4 Steps for Discerning God’s Will Up Close and Personal

Having a general idea that God wants to be in relationship and that he wants me to be fruitful doesn’t help me with specific decisions, like a career path or a spouse.  I make choices every day, and most don’t seem to have anything to do with God.  What does “choosing God’s will” mean in my daily life and work?

This post rounds up four steps based on what Jesus taught about God’s will that answer this question in a very personal way.  No two people will come to the same conclusions after taking these steps.

Step One: Examine Gifts

We are not given equal abilities or identical opportunities.  The unique combination of opportunities and talents that God gave singularly to you is your cosa nostra with God.  It’s something only the two of you share.  The first step for discerning God’s will on an  intimate basis is to acknowledge those gifts given uniquely to you. 

Step Two: Examine Boldness

If scripture is any indication, God doesn’t intend for us to play it safe.  God called an old man to uproot his family with no clear destination, an unwed teen to get pregnant, and his own son to death by torture.  On the other hand, he doesn’t expect us to face life’s challenges alone under our own power.  Those who trust in him receive awesome grace.  “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Matthew 7:7)  The second step is to put your gifts to use in a manner so bold that you are sure to need God’s help.  It glorifies God when we collaborate with him in this way.

Step Three: Examine Compassion

We can use our gifts boldly to lift others up or to cut them down.  Jesus’ ministry of free healing and open table radically challenged cultural norms, and if we dare to follow his example, he leads us to relate to God through relationships with others, including the despised and outcast.  Ask yourself: Am I going about my daily life and work in a way that promotes egalitarianism or in a way that excludes?  Does my daily life and work contribute primarily to the well-being of others or to my bank account?  Do I focus on safety for my inner circle or security for all?  Step three is to exchange attitudes and actions that leave people out or drag them down for attitudes and actions that embrace all and lift people up.

Step Four: Examine Motive

Many of us take right actions without the right frame of mind.  We want credit for going through the right motions, but we stop short of looking at the true motive in our hearts.  Are we driven by unquenchable love and a desire to work in partnership with God?  Or are we racking up credits, paying our dues while banking on a future reward?  Step four is to look on all your daily tasks, important and tedious, as your very personal and unique offering God.

A career in ministry is not the only way to do God’s will or to put talents to a bold and compassionate use.  When we find joy in serving God, even in the small things, and that joy becomes our motive in all we do, we have found new intimacy with God in our daily life and work.

Join the conversation.  Where do you find intimacy with God?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Making God’s Will Personal: Step Four-Examine Motives

One can find “cosa nostra” with God by looking to the gifts God gave singularly to her and by putting them to use boldly for the sake of God’s glory and the welfare of her fellow man.  It is possible, however, to take right actions without the right frame of mind.

Jesus’ parable of the prodigal illustrates going through the right motions with the wrong motive.  Both sons love earthly stuff more than serving the father.  One broke the rules and one followed the rules.  The one who followed the rules generally had an easier go if it.  Confronted with the father’s rejoicing upon the prodigal’s return, however, the obedient son’s resentment reveals he was not serving his father out of love and thankfulness for all the father gave.  He wanted earthly rewards for his obedience.

The rule followers among us are especially at risk of failing to recognize a misplaced motive.  We want credit for going through the right motions and for exercising self-control.  Self-control, after all, isn’t easy.  It’s a lot harder than following every whim.  Why does self-control seem to get less reward in the bible than a major failure mea culpa?

Self-control has its own rewards, of course.  Or rather, lack of self-control begets its
own punishment, a la the prodigal.  The real invitation, here, is to examine the true motives in our hearts.  Are we racking up credits, paying our dues banking on a future reward?  Or are we driven by love and desire to share joy with God?

Medieval rabbinic authority Maimonides recognized the dichotomy between actions and motives. He defined degrees of teshuvah.  Often translated “repentance,” teshuvah is the process of turning back to God and it requires sinning to stop.  To stop sinning due to fear of earthly consequences is a lower degree of teshuvah than to stop sinning due to fear of divine consequences after death, which is yet a lower degree of teshuvah than to stop sinning due to a change of heart.  To stop sinning because of love is the highest degree of teshuvah, but it is not required for forgiveness.  Maimonides establishes that lesser modes of rapprochement are fully adequate.  God yearns for love but right actions lead us towards him.

