Grave harm has been wrought…by teaching that a man must find the will of God, never his own, in all things. Where we are within reality and there are ten reality choices, it is man’s choice that is absolute, that makes the choice right. There is then no need to be on the perpetual alert to find the one haunting, threatening, objective good thing to do. God wants us to wish. In our wishes is His will.1

It’s easy to see Providence at work in some parts of my life, in the way I’ve just fallen into things. When I graduated from college, I got my first teaching job almost by accident, after reluctantly agreeing to attend a high school reunion.

The job turned out to be the perfect mixture of challenge and protection: a chance to revisit my high school years, heal some of those wounds, and at the same time grow in responsibility and maturity. It all hurt like hell, of course, but growth usually does.

After three years it became clear that my time there was done. After being allowed to wriggle for a little while in uncertainty, I was given a very clear sign about the next step. The same pattern continued for several years. I would come to the end of one thing, and find that the next thing dropped right into my lap, as from the hand of a loving God.

None of the big decisions — teaching at my old high school, moving out of my parents’ house, traveling to Peru, teaching again in Arizona — seemed inevitable at first, and none came without deliberation and prayer and advice. But at the end of each period of discernment, I always felt clear about what to do: the One Right Thing, the Will of God.

Then, in 2010, Providence ran out.

At the end of a year of teaching in Arizona, one of the most challenging years of my life, I couldn’t find the One Thing. Should I continue teaching, even though it was hard, and work out my salvation that way, or did my One Path lie elsewhere? Was I meant to stay rooted in a hard land like Ruth, or to set out like Abraham into unknown territory? Both seemed difficult, both seemed good, and I was utterly stuck.

Because I believed in the existence of the One Thing, it seemed to me that all other things must lead to misery, or at least to the knowledge that I had missed the best path, that there existed some perfect choice and that I had failed to make it. God had a Best Thing in mind for me, but He wouldn’t tell me what it was; and if I couldn’t figure it out, it would be nothing but pathless wandering from then on.

To say that God has a singular, perfect plan for you, and that all you have to do is find it and follow it, sounds a lot like trust. It sounds like the sort of thing a good parent would do: set out the best possible future for you, and make sure you end up there.

But that image implies another. What if you can’t find the plan? What if the parent is terrifyingly vague about what His plan actually is? Suddenly he’s not a good parent at all, but one who’s waiting for you to screw it all up, so that after you’ve made the Wrong Decision he can leap out and blame you for it, saying: You should have known better, and now you’re going to pay.

That’s not a good parent. That’s a cruel, vindictive control freak. But how many of us see God that way?

At the bottom of my belief in the One Right Thing was a terrible fear that I would choose one of the many, many Wrong Things,2 fear that I would make an irreparable mistake, fear that I could get to some point outside of the mercy of God.

When I finally chose to leave teaching, it was exactly that: a choice. Maybe it was the first real choice I ever made, in the sense that, for the first time, I decided what I wanted to do — not what would be least disastrous, not what would be most safe, not what would force God to keep loving me and taking care of me — but what I wanted.

And I found that to do what you desire can be an act of trust. God gave us desires, and our desires can be3 a mode of His will, are the means by which His will is acted out. But that will is not a static thing, and it embraces all the parts of who we are, not only the careful, restrained parts.

To desire, and to act on desire, is to trust in the goodness of God, and in a kind of Providence that, terrifyingly or thrillingly, expects us to do what we want.4

1 William F. Lynch, SJ, Images of Hope, p. 143.
2 Like this guy.
3 Yes, but nota bene: can be, not “always are.”
4 Here is a poem by Richard Wilbur on the same theme as this post. I’ve known this poem for ten years and I’m still not sure whether he’s saying the same thing as I am here or something completely different, and I’m not sure I agree with him. But it’s a hell of a poem.

19 thoughts on “The One Right Thing

  1. Melissa

    Awesome post, Steve. It’s basically everything I’ve experienced over the last 3 years…thank you for being able to say the things I don’t know how to say!

    Reply
  2. Jennie

    Me too…things just worked from one thing to the next. And then they didn’t. Totally understand the One Right Thing thing and wanting to keep God loving you. Love this post.

    Reply
  3. Lianna

    Thank you…I can definitely relate to the One Right Thing and the Wrong Things. Yet sometimes I do believe that our desires are conflicting and that God is nudging toward a certain path. Though it doesn’t always make sense!

    Reply
  4. Jay

    Steve,

    I know exactly where you are coming from. And it makes me think of this great article from FirstThings on basically this topic. I have always wrestled with the issue of finding God’s Will and then just doing what we feel compelled to do as an actor of God’s Will. Anyway, the article spells it out much better than I could. And really is a good one to favorite and go back to!
    http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2012/01/love-god-and-do-what-you-will-avoiding-over-devotion-to-our-lady-of-perpetual-discernment

    Reply
    1. Steve Gershom

      Great article — thanks! Loves this: “Does this seemingly radical rejection of “personal vocation” mean that God does not care what I do with my life? Of course it does not. It simply means that God does not condemn all ways but one.”

      Reply
  5. Ima

    Thanks for putting into words what I believe God has been telling me in the past few years though it’s easily misunderstood. “I thought I was being carried, but lo, I was walking.” (quoted from memory from Perelandra)

    Reply
  6. Dan S.

