The Will of God

A story is told about a man who lived a long life. When he died, the Lord said, “Come, I will show you hell.” The man was taken to a room where a group of people sat around a round table. At the center of the table was a huge pot of stew. Each person had a spoon that reached the pot, but the handle was so long it could not be used to reach their mouths. Everyone felt starved and desperate. Their suffering was horrible. After a while the Lord said, “Come, now I will show you heaven.” They came to another room. To the man’s surprise, it was identical to the first room. A group of people sat at a round table with a pot of stew at the center. Again, each held the same long-handled spoon. However, here everyone was nourished and happy. The room was full of laughter and joy. “I do not understand,” said the man. “Everything is the same, yet they are so happy here. They were so miserable in the first room. What is going on?” The Lord said: “Ah, but you did not see. Here they have learned to feed each other.”

We can feed each other in more ways than we realize. It is easy to imagine this scenario on earth. We can feed ourselves with many things. The more we get, the more we want; this is common knowledge. However, if we focus entirely on what we want, we easily lose sight of the needs of others and God.

The will of God is a multifaceted term. Because we are a fallen human race, we should not think God’s will is in terrorist attacks, car accidents, murders, deviant behaviors or any other evil, tragic or stupid circumstance in life. Words and deeds that distance us from God’s love are not God’s will. Anything that hurts others does not come from God. It comes from us.

Let us take a deeper look into what is not God’s will. It is not a consolation passively accepted after all possible resources have been exhausted. Nor is it a dead end that presents itself after doing what is best has been done in a given situation. We should not say it when there are no other alternatives, or use it as a pious excuse to explain away the unexplainable. The will of God should not be used to put limits on the courage needed when we step into unknown situations or cope with new experiences.

Well-meaning people may say that any misfortune that comes our way is God’s will. This is erroneous. Since God did not create disease, poverty, hunger, greed, violence, hostility, death or other misfortunes, who did? We did. He did not make anything evil or will anything evil. God loves us and desires only our good. God made us free to think, know, love and serve. He is a gentleman and does not force us to do anything. To follow God’s will daily, we care for the needs of ourselves, and our brothers and sisters, within the guidelines of what Jesus taught us.

As we move ahead on our life’s journey, we realize that heaven is the only place where God’s will is perfectly fulfilled. We strive to do this on earth, but fall short. If God’s will was followed one hundred percent on earth, there would be no sin. To give in to sin is to submit to evil forces. Unfortunately, none of us are free from specific acts or words that are contrary to the love of God and of others. However, we keep trying.

From a lifestyle choice to daily decisions, the will of God weaves its way throughout our spiritual journey. In the documents of Vatican II, we find the way the will of God is to be expressed. The Constitution on the Church states: “All Christians in the conditions, duties, and circumstances of their lives, and through all these, will sanctify themselves more and more if they receive all things with faith, from the hands of the heavenly Father, and cooperate with the divine will, thus showing forth in their temporal service, the love with which God has loved the world.” (41)

The will of God increases in importance when we take our spiritual life seriously. We find God’s will by accepting, with trust and love, the consequences in our lives and listening with hope to what they are teaching us. When we find the ingredients for our spiritual growth within the circumstances in our lives, and live more by faith than by reason, we are doing his will.

The shortest definition of the will of God is love. An unknown author wrote: “Love is the one thing no one can take from us. Love is the one thing we can give constantly and become increasingly rich in the giving. Love is the one thing that is repaid by love alone. Love can take no offense for it cannot know that which it does not itself contain. It cannot hurt or be hurt for it is the truest reflection of God. It is the one eternal indestructible force for good. It is the will of God preparing, planning, proposing, always what is best for all his universe.”

We live God’s will by the way we respond to what happens to us. “What would Jesus do?” changes from a pious saying to a lived reality. The ongoing unfolding will of God involves continuous, conscious choices that require the most courage and the greatest love. To locate elements for holiness (i.e. forgiveness, patience) in whatever happens to us may seem like a daunting task beyond our capabilities. However, it is necessary in order to become our best selves. Therefore, with assistance from the Holy Spirit, we strive to see things as Jesus might have seen them and respond as he would have responded. When events or circumstances seem unbearable, it is wise to focus our attention on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. There, we can share our pain, fear and other concerns with a loving friend who knows what we are going through. We are able to endure great things that seem beyond our strength when they are received with love and in union with Jesus.

