“Just pray about it.” This is the phrase we throw around in Christian culture when someone needs to make a decision.
“I prayed about it and God said to…” What we say after we’ve made the decision.
The idea is that one must carefully discern each step of life to stay on a divinely ordained path. Derailing from the path means veering away from the bountiful blessings God had prepared for those who stayed faithfully on it. We were to heed the wisdom of God in discerning life decisions from big decisions of who to marry down to which party invitation to accept.
Over the years I have seen so many of my Christian friends suffer severe spiritual anxiety over seeking the elusive will of God that I feel I must speak out and put an end to further unnecessary angst.
A note: please know that I understand the theology behind praying about our life decisions. I know it comes from a desire to cultivate an intimate relationship with a God who is concerned about the smallest details of our lives. We want to be seen, heard, and cherished by a God of love. I know it is a deep reverence to involve and honor God in our everyday lives—a profound mark of humility. I appreciate the gift of evangelicalism in giving us access to casual conversations with the divine.
However, I also cannot deny some problematic aspects in our practice to seek the will of God. Here are seven reasons why:
1. Superstitiously scrambling for signs. (Wow, I love when I can alliterate like that.) Some people testify to an audible voice of God, but most people don’t have such direct access to God’s instructions, so we must rely on other methods of discernment. While I am a big fan of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, to lean on the balanced wisdom between tradition, scripture, reason, and experience, others insist upon more glamorous ways of deciphering God’s calling. For example, I have often heard Christians say they flipped open the Bible and found the exact verse which spoke exactly to their situation and solved their dilemma of that moment. I’m sorry but I do not think the Bible works like a magic 8 ball, to do so cheapens a careful reading of Scripture’s overarching narrative.
2. Blueprint worldview. I recently learned this term in my friend Jessica Kelley’s new book, Lord Willing, in which she tells the story of losing her 4 year old son. She says she grew up with a perspective where the will of God was pre-designed like a blueprint for our lives. Some people believe God is the Grand Architect whose will is laid out meticulously like a blueprint. For those who do, they must contend with the logical conclusion that God had intended for sweet little Henry to die at the tender age of four.
For an alternative perspective, what are you waiting for, go buy Jess’s book!
3. Bad guilt. The spiritual anxiety I alluded to earlier often comes when my friends and I would pour sweat trying to grasp accurately at the will of God because the consequences of missing the mark was high. It was frightening to feel the threat of veering outside of God’s blessings. And when we inevitably made bad choices by nature of being human, the guilt is eagerly waiting as our familiar companion. Shaking its head at me, Guilt seems to say, “sorry, you messed up…yet again. Have you met my friend, Shame?”
4. The God card. I see this one played out in unfortunate ways especially in the mission field and other Christian organizations. There is this prevalent thought that if a ministry is in accordance with the will of God, then it will be blessed…magically. This is a correlation of the prosperity gospel. If a project gets funding, or attracts large amounts of attention, then it must be God’s will and that is why God has “opened doors.” And vice versa, if a project dwindles or encounters challenges, it must not be God’s will. I consider this using the God card to justify laziness in doing critical evaluation of our own ministries. Seeking the will of God smells suspiciously like chasing success, and that doesn’t lead to faithful outcomes.
5. Dismisses intuition. Seeking the will of God could be a good reminder that we need perspectives outside of ourselves, that God is God and we are not. This is wise. However, it can potentially erode our sense of intuition, and cause us to not trust ourselves when something feels “off.” This has caused great suffering to vulnerable people who stayed in abusive situations because they couldn’t trust the voice inside of themselves telling them to run.
6. Misuse intuition. On the other hand, when we do use our intuitive sense to make decisions and claim that we’ve heard from the voice of God, this can lead to a dangerous lording of power over marginalized people. What is intuitive to the powerful is often a vantage point from a social location shaped by forces that have benefited them, and is not an accurate view of reality. The most poignant and painful example is that slaveowners held their Bibles in one hand and the whip in the other. Atrocities have been committed in the name of the will of God.
7. Minimizes the presence of God. Probably the biggest reason I stopped striving to seek the will of God was because I realized I didn’t have to. The biggest lie I rejected is that God is only present to those who walk according to God’s will. There’s no adventure I can take where I could possibly be outside of God’s scope of expansive love. There’s no suffering so deep, no sin so unpardonable, no mistake so grand where God won’t walk right alongside me and all my imperfections. The only striving I do these days is to be, as Mallory Ortberg says, the best 30% of myself. I make my decisions allowing for a wide margin of error, and handle the consequences, be they rewards or disappointment.
The only thing I need to know about the will of God is God’s will to be with me. The rest, I can handle.