Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Does God Have a Wonderful Plan for Your Life?

Last month I posted an Old Man's rumination about "the will of God for my life" (HERE)

John (late twenties) asked in the comment box: "...my question then is, how does the Orthodox Christian then decide what to do when a decision regarding a life path does come up? Simply pray for God's blessing and then make the choice as best as I can, without having to see the "hand of God" in it?"

There are so many aspects to this question that need fleshing out, but let me see if I can hit some high points, tell some stories and then distill some principles that make sense to me here and now.

1. "Life path". Although I don't think John meant it exactly in the way I'm going to talk about it,  I will address it in several ways.

Our "life path" is rarely divinely revealed.  Even St. Paul revised his "divinely ordained life's purpose" after his encounter on the road on his way to kill Christians. My "life path" from age 6 was to be a priest. I interpreted twists and turns and opportunities and conversations and coincidences through that lens for almost 50 years. I finally was able to admit to myself I was self-deluded.  

A "life path" often carries the baggage of defining my life by what I do, or constraining it in some significant way that means I fore go something that could have been"better" in some significant way. The issue is the self-definition of "significance".  I often think of the Prophets who spend decades of their lives herding sheep, picking figs or loving whores before any thought of "significance" entered their radar, and then only because of incontrovertible proof of Divine intervention in their lives.  We get it backwards... we ASSUME divine intervention and significance then look for something to fill in the blank.

I spent 30+ years of my life doing construction, not by my choice, though I still believe it was the providence of God that put me in the place to go there, but ultimately I "chose it" because I, at the time, was constrained by circumstances and need. Over the years I managed to turn it into and frame it for myself as a "street ministry" of sorts and thereby spiritualize it so it wasn't a complete affront to my self-discerned "will of God for my life". Sure, there was some ego involved. Sure, there was some true virtue involved. Sure, I did some good. Sure, it led me down some dark alleyways.

I look back on it now and wonder if I would have done better by making it a "real business" and making money to donate to legitimate charities and organizations who actually did better at helping people than I did.  But I didn't... I did what I did in my mix of ego, idealism and desire to be a Christian.

I recently got a "real job" and work in a "real office environment" with real people.  I found that I can be a Christian there too. 

Here's how I see "Life path" and decisions now:

A. Don't "spiritualize" your life path unless you are contemplating becoming a pimp or paid assassin.  The old AA/Country Music line "No matter where you go, there you are..." is true. You won't be a better or worse Christian in any environment.  If your work environment dictates your spiritual life, you don't have a stable spiritual life and you need to work on that, not your resume.

B.  Provide for your family. Take a good paying job.  There is no virtue in poverty.  But, neither is there virtue in riches.  No matter how much I've made (below poverty level and "rich" by many definitions) I was always "just getting by".  Virtue is in learning to live simply, guilt-free and generously.  Give away more than is comfortable no matter how much you make.

C. Don't confuse "career" with "spiritual life" (see #1).  If you love computer programming and are good at it and can make 185.00/hr., don't be fooled into thinking you're a better person by becoming a cashier at a Goodwill Thrift Store for minimum wage because you are "sacrificing".

2. "The Hand of God".  Honestly, I still vacillate about this one.  As I mentioned in the GPS post, I firmly believe the providence of God has been a part of my life from day one. It is MY INTERPRETATION of when, how and the results of that providence that is the problem.  We can see "success" as blessings and "failure" as sin or delusion, but they could very well be the opposite.

It is easy to see good times as "blessings".  And they just might be... or they could just be market forces and good financial planning that even Judas could pull off blindfolded without an abacus. There's whole heresies and denominations built around that notion.  There is another side of that coin that is equally potentially delusional:  I had a friend who used to say, "How come every time God works in a mysterious way, I get kicked in the ass?"  Sometimes God's servants get crucified, and it is His will. The trick is to not develop a "martyr complex" and see the hand of God in bad times when it is really a consequence of you being a total idiot.

