Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Seeking God’s Will for Your Life: A Message for Graduates (And the Rest of Us)

I work at a university, coach a high school girls’ soccer team, and have three teenagers, one of whom will finish high school this month. From all of these contexts, I have witnessed both the joys of graduation, either from high school or from college, as well as the uncertainties young people face as they embark on the next chapter in their lives.

Many of those graduates that I have the privilege of knowing are Christian young people, who have an abiding trust in God that could teach more seasoned adults about how to face changes in our lives with hope and optimism. Most of them believe that God is guiding their lives, and they are heartily committed to following God’s direction.

While I cannot speak specifically about what God has in store for each one of these gifted, intelligent, and faithful graduates, I hope I can offer to them, and to the rest of us, at least something to hold on to as they enter a world that will often test their faith in God.

Understanding God’s will for our lives is tricky. Living God’s will is even more complicated. While we who are Christian rightly believe that our primary resource for knowing the will of God is the Bible, and while we are often told that reading the Bible can give us a clear understanding of what God wills for our individual lives, using the Bible as the primary source of knowing God’s will is very challenging.

For starters, we live in a world that is a long way away from the ancient world in which the Bible was written, and much of what we might understand from the Bible is frustrated by what we know about the world as opposed to what the inhabitants of the ancient era knew and didn’t know about the world.

But the problem is more than just simply the distance in time between the biblical world and our own lives; a time gap that is not easily bridged. The problem also comes in understanding what the Bible wants to say to us and which parts of the Bible might say these things more clearly.

Indeed, I would caution you to be careful in reading the Bible in order to make it say something to you, as if the Bible was written for you or for me. The Bible is not a self-help book, and the books that make up the collection we call the Bible were not primarily written for you or for me. They were written for ancient people whose history spans generations and whose world was quite different from our own. Therefore, we should not pretend that reading the Bible is easy.

In fact, biblical interpretation is often difficult and gut-wrenching work, if we are really seeking to be serious about what the text says, and if we are especially serious about learning what the text might say to us. Despite what we hear from some preachers and teachers of the Bible, the Bible is not always clear and not always correct for our context. And it is certainly not easy to follow in what it prescribes.

Moreover, we are also not helped in reading the Bible when we tend toward spiritualizing portions of the Bible just because we think that every part of scripture must mean something for us now. Many well meaning folks believe that every word from Genesis to Revelation has meaning for us, and many Bible study materials push this idea to the point of over-spiritualizing portions of scripture just to make them fit our lives. It is false to assume that every verse of the Bible applies to our lives, and we tread dangerously close to making the Bible something it is not when we treat it this way.

Do not take all of this as my advocating that you throw out the Bible as a source of truth, faith, and hope. I am not here to demolish your faith; I write these words to challenge you on how you think about your faith. Indeed, as I have stated, and as I try to practice in my own life, the Bible ought to be our primary source for how we understand God and how we live our lives in response to God. But I am saying that we can face many questions in life for which we may never find specific and crystal clear answers from these ancient texts, no matter how hard we try.

But all is not lost. Despite the struggles we have in finding specific answers to the questions we face in our world, questions unthinkable in the ancient world, I do think that both you and I can find God’s will for all of us in the central message of scripture. That central message is summed up in various ways, but two references are pertinent for how we live in this world as followers of Jesus.

From the prophet Micah (6:8) we read, “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” And, as recorded in the New Testament, Jesus stated that God’s law is summed up in this, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and everything that you are, and love your neighbor as you would love yourself.” These seem to me to be the most important creeds by which to live for a couple of very important reasons.

First, both of these statements recognize that life exists in relation to God and others. We are not alone and despite our tendency to be independent, and many of you are facing the thrill of being independent, the fullness of life can only be encountered in relationships with God and others that are based on love. Though we are individually made, we are made to be in community with God and with others.

Second, both Micah and Jesus call us to live our lives for others and not primarily for ourselves. To do justice, to love mercy, and to love others as we would want to be loved means that we ought to live our lives not in selfish gain, but in self giving sacrifice expressed towards our friends, strangers, and yes, even our enemies.

If I consider these verses and others like them to be the center piece of the biblical message, then these should become for me the moral and spiritual compass by which my life is guided. And if these words are the moral and spiritual compass of my life, then they must become the basis from which I formulate how I want my life to be shaped, now and in the future.

So, as you enter this next exciting, but uncharted, phase of your life, in whichever direction God leads you, may each of you live your life guided by the will of God that calls us into loving relationships with God and others; relationships that are characterized by your actions of love, justice and mercy.

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