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