    Interesting. When I first started reading this post, and read the quote by Lynch, I had to read it again, because it didn’t sound right at all. At first reaction, it sounded like an allowance just to do what you wished to do.
    After reading it a third time with your reflection of your experiences, it makes a lot more sense with that context.
    Sometimes our desire is there because God puts it there, for our soul is restless until it rests in Him, so it makes sense that our desires (if ordered properly) should be directed towards God’s will.
    I can see how it can be a trap to think that there is that single one path. Thanks for sharing, because I wonder if maybe we are somehow implicitly taught that in our formative years.

    Reply
  7. Mary

    I had a friend who was struggling mightily between entering the seminary and beginning to date a girl he really cared about. I finally said to him one day, “Look, maybe you’re supposed to be a priest, or maybe you’re supposed to get married, but at least you should have the consolation that you’re choosing between two GOODS, not, say, the priesthood and murder.” I’ve sadly lost touch with him, so I don’t know where he is now.

    It’s interesting, because I’d never thought about following God’s will quite in the way I stated to him, as you’ve talked about above, until I said that, in a bit of frustration, towards my friend. It ended up being eyeopening in my own life, as well.

    Reply
  8. Rose

    Great reflection, Steve. You have a beautiful understanding of vocation.

    I also really appreciate footnote 2. Excellent.

    Reply
  9. Devra

    This is something that has confused me for a long, long time, either not knowing the one right thing, or suspecting that I knew what the one right thing was but not wanting to do it. I don’t know if I could explain it any better than you just did. It did occur to me once when I was agonizing over whether we should move again, that maybe God didn’t even care so much whether we lived in one place or another as how we lived when we got there. It wasn’t as if, if we picked place A and that turned out to be the one right place, then the deciding part of life, or the acting part of life, would be over.

    Reply
  10. Melissa

    And now, Steve, I have so much more sympathy for you…I posted this on my FB and now I’m getting flak for helping to lead people out of the Church! (??)

    Which just leads us right back to the first sentence, “Grave harm has been done.”

    Reply
  11. Grandfather

    Traditionally there were twelve steps to spiritual perfection. Step One was simple selfishness. Two was being nice to others, to get what you wanted. Three was actually caring what happened to other people. Step Four was when you started to wonder what God might want. The twelfth step was when there was no difference between your will and God’s will.

    Peter Kreeft said some years ago the books about the spiritual life that were written in the past assumed the reader was at least at Stage Four. Unfortunately, he said, most people in the modern age who read those books, are not that far, and so do not understand what they are reading.

    No, it is not harmful to say one should seek God’s will in all things. It is harmful to imagine oneself a saint devoted to God’s will, when one is not.

    God will guide, whenever you ask him to guide. Let him take your hand in a dark place, and trust him. If the place is not dark, pray simple prayers such as my Protestant friends taught me forty years ago, “Open the doors where you want me to go, close to the doors where you do not want me to go, and I cover the doors with the Blood of Jesus.”

    Does it work? Applying this kind of simple spirituality, about 25 years ago I went on a mission and accomplished what God sent me to do, by being a sacrificial lamb. It was very extraordinary and very painful to me.

    Since then I have asked God if there was something else he wanted me to do, and he has given me much less dramatic things. The latest: post on “Steve Gershom’s” blog.

    Reply
    1. Grandfather

      Sometimes I think I should wait three days before posting on the Internet. Anyway I need to clarify: The little prayer for God to guide comes after all the ordinary things. I learn what I can about my options, weigh the pros and cons, and talk with family and friends. Then, on top of that, I pray more or less, God let me go where you want me to go, and do not let me go where you do not want me to go. Over a period of years, I have seen this prayer make a big difference.

      Once the difference was dramatic. Something I wanted fell through, and when I learned of it I felt the hand of God on the back of my neck. I thought this must be what a kitten feels like, when its mother picks it up. Anyway as the years went by, it became clear that what God gave me was better for me, than what I had tried to get, even though what I tried to get was what everyone thought was desirable.

      One comment: The popular culture and (unhappily) most Christians believe that any talk at all about God’s will being different from one’s desires, comes from a dangerous fanaticism or mental illness. Many psychologists think the entire Christian religion is harmful, and many think that Christian sexual morality in particular is harmful. It should be obvious that one does not go to such people, for advice on discerning God’s will.

      Reply
  12. xen

    Great post, Steve. I love it. I have also tried in many ways to follow God’s path. Things worked smoothly for almost ten years and wherever I went, I saw signs that I was on the right path. I made a personal covenant with the Lord that I would keep doing what I was doing for Him.
    Then tragedy happened and I began to question if this tragedy is a sign from God that I should stop, or is it from dark forces which would like to prevent me from doing my work. Nothing is scarier than wondering if your path is God’s or another more sinister thing. I kept praying and reading the Bible. I laid out options A, B, C, etc. When some options closed, I figured they weren’t meant for me. When some options opened, I felt thrilled and a bit afraid. Was this what God wanted? Was I as committed to His will as I’d professed? Sometimes these forks come to challenge our faith. We might come out renewed or emerge as doubters. Sometimes we have to be weak, in order to rely only on God’s strength. And we realize we are humble, and that we need Him more than ever. I’ll pray for you Steve.

    Reply

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