I can't tell you how many times I've seen "the hand of God" in something in the short run and now 20, 30, 40, 50 years removed from it have re-interpreted the providence and outcomes.  The fact of the matter is, providence is cumulative and consequences flow down for decades not just weeks or months.  We have no clue what is being "set up" or how things will work out in the long run.  I am VERY wary of interpreting recent events as "the hand of God" or seeing blessings or outcomes in them.  I really don't know what is really a blessing or merely an event within the fallen order that God will have to re-define, work within, do some magic or merely let it play out to its logical end and hopefully I will learn a lesson from it.

That said, I think we just need to make the best decisions we can with what we have and where we are spiritually (whether it is delusional or truly spiritual because in some ways in the end they are both pointed toward God in a round about way).  

3. "Simply pray."  Yes. If you can.  Usually when I prayed about something I was looking for an outcome and saw circumstances and events as "the hand of God at work" that supported that outcome.  To truly pray "Thy will be done" without an ego agenda behind it is harder than it looks.

In the end, no matter where you end up it can be for the glory of God and your spiritual growth.  I don't know how to say "don't obsess about things" when it is our tendency to do so because we've upped the ante of consequentiality because we've spiritualized everything in our lives.  If we could just see the present moment as the "spiritual event" we've been given and not concern ourselves with big pictures and end games and outcomes that are prognostications, illusions and hopes and dreams I think we would find a lot more peace even in the "big decisions" of life.

Anyway, that's my two cents for today.  I don't know if it would have made any difference to me at 30 if someone had told me this stuff then, but, here it is.  Caveat emptor.  :)



22 comments:

John said...

"Providence is cumulative." That's what I think too. My gut feeling at age 61 is that God is less active rather than more active in His providence. It seems to me that the more active He is in His providence, the less free will I have.

I could rationalize/spiritualize my past failures in various businesses and conclude that God was nudging me toward full-time ministry. But, really, it was because I was a total idiot with a healthy dose of arrogance.

s-p said...

That's an interesting thought, John. I found my self agreeing at first and then after I thought about it, my question to myself was, "Hm. Do I see providence pretty much as God cleaning up my messes and now that I'm older and wiser and (hopefully) less of a screw up, He doesn't have as much fixing to do now?" Do I need to expand my definition of providence? You are right, I'm not sure what providence looks like for me NOW as opposed to hindsight. Good food for thought! Thanks!

E said...

I've also heard providence described like this:

If shit happens then providence is waste management.

Anonymous said...

Mmmm K, Steve. I've always thought that, as John Lennon put it, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." It's not been my experience that God gives two bits about what we do in this life, it's how we live, in love with Him. At least that's my delusion. I particularly suck at this, but I keep making attempts because He keeps showing me where He is, and I keep falling in love with Him, but then I do totally boneheaded things. I suspect the most profound times when I've actually done God's will are things that I've since forgotten. As it should be (except the crappy memory part...).

s-p said...

Anon 1, I agree. That is the essence of what I'm saying: If you have a decision to make, make it, but don't blow it up into some super-spiritual consequential "someone might die and go to hell" scenario in our minds. And you are spot on: The best is when we have done the will of God unconciously and don't even recognize it. (However, there is something to be said for concious deliberation between good and evil...). If we can just learn to repent we're doing well no matter what we're doing for a living or where we are doing it.

Scott Morizot said...

Agreed. I would tend to say that there have been points in my life when, looking back, I think God was at work. But I didn't see it at the time. (Heck, I wouldn't have even considered myself a Christian at some of those times.) And even though we often have many more choices as a result of our relative wealth than many people throughout human history, our choices are still constrained. And I think a lot of the time when we face choices that, unlike pimp or assassin, don't involve fairly clear moral decisions, God's response is simply, "Choose."

Susan Hill said...

I too, have spent a lot of time struggling with these thoughts. I have such a very strong desire for "meaning" in all of my choices and actions. So much of sin seems to be born out of the inability to discern God's will in a given situation, and so poor choices are made, out of ignorance and confusion. Such mistakes on my part then make me more desperate in my prayers to God to help me know what I should do at every turn..

