For many of us, the will of God is like a page from the Franklin Planner I once used before changing to a Palm Pilot. Complete with a page for each day, my Franklin Planner included space for a to-do list. Alongside the list was a column for the letters A, B, and C, indicating the urgency of the task: A was for urgent tasks, B stood for tasks to be done in the immediate future, and tasks to be completed over a longer period of time were marked with a C.
All of us keep to-do lists, if not always ones as complex as the Franklin Planner kind. What most of us don't want to admit is that we often write in tasks that we've already completed but forgot to list and then check them off in order to give ourselves a sense of accomplishment.
In a similar fashion, many of us are haunted by the notion that the will of God is a list of things to be done. The list is longer for some, shorter for others. There are those whose list focuses on a handful of life's decisions-choices related to crises, crossroads, and questions of vocation. For those of us who think in those terms, a great deal of life is lived out on our own recognizance. But at a few points along the way-because we find the choices either difficult or potentially life-changing-we turn to God for direction.
The challenge, of course, is in knowing when and why God might care about the choices we make. A further complication arises when we realize that some of life's apparently less significant decisions can have profound impact on the ones that seem more important. Choosing the location of a new home, for example, might not seem particularly significant. A hundred and one choices associated with that task involve your aesthetic senses. Do you like living in an established community or in a relatively new one? These are choices that have no wrong or right answer. They are a matter of preference. But the choices you make may shape your friendships and determine the kind of school your children attend. And that complex mix of choices may have an unanticipated impact on whatever you and your children decide to do with your lives-including a choice of vocation, for example.
And then there's the issue of consequences. If in fact what seems to be a completely inconsequential choice is fraught with questions of God's will, how often can you go wrong in the course of a day as you weigh choices that seem to be of little or no significance? If you were meant to have cereal and you order a bagel instead, will you suddenly be out of touch with God's will for the remainder of your life? Is there something between the short list of crossroads, crises, and vocational choices, on the one hand, and the comprehensive moment-to-moment list of choices, on the other? If there is, does it represent a more balanced approach to life?
The answer is yes-there is an alternative. But strictly speaking, it does not lie on a spectrum between longer and shorter lists.
Can we lose the one thing we long for the most? Read more >>
The desire to have a list stems from a desire for the reassurance that it offers us. If you manage to determine the will of God step by step, choice by choice, you also enjoy the confidence that you are right where you should be, step by step, ambiguity of the decisions we are forced to make, all of us crave the kind of confidence that a list could give us from time to time. Who would not love to know that this relationship, not that one, will be enduring or fulfilling? Who would not like to know that this job will work out well and that one will be a disaster? Who would not like to know where our choices will lead us-which doors to the future they will close or open?
Why This Kind of Certainty Is Enough
The problem for many of us, of course, lies in putting aside the Franklin Planner list and embracing that open-ended future. Suddenly there is not just one possible kind of world or one set of appropriate choices. We lose the one thing many of us long for most: the one and only right answer.
But if you struggle with that loss, then reflect on this: what you fear is not finally the loss of God, whose love Paul promises us is our gift in this exciting experiment we call life. What you fear is the loss of the list. In other words, what you fear losing is not at all where you should focus your faith-if you can call knowing the one and only answer "faith" at all. What you are losing is only a proximate authority-a substitute for trusting God.
Our faith should rest elsewhere, and the best image I can offer is this. Years ago my sister-in-law and her husband had five very young children. I was impressed. I am not a real parent. I have one child, and I have never had to say, "Stop touching your sister," or, "Leave your brother alone and stay on your own side of the care."
Their family room was the center of endless activity, with games, toys, and projects. Grape jam was occasionally smeared on the refrigerator door, and a sign over the kitchen cabinet read, "A CLEAN HOUSE IS A SIGN OF A MISSPENT LIFE." You never knew what was going to happen in that family room on any given day. There was endless proving, probing, and discovering. But this much was always clear. The things done, the mistakes made, and the lessons learned were embraced by the gracious and loving presence of the parents.
The same is true for those of us who are children of God. We make the wrong choices. Some of them are stupid or thoughtless. Others are willful and self-indulgent. We risk doing some things that fail, and we do other things that succeed so well that even we are surprised by the results. Sooner or later we fall and scrape our knees or smear grape jam on the refrigerator door. To expect more from life-to insist on perfection or certainty-is to live in a way that is deeply out of touch with our fallen and frail nature. Through it all, however, we are promised God's love, and that is enough. Freed to roam the family room that God has created for us, we are invited to laugh, love, seek, and discover that which is "good, well-pleasing, and perfect."