Tuesday, January 3, 2012

God's Will Isn't Rocket Surgery

A lot of you who've been in fundamentalist, authoritarian churches and religious systems, as well as a lot of people like me from somewhat mainstream, or even "fundie-lite", backgrounds, have and still do suffer from various religious addictions. Among those is an obsessive pursuit of "God's will" as if it's some mystical element which we can only obtain if we climb the highest of spiritual mountains, pray until we're spent, and read the bible until our eyes bleed. We'll wring our hands until they're calloused, and we'll lose sleep over the worry of being "out" of God's will.

I don't think God ever intended it to be so complicated.

People like Bill Gothard, with his endless lists of principles (which feed and nourish religious addictions),  movements like Peripheral-Vision Forum, who make non-essentials the entirety of their focus, and authoritarian groups like the IFB and the Shepherding movement have championed the confusion on the issue of "God's will", but even many of our mainstream churches have joined in.

Until just a couple of years ago, upon every major decision, my own attitude was usually "Well, I'll pray about it, then I'll see what the bible says about it." Religious addiction. That was a sign of the insecurity that religious addiction breeds, making you conform to a "Christian" mold and certain pattern of doing things without realizing it. I knew, and still know, what the bible says about pretty much everything. I've read it cover to cover numerous times, reading it so meticulously in the past that I often slept with 2 or 3 different translations in the bed with me, as I'd read, study, and compare until I feel asleep. The thing is, it's pretty much impossible to be addicted without insecurity, and the "search" for God's will would take me back to the bible to make sure of what I was reading.

While I still value the books within the bible, I believe it's healthy for Christians to come to the understanding that the bible isn't an instruction manual for life, that "bible" doesn't stand for "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth", that the bible isn't a "love letter from God", as many like to say and think. That's just silly. There is an enormous amount of wisdom to be gleaned from the books of the bible, but when the bible becomes more than a supplement to our faith it has become the object of our faith. When "the bible says" or "God's word says" become nothing more than thought-stoppers, our "faith" has become unhealthy and cultic.

Yes, I still want to be "in the will of God". It's just taken on an entirely different meaning, and I have a totally different understanding of the concept than I did a few years ago. A better understanding? I think so. Certainly a healthier understanding. You may disagree.

The understanding of God's will is now very basic and simple for me. I've written before about my own base  beliefs of life and faith - love God, love my neighbor, always tell the truth, and do the right thing by others even when it costs me. Those things are the foundation of ALL things for me. Regarding the first two, Jesus said that they were the basis for ALL of the law and the words of the prophets. If you're curious how I apply these things to determining God's will...

If I have a choice to make, and have two options, one of which fits well within these foundational beliefs, and the other which goes against them, there's really no need for me to search the fine print of the bible to determine God's will in the matter. If I have to be less than truthful, if I have to be less than decent and just, if I purposefully gain from the wrongful loss of others, I can be pretty certain that whatever I'm considering isn't God's will. It isn't that difficult.

"But what about gray areas? What about when you have several options, and several of them fit within that criteria?"

This is where the hand-wringing becomes needless, and where religious addictions can kick in. If you have several options, none of which would lead you against loving God, loving your neighbor, telling the truth, and doing right by others, I don't think God will be displeased with your choice of ANY of them. ALL of them are "God's will". It's up to YOU to choose the one you consider best for YOU, using your own brain, examining the evidence, considering all factors. Sure, ask God for guidance, for wisdom. I'm all for that. Just don't spiritualize something that doesn't need spiritualization, but rather just needs a common sense decision. Waiting around to "hear from God" is another symptom of religious addiction, and often a paralyzing one. If you know right from wrong, you've already "heard from God", so choose right - or, choose any one of your right options.

I firmly believe decisions need to be made from a basis of right and wrong, and I think those two things can usually be determined rather easily. When we know the difference, we should act upon it. When we don't, we should make every personal effort to learn the difference while asking God for guidance, not expecting God to make everything magically delicious without any effort on our part. When we have multiple "right" options, we need to just make an informed, common sense choice, confident that God isn't displeased with our choice - because He isn't.

Life is difficult enough without making "God's will" into a monster.


  1. Simple and revolutionary for a former spiritual addict. Thanks!

  2. I wish I had read this round about 1980. I bought every book on the subject. I knew that I was flawed and often made less than optimal choices while feeling responsible for other people because of the consequences of my own choices. I was in a state of constant panic and remorse, damned in some way no matter what I did.

