Last week during my weekly Emmaus gathering, one of the men asked, “How do we know the will of God? Does God have a plan for me?” These questions started a discussion that reflected many theological views. One of the men believed that his life was planned by God, although God’s plan was more in macro versus micro terms. Another person said that he prayed each morning, “God, what do you want from me today?” Then he trusted God’s guidance throughout his day.
The following Sunday morning, I listened to a man who worked in TV broadcasting. He started off his presentation with a verse from Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV): “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” God was speaking through the prophet Jeremiah to the captive Hebrews who were deported to Babylon in 587BC. Just like the Hebrews who experienced the peaks and valleys of life, the speaker described his personal ups and downs. Knowing that God had a plan gave him hope. That same Sunday morning during worship, our congregation prayed the Lord’s Prayer which contains the words “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10b, NRSV) How do we know God’s will?
I spent over a year trying to theologically understand vocation. This is a broad subject that has evolved over the last two thousand years of Christian history. Like my Emmaus group discussions, there are various theological opinions. Most scholars believe that God is involved in our lives, but they diverge over the amount of God’s involvement and how God’s plan actually works. Scripture is clear that God is involved, first through the Hebrew people and then after the birth of Jesus, God’s involvement expanded to the Gentiles. The primary activity was God calling individuals to faith and asking individuals to perform certain tasks. People were allowed to freely choose other activities such as occupations, marriage, and leisure.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another (New Seeds, Boulder, CO, 2007, pages 60–62). He wrote this book after being invited to lead the 2001 John Main Seminar in Sydney, Australia. John Main (1926–1982) was a Benedictine monk who advocated contemplative Christian meditation. In his book, Williams writes about the “great Anglican monastic theologian Herbert Kelly. When asked by one of his [Kelly’s] novices, ‘How do we know what the will of God is?’ Kelly replied, ‘We do not. That is the joke.’ In fact, Kelly is right. We never know precisely what the will of God is.”
This may seem sacrilegious to some, but it is theologically sound. Unless you are one of a very select group of people who have a direct encounter with God, like Saul on his way to Damascus or Moses with the burning bush, precisely knowing the will of God isn’t achievable. God gives humans free will that allows individuals to use their God-given gifts towards loving their neighbors in diverse ways.
How does a person make decisions with this freedom? “God leaves the question about his will to a process of discernment of our free will. The discernment goes like this: We have to choose between a number of courses of action. What course of action more fully resonates with the kind of life Christ lived and lives? What sort of action opens up more possibilities for God to work?” Discernment is reached through prayer and consultation with mentors. “The very process of reflecting and discerning makes space in ourselves for the life of Christ and the creative movement of God. To the extent to which we truthfully and sincerely make that space, we are already in tune with the will of God.”
The subject of freedom of choice may seem too expansive. Some may be fearful of making a mistake or failure, thus possibly disobeying God. “Even if we go on to make a mistake, we have not done it by shutting the door on God. We have done our best to leave room for God in the decision we made. To the degree we manage that, we really do (in some measure) God’s will. We must simply leave God room and freedom to salvage our life from whatever mess our decision may bring with it.” God’s will can even include failures, especially considering how many failures there have been throughout human history.
Williams wrote his book so that the Church rediscovers contemplation. Our faith is exhibited through our interactions in the world, but Christians should allocate part of their busy lives for contemplation which allows the spirit of discernment to enlighten God’s will. It starts with a question, “God, what is your will for me?” and then the dialogue begins.