For Christians, knowing God’s will entails an understanding of who God is and what God desires for our lives. This we believe God has revealed to us through the history of the Jews and, especially, through Jesus Christ. The ongoing guidance of the Spirit in the life of the Church also deserves our consideration, but it is in the Bible that we find the resource par excellence for discovering God’s self-disclosure to us.
From beginning to end, the Scriptures teach us about God’s will.
- Adam and Eve are told to not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge
- Abram is told to leave his home and journey to a foreign land.
- Moses is instructed by the Burning Bush to confront Pharaoh, and is given specific guidance along the way.
- The Jewish people are told to live by the Law. They also receive orders to take control of the promised land -- by force, if necessary.
- The prophets are told to speak God’s word to the people.
- Joseph is instructed via a dream to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt.
- Jesus is led to the cross.
- Paul is constantly instructed by the Spirit on where to go and what to say.
These are just a few examples; there are many, many more. Some of them seem to be along the lines of what I called “marching orders” in our previous conference. Others are more general, such as the admonitions of the prophets to keep the Law in order to remain in covenant with God. Happily, the “Jansenist metaphor” is nowhere to be found; biblical spirituality is much more positive and holistic. Happily, too, the “happiness metaphor” is implied all along with way, although it is qualified by several principles, which we will discuss briefly (again, as an “opening statement” for discussion purposes).
1. Do Not Sin
The first principle we can easily identify is that it is never God’s will that we sin, for any time we do, we break relationship with God, to some extent (depending on the seriousness of the wrongdoing). Several of the commandments in the Law address areas of special importance:
- taking God’s name in vain;
- dishonoring one’s parents;
These prohibitions are not unique to Judaism; virtually every religious tradition forbids these kinds of acts, as they all seriously damage our moral and spiritual life. We know there is much nuancing that needs to be done about all of these -- e.g., is it always wrong to kill, or steal? Understood. Nevertheless, the principles remain, and even after nuancing and identifying the “exceptions to the rule,” we are morally obliged to avoid what we recognize to be wrong-doing.
This principle also enables us to say that sinful actions -- even those committed by others -- are not God’s will. God allows them to be committed insofar as God creates a human being with the freedom to do so, but beyond this kind of metaphysical concurrence, God does not participate in or approve of evil-doing. Sometimes this metaphysical concurrence is called God’s permissive will, and is contrasted with God’s moral will. And sometimes when people speak of something bad happening as God’s will, they really mean to be saying God’s permissive will -- that God allowed it to happen. If we’re hearing this as a statement of God’s moral will -- that God intended the evil that happened -- then that can be a real turn-off. How can one speak of a good and moral God while affirming that God intends and approves of evil acts? It is impossible, and, furthermore, doing so is not supported by Scripture.
There is much life to be lived without indulging sinful behavior, and the message of the Bible is, “have at it!” That’s a minimalistic understanding of God’s will, to be sure, but it’s quite freeing in many ways. “Do not sin, and do as you will,” is the message. Obviously, the Bible has much more to say about God and God’s will for human beings than this, but keeping this first principle in mind is foundational, harking back to Genesis 1. There we find God saying to our first parents, “Here’s the garden; have fun; enjoy; only avoid the fruit of this tree; it’s not good for you.”
2. Love God
At first glance, it might seem as though this principle has little to do with discerning God’s will, but, like the one above about not-sinning, it indicates the proper context for discernment.
It is a wonder of all wonders that the great, mysterious Being responsible for the creation of the universe has been revealed as One who loves and can be loved. An old saying has it that we become what we love, and so this revelation of God is congruent with that of Genesis 1 that we were created in God’s image and likeness.
For Jesus, the love of God is the first great commandment. Echoing the Hebrew scriptures, he tells us that we are to love the Lord our God with our whole heart, whole soul, whole mind, and whole strength (Lk. 10: 27). When we do so, we come to realize and actualize our true spiritual potential; we become who we were created to be. We discover deep happiness and peace, a peace the world cannot take away (Jn. 14: 27).
The relevance of this principle is that it enables us to evaluate options in the light of God’s love. This is especially good to remember when we’re going over things with our minds, weighing pros and cons, etc. -- all very necessary, but sometimes not especially fruitful. Often, the best thing is to simply set everything aside and turn to God for God’s sake, just to grow in love and relationship. This is what Twelve-Step support groups call putting “first things first.” God is first! What do the options look like when we’re established in a God-first perspective? Does one stand out as more inviting? Do you feel an aversion for another? Pay close attention to your reactions.
