How is it that everyone seems so sure of God’s will except me? According to music interviewer Neil Strauss, Lady Gaga says of her success, “It’s hard to just chalk it all up to myself,” and explains that there is “a higher power that’s been watching out for me.” He also quotes Christina Aguilera, “All of this isn’t something that I did. It’s something that is totally there for a purpose.” Says Christina’s mother, “We thought it must be some divine intervention. Early on, I realized … God has plans for her.”
Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rogers said to the media before the Super Bowl this year, “God always has a plan for us.” I’m not convinced that it was God’s plan for Christina Aguilera to botch the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. However, the Green Bay Packers did win.
I’ve always admired people with a faith that knows exactly where God is leading them. They’re so certain what to do, what to think, what to believe. Some pastors know exactly which church God wants them to serve and make sure the Bishop and cabinet know it. Other pastors proclaim that God has spoken directly to them to make major changes in the congregation without any regard for equally pious church members who have somehow received a different word from God.
Meanwhile I just muddle along, often unable to distinguish between what God wants and what I want. In fact, sometimes I suspect that God’s will keeps me from what I want the most. I listen but don’t often hear. I pray but don’t always receive answers. I discern, but it’s like looking through a mirror dimly. I don’t want to miss the signs of God’s presence, yet I’ve learned the hard way how easy it is to misinterpret those signs to suit my desires. After all, why would God favor my personal success more than that of my neighbor?
We are good at setting goals and plotting out our lives. God is calling us to do this, that, and the other thing. But when this, that, and the other thing only leads to heartbreak, we get stuck. Did we go off on a wild goose chase? Was it really God leading us to disappointment, doubt, and despair? Or were we simply fooling ourselves?
It’s tempting even for committed Christians to turn away from the faith when hard times come. At some point the bubble bursts for all but the most fortunate. We are diagnosed with cancer. Our teenage daughter’s struggles take us where we never expected to go. It’s been two years, and we’re still looking for work. Our marriage ends. We suffer big time and can’t figure out where God went. Our hopes and dreams are shattered. Life will never be the same again.
Eventually, most of us emerge from the darkness wiser, gentler, and more compassionate. God’s grace becomes most real when we are at our lowest, for there is nothing else to which to cling. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Fulfilled life is possible in spite of unfulfilled wishes.” That abundant life has more to do with servanthood, vulnerability, perseverance, and hope than material prosperity, ladder climbing, and status.
This Sunday is called Transfiguration Sunday. On this last Sunday before Lent, we remember how Jesus told his disciples at Caesarea Philippi that he had to go to Jerusalemwhere he would undergo great suffering and die. When Jesus was rebuked by Peter, he said to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
I can’t imagine that Jesus was eager to go to Jerusalem. No one, Jesus included, jumps at the opportunity to be crucified. Even in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
What gave Jesus the strength and single-minded purpose to head toward certain death? It happened 6 days later when Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a high mountain, and he was transfigured before them. Jesus’ face shone like the sun, his clothes were dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah appeared, talking with him. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Essential to Jesus’ journey to Jerusalemwas the confirmation not only that he was God’s beloved Son but that suffering was central to his identity and mission. Jesus’ experience with Moses, Elijah, and God up on the mountain bolstered his confidence and enabled him to endure. Ultimately, it was Jesus’ death on a cross that led to the mysterious possibility of resurrection, hope, and new tomorrows.
Does this mean that God’s will is for us to suffer through life? By no means. God never wills that anyone experience tragedy, addiction, abuse, oppression, or violence. God wants only the very best for all of humankind. God desires that we experience fullness of life and become all that we were created to be. And when the inevitable hard times come, God gives us the courage to grow strong in the crucible of suffering.
When we have a deep sense of purpose, believe in ourselves, and use the gifts God has given us, we can change the world. The motivating and transformative power of divine conviction is a sight to behold. At the same time God never promises that every dream will come to pass, for the truth is that our motives are always mixed, our sense of God’s will is usually a bit askew, and if we don’t botch the National Anthem, it may very well be the Lord’s Prayer.
Like Peter, James and John, who begged to stay on the mountain, we, too, build our huts so that we can keep God’s will fenced in and tamed. Jesus, however, drags us back down into the valley, where God roams at will, teasing us with visions of fame and success one day, then rightsizing us the next. So how can we discover God’s will?
- We empty ourselves of any desires, compulsions, and habits that prevent us from hearing God. By quieting all of the voices in our head clamoring for our attention, we are able to be more attentive to God’s nudging. In the discernment process of decision-making, we call it shedding.
- Jesus often went away by himself, not just to rest, but to face his own temptations and realign himself with God’s call. Can you retreat to a quiet place for a week or more without your computer or cell phone? We see ourselves much more clearly when we are free from distraction.
- How do you best connect with God’s intentions for your life? Some walk in the woods or head to the water. Others sit outside, in the back pew of the sanctuary, or have a favorite “God corner” in their home. Exploring the scriptures, reading devotional material, and journaling are important. Train yourself to be a contemplative in a world of doers so that you remain grounded in God’s promises.
- The confirmation of the community of faith has played a key role in discerning God’s direction since the earliest days of Christianity. Checking our sense of God’s will by engaging in holy conversation with a spiritual director, pastor, small group, or wise one in the faith helps to focus our call.
- When we are aligned with God’s will, we bear fruit for the kingdomof God. I will contest anyone who tells me it is God’s will for them to harm someone else. I will challenge anyone who claims that God’s will includes betrayal, violation of others, oppression, or mean-spiritedness. I will be skeptical if the only intended result of following God’s will is personal fame, wealth, or status. On the other hand, when the pursuit of God’s will brings healing, hope, light, shalom, reconciliation, and joy, the angels in heaven rejoice. When we bear fruit, we are doing God’s will, even when suffering accompanies the journey. “You will know them by their fruits.” Matthew 7:16
I suspect that I will always struggle with God’s will simply because God is God and I am human. I will never be able to fully understand the fluidity, mystery, challenge, and otherness of God. Therefore, I choose to thank God always, whether I win or lose that Oscar, whether I can purchase one of the few remaining tickets to see Lady Gaga on Tuesday at the Van Andel Arena or can’t, whether I am sick or healthy, whether I receive that plum appointment or don’t, whether all my dreams come true or don’t.
As we prepare to enter the 40 days of introspection which we call Lent, I invite you to consider that perhaps God’s will has less to do with what you accomplish in life and more to do with how faithfully you live your life. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:6-8)