Biographer, novelist, and translator of seventeenth century religious classics H. L. Sindey Lear (1824-1896) suggests the small things are our best training ground for spiritual growth.

“When persons have learnt to look upon the daily course of their ordinary life, with its duties and troubles, however common-place, as their offering to God, and as the safest school for themselves of perfection, they will have made a very important step in the spiritual life.  Another step, so simple that it is often despised, is to do everything, however ordinary, as well as it can possibly be done, for God’s sake.  A third is to be always pressing forward; when a mistake is made, or a fault committed, to face and admit it freely; but having asked God to supply the deficiency caused by our own infirmity, to go on steadfastly and hopefully.”

Join the conversation. What is your daily offering to God?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Making God’s Will Personal: Step Three-Examine Compassion

In a quest for intimacy with God, we have been discerning the will of God by accepting the talents he has entrusted to us and putting them to bold use.  Just any use won’t do, however.  We can use our gifts boldly to lift others up or to cut them down.  By what rubric can we measure how a bold use aligns to God’s will?

Escalating Judaism’s teaching of justice and fair treatment of fellow man, Jesus preached and practiced radical egalitarianism.  If Jesus was only starting a new religion, the Romans would have left him alone.  Rome tolerated religions.  What Rome did not tolerate was challenge to the authority status quo.  His “kingdom of God” language was an affront to the power holders of Jesus’ day.  Threats to the social pecking order are uncomfortable for those at the top of the power structure.  It might be worthwhile to pause here to consider where you sit in the social pecking order of the world today.

Jesus used numerous parables to describe the revolutionary rearranging of power that he called the kingdom of God.  Historical Jesus scholar and Jesus Seminar fellow John Dominic Crossan summarizes Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom in two points: free healing and open table.  The Greco-Roman system of patronage served the powerful by giving them a means to influence and to control the peasant class.  By complying, peasants averted social ostracism wrought by no association with a patron.  Against the backdrop of the Greco-Roman system of patronage, Jesus’s offer of free healing disrupted the status quo.  It offered the peasant class something radically better than patronage.  Not only that, Jesus welcomed the despised and outcast, including women, to his table.  As dining customs echoed in miniature the social pecking order in the culture at large, Jesus’ open table symbolized a flagrant challenge to deeply held Mediterranean cultural values concerning status, honor and shame.

One way to examine how we use our gifts is in this context of open table and free healing.  Another way to examine them is in the context of tzedakah.  The Hebrew
word tzedakah is often translated “charity,” but the Jewish concept of tzedakah
is the opposite of charity in many ways.  Whereas charity is at the discretion of the giver, tzedakah is the giver’s obligation.  Whereas recipients have no claim to charity, recipients are entitled to tzedakah.  Tzedakah is more accurately translated as the giving that fairness and social justice demand, and it is commanded of all people (including those in need of tzedakah).

Am I going about my daily life and work in a way that promotes egalitarianism or in a way that excludes?  Does my daily life and work contribute to the well-being of others or only to my own well-being?  Do my actions promote God’s glory and the welfare of my fellow man?  Or do they garner earthly possessions for me?  Do I focus on safety
for my inner circle or peace and security for all?

Join the conversation.  What are the questions you ask yourself to measure your actions?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Making God’s Will Personal: Step Two-Examine Boldness

God doesn’t intend for us to play it safe.  He wants us to stretch.  In discerning the will of God on a personal and intimate basis, not only must we recognize that unique combination of gifts given, but also we must put the gifts to bold use.

Jesus’ parable of the talents makes that clear, and the feeding the five thousand (Matthew 14:14-21) shows us how.  In all four gospel accounts, Jesus retreats with his disciples to a remote place for rest and, instead of rest, he is greeted by a great crowd.  Having compassion for them, Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God and heals until late in the day.  The disciples grow concerned about where the next meal will come from and ask Jesus to send everyone away.  Not one to miss an “open table” opportunity, however, Jesus instructs his disciples to feed the crowd.

What happens next is the crux of the story.  The disciples say, “We don’t have enough.”  Jesus says, “Give me what you have,” and then he does the miracle of making it enough.  So it is with us.  If we are really stretching, doing something bold with our talents, we will feel like we don’t have enough–enough acumen, perseverance, persuasiveness, tenacity, grace, generosity, etc.  If you do have enough, then you might just be playing it too safe.  Jesus didn’t ask his disciples to have enough.  And he didn’t ask them to do it on their own.  He asked them to give what they had in partnership with him.  If you think big, God will do the heavy lifting for you, but you have to do some lifting!  The first step is yours, and it is to get working with what you have.