To Seek

God’s will is not automatic in us. When we seek it, it must always be aligned with his laws, principles, truths and wisdom. With so many distractions in today’s society, doing God’s will is difficult. It requires visualizing events and occurrences within God’s eternal parameters and avoiding the ever-changing self-centered mores of modern society. Living by faith helps us rise above our own wants, opinions, ideas, pet peeves, prejudices, personal preferences, likes and dislikes. We learn to let go of our ego elements and rest in God’s plan for humankind.

Many choices may be equally good. In addition, many roads can be equally right. When this happens, we pause at the paths that lie before us and begin discernment. We pray, gather information from wise people, put the situation in God’s hands, wait, and trust him to lead us. Rather than making quick decisions, decisions based on highly charged emotions, or constantly thinking about what to do, we relax and let God’s love for us, our love for him and sacred mystery flow around and through the elements in the decision we are about to make. Some things need time to develop and mature. In time, and with the acceptance of grace, an answer will come. And it may be a complete surprise to us.

For a viable spiritual life, we must reserve regular periods of time to sit still, be silent, and listen to the quiet small voice of God. Benedict XVI advises us:

That which is truly great grows unnoticed, and silence at the right moment is more fruitful than the constant activity that only too easily degenerates into spiritual idleness. In the present age, we are all possessed by a strange restlessness that suspects any silence of being a waste of time and any kind of repose as being negligence. We forget the real mystery of time, the real mystery present in growth and activity. That mystery involves silence and stillness. Even in the religious sphere, we tend to expect and hope for everything from our own activity. We use all kinds of exercises and involvements to evade the real mystery of interior growth before God.

To nourish our Christian authenticity, time for stillness and silence is essential. It lessens the noise in society, the trivia in social media and the influence of ill-informed people. So many elements can lead us away from the love of God or ignore the wisdom of God. We must always be on the alert for them.

Living the will of God is evident in Christian quietness and simplicity that nurtures an overall gentleness through an ever greater opening to God’s love. Living simply and being quiet clears the way for the deeper realities of life and allows God to move within us. His love flows through us and results in a composure that calms and heals by manifesting the reality of God. Even though we may not speak about God or things of a spiritual nature, we reflect his love. We are lovable and beautiful by a holy countenance. God radiates from us as a tranquil light shines from the sun. We focus on the good in others and offer an acceptance that welcomes people to be themselves, calls forth what is best in them, and sees them as unique gifts from God.

We know God’s will can be present in difficult and demanding things. However, it is equally important that we find his will in things that give us happiness and joy. Both create a well-balanced framework of the actions of God in our live. We acknowledge a symmetrical flowing of the sorrows and joys in our existence. We enjoy to the full the little surprises that mark each day. God’s love unfolds everywhere: the quiet of the early morning, the cool breeze in the afternoon, the cloud formations at dusk, the splendor of a star-studded night sky, a smiling friend, the giggles of children, the twinkle within the eyes of the old folks.

Disappointments

We all have them, but we must not let them defeat us. We can learn from our disappointments, and with God’s help, strive to overcome them. What if we sincerely believed we were following God’s will regarding a major decision, and we did not persevere? Most things look good from the road and perhaps we did not know then what we know now. Perhaps there were unseen negative elements in a situation of which we were unaware. Perhaps what we were asked to do was beyond our capabilities. Perhaps our primary motivation was in error.

A young woman wanted to be a religious sister so she could become an “authority” figure in the church. She did not persevere. Perhaps a healthy situation became unhealthy. Sometime later she married. During her engagement her fiancé was kind and gentle. After five years of marriage he repeatedly abused her. Perhaps our choice made us feel good when we made it. However, feelings do not last and they can easily change. Perhaps we made a major decision because someone told us to do it. We must claim the decision as our own.

God’s will usually has human involvement, and each human is flawed in one way or another. The flaws may be the reason why our good desires were not realized. If we are absolutely sure we are doing God’s will, without a shadow of doubt, it could be a self-centered desire rather than the will of God. Having a little doubt about God’s will is common. We pray, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Then we rest in the fact that we have done all we could. We can be purified of our desire, be at peace, and are now able to move on.

