God’s Will is Not an Algorithm (Looking At You Christian Mingle)

Posted: July 11, 2013 in Current Events, Kierkegaard
Tags: , ,

I’m prepping to preach on Psalm 25:1-10.  I think it’s timely.images

See, I have serious issues with people breaking the Second Commandment.

I think it’s a woefully misunderstood commandment, by and large.

Most of my Confirmation kids think it’s about cursing when we first come to it in our study of the Decalogue.  By the time they leave, though, I hope they have a broader view…they tell me they do.

I want to impart this much on them: as a preacher I am very (i.e., terribly) nervous about ever saying something from the voice of God.  Because I don’t want to use God’s name, or likeness, or voice, uselessly.  This is really what the Second Commandment is about, I think.

So that lovely billboard that says, “You know that ‘Love one another’ thing?  I mean that.-God”.  I think it’s in bad taste.  And poor form.

And I think it breaks the Second Commandment just as much as those signs that say, “God hates fags.”

I don’t think their impact is the same, of course.  The former is aimed toward a reminder of love, the latter is best used as firewood.  But I think they’re both wrongheaded.

In Psalm 25 we have a student (the Psalmist) entreating the teacher (God) to teach them and lead them on godly “pathways.”  “Show me how to live,” the Psalmist asks.

And if you go to the book store, you’ll see tons of books dedicated to just that.  There are so many in this world who are simply convinced of God’s will, pathway, for not only their life but also yours.

And I am suspicious of it all.  And it gives me the shakes to think that I am culpable at times of falling into that same trap.

It’s like Christian Mingle’s tagline, that online dating service marketed specifically for Christians: “Find God’s Match for You.”

Do we really think that God’s will is algorithmic in origin?  Do we really think that God wants you to choose from a pull-down menu “washboard abs” (an actual choice on that site), and that God’s match for you will appear based on that, your height, and your education level?

God, I hope not.

Why, then, do we think that other things pertaining to God’s will align like this?

Career changes, relationships, neighborhood locations, vacation destination…”where does God want me to go?  What is God’s will for my life?”

So often this is just a way for us to find ways of getting divine support for our own decisions and situations.  I would be the first to admit that I don’t think God wants you to harm yourself or others; I can say that this is not “the good” that God desires for humanity.  But between two career choices?  Or a neighborhood move? Or a relationship?

Can we not be honest about it all and say that to quickly know God’s will…perhaps to know it at all…is really just a way we try to placate ourselves into thinking we’re making good choices?

Leslie D. Weatherhead, that process theologian best known for his work The Will of God (a good, if dated, work), tells the story of the parson who is offered a high-paying job at a new parish in the next city over, twice the salary of his current position.  When a young parishioner asked the parson’s son what his father will do, the son replies, “Well, Dad is praying over it, but Mom is packing.”

I think Dad has made his choice.  Or maybe Mom has.  A humorous (and true) example of this in action.

The worst example of course, and I’ve mentioned this before, is assigning tragedy to being part of “God’s will.”

This is another placation of sorts.  It’s easy for us to deal with life situations if we believe they’re divinely ordained.

But I want to talk about honesty here; I don’t want to be careless just because it’s useful. And I don’t think God wanted your child to die, your mother to have cancer, you to be born with one arm, or that Asiana Airlines flight to crash.

Gravity happens.  Cells divide and mutate…sometimes in ways that are tragic for life.

But to call such things “God’s will” is sick and demented and wrong.  And it’s not any better to say, “Well, I’d never say it at the time because it’s not helpful, but it’s true that it is God’s will…”

In fact, that’s worse because it’s patronizing.

And I think it’s wrong to say that it must be God’s will that these things occur because in such situations people gain great insight, or muster great courage, and that those goods outweigh the tragic bad.

In this vein Weatherhead can again be enlightening.  He notes that tragic situations do not cause great courage or insight, they just uncover it.  And to suggest that such courage or knowledge couldn’t be gained in other, non-tragic ways, is shortsighted.

We either give lip service to seeking “God’s will” while just reinforcing our own, or we proclaim “God’s will” carelessly while not really knowing what we’re talking about.

Both are sad realities for the Christian world.  This is how I see it most often done, though.

To steal Kierkegaard’s famous title, the topic of God’s will should approached with “fear and trembling.”  And with a healthy dose of mystery.

This is why spiritual disciplines are very important.  They’re less than formulaic; anyone immersed in deep discernment can tell you that it often feels like three steps forward and two back when trying to suss out a path in the deep woods of doubt and indecision.

They invite us into mystery.

Finding the will of God is less like being the captain of a ship out at sea whose rudder turns it sharply as the stars realign and the course changes in the captain’s sight.  We want such swift movement…we desire it and love it when people tell us they have such clarity.

But I, by and large, don’t trust it…and don’t encourage you to, either.

I liken it more to being a laborer on an archeological dig where slowly we uncover the thing we are seeking. And even then we sometimes end up uncovering a broken pot when we were hoping for a dinosaur.