I wonder which would please God more:

(a)    beings who lament, despite the innumerable gifts and opportunities bestowed upon them, paralyzed by uncertainty, pleading for paint-by-numbers instructions; or

(b)   beings who imagine boldly, come up with wild and outlandish ways to use their talents and have faith they will receive serious intervening help?

At the risk of projecting human attributes on God, I imagine he’d be greatly entertained and delighted by the second group.

Scripture indicates it glorifies God when we ask for his help in this way. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Matthew 7:7) There are no caveats on this scripture.  The passage does not say it will be given to you if only you ask for the right thing.  Undoubtedly we do ask for the
wrong thing at times.  Sometimes we are sorry we got what we wanted.  Other times we’re grateful we received something else instead.  We don’t find out, though, unless we ask.

Many religious traditions encourage jumping into action to avoid squandering the gift of life waiting for perfect circumstances to come along or for perfect clarity.  The great Indian mystic Kabir offers this poetic example:

Do you have a body?
Don’t sit on the porch!  Go out and walk in the rain!

Join the conversation.  How did you make a leap into action even though timing or conditions seemed suboptimal?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Making God’s Will Personal: Step One-Examine Gifts

You’re looking for an intimate and deeply personal relationship with God.  The abundance of love spilling out of you fuels a curiosity about what you can do uniquely to please and to delight him.  What should you do?

If you are looking to relate to God in a very personal, singular way, a reasonable starting point is looking at those gifts God gave singularly to you.  We are not given equal abilities.  Jesus’ parable of the talents recounted in Matthew 25 makes that clear.   Further, the parable indicates our talents are not self-generated but entrusted to us for a limited time by God.  Moreover, we are expected to use what we are given.  The worst offense is inaction because of fear.  The slave who buried a talent for safekeeping was cast “into the outer darkness” with “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  This parable does not describe a God who is into playing it safe.  It describes a God who loves boldness and risk-taking.

Yet many of us anguish and are paralyzed by uncertainty as to what God wants us to do.  Sometimes we agonize between two choices that are essentially the same.  “God, should I take the telecommunications software sales job in Santa Clara or the telecommunications software sales job in Ottawa?”  Other times, we face a decision that sets a course in life, a decision that will have long-lasting consequences such as a
career direction or marriage.

Paradoxically, the most gifted among us can suffer the greatest perplexity concerning
vocation.  Many aptitudes can create many choices that can confound decision making.
“Should I lead the consumer subsidiary of a billion dollar corporation or should I start my own company or should I lead the local chapter of a national non-profit?”  The gifted telecom executive who faced that decision now works for Special Olympics of Texas.

Ponder the abundance set before you—the talents you enjoy, the opportunities that have come your way, the love that surrounds you on all sides.  If you had the great fortune of being born in North America, count that.  Is there a gift you have been neglecting?  Is there a talent you resist using?  What is the consequence you fear?  Is it sinking in failure?  Is it rising to success?  Air this out with God.  That unique combination of gifts he gave only to you and your response to them are your cosa nostra with God—“our thing,” just between the two of you.

This pondering is not meant to become an exercise in navel gazing, however.  Scripture suggests God wants us to recognize our gifts, but he wants even more for us to get up and to do something, anything, that is a fruitful and creative response to the gifts.  Our response is our gift back to God.  Santa Clara versus Ottawa doesn’t really matter that much.  Where do the people inspire you most?  Where do you inspire others most?  Which company is the better corporate citizen?  God will give you an abundance of opportunity to love and to serve others either way.  He can’t wait to encourage you there.

Join the conversation.  What gifts have you given God this week?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com

Making it Personal: Discerning the Will of God

The Reconciliation Workshop I lead has a short segment on discerning the will of God.  Here is the logic for including the topic.  If it is newness of life we seek—a newness that departs from our past wrongs—then we need an awareness of our past wrongs.  If the panoply of human wrongdoing boils down to seeking self-will instead of God’s will, one might logically ask, “What is God’s will?” and perhaps, “Do I really want that, too?”  Even those who are uninterested in their own past but seek a more intimate walk with God in the future wonder, “What does God want me to do, not in general but here and now, specifically?”

