Spiritual Gifts: Free Will

in God's image with free will to chooseThe so-called seven deadly sins represent natural gifts distorted or taken to unhealthy extremes.  Distorted behaviors upset the balance of relationships with others, with God and within oneself.  Spiritual disciplines are designed to bring these natural gifts back into proper spiritual proportion.

Lent is a good time to examine our gifts and whether they are in balance or manifesting as sins. The Christian tradition teaches disciplines of engagement to counteract sins of omission and disciplines of abstinence to counteract sins of commission.  Accordingly, each post during Lent will examine a discipline of engagement and a discipline of abstinence appropriate for bringing one of the “seven deadly sins” into balance as the natural gift it was intended to be.

Our free will to love and to create is perhaps our greatest spiritual gift and the
foremost way in which we’re created in God’s image.  We are free to seek God’s will or to choose our own way.  When distorted, the gift of free will can lead to the sin of greed.  The discipline of engagement that counteracts ignoring God’s will is prayer.  The discipline of abstinence that counteracts greed is silence.

I live in a neighborhood where the electricity goes out if the wind blows the wrong way.  If you’ve experienced an electrical outage, you may recall the sensation of all the motors in your house going quiet, and you might even become aware of electronics that run largely without your notice.  I generally notice the sound of the HVAC, but I rarely notice the fans whirring in my refrigerator or my PC or my monitor’s soft buzz until that crack of static before they cease.

My brain is a little like that.  There are processes whirring that I am not altogether conscious of—trifling anxieties about a presentation, mental notes on my schedule, little calculations of when I must finish one task to be on time for the next.  All of these run in the background when I’m concentrating on something.  And often it’s only when I stop thinking that I notice this interior noise.

Some are able to summon interior quietude amidst a cacophony, but I find a quiet environment helps me silence my thoughts.  It is in this silence that we are most apt to hear God.  When Elijah hides from the Israelites (and, incidentally, from the Lord also), God seeks him out.

He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

Sometimes God appears to us in fantastic phenomena, but for most of us most of the time, we find God, who has been seeking us all along, in sheer silence.

If prayer is a two way conversation with God, at some point, we have to stop talking and start listening.  A discipline of silence will help us hear.

Join the conversation.  How do you quiet the processes whirring in your mind?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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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 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 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.