An obscure verse from the Christian Bible has brought one of my longest-held beliefs into question.
Ever since my days as an evangelical Christian 40 years ago, my working model of God’s will has remained remarkably consistent. The basic idea is this: God has a specific intent for each of us, for each phase of our lives, and it’s our job to discern what that is. Does God want me to live out my life here or move to South Africa?Does God want me to take this new job or stay where I am? To find out, we pray, we listen for God’s voice in our deepest selves, we ask wise friends for their wisdom, and from all the input we make decisions.
That model has guided me in many life choices and borne a lot of fruit. I doubt I’ll ever abandon it, because on some level it seems to be the way God works.
But earlier this week, I came across 2 Corinthians 2:12-13. As the name implies, this is the second letter from the apostle Paul—arguably the most influential leader in first-century Christianity—to the church he founded in Corinth, a major city in ancient Greece. After discussing travel plans and recent visits, Paul briefly describes a stopover in the city of Troas:
When I came to Troas to proclaim the good news of Christ, a door was opened for me in the Lord; but my mind could not rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said farewell to them and went on to Macedonia.
As an evangelical, I heard about doors all the time. They were a much-loved metaphor for God’s will: God opened a door for me to do x, or God closed the door on my plans for y. Bottom line, when God opens a door, you’re expected to step through.
And Paul—didn’t. Couldn’t. He was too worried about his colleague Titus. So he basically said no to God.
If that sounds like the definition of sin to you—acting against God’s will—you’re not alone. But the verse doesn’t read that way. It’s more like God invited Paul to do something, Paul declined, and life went on.
Well, that’s different.
It feels more collaborative, more dynamic. God joining with us to chart a course through life, even trusting us to make our own wise decisions.
I’m a little ambivalent here. On the one hand, when God trusts you so much, that’s really something, eh? On the other hand, I’m not sure I trust myselfthat much.
Maybe what makes it work is the next verse: But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing God.
Wherever we go as people of faith and spirit, we will bear fruit. We will exude God and bring blessing just by being who we are. That gives us the freedom to act and not worry too much about whether we’ve missed God’s will.
The whole thing reminds me of a story from my old spiritual director. As the story goes, a beloved, respected Episcopal priest in Kansas received an invitation to serve a church in California. For days George prayed and sought God’s will, to no avail. Finally he went up to his church’s sanctuary, sat in a pew, and told God he wouldn’t move till he had an answer. “George,” God reportedly said, “I don’t care whether you minister here or on the West Coast. All I’m asking is for you to be faithful in ministry. Where you go is up to you.”
As mentioned before, I’m not ready to discard the practice of praying for God’s will, or at least divine wisdom. On the other hand, this new model intrigues me. How does it strike you?