I was doing some interesting reading recently on the history of "divination", vs. "prophecy" in Christianity. Guess what, by far, was the number one question that was asked of the oracle at Delphi? Simply: "How can I please the gods?"... Looks like people have been craving this answer for a very long time! Perhaps we want the motivation that a certain knowledge of "this is what I was made for" would give us. Maybe we tire of having quite so much freedom! Or.. we just want to feel wanted.

-Susan H

Drewster2000 said...

S-P,

Good thoughts, from you and the commentators. One way I would put is that we need to stop playing God with our decisions - and stop trying to force His hand as well.

All we are called to do is simply be. That entails getting up every morning, going to work, and making decisions according to His way of doing things as best we can. And that way is spelled out in the Bible, the saints, the church, etc.

When it comes to those seemingly hard life decisions, like staying put with my old job or moving many miles away for a better one, I think about children. In the early years parents make those decisions for them, and ideally this is because the kids can't do it for themselves.

When they get older, they can still ask their parents' advice but the choice is really up to them. While we will always be children of God, we are called to mature into the full stature of Christ. And therefore there is a real sense in which it doesn't matter which decision I make, but that I learn to make it. Because in the end, they're all good.

No One said...

Thanks for this. I needed it years ago but I'm happy to have it now. Before I became Orthodox I went to a church that preached "God's will for your career is to have one that is in line with your passions" Quite a number of people at that church said that they had careers that were like that and that everything in their life just "fell into place without any real struggle" I accepted much of that as truth which as a direct result lead to years of anxiety and depression. I also felt horrible about my life and concluded that God probably did have a great glorious plan but he allowed me to screw it up into a horrible mess and if I could just get right God would put it "back on track" again. Even though I consciously rejected that view when becoming Orthodox it's still ingrained in me. I'm going to bookmark this post and keep reading it until it sinks in.

Bill M said...

Thanks for continuing this conversation, and adding to the earlier post. I appreciate your perspective. (I passed both posts along to my two children who are college students and in various stages of "transition".)

s-p said...

Susan, Once in a while I listen to late night weekend talk radio with "clairvoyants" who feel the energy of callers and tell them about stuff. Invariably the callers want to know some aspect about the past and a prediction of the future. I don't think that is accidental to the state of people's spiritual lives. "Tired of freedom" is REALLY a pithy, deep statement. I think there is a longing within us for a "god" to control our existence whether it is circumstances, a personal or impersonal god/force/universe. We cannot escape the consequences of evil perpetrated on us, nor evil we have perpetrated but if "freedom" is real, it is frightening. That is probably a blog post coming....

James the Thickheaded said...

SP:

Y'know... sometimes I don't know whether I like a piece until I find myself referencing later. This fit that. So yes... you did make a preacher of y'self.

Aren't you saying God is in the still small voice, when we keep looking for him in the big stuff? The problem isn't that he isn't there so much as we don't know how to see him or look for him. Isn't tHis is a problem in how we look at the world and each other?

The vision of heaven is to see (or bring out) God in the other.... rather than in ourselves. This happens. What did we do today to make God's presence known? to others and to ourselves? Hmmmmm. Stumped myself.

Again... I think you're saying this is supposed to be simpler than we make it.

BTW, I found your laughter on Our Life in Christ a better ministry than just about anything else anywhere... with few exceptions. Now, better go get the football needle and put it in your head to let a little air out (sorry 'bout that!).

s-p said...

JtTH, Jesus' phrases, "He who has eyes to see, he who has ears to hear" are weighty statements. However, I also think there are situations where God hides Himself in the "dark cloud" and no eyes can see Him. Why?... I have no clue, but the reality of that is universally attested by the Saints and Christians. But even if God is hidden we can still reveal Him and seek Him but maybe not in conventional ways that "normal Christians" will recognize. (An upcoming blog post, maybe).

Funny you should mention "laughter" on OLiC. Over the years I've been chastized and "corrected" by several listeners about Bill and I laughing too much (or at all). I pretty much just had to say, "Well, that's really "ME" for now. I can fake sober piety pretty good, but I'm not willing to do that. So, if you don't like "me", that's what the little red "X" in the upper right corner of your computer screen is for." One person actually came back a year later and asked my forgiveness for being fakely pious himself in his criticism. It is what it is, I am who I am, I'm becoming something different, what that is I have no clue.

