Agonizing Over the Will of God

When I visited my grandfather’s church in Corpus Christi, Texas a few years back, there was a pastor named Bubba who announced one day from the pulpit that he’d had a dream from God. He described this dream in way more detail than any dreams I ever remembering having. He then laid out a plan for an elaborate outreach and prayer ministry. This public unveiling of Bubba’s vision from God was the first communication about it that he had made to the church. He had not talked to the deacons or anybody else prior to sharing it with the whole assembled congregation. A few months later, there was a new pastor in the pulpit at First Baptist Corpus Christi.

It’s generally the case that more “sophisticated” Christians ridicule pastors like Bubba who claim to hear voices or see visions from God. “Sophisticated” Christians don’t have visions from God; they have good ideas that are rational and creative and practical. They might give God “credit” for their good ideas since it’s theologically proper to do so, but these ideas don’t come from voices in the wind or blinding lights; they come from deductively using the reason that is God’s basic gift to humanity.

I inhabit the worlds of Bubba the Texas preacher and “sophisticated” Christianity simultaneously. For example, I have had several experiences in my life where I (may) have spoken in tongues, but I am unwilling to own those experiences as the expression of a genuine spiritual gift because the “sophisticated” side of me cynically deconstructs them to death, even though one of those times, something inexplicable happened, which I’m scared to call a miracle. Sometimes when I pray, I really do ask God questions that I fully expect to have answered in very explicit terms, whether it’s through a thought in my head or a Bible verse or the advice of a friend. Other times when I pray, it feels more like I’m engaging in a coping strategy in which I “center” myself and make peace with whatever is troubling me.

This sort of double-identity impacts how I understand what it means to seek the will of God. I have been facing perhaps the most difficult decision of my pastoral career this week, which culminates a discernment process that has lasted about two months. The discernment process has included the same kind of logical deduction, practical conversations, and decision trees that characterize decision-making in the secular world. I have been meeting with a committee that has shared in this practical aspect of the discernment with me.

My discernment has also involved a lot of prayer and fasting on my part. I fast every Monday and walk around a local lake as sort of a weekly meeting with God. My conversation for the past month has involved reading a section of Psalm 119 or perhaps a few pages of Thomas Merton or Alexander Schmemann, journaling furiously, and listening to the silence as I walk, which is actually pregnant with what I feel like I know to be the voice of God. I don’t know how to put into words the experience of God’s presence that I have felt. It varies in intensity, but there have been days when I really am filled with an indescribable joy, and a fairly boring lake with a huge ugly train trestle behind it looks more beautiful than the fjords of Norway or the Swiss Alps.

In any case, as part of my weekly conversation with God this Monday, I came to what I thought was a conclusion about the discernment process and I really thought I heard God’s voice speaking to me and leaving me with complete clarity and peace about what He had to say. Then when I went to meet with my committee to make our decision on Monday night, my committee (or God speaking through them) said something completely different. I’m not sure what to do with this. If I were a pastor like Bubba, I might say, “I’m sorry guys, but God told me what to do and that’s all there is to it.” But I don’t have the self-assurance to say something like that, partly because I get cynical when I hear other people make claims about what God has told them to do and partly because it’s such a significant claim to make that I tremble before it. Also I am very much committed to the belief that God speaks to me through other people.

Thus I am agonizing this week over the will of God. I have physically been torn up inside by this process (I won’t say any more about it than that). I know that the world ridicules leaders who agonize. We’re supposed to be decisive, shooting from the hip and not looking back. But I don’t just want to be able to say that I did what made logical sense or what spoke to my heart; I want to follow the will of God. I covet your prayers that all would become clear and, even if it’s not clear, that I would be faithful to whatever God reveals.


