Extract from chapter 7: ‘In the will of a willing God’
A man was wandering through the heat of the desert. He seemed to be looking for something. His name was Macarius and he would become one of the founding saints of the Egyptian Coptic church. His problem was that he knew God was calling him to build a monastery, but he did not know where. He searched the wilderness asking God to show him the right place to build it. ‘Give me a sign’. ‘Show me’. ‘Is it here – or over there?’
But God was silent.
At last, after another day filled with fervent prayers for guidance an angel appeared with a message from God. ‘The Lord is not going to show you where to build the monastery. He wants you to choose the place. If he tells you where to build and things go wrong, you will only blame him. So you must choose.’
God’s answer is unexpected. This is not the way guidance is supposed to work is it? The Lord’s Prayer clearly tells us to pray ‘your will be done’. And surely personal freedom and choice are to be surrendered to God? ‘You make your own mind up’ is not usually the challenge at the end of Christian testimonies of doing God’s will.
Nor are we used to thinking of God’s will as something so permissive that it leaves much up to us. This may not even be the kind of God we were hoping for. The idea of a God who has lovingly pre-planned our whole lives in detail is very appealing in such an uncertain and hazardous world. We would prefer a God who decides for us; who has the right job in mind for us; who has planned the right partner for us to marry and so on.
Some might even question whether this is a Christian understanding of guidance at all. Did not Jesus say ‘follow me’? Does not the Bible encourage us to believe that when we commit our way to God ‘he will direct your paths’ or promise that ‘your ears will hear a word behind you saying, “this is the way, walk in it”’? Does God guide our lives by his plan or not? But the true question is not whether God has a will, but what kind of will does he have? How does he express it? The experience of Macarius points to four qualities of the will of God.
First, the story begins with the assumption that God has a will and plan. He also calls people to participate in the accomplishing of it. Human living is a vocation to live in God’s will. Macarius clearly believed that. For him, being a Christian meant he should seek God’s will and obey it as a matter of central priority in his life. He was a man passionately pursuing a strong sense of God’s calling him to a certain project. This is not questioned. But God’s is not an imposing, authoritarian will. Still less is it an impersonal command requiring absolute obedience regardless of the needs of the mortal beings who must carry it out. In a world where all-powerful wills are more often experienced as coercive and abusive of human dignity and freedom, this is unexpected and good news.
When Jesus teaches his disciples about what leadership involves he explicitly contrasts the absolute, overbearing will of secular rulers who ‘lord it over’ people, with the way power is exercised in God’s kingdom. By utter contrast, God expresses his will in loving, self-giving service. Even Jesus did not come into this world to be served but to serve (Mark 10.42-5).
The sheer courtesy of God towards us is something little prepares us for. Surveying the range of human roles and jobs for comparison, God recognises himself more fully in the life of an earthly slave than the status and power of an absolute ruler. It is not surprising if this is hard for us to adjust to. We may instinctively go on relating to him as the authoritarian, directive will we think God ought to have.
Second, God’s will is not predetermined and inflexible. There is a divine plan but it delights to leave space within it. Human will, desire and action are to be an important and creative part of the fulfilling of it. Although God’s will is clear in general terms (build a monastery), there is much more that has not been revealed (where to build it – and presumably a host of other practical details). At this point God goes silent. Macarius must make his own mind up, discern what is appropriate and serve God through his personal will and imagination.
Living in God’s will does not mean receiving a ‘perfect plan’ package that we must simply unwrap and obey. Living in God’s will does not mean being told what to do all the time.
Some approaches to guidance veer perilously close to this kind of belief. God is God. He knows everything. His will is perfect and, in the end, will be achieved with us or in spite of us. Taken to its extreme, human choice would become meaningless, prayer pointless (and this book irrelevant). No action or decision can be taken, however small, without specific guidance to do so. Although God’s love and human free will is stressed, we are little more than mildly animated puppets. God’s will for Macarius is to give him his own will. And obedience to God’s will requires him to enter a freedom of his own. To obey God is to be free.
In fact, human choice is a central concern of God in this story. So to be faithful to God and to the task, Macarius must use his own discernment and make a choice.
Third, the story warns us against a narrow understanding of what guidance is about.
It is much more than making factually ‘right’ decisions about what God wants us to ‘do’. His plan is not a blueprint: God shows no interest in the precise practical details here. His loving interest is focused on Macarius and the kind of person he may become as he fulfils God’s purpose.
So guidance is not a technique to be mastered but life to be entered. The question ‘what decision is God guiding to me to make?’ is part of a much bigger and more important question – ‘what kind of person is God willing that I may become’?
Finally, this is a vocation Macarius must freely choose. There are very practical particular reasons given why this is important. God knows that if Macarius is to be faithful to his vocation when the going gets tough, it must be something that he has freely chosen. He must own it. This is shrewd pastoral leadership. Passive conformity can be confused with real faith, but it can never inspire the determination or endurance that faithful living requires.