Thursday, August 28, 2008

How I Became a Christian Part IV

Responding to recent posts, commenter Hugh has been emphasizing the absurdity and danger of uncritically seeking “God’s will” for every detail of one’s life. It may surprise him, but I agree. As I have told my story, I have described a handful of points in my life when God seemed to be guiding me down certain paths, mostly ones that I wouldn’t have chosen on my own. These have only been examples, highlighted because they were significant for the course of my life, but if the impression I have given is that this guidance is only occasional, that is the correct impression. Unlike the conscience, which is pretty much always there if you take the trouble to listen, God’s voice is much more elusive.

John’s Gospel compares God’s spirit to the wind, unpredictable and uncontrollable, and this has certainly been my experience. Though it is possible to stifle God’s promptings, just as it is possible to deaden one’s conscience, it is not possible to force God to speak. Most of the time, we are left to think and decide for ourselves, in dialogue with scripture and the community of fellow believers. Though Christians believe God’s providence encompasses the whole of our lives, trusting in God does not mean expecting him to plan out every detail thereof, nor does it mean giving up your responsibility to make wise decisions. As I recently argued concerning the Bible, Christianity does not expect unthinking conformity, but calls us into a dialogue. Above all, it calls us to an outward-focused life, which is the antithesis of obsessing over one’s own needs and desires.

I suspect that one important reason for this, as for why God doesn’t always answer prayer, is because he intends us to grow into spiritual adulthood. He intends us to be the kind of people who choose rightly on our own, who can be genuine partners with God in the world, and not remain spiritual and moral children indefinitely. I think this is also why new converts tend to see even their foolish prayers answered more directly. At the least, I can say that the promptings I have described have steadily decreased in frequency the longer I have been a Christian, and I don’t think this is a coincidence. As a parent, I can understand the principle very well: I will do many things for my one-month-old son that I expect my two-year-old daughter to do for herself. Though God may make his presence especially known at first, he doesn’t intend to take over our decision-making process for us, nor does trust in “God’s will” excuse you from critical thinking, though it does mean stepping out in trust without knowing how things will turn out.

But if this is how God works, then like immature children, we can sometimes react badly to God’s refusal to coddle us. For instance, while God expects us to grow into responsible, decision-making adults, it is possible to take this take this too far and convince yourself of God’s sanction and approval of your own self-serving and destructive plans. Oppositely, it is possible to become so obsessed with knowing “God’s will” for every detail of your life that you become utterly indecisive. Over the years, I’ve at times been guilty of both extremes.

For example, one summer in high school I felt like God was calling me to fast. Now if done right, fasting can be a very healthy practice, both spiritually and physically, but I didn’t take any trouble to learn about how to do it right; I just stopped eating, thinking God would tell me when it was OK to eat again. Well after a few days and no such signs from God, I gave up and ate a meal. I then felt guilty about it and started the fast over, this time obsessing over every meal, whether it was “God’s will” for me to eat. As you might expect, after a few days I broke down and ate again, felt guilty again and started over. This very destructive cycle of eating and not eating, obsessing over God’s will, but really just inconsistently following my own desire, continued for several weeks.

Eventually, my pastor discovered what I was doing and advised me to stop, emphasizing that this was not the proper way to do a fast, and I took his advice and gave up on it. In truth, the affair did me no good, but it does provide a helpful illustration of the danger of treating what we think is God’s will as a license to stop thinking. Perhaps if I had approached it critically from the beginning, and stuck with it, it would have done me good (after all, I've known plenty of people, that pastor among them, who have found fasting to be a very helpful discipline), but my immature and inconsistent approach had no such positive effects. Indeed, to this day the very thought of fasting makes me uncomfortable, and I've never tried it again, which is a shame, really.

In any case, a more significant example involves my decision on where to attend college. I mentioned that I met the woman who I would eventually marry just two days after my family moved. We hit it off right away, and it wasn’t long before we became very close (though I told myself that we were “just friends”). She was a year ahead of me and the next fall she went off to the local liberal arts college while I started my senior year, fully intending to go to the same school the next year. So when the time came, I applied, was offered a scholarship, and accepted.

By that point, however, I couldn’t shake the fact that I was breaking my commitment not to date in high school, and that we needed to take a step back from our relationship. Like with the fasting incident though, I wasn’t very thoughtful about it, nor did I seek out anyone's advice or guidance. I didn't even discuss the matter with her; I simply informed her that we shouldn’t see or talk to each other for a while. And from March through May of my senior year, we didn’t.

It was a very difficult time, particularly for her, but despite my foolish and insensitive approach, it wasn’t for nothing. Not long after the break up that old feeling came back (for the first time in a long while), and quickly it became clear that I had chosen where to go to college based on her, and this was not where I should be going. This was extremely hard for me to accept, but I trusted God and went looking for other options, eventually settling on a school in Canada, and withdrawing my application from the first school. I was extremely disappointed that I would be leaving the woman I loved, but the new school looked to be a good fit and I felt comfortable with the decision, though I dreaded telling her about it.

Little did I know that over those two months she had been going through much the same process, and when I finally told her what I had decided, I was shocked to discover that she too had come to the very same decision. Soon after, I graduated high school and we began dating (“again”). But that was when I started to second-guess myself. Though the decision to attend the school in Canada had been made for good reasons which had not changed, and I didn’t even feel any prompting that it was a mistake, I wanted certainty about “God’s will” in the matter, and kept asking for some kind of sign to confirm or condemn my decision. None came, and by July I had no choice but to make the decision for myself, and went ahead and confirmed my registration.

Perhaps God wanted me to grow up and be decisive, or perhaps he just didn’t feel like repeating himself. Who knows, but despite all the subsequent obsessing, the decision turned out to be the right one. That fall we headed off for the new school, which (thanks to an excellent exchange rate) ended up being cheaper without a scholarship than the first would have been with one. In the end, the program I majored in (Biblical Studies) was not even available at the first school, and the new school ended up being just what I needed. But I had also learned an important lesson: Like any relationship, following God requires both trust and decisiveness. Neither obsessive hand-wringing about his wishes, nor uncritical acceptance of one’s own will do. He’s not looking for unthinking drones who expect to be told what to do with every detail of their lives; he’s looking for partners in his work in the world.


spud tooley said...

that calvinist God can sure be a major cross to bear, can't He?...

a former AA sponsor of mine made me start looking anew at the idea of 'God's will' - seeing it more like my wants and desires for my kids, that they'll make good choices, chase dreams importantant to them, and occasionally knock my socks off in something they do.

if there's no element of surprise from where He sits, God must be a pretty bored old codger...

mike rucker
fairburn, ga, usa

Unknown said...

This was a brilliant post - thanks for sharing it!

I'm with you in believing our relationship with God does require both faith and confident decision-making, however also know that the more I listen for God's voice, the more I hear it. Or at least what I think is His voice! lol

I've a friend who talks about the "just pizza" effect - when everything that pops into your head is interpreted as the voice of God when, in fact, it might just be the pizza you ate for lunch! It's an easy trap to fall into.

Anyway, nice post.

I'm holding a blog tour in a few weeks and would love to have you participate. Here's a link with some mre information if you're interested.

Blessings, Ava