The will of God is not a ‘fate’ to which we must submit, but a creative act in our life that produces something absolutely new . . . . . Our cooperation consists not solely in conforming to external laws, but in opening our wills to this mutually creative act” (Journals of Thomas Merton).
I distinctly remember the visceral ripping away of years of debate and anguish about knowing the will of God for my life when I first read this quote. These were my questions: What exactly does it mean to say that God has a “will”? Isn’t God’s will the same for everyone – desiring an intimate relationship with each of us? How do I know what God’s will is for me? What if I never find his will? What if I refuse to do his will? Years of teaching Merton’s concept of our collaboration with God have shown me that many Christians have the same difficulty with understanding the will of God.
A friend told me the most disturbing story I’ve heard about seeking the will of God. A college student was preparing to leave academia and make her way in the world. She wanted to make sure she was “in God’s will,” but she was confused. She knew she wanted to be a missionary, but she wasn’t clear about whether God wanted her to serve in India or China. Since she didn’t want to make a mistake, she decided not to be a missionary at all. Merton would say, I think, that wanting to use her gifts and talents as a missionary would be a creative activity that God would be delighted to partner in – whether it were in India or China or her own hometown.
Dallas Willard speaks boldly to our many questions about the will of God in Hearing God:
“There is a neurotic, faithless and irresponsible seeking of God’s will, which is always taking its own spiritual temperature. In this state, people are far more concerned with being righteous than with loving God and others, and doing and enjoying what is good. . . . We may insist on having God tell us what to do because we live in fear or are obsessed with being right as a strategy for being safe. But we may also do it because we do not really have a hearty faith in his gracious goodwill toward us. If so, we need to grow up to Christlikeness, and nothing short of that will solve our problem. Certainly more words from God will not!”
Given our understanding that God wills to collaborate with us in faithful lives of service and that we are safe in his Kingdom no matter what loving tasks we undertake, how can the spiritual disciplines help us as we mull over the will of God in our lives. Here are some small practices that may be useful:
- Keep your eyes open as you walk through your Christian life. Where is your heart calling you? What fascinates you? What intellectual and spiritual gifts do you have to offer God? We often are afraid to learn God’s will because it might be something stark and frightening that requires a sacrifice which makes us forfeit what we love. Why would your Creator want to consign you to a life you will not enjoy or not be good at. God is a conservationist: He wants to make use of what He has created. God delights in working with us as we create a life of joyful giving and service.
- Spend time alone. Often. Intentionally. Without a sense of Duty. Without your phone, i-pad or computer. We can’t hear God unless we listen. We don’t have to go on 3-day retreats – although I have found those opportunities to be not only meaningful but also delightful. We just need to step away from our lives (as Jesus often did) and listen.
- Find a spiritual director. Meet with that person monthly. That person will be the Holy Spirit’s conduit as you listen and speak together. I remember when I retired for the last time. I was happy with the decision, but somehow felt guilty that I wasn’t being productive. The bottom line was that I was afraid that God was upset that I wasn’t busy for him; I wasn’t doing his will. My spiritual director listened to all my angst and then said, “Maybe right now God just wants you to rest.” What a lovely gift of permission he gave me. In years that followed I did find ways God wanted to create something new with me, and I accepted them joyfully. But I never forgot the creative act of rest that my spiritual director shared with me.
Transformed lives can transform the world. Finding the sweet spot where we and God can work together in his world, collaborating, creating, and loving, creates transformation in our lives and in our worlds.