The false dichotomy between God’s will and our will

The false dichotomy between God’s will and our will October 18, 2011

I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island. The fourth chapter called “Pure Intention” talks about how doing God’s will is actually doing what we really want to do as opposed to settling for what we think we want. This is because God is the source of our being as opposed to being just another being in the universe. I wanted to share some reflections on Merton’s insights to point a way beyond the never-ending theological debates between Calvinists (who champion God’s sovereignty) and Arminians (who champion human free will), which seem to be firmly grounded in the tendency of modernist thinking to falsely anthropomorphize God.

God is not just a finite somebody who stands outside of creation and interposes himself periodically as the universe’s most powerful being; God is the Source at the core of every atom of space and instant of time. Consider Colossians 1:16:-18:

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. [emphasis mine]

“All things hold together” to the degree that they are “in Him.” To follow God’s will is not just to obey some arbitrary dictator because He’s big and mean; it’s to live in accordance with the design of the universe (which is absolutely not the same thing as obeying the lowest urges of my flesh). In any case, Thomas Merton says it a whole lot more beautifully than I can, so I thought I would share some of what he has to say in his book.

There are religious men who have become so familiar with the concept of God’s will that their familiarity has bred an apparent contempt. It has made them forget that God’s will is more than a concept. It is a terrible and transcendent reality, a secret power which is given to us… to be the life of our own life and the soul of our own soul’s life… God’s will is not an abstraction, like a machine, not an esoteric system. It is a living concrete reality in the lives of men, and our souls are created to burn as flames within His flame… It is a creative power, working everywhere, giving life and being and direction to all things. [53]

We are far too easily satisfied to make God’s will a concept or a script for how things are supposed to go. We assume that God merely created the heavens and the Earth long ago and is not continuing to create them. It seems fruitless to quibble over whether or not God has “already” decided what His will is. From our vantage point within the bounds of time, God’s will is a dynamic, perpetually adaptive reality.

To “burn as flames within His flame” is akin to dancing or playing music with the rhythm of God’s song. Freedom is not equivalent to dancing out of sync with God’s rhythm which is the assumption made in modernist thinking when freedom and autonomy are equated. There is amazing freedom within the improvisational space created by the melody and rhythm. We become most free when we allow God’s song to play us. Do not confuse this with some kind of hippie, anything goes attitude about spiritual discipline. You need lots of music theory and training to be able to give yourself over to the Spirit of the song, but ultimately you reach a point where “the theory kills but the spirit gives life.” All this is just to say that freedom is not as one-dimensional as it has become in our wooden modernity.

Our intentions are pure when we identify our advantage with God’s glory and see that our happiness consists in doing His will because His will is right and good. In order to make our intentions pure, we do not give up all idea of seeking our own good, we simply seek it where it can really be found: in a good that is beyond and above ourselves.

There is a good reason and a bad reason to give up fleshly pleasures. The bad reason is when we do so as a form of spiritual currency: to prove something to God or to earn the standing to criticize others. When self-denial has this role in our lives, we become bitter, fruitless people. The good reason is when we do so “for the sake of the joy set before us,” to use the language with which the Hebrews writer describes Jesus’ willingness to face the cross. We have deeper desires that we will never fulfill or even acknowledge as long as we are self-indulgent fleshly creatures. The reason to take up our cross and follow Jesus is for the sake of the deeper, richer joy that we find on that journey. This isn’t just pious language; I have tasted that joy in the moments when I transcend the slavery of my flesh.

He does not need our sacrifices, He asks for ourselves. And if He prescribes certain acts of obedience, it is not because obedience is the beginning and end of everything. It is only the beginning… His will for me points to one thing: the realization, the discovery, and the fulfillment of my true self in Christ… In order to find my true self in Christ, I must go beyond the limits of my narrow egoism. In order to save my life, I must lose it.

I become myself by obeying God’s will. This is the opposite of what the secular world teaches, particularly in the wake of 19th century romanticism and transcendentalism in which you discover who you are by being a self-reliant, rugged individualist who camps out in the woods like Henry Thoreau (whose mom did his laundry for him while he was at Walden Pond). Christian teaching anticipates the postmodern insight that who we supposedly are is a confused mix of influences and socializations. It is only through Christ that I can become more than a somewhat metrosexual, middle-upper class, aristocratic white male simultaneously defined by and rebelling against my privilege. Otherwise I stumble through life following a deterministic pattern of predictable social behaviors.

God’s will for us is not only that we should be the persons He means us to be, but that we should share in His work of creation and help Him to make us into the persons He means us to be… God’s will for me is that I should shape my own destiny, work out my own salvation, forge my own eternal happiness in the way He has planned for me.

God doesn’t just want us to do His will; He wants us to will His will. Despite the fact that some find it theologically incorrect to affirm that we are supposed to participate in God’s sanctification process, that’s what it means to will God’s will. This is not some kind of tyrannical mind-control for the sake of power. God wants us to will His will so we can share in His joy, so we can reach the point where He says, “I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything” (John 15:15).

The perfect love of God’s will is a union so close that God Himself both utters and fulfills His will at the same instant in the depths of my own soul. Pure intention, in this highest sense, is a secret and spiritual word of God which not only solicits my cooperation, but fulfills what He says in me. The action is at once perfectly mine and perfectly His. But its substance comes entirely from Him. In me, it is entirely received: only to be offered back to Him in the silent ovation of His own inexpressible love.

This is what it means to be made into the image of God in the most perfect sense, to allow the Source of my being and goodness to flow through me without obstacle. There is nothing good that begins in me because I am created to be a vessel of Someone who passes through from beyond me. The main way I create obstacles to God’s goodness is when I need to be the source of it. That’s not freedom; that’s slavery to a delusion. I am liberated from the delusion of egocentrism according to the degree that I surrender to God’s will, which is paradoxically how I discover my own will.

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