Sts. Augustine and Alphonsus Liguori are both credited with saying, “Love God, and do as you please.” They are not condoning sin, of course; we’ve already established that avoiding sin is necessary. They are indicating that if we love God, then what we come to desire will be congruent with and even expressive of God’s will for us. I recognize this truth in my own life. Ministries and services that I had an aversion for 30 years ago have become the basis of my professional career. I would have never believed this to be possible, but God changed my will and desires. Amazing! I’m sure you’ve seen the same happen in your life as well.
3. Loving Self and Others
The second great commandment follows from the first. The relevance of this principle for discernment is that it helps to focus, in a general way, the kinds of priorities we give consideration to. In fact, it is often clarifying to change one’s language to reflect the priority of love; instead of saying “what is God’s will?” some might prefer to say “what is the more loving things to do?” This need not signify a neglect of religious considerations if we keep in mind that Scripture teaches us that God IS Love itself and what God wills for us is that we love one another. Therefore, it would be very difficult to affirm as God’s will an option that would lead us away from loving self and others.
Even with this kind of re-focusing of the issue, however, it’s still not always easy to know what a more loving decision or lifestyle might be. What do we mean by “love,” for example? Surely, it’s more than just warm feelings or attraction. Often, it entails weighing a variety of values against each other. For example, I have a friend who is considering moving his family to another city to work for a company that will provide employment that he would find more enjoyable and financially profitable. His family doesn’t want to move, however, and another complicating factor is his duty to care for aging parents, who also don’t want to move. Attending to self-love as the highest priority would make it easy for him to decide; he would move to the other city and drag everyone else along (unless they adamantly refused, of course). Attending to what familial feedback and obligations are telling him moves him in the opposite direction. What, on the whole, is the most loving thing to do? Some kind of sacrifices will have to be made, no matter what option is chosen. Nevertheless, if love is the over-riding concern, then there will be peace.
There are other biblical principles we could explore, but these three are the main ones. What they outline is a very general perspective for discernment . . . what we might call God’s general will for us, in contrast with God’s particular will in specific situations. God’s particular will has a narrower focus, and we will give more attention to this in future conferences. For now, what we recognize is that the particular is discerned within the context of the general, about which Scripture gives us clear guidelines.
Practically speaking, what this means is that we need to keep ourselves alive and well within the context of God’s general will. We do this by
- avoiding/renouncing what we know to be sinful;
- cultivating love for God through prayer, worship, study, etc.;
- striving to be loving in all of our relationships, including our behavior toward self.
By attending to these biblical principles, our will becomes conformed to God’s will and our behavior changes. “This is the only what to discover the will of God and know what is good, what it is that God wants, what is the perfect thing to do.” (Rm. 12: 2). Still, discerning God’s particular will often requires additional reflection and even experimentation, as we shall discuss in future conferences.
See http://www.christiananswers.net/q-dml/dml-y001.html and http://www.intouch.org/myintouch/exploring/bible_says/G.../discern_146154.html for further reflection on biblical principles for discerning God’s will.
Questions for Reflection/Discussion
1. What questions and comments do you have from this discussion?
2. God's permissive will . . . moral will . . . general will . . . particular will: do you have questions about these distinctions? Do you find them helpful?
3. What practices help you to maintain yourself in God’s general will? How do you know when you’re not living in this context?
4. How does it feel to be making decisions within God’s general will versus outside of this context? Share an example on the forum, if you’re willing.
Phil wrote: "It is often clarifying to change one's language to reflect the priority of love; instead of saying, 'what is God's will?' some might prefer to say 'what is the more loving things to do?'
Somewhere I read another good question that further clarifies or expands our thought when faced with a moral decision ---- does it enhance or decrease human dignity? This seems to be a good test in caring for the dying. It just now occurred to me that even when I criticize another, I infringe on dignity, my own as well as theirs. Mea Culpa!
What practices help you to maintain yourself in God's general will?
The Mass and Sacraments are primary, but that would not be efficacious enough for me unless I also had a well developed prayer life, hopefully "listening" through the daily Scriptures and in the events of the day. Last Fall, our Church had a mission on "Centering Prayer" with a six weeks follow-up. Twelve of us decided to continue meeting on a monthly basis to discuss more teaching material on the "Evolution of Consciousness" and allowing the Spirit to dismantle our False Self by sharing and praying together this way.
How do you know when you are not living in this context?
