Knowing God\’s Will

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart; don’t rely on your own intelligence.
Know him in all your paths, and he will keep your ways straight.”
Proverbs 3:5-6 (Common English Bible)
     How can we know God’s will? It is a real question for many people. The world is so vast, with billions of people on it, that it is occasionally incomprehensible to fathom God takes notice of us much less has a divine purpose for our life. Yet, the faith we encounter in the Bible is that all human affairs are under divine direction – that God has a design for the world and that each one is an integral part of that design. We do not live by chance or fate. Our lives are under the guiding hand of God. Sometimes that guidance is clear and unmistakable. More often, that guidance is reduced to a still, small whisper and listening is difficult. The question remains, how can we know God’s will?
     Absent dramatic intervention – which was and remains one means God communicates God’s guidance – people must develop an eye for the quiet succession of apparently natural events that unfold.  Listening is also important. The unexpected impulses, sudden promptings and uncommon challenges that confront us all, hold the possibility of God’s direction of our steps. Paying attention to everyday situations can awaken us to God’s presence and activity in our lives. We shall recognize God in the little things each day – and follow – if we are in touch with God. As exercise strengthens the body and proper diet sustains energy, so the spiritual faculty within us expands through regular prayer and meditation on the Bible.
     Immersion in a community of faith is also important. King David listened to Nathan, the disciples honed one another’s application of Jesus’s teaching and the apostle Paul was instructed in the faith by Ananias. Personal discernment of ordinary events in our lives is important but there are times when it is wise to listen for God’s guidance through another. Particularly those people who have developed an uncommon capacity to see God in the ordinary, they can enlarge our vision and sharpen our understanding. They see our lives from a different angle and can offer a dispassionate take on where God may be actively leading us.
     What remains is the hardest – surrendering our lives to God’s will. Prayers are more often, “This is what I would like you to do, Lord,” rather than, “What would you have me to do?” What we really seek is divine approval of what we desire. The words of Gardner Taylor are wise, “It is hard for us to realize that on this uneven journey there are directions, right choices that we cannot know because we are not God.”1 Perhaps the greatest challenge of the Christian faith is learning that we only have two choices in life – a choice of masters. Either we will remain in charge of our own lives or we surrender ourselves to God and trust in God with all our heart. It is in confidence of the latter that the author of Proverbs wrote.

1 Edward L. Taylor, The Words of Gardner Taylor, Volume 2 (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2000), 24.

The Scramble for Success

“An argument broke out among the disciples

over which one of them should be regarded as the greatest.”

Luke 22:24 (Common English Bible)
     Little has changed in the human condition from the day of Jesus’ ministry on earth to our day – in every walk of life people seem to be playing the status-seeking game. It is seen in their homes, their furniture, and the car they drive. It is noticed in the clubs they join and the company they keep. Many surround themselves with symbols of their preferred place in the social order. Advertisements advance this endless scramble for position in social rank. Luxury items carefully placed on optimal pages of newspapers and magazines with one aim – promotion of ostentation and snobbery. Success is measured by the stuff we acquire, greatness measured by our position in the company and community.    
     The unfortunate result of this scramble is that we become self-centered. Everything becomes about us. Even in the church – perhaps particularly in the church – a self-centered nature is revealed in demands that the worship music suit our personal taste, the pastor be more outgoing, and the children be less distracting. Criticism always shows up in someone who is thinking far too much about themselves. There was a case of a woman who made a special donation for flowers in worship one Sunday morning. Mention of her gift was inadvertently omitted from the worship bulletin. Recognition denied, she demanded a refund.
     Jesus had a great deal to say about self-centeredness and status seeking. “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They love being greeted with honor in the markets. They long for the places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets” (Luke 20:46). Jesus’ remark, “Watch out” could not be clearer. Self-promotion has no place in God’s kingdom. For a people who claim to follow Jesus, many of us are missing the mark – some considerably so!
     What is a faithful response? First, understand that Jesus never forbade his followers to seek greatness. It is right to seek it, but it must be real greatness. The greatness esteemed by Jesus is one that places initiative, ambition, and developed ability at the service of others; at the service of God’s mission. The parable of the valuable coins in Matthew’s twenty-fifth chapter is but one supreme teaching of the Bible that God expects us not to be idle. Second, if we are to reverse ourselves in the stream of self-interest and drive for success we must keep before us – morning and evening – the example of Jesus. In him we see love to God as the inspiration of life. There is simply no substitution for the regular reading of scripture and prayer for maintaining our focus on why we live and strive to achieve much.