Anonymous said...

I spent most of my young life praying for God's will, then interpreting whatever happened as some sort of sign that what I wanted was in line. This led to a bunch of disasters and errors that God in His mercy has made into good. All of the twists and turns have made me into a stronger person and have turned my face to Him time and time again. Now in my somewhat older years with a life that totally different from whatever I might have imagined in those younger years, I work very hard to not work so hard if that makes any sense. I have learned to see the miracle of my granddaughter's smile, the joy of children who have grown up to be people I like as well as love, the wisdom of the Elders and the quietness of rest in the Hands of God. (Not that I am all that good at resting and joy and such--I still have the inclination to do "busy work" for God.....) ALix

John said...

Steve,

Thanks very much for this response, I've found your thoughts and shared stories very helpful. There is much here to chew on, and I expect I'll be returning to this post from time to time throughout the next couple of years.

Funny, I, too, have harbored a desire for the priesthood since childhood - ever since I saw the film, "The Mission", in early high school and wanted to be a Father Gabriel figure. Your podcast on Ancient Faith gives me much to chew on there as well. I wonder how much false humility and egoism there is in my desire? (Answer - a lot, I think) Yes, to truly pray "Thy will be done" would solve much.

Anonymous said...

stephen - i doubt you could have helped as many as you have if you had the constraints of the leadership of the orthodox church on you. the church needs more street preachers to bring the reality of life into a denomination that at many times is a wee bit too theological in itself. cheers

Jack said...

Mother Angelica says, "If you want to know what God's will for your life is, look around you at what is actually happening."

C. S. Lewis called everything in our lives the raw material of salvation.

As you know, there are too many Orthodox who dream of meeting the rare and advanced staretz to whom they can abandon responsibility for their own choices. Alas, there are a corresponding number of priests (including married ones) who are wannabee elders with delusions of adequacy.

One Orthodox pastor of my acquaintance is always having parishioners saying, "Bless me to look for a new job" or something similar. He always responds, "I'm no elder. You're just as capable of hearing from God as I am. Study, search, pray, make your decision, and then we'll celebrate a Moleben, asking God to crown your efforts with success."

This priest is probably closer to eldership than many.

s-p said...

Anon, Yes, I was surprised a long time ago when a priest told me he envied my freedom as a layman. I look back and it is true that I could not have done most of what I have done if I was "married to an altar" in a parish. "Ministry" is always greener on the other side of the iconostasis. :)

Jack, Such a priest is rarer than a true staretz. :/

Anonymous said...

Just two additional quick thoughts from scripture here--1) We know Jesus was wowing people at age twelve, and we know that it wasn't until 18 years later that he did anything to really stand out from the crowd. I'm sure he was blessing people, but even the very Son of God spent the vast majority of his life as a somewhat normal layperson.
2) perhaps the most well-known character in the parables is the Good Samaritan, and much is (rightly) spoken of his willingness to step across racial/cultural boundaries and help someone even though he wasn't a priest or Levite. But the thing that I think is most overlooke is simply that he "happened" to be there. He wasn't on a medical mission trip--he just did what was right where he "happened" to be.

s-p said...

Anon, Yes! We focus on the miraculous events in people's lives in the Bible but we miss all the decades they spent just living daily lives with no apparent presence of God or explicit direction for their life.

I love "...he wasn't on a medical mission". I need to see washing the dishes and taking out the garbage for my wife if I happen to be in front of a sink of dishes or a full garbage can as a "mission". Every moment is the place we "happened to be". God help us to see the moment.

Margaret said...

Thank you so much for this blog post and for all the comments from everyone! I really appreciate comment "B" and need to reflect on that truth as it applies to my life and my other favorite is this: " If we could just see the present moment as the "spiritual event" we've been given and not concern ourselves with big pictures and end games and outcomes that are prognostications, illusions and hopes and dreams I think we would find a lot more peace even in the "big decisions" of life." But I so appreciate the whole post and comments as I've said! God bless us all!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post.