The fact that God’s will is difficult…impossible in the specifics?…to determine is clear by those who commit themselves to the monastic life.

It is, in essence, declaring that one might arrive at God’s will by the time the tomb calls us.  Maybe. Hence why it’s a life choice.  And a good bit of discernment goes into deciding to enter an order; it takes years and years.

And sometimes people discern wrongly.  God’s will is not algorithmic in nature.

Instead of always hastily proclaiming knowledge of God’s will, I’d much rather we all agree to stumble blindly (and be honest about it) while fervently praying, discerning, and sifting for goodness in this world as we go.  Seek God’s will; sure.  But let’s not pretend to be so certain or have such clarity.  Let’s not pretend to have quick answers and divine revelations when really all we want is wish reinforcement.

I don’t think Christian Mingle can find God’s match for you.  I think it can find you some good dates, and maybe even a partner (apparently only if you’re straight, though…you can’t seek for the same sex).

But I wouldn’t say that the person you find there is “God’s match” for you anymore than the person you pick up at the bar.  And I think they should be ashamed for using that tagline.  It breaks the Second Commandment.  And it’s a dumb tagline anyway.

Instead of waiting around for God’s will, do something (very Lutheran) and step out into the world.  Sift away at the sands of life as you go; look for the good.  But don’t imagine that you can be on the “wrong path” anymore than you are on the “right path.”

You are on the pathway.  At each step you sift a little more and slowly eek out the beautiful existence.

The Psalmist doesn’t wait for God to teach them the right path before beginning the journey, but instead prays for constant companionship and enlightenment and courage as they go.  I hope I can do that, too.  Hence why I practice spiritual disciplines (as best I can).

So throw away those books that proclaim God’s will for your life is only 200 pages away; you can be “purpose driven” without it, I think.

And if you write such books, do so with fear and trembling and not because you know it will sell in a world where people want quick answers, and literalism, and divine algorithms.  What we need is honesty.  And I’m often a reluctant Christian because honesty seems to be kind of rare in this particular arena.

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Comments
  1. Robert Farlee says:

    The only thing I disagree with in this post is the contention that the “You know the ‘Love one another’ thing” billboard is poor taste and bad form. Those are, after all, actual words of God, not putting something else into God’s mouth. Yes, there are a few framing words, but those serve the same function as underlining, or putting in bold face. Yes, it’s taken out of context, but unlike many misused passages, that one is pretty simple and universal.

    • Timothy Brown says:

      Free to disagree 🙂

      I think the biggest issue I have with that billboard is the attribution to God…as if God signed it/said it outright.

      I mean, I guess that some people might say the disgusting other phrase that I dislike and mention is really a paraphrase of Leviticus 18 (I’d absolutely disagree with that for all sorts of reasons, but I can imagine it being said).

      So by and large I just want us all to be careful with it, I guess.

      But point taken and affirmed. Thanks for reading, Robert! Love your music.

  2. SueBK says:

    As someone between jobs, possibly between careers; sitting 20 years from a missionary dream still to come to fruition; wondering, as you do, if I ‘got it wrong’ somewhere, but also believing that God is bigger than any decisions I make, your reminder couldn’t have come at better time.
    It’s not that your musings are new revelations to me. I have had personal experience of proclaiming, loudly and boldly (at the tender age of 15) ‘This is God’s will for my life’ only to feel so very strongly that I’d got it wrong. And that was a hard road – I knew that I knew (as you sometimes do), but of course everyone around me (good intentioned souls that they were) were certain I was “running away”, “backsliding”, blah-blah-blah. Since then I have held God’s will lightly.
    I explain to people, God speaks Heaven, we speak Earth. We learn Heaven, but we are never fluent, let alone native. When you’re talking with a native speaker of a language you’re learning, you cherry-pick words you understand from the steady stream of conversation, you then try to link those words into a coherent thought, all while keeping up with the ongoing conversation. Sometimes you’re reasonably close to understanding what’s going on and sometimes you’re nowhere near the mark.

    • Laurie says:

      “We speak Earth. We learn Heaven, but we are never fluent.” – love that, SueBK.

      When someone has an epiphany, or an experience of deeper understanding, it is tarnished as soon as he/she tries to box into words so that it can be remembered, let alone shared. But how can you not share something that feels so significant? And if someone else does get what your saying, and starts to follow – now it’s twice removed. Then time changes not just how you remember and say, but also what you need. Because it’s time for the next lesson. So you hve to stay open and be thankful for grace.

  3. […] I think Christian Mingle lies and manipulates when it claims that it can find “God’s match for your life.”  God’s will is not an algorithm. […]

  4. Jim says:

    Great post! Thanks.

  5. Ian Murton says:

    Pastor Tim, you have nailed it again! Thanks for sharing.

    I have found that when I am most certain I am on the right path, I am usually wrong. When I am making my best effort but still uncertain whether I am taking the right path, things mostly turn out well.

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