Workshop participants rank this segment their least favorite.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe fear of intimacy inhibits confronting the question on a personal level.  It could be because it needs a more coherent and compact presentation.  Maybe it’s because the topic comes right before lunch.  Whatever the cause, I am hopeful that Across Traditions reader feedback will help me to improve it.  To that end, the next several posts will trace Four Steps to Discerning the Will of God.

Before jumping into the steps, though, it might be helpful to establish some groundwork relating to what, exactly, we mean by the “will of God.”  When my daughter was in second grade, we undertook learning the Anglican “Outline of the Faith,” or catechism, as a rather ambitions Lenten discipline.  The catechism has 18 sections of 6-10 question-answer pairs each.  The first section addresses human nature—being made in God’s image, created with free will, etc.  On that first night of study, when we got to, “Why do we [choose to] live apart from God and out of harmony with creation?” she interrupted.  “How do you know what God wants you to choose?” “Well, let’s see what the catechism has to say about that,” I replied as I started flipping through the pages.  I’ll have you know that in 124 questions, the catechism has nothing to say about that.  It’s the $64,000 question.

And answers vary widely.  How I conceptualize the will of God depends on my conception of God’s nature.  Is God a giant watch-maker in the sky who scripted every detail of physical universe’s unfolding?  That framework of belief suggests that there is a particular path intended for me.  Is God a relational being who cedes his power for the gift of free will?  That framework of belief suggests there are many right paths.  The Bible suggests that, also.  “All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies.” (Ps 25:10)  If I believe in a free-will God who delights when I choose him, the right paths are countless!

Ok, so I believe the will of God is to be in relationship with me and he wants me to be fruitful, but that doesn’t help me choose a career path or a spouse.  I make choices every day, and most don’t seem to have anything to do with God.  What does choosing God’s will” mean in my daily life and work?  This series will explore four specific steps for discerning God’s desires on an individual and intimate basis.

Join the conversation.  Do you perceive the will of God to be providential, predetermined, a set of commandments or something else entirely?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Portrait of Passion

In the wake of Steve Jobs’ death, his 2005 Stanford commencement address is getting a lot of airplay.  I read it for the first time yesterday, and there are a couple ideas I can’t stop lingering over—how implausibly the dots in his life connected against all human intensions, how his devastating ouster from Apple was the watershed that made the most important things in his life possible, how all the frayed threads wove into a remarkable tapestry.

More especially, I am lingering over his comments on death.

…for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

I wonder if this is good advice for young people. US students rank behind other nations in mathematics, science, and other important aptitudes.  Where we rank highest, though, is self-esteem.  Do young people really need encouragement to follow their whims rather than to persevere?  It takes grit to persist in any challenging endeavor.  It takes self-control to set aside near term impulses in favor of long term goals.  Jobs himself did that when he took a job at Atari to save up for a trip to an Indian Buddhist
ashram.  Merely following whims would leave a young person nowhere.

But that would be misunderstanding Jobs.  Jobs also spoke of love and passion.
He encouraged the young graduates to search their souls for their passion and not to stop until finding it.  If one believes passionately in what he is doing, he will persevere in the face of adversity and set aside lower desires for the higher ones.  When one looks in the mirror in the morning as if today were her last, her passion would lead her to press on, fighting the good fight to the very end rather than wallowing or resting.  I know nothing about Jobs’ marriage except that it lasted over 20 years, and that, too, is an accomplishment reflecting commitment and passion.

How do we find that driving passion?  I have several mid-life peers who would appreciate a couple pointers on that.  I can personally attest that finding a second
career building that beast called an “author platform” is not unlike wandering in the dessert.  I heard something on NPR yesterday that speaks to the question.  Literary
commentator Alexander Nazaryan commented on the controversial assertion that Americans don’t deserve a Nobel Prize in literature because their work is too interior. They “write from what they know” but lack the life experience of, say, Hemmingway.  I’m not necessarily encouraging anyone to fight a war or to move to Paris, but the implication is our soul’s passion can be found in bold life experiences.  Jobs was blessed to have found his passion at an early age.  It gave him a fast start on what would turn out to be a short life.

