buy your middle class happiness. He was cast in the role of a bit-player in the drama of the modern economy.
Some mistakenly say that the New Testament supports slavery. It does not. But it recognized the nature of the economy in which it lived. And St. Paul’s comments are quite applicable to us today:
Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave. (1Co 7:21-22)
St. Paul doesn’t endorse slavery, but he recognizes that many will have no choice. If you have a choice, “Use it!” he says. But for many who will have no choice, he suggests something else: “Do not be concerned about it.” For we are “Christ’s freedman.”
All of which brings us back to God’s will for our lives. What is God’s will? To keep the commandments and to give thanks for all things. Do these things and you will be changed from glory to glory into the image of Christ. Some slaves were so transfigured. And some rich men weep and howl to this day (James 5:1).