When It Is Difficult to Love Yourself

“…and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Luke 10:27 (Common English Bible)
     Nothing runs deeper in human nature than the desire to be loved. It is seen in people of every age. Children craving attention and approval, teenagers eager to be acceptable and affable to their peers and adults longing to be welcomed and valued. In every age there is present the widespread desire to be liked and loved. There is nothing wrong with this. Approval, acceptance, and appreciation are yearnings of nearly every normal person. Each of us wants to be loved.
     It is upon this healthy quality of the human condition that Jesus constructs his Great Commandment, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet, for numbers of people there is present a practical difficulty – they have trouble loving themselves. And this is where the Great Commandment comes apart for them. Perhaps because of some physical defect, lack of general attractiveness, or problems with personality or temperament, they have experienced avoidance or blatant rejection. The consequence is pain. Unpopular and unwanted, it is difficult to give to God or neighbor a love they have not known personally.
     Desperate for acceptance and community – or simply a friend – lonely people will compromise nearly anything. They will become anyone others want them to be, value what others demand, and behave as others do, even if that behavior is wrong and hurts others. They willingly put to death the person they are. Being authentic only brought loneliness. Peer pressure is the common label used in such circumstances. And it is a powerful weapon by those who would manipulate others to conformity.
     Jesus offers an alternative. This very commandment – The Great Commandment – demonstrates Jesus’ reverence for people. Jesus assumes that people love themselves because he found them worthy of being loved! This is demonstrated again and again in the ministry of Jesus. Zacchaeus, a tax collector, dishonest and loathed by the people, a woman caught in moral failure, and a man who lived alone in a graveyard, Jesus loved those others ignored. And there is Christ’s power. By personal influence he brought out in them what was the finest in them. He gave them a new self-respect and that became the basis of their recovery and transformation. Jesus did this for them. He continues the same today for those who receive him.


The Common Life Lived Uncommonly

“To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one.” Matthew 25:15 (Common English Bible)
      It is natural to strive for greatness, for recognition and for making a large contribution. Each one of us is endowed with some talent, some gift and ability and the business of life is to discover what it is. Once discovered, that talent is developed and polished much like a rough, natural diamond that is placed in the hands of a jeweler.  No one really wants to be common. Every normal young person has dreams and aspirations and strives to get on with life, to climb the success ladder and pass others in the walk of life.
      This is admirable, of course, if the motivation is wholesome and the desire is directed toward worthy ends. But our Lord’s parable of the valuable coins is a reminder that there is a limit on each one of us. Some may be endowed with greater ability but everyone has some limit on capacity for achievement. Five star generals do not win battles by themselves. Without apology, Jesus teaches that talent and ability is unevenly distributed. Some people will be exceptionally talented and have the potential for greater accomplishment than others. Some are uncommonly gifted and many of us are simply common.
      The question then becomes, will we do our best with what we have? Will we focus our efforts for maximum contribution, for the welfare of others or will we begin to whine and recline because we cannot shine? Unreasonable expectations and demands upon ourselves result in chronic unhappiness and diminish not only our lives but also the lives of those who love us.  There are far more ordinary doctors, lawyers, persons in the service sector and administrative roles than exceptional ones. Yet, each has the capacity to make an important contribution each day to their families, friends and community.   
      The simple and practical course to follow is to make a realistic appraisal of our capacity and gifts. This may mean for many the discarding of delusions of grandeur, acknowledging and accepting that in the Lord’s distribution of gifts we may have received only one or two talents, and that God’s expectation of us is the same as those who received five talents. The acid test of character is whether we have discovered what talent we have and then, having discovered it, placed it to maximum use. That is when the common life is lived uncommonly.