Our human identity therefore becomes one in which we both acknowledge in prayer this dependence [upon God] and respond to the gift that sets up not only our being but our renewed being in Christ; and in acknowledging that dependence we are empowered to ‘do the work of God’.Rowan Williams: Being Human, p.72
“I want to know what God wants me to do with my life.”
People often seek spiritual direction with this question uppermost in their minds. Spiritual direction is the right place to ask this question. Spiritual directors have training in discernment, and it is a question we ask ourselves frequently. My contention is that this is not the right place to start.
Half a life-time ago I was a computer programmer writing in COBOL and Fortran on Hewlett Packard and Norsk Data mainframes. My favourite part of the job was being given a program to write from scratch. I loved mapping out the structure, solving the problems, writing the code, and fixing the inevitable bugs. I was good at it. Computer programming can be a creative process that includes writing code that is elegant, spare, attractive and clear on the page or screen, written in a way that makes it easy to understand and maintain by those who come after – although I strongly doubt that anything I wrote back in the 80’s is still in use today. I had a boss, Richard, who had many more years’ experience than I, who I respected and liked very much. He had some quirks, one of which was quietly to say, “Caution,” when I was about to press a wrong key. Another was to ask, “What is the real question?”, when I came to him wanting to know how to utilise an aspect of computer technology with which I was unfamiliar. He rightly intuited that I had come up with what I thought was a neat solution to a problem, and he wanted to know what the problem was so that he could offer other suggestions from his greater experience. Although this pricked my fragile ego, because he always had better solutions and he was a great exponent of Occam’s razor, I learnt a lot from him in this way.
Now, when someone comes to me and says, “I want to know what God wants me to do with my life,” I find myself wanting to say, “Caution,” and ask, “What is the real question?”
The question as posed above is predicated on “yielding … to alien will”. God is out there somewhere, holding (and possibly withholding) vital information about my life and His/Her wishes, and I want to know what They want me to do. This is often the way human relationships work: we need to find out what the government, the boss, the teacher, the parent, the lover wants us to do so we can do it – or assess the risks of non-compliance. I don’t believe this is how it works with God. It is crucial to see that God is not like people (perhaps is no-thing at all) or we start from the wrong principle.
God is not like a person who simply issues a command that I can follow (or not, as the fancy takes me). Mostly, we do not get unambiguous communication directing us to one action or another. And mostly, my experience is that God’s ‘communication’ is much more likely to be an invitation into deeper relationship than a request to attend to a task or a project.
If the first question I ask God is, “What shall I do?”, it is quite likely the wrong question. It is starting from the wrong place and setting off on the wrong tack. I have to have some knowledge of God before I can know what God wants. (A parallel: I have to have some knowledge of myself before I know what I want.) With God the real question is, “Who are You?”, and, correspondingly, “Who am I?” Many enterprises turn awry because this foundation is not solid.
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by day.
Or as Ignatius puts it,
Only when I have some first-hand knowledge of God can I know and trust what God wants. Only when I come to know God as “an affirming source”, calling me momently into being with a cosmic “Yes”, can I trust God without fear, knowing that God’s affirmation is for my one wild and precious life and pertains whether I ‘comply’ or not.
We are creatures. That is to say, we have been brought into being not by our own volition. We do not know who we are. We do not know what life is about. Oftentimes we do not know what we want or what we should do. We are not the authors of our lives. This is the condition of human being. We grow up under the gaze of human others (individual and corporate) whose desires shape our days, often in ways that limit and misdirect us. The affirming source, the One that likes to say “Yes”, offers another gaze under which we come to the original dream of ourselves and the inklings of the only thing we can do with our lives.
[Coming soon: Final part.]