One of the questions I most often hear people struggle with is God’s will. What is God’s will for my life? What does God want me to do? It is often asked with the idea that God has a certain plan in mind and our job is to read God’s mind, to figure out what God is thinking. The spiritual life then becomes legalistic; a life of making the right choice in what we believe, how we act, where we live, whom we will marry, what we will do for a living.
But I wonder if our struggle, concern and frustration with determining God’s will points to something else. Maybe it reveals that we still live with the delusion that we can – by our good choices – make God like us, gain approval and ultimately save ourselves. If we just work hard enough, pray enough, go to church, help enough, give enough then God will claim us, and life will work out as we want. Christ will recognise us as a disciple because we made the right choices.
Please do not misunderstand me. There are important choices to be made in life. We ought to take them seriously and discern God’s presence in them and in our life. I am not saying our choices do not matter or that we ought to be indifferent to our choices and their consequences. They do matter – to us, to others, and to God. We are called to holiness – to love, heal, forgive, serve – to participate in Christ’s life and make choices that resemble his.
But what happens to us when we have made bad choices in our life? What about those days when we made the best choice we could at the time, and it did not work out? Or the times we have simply become lost in the circumstances of life, overwhelmed by all the choices to be made and the various consequences?
Too often we are deceived by the lie that God helps those who help themselves. There is nothing scriptural about that belief. And yet for many it remains at the heart of their religion. In this way of thinking Christianity becomes the religion of a moody adolescent God. When we are good and make the right choices, God is happy and loves us. But when we are bad and make the wrong choices God is mad and turns away. That is not the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ disciples are often held up as examples of men who made the right choice; men who were willing to walk away from everyone and everything they knew and take up a new life. We see this, for example, in the call stories. I wonder, though, are those stories of making the right choice or are they stories of God’s finding? Consider the calling of Philip and Nathanael.
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John1:43-51).
Neither Philip nor Nathanael went looking for Jesus with the idea that God’s will was that they should become disciples. We do not know that they were particularly religious, that they were even interested in God’s will, or trying to figure out what to do with their life. Yet God came to them.
There is nothing to suggest that Jesus chose either one of them because they had previously made the right choices thus qualifying to be a disciple. In fact, Nathanael responds with scepticism, doubt, even prejudice: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Yet Jesus already knew him and his life under the fig tree.
The text does not present either Philip or Nathanael as men whose life, behaviour, or beliefs exhibit right choices. Nor does it say they made bad choices. It is simply silent. Their choices are not the issue. Instead it says Jesus found Philip and said, “follow me.” Philip found Nathanael and said, “come and see” echoing Jesus’ words from earlier in the gospel. This is a story of God’s finding more than a story of Philip and Nathanael choosing. Of course, they responded to being found. The story of their responding and the story of Jesus’ finding are certainly related. But we must be careful not to take ourselves and our choices more seriously than we take God. The emphasis of this story is on God. God’s grace is bigger than any choice we have ever made.
God’s presence, love, mercy, forgiveness, healing, salvation are ours not because we have chosen rightly but because God chooses rightly. Regardless of our choices – good, bad, indifferent – God comes; God finds us; God interrupts life under the fig tree.
The Gospel of John in Christian History, (Expanded Edition): Seven Glimpses into the Johannine Community (Johannine Monograph) - J. Louis Martyn
Christ the Eternal Son – AW Tozer
Michael Marsh Blog
The Gospel of John and Christian Theology - Richard Bauckham
The Gospel of John: The Word Became Flesh – William A. Anderson
A Theology of John's Gospel and Letters: The Word, the Christ, the Son of God (Biblical Theology of the New Testament Series) - Andreas J. Kostenberger
Gospel According to Jesus - John F. Macarthur