In February 2007 I found myself in a place I had never been before. My quest to discern how best to steward my gifts for the sake of God’s kingdom, combined with the impact of my sermon on Jesus’s parable of new wine and wineskins, had led me to a place of unprecedented and uncomfortable openness before God. My firmly held conviction that I would remain as the pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church for many years had to be surrendered to God as I sought His will for my vocational future.
The Will of God
God’s will. Now there’s a complicated subject, one I’m not going to get into right now, at least not in any detail. There’s a legitimate debate among Christians about whether God’s will for us is specific and pre-determined, as in “God wants me to serve Him in this particular place”, or whether God gives us a fair amount of latitude to make choices that honor Him, as in “God isn’t so concerned about where I serve Him as He is about how I serve Him wherever I am.” As a Christian with Reformed theological leanings, I tend to believe that God does have a specific will for us, but that He is graciously willing to work with our choices, even when we make the wrong ones. I do not believe that God has one perfect will for our lives, which, if ever we miss it, necessarily dooms us to a second-class life. God’s wisdom and grace make room for lots of failure on our part, thank God!
Much of what God wills for us is exceedingly clear and requires relatively little discernment, except in the question of application. There is no doubt, for example, that I should love my neighbor. The only questions concern how and where and when and whom. After all, I can’t love all of my neighbors since there are, in the words of the classic bumper sticker, “Too many neighbors, too little time.” If you go through Scripture and compile the clear commands of the Lord for us, you’ve got plenty of God’s will for your life. Unfortunately, discussions of God’s will often forget this part, choosing to focus only on the specific questions like, “Which neighbor does God want me to love?”
I do believe that God has a more specific will for us, much as He did for Abram, David, Isaiah, and Paul, to name just a few. In Genesis 12, God didn’t say to Abram, “Get up and go wherever you like.” Rather, He said, “Go to the (specific) land that I will show you.” It’s clear that God had a particular place in mind for Abram. Similarly, there are times in our lives when God answers the “Where are the neighbors I should love?” question in quite detailed and particular ways. I am fully convinced, for example, that in 1991 God was calling me to Irvine, California as the focus of my pastoral ministry. My neighbors to love lived in that city at that time.
Even if God has a very specific will for our lives, this doesn’t mean we necessarily know exactly what His will is. God told Abram to leave everything that was familiar to him and to go “to the land that I will show you” (12:1). Part of God’s will was very clear: Go! But the rest was still hidden: To the land I will show you. For Abram, faith translated into trustful obedience, even though he didn’t know where it would lead him.
The Enigmatic Will of the Enigmatic God
Often God’s will is enigmatic. This has everything to do with the fact that God is enigmatic. According to 1 Corinthians 13:12,
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. (NRSV)
If you were to read this verse in the original Greek, you’d find something a little surprising. It reads, “For now we see through a mirror in a riddle, but then face to face.” The Greek word translated as riddle is ainigma, which literally means “riddle.” Ainigma is the basis for our words “enigma” and “enigmatic.” God’s will for us is often enigmatic, revealed in riddles, even as God Himself is enigmatic this side of the age to come. (Speaking of riddles, Jim Carrey made a decent Riddler in Batman Forever, but I still prefer the classic Riddler of Frank Gorshin in the Batman television series.)
Sometimes Christians, especially Christians in the evangelical tradition in which I find a theological home, get nervous when somebody suggests that God is enigmatic. They quickly point to Christ and Scripture as clear and sufficient revelations of God. I would agree that there is a sense in which God’s revelation through the Word Incarnate and the Word inscribed is both clear and sufficient. Children can come to know God through Scripture, and none of us needs to look elsewhere.
Yet, at the same time, I would remind those who embrace Scripture as the inspired Word of God that it speaks of the fact that God exceeds our understanding. “My thoughts are not your thoughts,” said the Lord through Isaiah (55:8). “Now we see through a mirror in a riddle,” added Paul (1 Cor 13:12), who wrapped up the theological discussion in Romans with this exclamation: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (12:33). God has given us all we need in Jesus Christ and in Scripture. But this does not mean that God, including God’s will, is always clear. Sometimes it is, by God’s design, enigmatic.
In my next post I’ll suggest one reason God doesn’t make everything about His will crystal clear.