When I was growing up, there was a lot of talk in church about discerning God’s will and waiting for God’s timing. Your career, your finances, your health issues, your love life — nothing was exempt from the Good Christian’s responsibility to talk to God and hear what he had to say.
And if he didn’t answer, we had to examine ourselves — because maybe he had answered and we weren’t listening? Maybe we just didn’t like what God was saying?
Maybe we were the problem.
As I sit down and reflect back over the last 20 or so years of my life, I’m beginning to see how this has been problematic for me. On several levels.
Sarah: the woman who didn’t wait
The prime example I had, repeatedly, of someone not trusting God enough and not waiting for God’s timing enough, was Sarah. If you’re unfamiliar with this uncomfortable biblical story, it’s in Genesis; God appears to her husband Abraham and promises him a son, even though Sarah is beyond childbearing age (chapter 15). When she still doesn’t conceive, Sarah wonders whether actually God had intended to give Abraham a son through her slave, Hagar (chapter 16). Cue: all kinds of strife (chapter 21).
Don’t get me wrong, Sarah was a messy and complex person and she didn’t do right by Hagar. But she was also someone who thought on her feet in a fiercely patriarchal context. Note: it was twenty years, yes, twenty years between God’s promise to Abraham and the eventual birth of Sarah’s son. And it’s not like Abraham objected to Sarah’s idea about Hagar.
But in so many sermons, this was the example par excellence of what happens when we don’t trust God. When we don’t keep on waiting. When we start getting ideas of our own.
Let’s leave aside how this tended to be pinned on Sarah’s shoulders alone. Why would we compare our everyday decisions with this story?
The stories of Abraham and Sarah are early origin stories that the ancient Israelites (and Jewish people today) told to explain who they were and where they came from. They are biblical in an epic sense. Even in the New Testament, Paul used them allegorically to explain how God’s interactions with humanity through Moses contrasted with his interactions through Jesus.
So why do we think it’s OK to take the stakes of this story and insert them into our decisions about who we date next or which job we apply for? I can live without that kind of pressure, thanks.Why should we take the stakes of an epic early origins story and insert them into our everyday decisions? I can live without that kind of pressure, thanks. Click To Tweet
We need a God for today, not just yesterday
It’s not that our everyday decisions don’t matter, they do. And it’s not that we shouldn’t be patient with God when we have a deep, peace-filled conviction in our spirit that he will deliver on a specific promise.
But we also need a God who understands the daily pressures we face and sits with us when our cold morning doubts could be cynicism, but could equally be pragmatism.We need a God who understands the daily pressures we face, and who sits with us when our cold morning doubts could be cynicism, but could equally be pragmatism. Click To Tweet
When I heard people teach on Sarah, the message was about the potential cost of acting on our own initiative. But that’s not a complete teaching. OK yes, sometimes our initiative comes with mistakes and it costs us. But if our hopes crumble, it won’t help us to say, “At least I wasn’t like Sarah.” We need something stronger than that.
There are many reasons why we might not hear God speaking to us. They aren’t all indicative of a problem, and even when they are, the problem isn’t necessarily with us.
We need space to recognise that our agency and decision-making capacity is something that God values and wants to nurture. And that won’t happen if we’re always second-guessing our decisions as errant wilfulness. The truth is that wisdom is something that grows with time, often through mistakes.
A life of faith is not about shutting God out, but neither is it about waiting in stasis for the miraculous intervention. We do better when get on with our lives while keeping open spaces and times for God. That way, we can be honest about where we’re at, and intentionally receptive to whatever message he might have for us.A life of faith isn't about shutting God out, but neither is it about waiting in stasis for the miraculous intervention. Click To Tweet
But while we are waiting…
For the record: we can do all this but still might not hear anything.
We might not hear God in the way we expect and we might not hear him at all. And if you’re in the latter group, I feel you, I really do. And I don’t have any tidy explanations to offer you.
The one thing I know I can trust though, is that God never disregards a willing spirit. With that in mind, my advice would be simply this:
Ask. Keep asking. Invite. Keep inviting. Query. Keep querying. But don’t think you can never act.
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