I remember when I was in college, trying to discern God’s will for our life was a big theme among the campus ministry I was a part of, both formally through a small group study and informally in students conversations. If you go to a bookstore and find the Christian section, you will see many books that are about helping people to discern God’s will in their life. For those of us who believe and even follow Jesus Christ, there is a real importance we place on being able to try to figure out where God’s will intersects with our future.
Why does it place such an important emphasis? Certainly, piety may be one answer, but there is another answer that probably gives it a much greater focus: anxiety about an unpredictable world and life. Living in a society where there is no clear telos or purpose to our lives that is given to us, we are essentially left to discern our purposes for our own lives. This anxiety is only heightened for college students, as they reach the point in their life where their decisions will have a dramatic influence on the remaining years of their lives. So, in seeking to make sense of the plurality of possibilities and potentialities set before us, we as Christians feel drawn to seek the will of God for our life. What will be my career? Who will I marry? Should I as a minister move to a new church? Where should I go to school to further my education? The anxieties created by the diversity with no real definite guidance has made the will of God a veritable commercial industry in publishing.
To be sure, the Bible does talk about God’s will. Romans 12.1-2 talks about people being transformed through their worship so that they can discern the will of God. James 4.13-18 urges people to keep their ambitions in check by recognizing the place of God’s will. However, in neither of those places do we see the will of God being directed towards our future life circumstances. Paul’s purpose in Romans is about Jewish Christians in Rome living faithfully before God under the weight of imperial power without giving into the Maccabean-like zeal that was taking over. James doesn’t suggest that God’s will is about the achievement of people’s specific ambitions, as if their success and failure is evidence of God’s will, as much as recognizing our ambitions should not outshine God’s will, lest people because boastful and fail to do the right thing that God seeks.
When we see the will of God being discussed in the Bible, it is not talking about a particular form of providence in which the circumstances of our life determine that this is or isn’t God’s will. This is sort of providence that shares much in common with ancient Stoicism, seeing the present order of things as evidence of God’s will and order for society. Rather, it is the expression of different sort of providence: the will of God to bring to fruition His life-giving purposes through us, His people.
Let’s take the prophet Jeremiah as an example. In Jeremiah 1.4-10, Jeremiah was called from the womb to be an prophet to the nations as part of God’s work to both tear down and build up the kingdoms and nations. Certainly, with such power involved, it was going to be a difficult task, and indeed it was. In Jeremiah 12.1-4, Jeremiah expresses his exasperation to God, wondering why God, who said he was going to use Jeremiah to plant (Jer. 1.10) is seeing that God seems to be planting people whose hearts are far from the worship they give to God with their lips. God doesn’t give a direct answer to Jeremiah’s complaints. Instead in Jeremiah 12.5-8, God gives an answer that in words of Dr. Michael Voights, professor of spiritual formation at Asbury Seminary, commenting on this text, amounts to the Western Texas phrase “Toughen up, buttercup.” I loved that way of putting it. Jeremiah was someone called to a grand purpose by God to impact the world, and so getting down and despairing over the prospering of unjust and insincere worshippers of God would mean that he doesn’t fulfill God’s on him. Jeremiah would need to be able to metaphorically outrun the horses if he wanted to be able to outlast the human resistance to God’s purposes.
And that he did, as Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry, among many things, came to express God’s heart for a coming new covenant in Jeremiah 31.31-34, which went on to define the way the Church understands the ministry of Jesus. Through Jeremiah’s long-suffering prophetic ministry that during his lifetime never seemed to bear any sustained fruit, he gave expression to God’s Will for Israel and the world that would lead believers from all nations and kingdoms to recognizing Jesus as the one in whom God’s new covenant was inaugurated. Would the person who despaired in Jeremiah 12.1-4 have come to give expression to an important, world-changing vision of hope in Jeremiah 31.31-34 if he hadn’t learn to overcome the frustrations, the anger, and turmoil that came form the injustice he saw?
What happened then in Jeremiah’s early experiences of prophetic ministry and God’s word in response to his complaint? God was providing to him the particular word and experiences necessary to lead Jeremiah to fulfill his purposes that he was called to fulfill. While the will of God did place a particular call on Jeremiah, God’s will was working towards His life-giving purposes that would ultimately become known in, expressed to, received by the people of world through Jesus Christ. God had a particular providence to a particular person for God’s overarching life-giving purposes.
This vision of God’s providential guiding differs from the Stoic conception of providence on one significant point. Stoic-like providence is about rationalizing the present order of things as God’s will. When Jeremiah suggests that God is planting the insincere worshippers of God, Jeremiah is actually thinking along the lines of this sort of providence. If it happens, it is God’s will, so you better learn to live with. However, as Jeremiah grows and matures through his ministry, he begins to see a different vision of God, one in which God is working towards doing something new. Rather than the persent order and state of affairs of the world as being God’s will, God’s will is discerned through the change that God is bringing about.
We see this vision of God’s providence expressed in 1 Corinthians. When Paul, having to engage with a Stoicized vision of Christian faith in Corinth, says in 1 Corinthians 7.31 that the pattern of life in the present state affairs for the world is passing away, he pushes against the Stoic sense of providence with another vision of God’s will. In this case, Paul is addressing the question of marriage, celibacy, and how one can serve the Lord in the midst of a societal upheaval that is coming. Rather than saying something about marriage is about of the created order, therefore one should pursue marriage, Paul gives different advice: look at where things are going and make a decision that allows you to effectively serve God through the coming changes. Paul doesn’t give an answer as to what the will of God is about marriage and celibacy so much as he helps the Corinthian believers to disconnect themselves from a Stoic-like conception of providence, ethics, and way of life to one that has a vision for being concerned about God’s affairs while he is changing the fabric of the Roman society and its wisdom.
At the heart of our understanding of the will of God and providence is this: what is it we are seeking of God’s will? Are we seeking specific life circumstances, careers, decisions we should make, etc.? While, certainly, God can direct and call us to specific life circumstances, as most any of the prophets of the Old Testament can attest to, God’s will is about the emergence of new creation and how we participants in the life-giving purposes of new creation: both in our own transformation and in the ways we witness and testify to God’s will of new creation to others through the way we do our jobs, the way we live together in our marriages and families, etc. etc. A Stoic-like providence has us looking at our circumstances and thinking where we are is God’s lot for our lives. A Stoic-like providence can often amount to “know your place.” A creative providence, on the other hand, is one where we seek and accept God’s transforming work in our lives towards the telos of world-healing and human-thriving that comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which then colors how we study, work, marry, raise our families, etc. A Christ-patterned providence amounts more to “come to realize God’s future.”