Accepting what comes along in life without getting unduly upset, or giving in to negative thinking, is a great grace. When self-pity, or negative thoughts, knock on our door, we remember Teresa of Avila’s wisdom: “Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you, for all things pass save God who does not change. Be patient and at the last you will find all fulfillment. Hold God and nothing will fail you. For he alone is all.”

An old saying tells us that the path comes into being as we walk it. We walk, step by step, toward the light with a great trust in God to guide us. As the right footstep meets the ground, the place where the left foot is supposed to go appears. Our footprints may be in a slow plod, shuffles, or leaps, and leaps are rare. Whatever the speed, or the distance between steps, we pause to listen and learn. There will be unexpected hairpin turns that jumble our thoughts and graceful curves that ease our mind. We are led to places we never expected.

Because we live in a complex and confused society, taking life as it comes, one step at a time, makes good sense. Like a guardrail, God’s will stops us from going in directions that are detrimental to us, and keeps us from pretending to be someone we are not. When we look at God’s will as a guardrail, we see it as a means for our safety and protection. Safety and protection are warning lights that go on when danger zones appear on the horizon. With God’s help, we use good judgment regarding what is the best thing we should do in the light of his love. When we live in accordance with God’s love, we are doing his will, that is, striving to be holy.

Caryll Houselander keeps us on the right path:

“We are one, not only with each other, but with all the Church, the saints in heaven, the faithful on earth and the souls in purgatory, and we have, all of us, the strength of our adored King. Christ, as our sword. His strength and his meekness. His love and his forgiveness. Some of us, perhaps all of us, will feel sometimes hopelessly alone, certain griefs that we shall know make one utterly alone even in the midst of real friends; certain circumstances which will become fairly general give us the loneliness of homesickness, and events may cut us off from one another physically. But there is not a single thing that any one of us can do which does not affect every other Christian, which is not, in a mysterious way, his deed. This is the first and last vocation of every Christian, to love; and all other vocations are only a shell in which this vocation, to love, is protected.”

Grace in Action

“The will of God will not take us where the grace of God will not protect us” is a comforting phrase. God often wills difficult things for us to do either because we are the ones he wants to use for a particular purpose or because it is his will that we grow in virtue and holiness, and this particular “call” is designed for our growth. God’s grace will always be there to protect and to help us in difficult situations. God will never give us more than we can handle.

The strength of Jesus’ Sacred Heart keeps the waters of grace flowing in people, in the Church, and in the world. Christians become part of that river of living water by meeting the needs of society, through being examples of gospel principles. Francis of Assisi said we may be the only gospel a person reads. We will the good that God desires for them even when this is very difficult. Although aiming toward the good in others opposes the popular notion of pursuing self-indulgent pleasures, Christian morals and ethics are most important in maintaining a respectable and dignified life. The principles that Jesus taught do not change over time and produce objective truths that we hold dear.

As each dawn graces a new day, we give to Jesus the prayers, works, joys, and sufferings that will come our way until the next dawn. To assist us, the Morning Offering,* a time-honored, well-composed prayer, keeps us in the boundaries of the present. It can be easy to offer our prayers, works, and joys, but to welcome the prospect of suffering is a genuine challenge.

Father Walter Ciszek, S.J. was imprisoned in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin’s regime. Through his great suffering he found the Morning Offering an uplifting grace. “Father Ciszek experienced day after day that saying the Morning Offering helped him see the profound truth about God’s will for his life. Offering his own sacrifices with the sacrifice of the Mass gave them meaning. He found out that hopelessness came from injecting too much of self into life. It was his experience that we worry too much about what we can or cannot do, but we can do God’s will, and doing that restores hope.” (Herbert F. Smith, S.J., Homilies on the Heart of Jesus and the Apostleship of Prayer, p. xxv)

We need not look far to see how freedom can be used to achieve great good and appalling evil. Jesus teaches us how to use our freedom the best we can. We discern by his tenets rather than by popular opinions, trends, or feelings. Many people ask God, “Lord, what do you want me to do? When do you want me to do it? How shall I do it?” We desire detailed instructions regarding what we should do. However, this type of instruction from God is rare. Jesus did not say do a particular thing at a specific time and place. He said, “Come, follow me,” which causes us to respond, “Lord, please stay beside me for you are the way, the truth, and the life.” (c.f. John 14:6). Then our questions change: Will our decision deepen our love for God? Can we see a decision from the viewpoint of our relationship with God? Are we able to tell what appears to be good from what actually is good? How will we see God in ourselves and in others?