15 thoughts on “Agonizing Over the Will of God

  1. I am a bit taken by Kurt’s story of Mother Teresa. I wish I could say… yeah, that is what I was going to say. 🙂

    Anyway, what I have to offer is more an encouragement to not only be attentive to the discernment process but to the wrestling itself, the presence of God in the absence of clarity. I can’t help but think that Jacob’s hip socket problem was in part his blessing, a reminder of the presence of God in the midst of his journey of striving, his night of wrestling. Like hunger pains to fasting, his hip might be a call to remember frailty and dependence in the midst of the powerful presence of an unclear God. Anyway, that is what marks my memory most of a deep wrestling with God… one which has yet to be answered though he has clearly responded with the humbling power of his presence. May he carry on to completion the work he is doing in you and your church… with our without your clarity in the process. 🙂

    Peace friend,

  2. On [John Kavanaugh’s] first morning [at the “house of the dying” in Calcutta] he met Mother Teresa. She asked, “And what can I do for you?”

    Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him.

    “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked.

    He voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles from the United States: “Pray that I have clarity.”

    She said firmly, “No, I will not do that.” When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.””

  3. I find that there are very often reasons for the genuine intuitions I receive from God although I don’t always perceive them at first. I also have a very rational and very convincing (to me) theology that stands behind the receiving of intuitions and “words from God” (although be warned that most people regard this theology as hopelessly liberal – ironically). I would encourage you to pray more about what you have received so that you can communicate it to other people. Biblically, what I think you’re after here is a variation on the interpretation of tongues. Talk it out with someone you can trust and who has a gift for interpreting. And also be prepared to be wrong!

  4. Morgan, you have my prayers as your brother in Christ. I have to agree with much of what’s been said already, but ultimately it doesn’t matter what we say to you … only what the Spirit is telling you.

  5. I wonder if those early Christians who gathered to work out the debates of their time (such as specifics on the inclusion of the gentiles or, later, correct understanding of Christology or the Trinity)–I wonder if they didn’t agonize in similar ways, especially when different persons brought different ideas to the table (“should Revelation be included in the canon of Scripture?” “I’m not so sure…”). Only the very arrogant or the very foolish proceed with big decisions without entering at least nearly as much debate internally as they do with others. If you struggle with it, take hope; you are in good company.

  6. It really depends on what you think God is telling you. I believe the true messages from God involve us being told to do things for His glory that we really, really don’t want to do because it involves a lot of self-sacrifice. Moses wasn’t chomping at the bit to tell Pharaoh to let His people go.

    You and your committee need to go through a discernment process to determine which course will do the most for His kingdom.

  7. Thank you for your encouragement. I can’t tell you how much it means to me. God is continuing to talk to us as we figure this one out. I am very privileged to be working with humble, spiritually grounded people who want to do what God wants. We have all heard something a little different and we are trying to tune into the right frequency together. I covet all of your prayers.

  8. Ditto. Go with Bubba. Your first obligation is to be connected with God. And if you’re not vitally connected with God, then you’re not worth anything as a leader anyway.

    I’ve spoken in tongues, too, but I don’t make a big deal of it. I’ve heard the audible voice of God several times, but I don’t make a big deal of it.

    I understand being torn between Bubba-land and Brain-land. If you know God, that’s a good place to be. Don’t worry about temporarily going too far exploring either spiritual and emotional geography. Your exploration needs to be thorough to be any good to you, or to your Christian community.

  9. I Don’t know you, but I was directed to this post through a link. I just want you to know that I’m praying for you tonight and hope you will at least vigorously share your vision with your church leadership before you let it go.

  10. if God intends it to be, it will be…one way or another. from another perspective the role of community is to aid in confirming our discerning. do you trust the people who disagreed with you in the sense of them being healthy, mature in spirit, and wise? from still another perspective, sometimes it takes a lot of patient waiting and wooing of God’s people (the folks in the pew and around the administrative table) to get with it. is it worth the time and energy to convince?
    just peace, always, always, for ever…
    G Lake Dylan, OSL+

  11. Let the world be the world and God be God. Real leaders agonize, second guess, and always wonder what if. If they didn’t I would suggest they may not truly be a good leader. A true pastor does the same. It is love that drives those feelings and knowing deep in your soul that you need/want to do the will of God. It isn’t easy, nor should it. If it was easy we would all do exactly what God said all the time.

    You are in my prayers but if I had to choose sides, I would stand with Bubba. Let God be God!

    Peace be with you brother, Jim

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