    What seemed like the most obvious help to me, based on what my family approved of, was to chase holiness. Speak in tongues more, read more Bible, listen to subliminal takes of the Bible (speech played at 4 times normal), and live a life of holiness -- and I would find God's will, having merged with it. If it were only that easy.

    But then, self trust was not something I was supposed to have. I was required to hand those things over to someone else, mainly my parents. When their plans didn't work out magically, it was always a matter of me not following them properly.

    I'm so glad that I didn't remain in that place in my head concerning what God wanted for me and how much trust I should put in myself (and what that meant exactly).

  3. My personal faith boils down to this: Love God, Love Yourself, Love Your Neighbour, Love All of Creation - anything else is just window dressing.

    When I first started working, my boss at the time was hugely evangelical (still is, as far as I know). His blend of evangelicism (at the time) didn't lean towards the P/QF line, but his church was very into the fear of sin... and very much into the "give us lots of money and we'll make sure you get to Heaven."

    He was so sure of his faith, and I was awed and a little envious. So I started getting sucked in to the lifestyle. Everyone at that church seemed so happy, and sure of themselves. And I started getting drawn in ever more. I chose to ignore the underlying message of "us and them" and the fear that underpins the insistence of "God's will" and "Biblical living."

    But it didn't take long for the rose coloured glasses to come off. It started when my boss suggested rock music was dangerous because many rock musicians lived dissolute, ungodly lives. Umm, so thoroughly enjoying the music of Queen or Janis Joplin meant I was going to start taking drugs and doing orgies? I was also starting to get a bit worried about the constant talk of sin and emphasis on "godly behaviour."

    And then a pastor who's huge in the Australian evangelical community came to preach at the church. That was where I really heard the "you can buy your way into Heaven!" message clearly, and I was so disgusted I almost walked out. A youth group also did a piece like you'd see in a Hell House type setup, and I wanted to throw up. But when my boss asked me what I thought about the power of the preacher's message, I made some noncommital reply out of some misguided loyalty.

    But that wasn't the final straw in severing my dabbling in radical evangelicism. No, that came when my boss told me my preferred reading material was ungodly and sinful and leading me away from the Lord. If you were to guess he was talking about my love of fantasy books, you'd be right. And Harry Potter was the Ultimate Evil. My boss actually said this.

    I did question this. Granted, Harry Potter is a wizard, but the books are as much about growing up and having the courage to make difficult decisions, not to mention the battle between Good and Evil. But all that's overshadowed by Harry being a wizard, see? Magic is BAD, even if it's only in a work of fiction.

    And while we were on the subject of magic, he knew I was into fantasy gaming - miniatures, role-playing games, trading card games - and that was also ungodly, and would lead me away from the Lord. I really got gobsmacked at this one. OK, so in Dungeons and Dragons you can play a wizard and even be evil if you want, but it's more about having fun with friends and being imaginative. Not to mention a lot of roleplaying games have nothing to do with fantasy, and my gaming group was in the middle of a Prohibition-era game. As in, historical. No wizards or elves, though there were knives and machine guns. And prostitutes.

    I called my boss out and asked him if he'd ever played any of these "ungodly" games. Or read Harry Potter. He did admit he used to read fantasy before he was saved, but he'd never read Harry Potter or played any of the games. Church authorities said they were evil and that was enough for him.

    And enough for me. The rose-coloured glasses were off completely. I began to see that my boss, though unfailingly polite, often displayed a certain smugness towards those who weren't "saved." And how his attitude towards another staff member changed completely when he realised the other staff member was gay. It was quite repugnant, and I wasn't sorry when he left.

  4. (addendum to the story)

    I will admit, I started to take a very immature pleasure in taking some of my gaming manuals to work to read during lunch break. He stopped giving me the Lectures when he realised I was at least partly doing it to get a rise, but he would often visibly wince when he saw those Dungeons and Dragons or Magic: The Gathering books on my desk, as though their mere presence might threaten his sanctity.

  5. DAMMIT.....now I'm hungry for Lucky Charms. :)

    Fantastic post, Lewis! I really wish that this article were available for my parents to read at the beginning of the 90s. Of course, if they'd just used common sense and their own brains, they didn't need the article.

    Thank you for always speaking up!

