“I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I think I need to make my faith my own.”
“I’m just seeking God’s will for my life.”
“God is in control.”
“It’s such a God thing.”
These are a few examples of the phrases you’ll hear around campus when we speak of God and how He relates to us humans.
As most of us already know, phrases like these often become rote and somewhat mundane. I’ve heard many Christians call these phrases cliché, criticizing them for their meaninglessness and lack of definition. Many wonder what it means to say that, “God knows His will for my life.” Is God predetermining every step that I take? Do I just stumble around in the dark looking for that unknown “will of God” until He chooses to give it to me?
As you can see, the statement “God knows His will for my life” actually leads us to ask many more existential questions, some of which can lead us into unnecessary anxiety and worry. Am I looking in the right place for God’s will? How do I know if I’ve found it? Is God going to wait to show his will to me until I have the right mindset?
Asking these kinds of questions is a fundamentally good thing to do. When we ask questions about God and “His will for our lives,” we indicate that we care about how we should live. We show that we want to be faithful to God. However, I want to suggest that many of our “Christianese” phrases need to be done away with. Why? Too often, those phrases don’t accurately imitate how the biblical texts speak of God. In fact, upon a close reading of many biblical texts, one will find that most of the Christian jargon we throw around really has no anchor point in the biblical texts as we have them. While I don’t have the space to develop a critique of all the phrases I listed at the beginning, I want to spend time looking at the phrase “God’s will for my life” and raise a few questions for us to think about as we talk with others about God.
Before we talk about how to speak of God, think for a moment about how you learned to talk when you were young.
Yes, how you learned to talk. How you learned words for the first time.
When you think about it, you realize that you didn’t come up with the English language on your own. You learned it from a variety of sources: parents, teachers, Sesame Street, and storybooks.
When you grew older and went to college, you began to learn new words. These words undoubtedly came from sources within your own discipline: communication terminology for communications majors, anatomical references for nursing majors, and theological terminology for theology majors. The point is that we never stop learning new words and how to use them rightly. We always learn the right words to use from others – we don’t learn them in a vacuum.
In the same way, we never enter the world without the shaping and guiding of our teachers, including the words of Scripture. Both the Scriptures and our teachers help us learn appropriate Christian speech. The Scriptures are one of our divinely appointed teachers through whom the Holy Spirit speaks to us about the truth. Therefore, if it really is the case that the Scriptures are given to us to teach us the right words to use to speak of God, then it follows that God’s people should use the language of the Scriptures itself to speak of God.
Now, let’s consider the phrase “God’s will for my life.” When most of us hear this phrase, our minds immediately jump to our speculations about the future and what God foreordains for us. “What job does God have for me? What’s his will for my life after I graduate? Whom does he want me to marry?” I don’t wish to suggest that God doesn’t foreordain these sorts of things. No one can really know if he does or not, for the Scriptures themselves don’t really tell us. Thus, it’s wise for us to suspend judgment about these kinds of questions and consider what the Bible might suggest about “God’s will for our lives.”
Although I’m only offering a commentary on the Scriptures here, I want us to consider an example of “the will of God” in the New Testament in Matthew 7. In 7:21, Jesus warns those listening to him: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is warning people about judgment that will come to those who don’t live by the words he has taught them. He’s essentially saying, “You can’t take part in the new reality of God’s kingdom when you’re doing all the church-y activities, saying all the pretty, flowery religious things to say, while not changing your manner of life from the ground up.” Thus, to “do the will of God” is to seek God’s kingdom and commit yourself to living by the words of Jesus’ Sermon. Thus, it’s clear now that “the will of God” in this particular passage has little to do with my future or my plans to get married or go to camp for the summer. It has everything to do with our obedience to the words that Jesus has taught us in the Sermon on the Mount.
Now, I’m not saying that we should not pray for the Spirit to guide us as we make decisions. I certainly believe that the Spirit does guide us in those processes. However, when we speak of “the will of God,” we must ensure that we’re doing it in the same way that Scripture does as best as we can tell. As faithful Christian disciples, we must allow our words and common speech to take its shape from the way language is used in the Bible itself.
I don’t claim to have all the answers figured out. If I did or if any of us did, then we really wouldn’t be living within the Christian religion that demands our faith and trust in God. The great theologian Karl Barth once said that our ability to speak of God at all is a privilege that God gives to us, and therefore we must seek Him first if we’re going to learn how to speak rightly of him.