Half-Finished Thoughts on Discerning God’s Will

We often approach the task of discerning God’s will quite dialectically: either this, or that. If we have free will–as I believe we do–we use that will to take one or another course, each of which is in opposition to the other. Some in fact predicate the concept of free will precisely on this dialectic of opposition. For about five years now, I have come to see that free will is not necessitated on such a dialectic, and comments from my priest yesterday gave me an opportunity to think through this less philosophically and more pragmatically.

I had a very fruitful discussion with my priest yesterday, and as is almost always the case, Father’s comments provide me with interesting matters to noodle on. One of those things was the notion of discovering God’s will by sort of meandering in to it. At least, this is what I took Father to be saying.

If, in fact, free will is predicated upon a dialectic of opposition, then this notion of meandering in to God’s will is fraught with soul-terrifying risks and dangers. One wrong choice and one might be doomed to a very, very long journey back–if ever one could get back. Not only so, but our mechanism for discerning between these opposing options is greatly damaged due to sin and death. That capacity within us by which we discern a thing to be good is broken and bent, and our ability to determine whether or not a thing is good or only seemingly good is highly suspect. Evil too often masquerades as good. Further, if free will is predicated upon a choice between two opposing options, then once we are in heaven, we lose our free will, because there we will have only the choice between an infinite array of multiple and qualitatively equal goods.

No, it has long seemed to me that our choices are not simply between a true good and an evil (which may be masquerading as a good), but, rather, sometimes the choice is between multiple goods (and in heaven this is the only choice, either this good or that good). We are finite beings, unlike God, and therefore we cannot be in two places at once. Therefore, when confronted with two goods (and let’s assume these are truly goods)–say, going with one group of friends to a prayer service, or with another group of friends to a soup kitchen–we may feel free to choose one or another of them with joy. But choices and actions always have consequences, and the events and interactions that happen at one location and with that set of friends will be different from those at the other location with another group of friends. And in light of those, one will make choices and take actions which will unfold into further choices and actions.

If I am not misunderstanding my priest, or misconstruing his words, it seems to me then that discerning God’s will in my particulars is a rich and exciting enterprise. As we choose one path, God opens to us another. And even if we choose wrongly, it cannot be that the God of love will fail to put before us new goods from which to choose. Of course, actions and choices have consequences. And wrong choices and evil actions will entail results that may be painful and regretful. But the joy of repentance is the resurrection of these new goods along our way. We may not be able to return to the path we were once traveling, but a new pathway may also reveal new vistas and new joys which a loving Father has for us. He will not give a stone to those who ask for bread.

I’m thinking here, of course, in very broad terms. I grew up and came to maturity with the evangelical notion that God has a plan (note the singular) for my life and it was my duty to discover it. And yes, this was very much an either/or proposition. If I failed to discover it, or having discovered it, failed to follow it, the remainder of my life would be lived with the understanding that I had failed to choose the good (note again the singular). So I spent a great deal of my early adulthood trying to figure out just what this one thing was.

Then I became Orthodox and when talk of our vocation came up I was given the reply: pray, fast, give alms (Matthew 6).

Yes, but what does God want me to do?

Pray, fast, give alms.

Should I be a priest?

Pray, fast, give alms.

Should I teach?

Pray, fast, give alms.

Others had other questions: marriage, monasticism, missionary work.

Pray, fast, give alms.

When I finally got someone to “get down to brass tacks” with me on my particular vocation: Oh, I was told, don’t worry. God will show you what to do. Pray, fast, give alms.

But what if I mess up?

Oh, don’t worry. Go to confession. Then keep praying, fasting and giving alms.

But what if I never figure it out?

You will have prayed, fasted and given alms. Isn’t that a good thing?

Yes, but . . .

Don’t worry. God will show you what to do.

So, am I just supposed to meander my way along?

To which came the reply: Unless your bishop grabs you by the shirt collar, or God gives you a vision or appears in a dream, how else will you figure it out? And anyway, bishops can be mistaken and we don’t trust visions and dreams too much. Too easy to get deluded. But if you pray, fast and give alms, God will show you what to do.

4 thoughts on “Half-Finished Thoughts on Discerning God’s Will

  1. Meandering, I think, is the hardest thing for American Christians to do. We demand a “goal” or a finish line even if we have to make one up and try to convince ourselves and others that God gave it to us.

  2. Multiple goods are not only possible, they are necessarily true. Else how can we all be made in the image of God, but be differentiated? Nothing is more damaging than the notion that there is only the ideal path. This is not what Christ meant when He said that path was narrow and rarely trod.

    St Maximus makes this point when he works out the matter of Christ’s two wills. And it is true that “letting this cup pass from me” was NOT opposed to the will of God. It was good. But Christ chose freely the will of the Father. He wasn’t in sin when He asked the cup to pass.

    Very important stuff for the old “simple God” western mind to grasp.

    When Christ will be all in all, we will not be obliterated, but fulfilled in our identity. As a friend pointed out, our pronouns are not currently to the task of describing this union-with-distinction anymore than we can describe the life of the Trinity (which is the very life we are invited to participate in by grace).

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