Matthew 6:9-10; 7:7-11
The Rev. Tom Herbek
February 28, 2016
When a young child is killed in Syracuse by her father, and a nurse is killed in Geneva by her abusive boyfriend, there are some who quickly say, “Well, it is God’s will.”
God’s will for some people has to do with some sort of “plan” that is already set in stone and God uses it to manipulate our lives, and they believe that this plan is God’s will. Some people believe that God has a clear plan for our life, and if we figure out God’s plan and succumb to it, then we are following God’s will.
When we talk about the will of God, what do we mean? When we pray the Lord’s Prayer and say “Thy will be done”, what does this mean? Perhaps it is important to say what God’s will is not. When a hurricane destroys one city and not another, it is not God’s will. In her book, For the Time Being, Annie Dillard writes: “The very least likely things for which God might be responsible are what insurers call ‘acts of God.’” No matter what the televangelists would have us believe, I do not believe that God causes hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, or earthquakes to hit one place and avoid others.
Certainly the Old Testament writers believed the world of natural disasters worked this way, desperate for any sign that God favored Israel over other nations. But, except for insurance agents and a few televangelists, we no longer believe this to be true. And many people today believe that God does not manipulate the events around us so that some people are favored and others are not.
In his book, Nine Essential things I’ve Learned About Life, Rabbi Harold Kushner defines faith in God in an entirely different way:
I believe it is not only permissible but a religious obligation to question the existence of God if you are troubled by some of the things you were taught, to question the divine origin of things that are said in God’s name, and then to go on and search for answers to your questions.
The wisest answer I have found to the issue of the legitimacy of doubt comes from Anne LaMott, who wrote in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” When someone says to me, “I don’t just believe there is a God; I know there is,” I am often tempted to respond, “In that case, you don’t have religious faith; you have information.”
So many people seem to have information, not faith, and they try to impose their ideas on people around them. Saying that something is “the will of God” is a way of trying to impose certainty on God’s place, power, and work in our world. During WWII, a British minister named Leslie Weatherhead, troubled by all of the suffering in London and throughout England, tried to make sense of what was going on around him.
I have a good friend whose wife recently died. When she was dead, he said, “Well, I must just accept it. It is the will of God.” But he is himself a doctor, and for weeks he had been fighting for her life. He had called in the best specialists in London. He had used all the devices of modern medicine to fight the disease.
Was he all that time fighting against the will of God? If she had recovered, would he not have called her recovery the will of God? The woman’s recovery and the woman’s death cannot equally be the will of God. It is confusing.
Let me illustrate the confusion again. “My boy was killed ten days ago on one of the raids on Berlin,” said a woman, “but I am trying to bow to the will of God.” But was that the will of God? I would have said it was the will of the enemy, of Hitler, if you like. Are they then the same thing?
Here is a mother wringing her hands and weeping in anguish because her baby is dead. In her anguish, this is what the woman said: “I suppose it is the will of God, but if only the doctor had come in time he could have saved my baby.” If the doctor had come in time, would he have been able to outwit the will of God?
Surely we cannot identify as the will of God something for which anyone would be locked up in jail or put in a criminal psychiatric hospital.
When we experience evil in the world, when people we love suffer, then I am not comfortable saying, “This is God’s will”. And I am not comfortable with the idea that God manipulates everything in our lives, and we are like little puppets in God’s hands. One of the problems with this view of God’s will is that we end up with no freedom to choose, and no responsibility for anything.
The desire to find meaning in even the most tragic events of life is universal. Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl credited his ability to find a sense of meaning even in the concentration camps as the element that kept him hopeful and alive.
One evening, almost by accident Frankl discovered something that would save his life. As he marched back from a work detail that evening, he was in terrible pain. His feet were covered with sores, his shoes torn. With a bitterly cold wind bearing down on him, he obsessed over all the tiny things he needed to do in order to survive. If a piece of sausage were given to him, should he trade it for bread? Should he trade a cigarette he had squirreled away for a bowl of soup? How could he find a piece of wire to replace the bit that had served as a shoelace? How could he get on good terms with the guard who might be able to assign him to a closer work detail? Then, in the midst of his calculus of survival, an image came to him. He saw a detailed and clear vision of himself giving a lecture after the war on the psychology of the concentration camp. And that changed how he viewed everything around him. “All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen as described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment,” he wrote.
-From Upside by Jim Rendon
Frankl also talked about others who inspired him, even in the horrors of life in the camp. What he took away from that unimaginable horror became the basis for his book Man’s Search for Meaning. “We who lived in the concentration camps,” he wrote, “can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any give set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
It is one thing when one finds meaning in what has happened to them. But it is quite another when we try to give them meaning in their suffering. Most people who say to someone who is in pain, “It is God’s will,” are trying to make sense of what has happened. It is often their way of dealing with their own discomfort at not knowing what to say or do.
But when we try to impose our meaning on someone else’s pain, then it is more likely to cause resentment, anger and isolation than comfort to them.
Parker Palmer describes people who gave him advice when he was depressed:
Distancing ourselves from each other’s pain is the hidden agenda behind most of our efforts to “fix” each other with advice. If you take my advice, do it right, you will get well and I will be off the hook. But if you do not follow my advice, or do not follow it properly, I am off the hook nonetheless: I have done the best I could, and your continued suffering is clearly your fault. By trying to fix you with advice, rather than simply suffering with you, I hold myself away from your pain.
-The Active Life
We want quick answers in our search for meaning in tough times. Instead, I like what Anne LaMott’s friend said to her: “I asked a wise friend, ‘Is there meaning in what happened in the slaughter at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown?’ He said, ‘Not yet.’”
Saying “It is God’s will” is a way to try to short circuit the search for meaning. It’s also a way to avoid responsibility for our own decisions. Someone recently described to me their difficulty in selling their home in the Washington, DC, area. They had a new home built, and were planning to move in after selling the home they have owned for several years. However, the new home is built, and the second home has been on the market for two years. They are struggling to pay two mortgages. When I offer my sympathy at this financial pressure, the response is that “it is God’s will.” Personally, I would rather take responsibility for my own decisions and not put all the responsibility on God for the decisions I make and the consequences that follow. So, if God does not have a plan for our lives, and if God does not manipulate the events in our lives and in our world, what is God’s will?
It seems to me that God’s will is for us to become all that we were created to be. There is no specific blueprint for any of us on how we do it, no secret formula that we must follow. God created great potential in each of us to make a positive difference in our world. To do the will of God means that we explore the numerous possibilities to reach our potential as God’s people, that we spend our time and our energies in moving toward that ultimate goal – to become all we were created to be.
The will of God is not for tragedy to strike us, not for us to suffer. As Jesus said in the selection from Matthew 7 (my contemporary personal thoughts about what this might mean):
“Is there anyone among us who, if your child asks for bread to eat because he is hungry, will give him an inedible stone?
“Or if the child asks for fish will give him a poisonous snake?
“If you then, who are much less compassionate than God, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask of him!”
I believe that this is the will of God: that we move forward each day toward becoming all that God has created us to be. In following this, we have freedom and we have responsibility, but ultimately we know that God loves us and is with us, and we know that we can make a difference in our world. When we know this and act on it, then we are truly following, in our unique and special lives, Jesus’ beautiful prayer, “Thy will be done.”