God wills what really is good, not what simply looks good. Is everyone in a seminary following God’s will? The seminarians look good in an inspirational way. But is the motivation to become priests appropriate? A seminarian who is there because he thinks the priesthood sounds amazing and is a great way to attain power and security, is not good. God’s gift of free will and our ability to reason must be used wisely. Reasoning within the light of faith, and free will, exercises our own judgment in finding answers. We have doctrine to guide our reason and commandments to guide our free will. We have spiritual and moral guidelines to show us right from wrong.

Augustine said, “Love God and do what you will.” If we truly love God, we will make decisions for his glory and our growth. Is the primary focus of a bride on her wedding day to be the center of attention, or to begin living the vows to her husband? Does a teacher instruct to show off his knowledge or to encourage students to learn? Romans 12:2 tells us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Whatever we do should foster a loving relationship with God first with the good deeds coming in second. Then what we do results from growth in our love for God.

When we reach a decision, it should result in love, joy, and peace. If we are overly anxious or tense, something is amiss. Each of us has a unique story that comes from our free will, our response to God’s grace, and the choices we make. We will never understand the great mystery of our life because we only see the underside of the tapestry. In heaven we will see the wonder in why things happened as they did.

Mary

As we ponder her life as a wife and mother, we perceive that Mary is our exemplar of the highest hope and complete trust in God. She walked in faith and in mystery, but maintained a deep peace. She came and went quietly; her house was undistinguished among the others in her village. She tended the fire, scoured the earthenware vessels, trimmed the lamps, cooked and sewed. The secret of her hope was that her daily mundane tasks were accomplished with great love and confidence in God’s plan for her. In the evenings, we can imagine her holding Jesus close to her heart, still pondering, and perhaps softly singing a lullaby as Joseph quietly whittles a wooden toy for him.

Hope was Mary’s stronghold. She held on to it in times of great concern and there were many. After giving birth to Jesus, she traveled in haste to Egypt. While on another journey, she lost her son. Like most women of her time, she worked from dawn to dusk. She was a widow at an early age with a teenage son. She watched helplessly as Jesus was cursed and spit upon, and stayed with him during his agony and death. Mary lived with a vision of hope rooted in faith. Hope drew her beyond herself, her fears and her worries. God was the tower of strength to whom she clung no matter what happened. She kept moving forward even though she did not understand what was happening. She lived the will of God perfectly, and urges us to do the same. The will of God is our sanctification. Therese of Lisieux makes this more accessible: “I hope in him who is virtue and sanctity itself. He alone, content with my frail efforts, will lift me up to himself, clothe me with his own merits and make me a saint.”

Like many before him, John Henry Newman made decisions that were far from easy. At times, he felt alone, misunderstood and confused, but continued to make decisions that required the most courage, and the greatest trust in God, throughout his life. When we feel alone and frightened regarding God’s will, we can find comfort reflecting on the words of his poem:

Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home.
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet, I do not ask to see
The distant scene, one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose, and see my path; but now
Lead thou me on.
I loved the garish day, and spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; remember not past years.

So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone.
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost a while.

 

  

*Morning Offering: O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world. I offer them for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart: the salvation of souls, reparation for sin, and the reunion of all Christians. I offer them for the intentions of our bishops and of all Apostles of Prayer.

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS About Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS, OTR, is a discalced Carmelite, secular, and a registered occupational therapist. She is the author of the books: From Ash to Fire: A Contemporary Journey through the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila, Carmel Land of the Soul: Living Contemplatively in Today’s World, Mystics in the Making: Lay Women in Today's Church, and Living Through Cancer, A Practical Guide to Cancer Related Concerns. Her latest book is Everyday Holiness: A Guide to Living Here and Getting to Eternity. You can find her reflections online at contemplativechristianityorg.wordpress.com.

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