  6. First I just had to tell you how I laughed at "Peripheral-Vision Forum"!

    Moving on, my initial thoughts upon reading this post echoed Cindy's: Why didn't I read this x amount of years ago? But I actually wonder how much good that would have done, because it was so ingrained within me that the spiritual life had nothing to do with common sense or intelligence. I remember once when I was 20 and my sister 18 a friend of our grandmothers had at the last minute not been able to use her two tickets to see the symphony perform, and my stepfather had us all gather together and discuss and pray to seek God's will. Now, we had been to see the symphony numerous times - I even sometimes performed with the symphony chorale and went to practices once a week BY MYSELF at night - but my stepfather wanted to hear from the mouth of God, Himself, so he pleaded for the Lord to reveal His will. The fact that he heard from God and felt peace about us going and we didn't feel anything is a testament to men being the priests between God and ignorant women.

    We started going to a house church in Atlanta just before I left home that was actually super liberal for my family, although now I would never want to attend there because it’s still so conservative. One of the elders emphasized that God gave us brains to use them, that we were intended to used that common sense. That really impressed me and made so much sense.

    And now I’ve recently gone a step further and decided I don’t even believer the Bible is erroneous. Oh, the heresy! And I really find I feel so much freedom having made this decision than I ever have in regards to the Bible. My trouble now is I’m having a hard time applying this new conviction practically. How do you read the Bible that way? I saw on Rachel Held Evans blog that she’s going to start a weekly post on that topic, and I’m anxious to see what she has to say - reading her book Evolving in Monkey Town was what kept me from leaving Christianity altogether.

  7. I'd like to say I believed this all along, but really I'm just lazy.
    I rarely ever read the Bible, having read it cover to cover already (I have a good memory for books, so I usually know what it has to say on a subject). And I somehow never got into the habit of praying for guidance.
    But until recently, I had a perpetual, vague feeling of uneasiness. I always thought I wasn't being as devoted a Christian as I should be.
    Laziness, however, won out, and I know it's an ignoble triumph, but I can't say I regret it.

  8. "I firmly believe decisions need to be made from a basis of right and wrong, and I think those two things can usually be determined rather easily. When we know the difference, we should act upon it. When we don't, we should make every personal effort to learn the difference while asking God for guidance, not expecting God to make everything magically delicious without any effort on our part. When we have multiple "right" options, we need to just make an informed, common sense choice, confident that God isn't displeased with our choice - because He isn't.because He isn't."

    i love your easy sensible & applicable explanation of god's will!!! thanks lewis for sharing this!!!

    i know of cult leaders, abusive churches, etc who claim to hear God and know God’s will better & they use fear to get ppl to "obey". this is spiritually abusive. i've experienced this personally. these spiritual abusers apply a gr8 amt of pressure that's not from God to get you to do the leader’s will, not God’s will. thus, the spiritual abusers makes it very difficult for ppl to hear their own voice & hear God. it's very damaging but through intensive therapy i'm discovering what my voice sounds like, how to make my own decisions, & trusting God again. :)

  9. I've read several of your posts and I was never victim of any of these movements. I grew up in a nominal "christian" house where right-wing politics was the praxis.

    Anyway, I think a lot of all this: between obsessing over "God's will" (King Jesus just isn't enough for some folks!), the Patriarchs, the balls, the courtship etc etc.

    The one connecting factor it seems is: Storybooks. The language is dripping with it. Everything is about knights, chivalry, kings (patriarchs?), princesses, swords, prince charming etc. etc. My room mate when he was having trouble with his girlfriend (they eventually broke up) were praying if being together is "God's will".

    What is this? This is the shallow thinking of the "story book" romance that is big in this generation. There's one perfect person and if you start to feel disillusioned, maybe you screwed up, picked the wrong one. Then you meet another pretty gal/guy and say "Oh! I feel so good with her/him! She/He must be the one!". Now those who've 'christianized' it won't just have an affair or divorce (though some have/do), but the obsessive religious attempt is pagan at its heart. They may as well be visiting a palm reader or reading horoscopes.

    The Scriptures tell us about Christ, the consolation of Israel, redeeming the world through His the bloodshed on the Cross and the hope of resurrection of the dead. Why do we demand more?

    Stumbling block to the Jews, foolishness to the Greek, and buzzkill to the clueless American. No one wants to be a simple peasant with a bent knee to the King of all Kings.

    My 2 cents,