I have a friend who recently lost her battle with cancer.  I wrote to her husband that in another place on Earth or in another time, we would say she lived a full and charmed life. In this time and place, though, her life seems cut short.  It occurs to me that we could say the same about Steve Jobs.  His accomplishments were many and his passion profound.

Join the conversation.  How did you find your life’s passion?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Finding Hope in the Road Not Taken

I sat down to write a post about making wrong turns in life and feeling grief for the good consequences lost because of the path we chose instead.  Grief—over the loss of a relationship, an opportunity, a job, another’s trust in you, your trust in another, years gone by, money spent foolishly, pleasures given up, and, of course, death—is real.  A reader’s comment to a previous post changed my course, though.  She expressed hope, not grief, in examining what could have been.

“Through my years, I have let my pain and memories cripple me more than grow, but now, as my journey with God has allowed me, I am using it to learn about me as a person, seeing my own potential as I should have been.  I guess I visualize things as, ‘they could be worse’ and as ‘they could be better.’ The growth that I have experienced is amazing and the peace is wonderful.”

How is it that this reader finds peace instead of grief?  One thing that strikes me is her gratitude.  She balances her perspective on her life’s difficulties with an appreciation of the difficulties others face.  “I always tell myself, that no matter how much things are bad for me, there is someone else who has it much worse,” she said.

Another quality I admire is her acceptance of herself.  All the variants of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief model end with acceptance.  An accepting recollection of a painful reality might bring thoughts like this:  “That episode was very painful to several people for a long time.   I wish I had been strong enough to have chosen different actions, but I wasn’t and I didn’t.  God uses the crumbs of my failure and gives them some meaning.  He alone can extract the slag of my sin to bring about some goodness, and in my weakness his strength is made perfect.”  Accepting a painful reality can be tough.
Accepting ourselves where we have fallen short can be tougher still.  Seeing ourselves as God sees us—as dearly loved and desperately wanted children—can start melting self-condemnation.

The most admirable thing to me is the hopefulness she finds in her potential.  “I should have been” implies “I could have been,” and it signals an inherent goodness that can be drawn upon.  Instead of beating up on herself for what she didn’t do, she recognizes her potential as a sign of hope.  The reader shows that the crucial element transforming a self-critical impulse into a hopeful impulse is trust in God.  “Learning to lean on God is one of the hardest things for me, as I am giving Him total control of me, but, it has been the most helpful and wonderful life altering experience.”

To borrow Henri Nouwen’s words, inviting God into the action of examining past missteps transforms them from a cause of despair into a sign of hope.

Join the conversation.  What do you feel when you reflect on the wrong turns you have taken?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Long Time Office Assistant Remembered

The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and nature, is a day Christians traditionally bring their pets to church to get a sprinkle of holy water, to receive a blessing and to sniff around.  It is on this day that we remember Boulet,
who died on Good Friday, 2011.  Boulet, pronounced “boo-LAY” and translating roughly to “gringo” in Indonesian, defied the conventional wisdom that “white dogs can’t jump.”  She earned the nickname “Bullet” for her dashing speed in her younger years.

She loved chasing tennis balls, and if no thrower readily presented himself, she would roll the ball under a low piece of furniture and entertain herself retrieving it, often stamping her feet and pointing for assistance.  She also loved stuffed toys and gave squeak-ectomies with record breaking speed.  She didn’t stop there, though.  She would painstakingly extract every poof of stuffing.  When done, she would drop the carcass at someone’s feet and wait patiently for the stuffing to be reinserted so she could have another go at it.  Strangely, she favored old running shoes as pillows, and when no one was home, she would drag one from the closet onto the back of a sofa she wasn’t allowed on and curl up with it there.  She would bat her eyes at us all-innocent-like from her dog bed when we got home, but the shoe on the couch was always a dead giveaway.

When my daughter was born, Boulet took a profound and respectful interest in the infant.  We have nary a baby photo without a little black nose and white fur looking on intently from a corner of the frame.  When we came home to a toddler shoe on the back of the couch, we knew Boulet had taken the newest family member into her heart.

In her later years, Boulet retired from more active pursuits and assisted me in the office.  She tried to stay on top of the mail, but she often slept on the job.  She was loved to the bitter end.  We love her still and miss her dearly as we remember her on this Feast Day of St. Francis.