I would lose my peace. I would begin to backslide into a fear based faith, rather than a faith based on trusting in God's love for me.
Question: "Marching Orders" can really get our attention. While trying to say yes in action, how does one discern the "timing"? The Scripture stories you quoted seem to say that God gives clear and constant instruction, but isn't this usually hindsight? You might include timing in your discussion of God's particular will in specific situations. In other words, something I need to do might be quite clear but the when and how might still need further discernment before I act in God's particular will.
Thanks for starting us off, Claire. I like your point about questioning decisions in terms of which will enhance human dignity. That's very clarifying and is something we can all certainly relate to.
The focus of centering prayer -- to consent to God's presence and action within -- is a wonderful way to cultivate the kind of willingness I was referring to when speaking of "God's general will." As you noted, it also puts us in touch with our willfulness, or resistance to God. . . the false self. We don't want to be letting that "character" make too many decisions for us, do we?
I seriously doubt God will use visions, dreams, or some sort of supernatural phenomenon to communicate His plan. That was His method long ago....
The above quote is taken from one of the links that were given and I want to disagree with it. Another friend of mine who also has a long line of terrible things happening to her (husband dying whilst on honeymoon to mention one)and who also has a strong faith, felt something was wrong health wise. She went to her doctor who said he could find nothing. She then had a dream in which she was suffering from cancer. Returning to her doctor and insisting that he make more test and telling him exactly where her cancer was, it was discovered that the dream had been correct.
One response I have to Phil's question, "What practices help you to maintain yourself in God’s general will?" is first to have the desire to know God's will for me in the first place. If I am not open to or truly desirous of discerning God's plan for me, or not willing to do the time-consuming work of discernment, making decisions would be easy. But that's not me!
Someone's post to the first discussion quoted Merton's Prayer...a prayer that I, too, have found to be very comforting: "My God, I do not know where I am going...and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing..." This desire and openness, I believe, is key to discernment.
I agree with Sue that I believe God does use dreams to help convey God's plan for us. I have found work with my dreams to be very enlightening and God-led to assist me with issues going on in my life in the present.
I, too, have found scripture to be helpful in the discernment process. God's Word continues to have life and meaning for me, for us, if only I (we) will afford ourselves the time and space to let that Word seep into our hearts.
I believe that dreams can be used to learn about myself and in what ways I am out of balance. I have studied and done Jungian dream work for several years and believe that the Spirit speaks to me through my dreams. The challenge is to learn how to interpret them. It helps to study Jungian Psychology(in particular archetypes) and under the guidance of a Jungian Analyst. I think God still speaks through visions. I believe visions are more rare now due to our rational mindsets. I've read that we use a very small percentage of what our brains are capable of. Our right brain capbilities such as intuition, transcendance, and openness to 'wisdom within' needs to be more developed to listen to the Spirit within.
Sorry I am late. I posted a reply twice from another computer and it did not go through, so here I am tonight. "What practices help maintain me in God's general will?" I have found several things helpful when I am trying to discern what God intends for me. I love the bible passage "Be Still and know that I am God." Sometimes the most difficult things is to "sit on my hands and wait." Asking what is the most loving thing to do really resonates with me. It seems to simplify the searching. I work the 12 Steps daily in my life and we have a very simple saying that simplifies things for me, "Trust God, Do what is before you to do, and help others." I have found most of these things helpful, in that it keeps me out of the analyzing and keeps things simple. Usually, my intuition tells me that there is a way to go that brings peace to me.
One example was when I attended nursing school at age 31. I had a 6 year old son with asthma, a 13 year old daughter and a problematic marriage. I really did not want to do all the work in front of me, but at the same time, I was determined to do it. Nothing could have stopped me. I was very concerned with not missing any days of clinical or class, regarding my asthmatic child. During this time, I had a sense of peace that everything would work out if I relied on God. Miraculously, every situation I encountered, from a sprained ankle during clinicals to a sick child, seemed to just smoothly work out. I never questioned that I was doing the right thing at that time in my life, and that God was right beside me.
I have had a few other times when things just seem to fall into place. Usually it is when I have had the patience to wait and not rush into something. When bad things happen, I usually look for something to learn from the experience. I was taught that "God can bring good out of anything, if we but ask." Thank you for all the information, Phil. As I go back and re-read it, it begins to fall into place. I can see where I grew up with the Jansenist idea and how I "avoided" God as a result. As I began to believe that God wants us to be "happy, joyous and free", I learned to trust his love more.
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