Discernment and Storytelling

Recently, I was doing some research on discernment and came across this article by Peter Kreeft.  Writing about discerning God’s will in both large life choices (what is my vocation?) and small every day decision-making, he looks at discernment in general and then particularly to the clues God gives us in finding the answer to the question: Does God have one right choice for me in each decision I make?

This is interesting and perhaps helpful to someone struggling to discern what God’s will is for them especially if one is struggling with a bit of scrupulosity over whether a given thing you’re doing (or not doing) is important to God’s will for you and whether a fun or mundane thing is worth your time and obsessing over whether you are doing the right thing in all the small choices in life.  If we are sincerely trying to avoid sin and do truly want to love and serve God and do His will, that counts for a lot and we needn’t fear we’re going to accidentally do the wrong thing and ruin God’s plan for our lives (we don’t really have that much power).

Here are just a couple of the clues:

fourth clue is something God did in fact give us: free will. Why? There are a number of good reasons – for instance, so that our love could be infinitely more valuable than instinctive, unfree animal affection. But I think I see another reason. As a teacher, I know that I sometimes should withhold answers from my students so that they find them themselves, and thus appreciate and remember them better – and also learn how to exercise their own judgment in finding answers themselves. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” God gave us some big fish, but he also gave us the freedom to fish for a lot of little ones (and some big ones) ourselves.

Reason and free will always go together. God created both in us as part of his image. He gives supernatural revelation to both: dogmas to our reason and commandments to our will. But just as he didn’t give us all the answers, even in theology, in applying the dogmas or drawing out the consequences of them, so he didn’t give us all the answers in morality or practical guidance, in applying the commandments and drawing out their consequences. He gave us the mental and moral equipment with which to do that, and he is not pleased when we bury our talent in the ground instead of investing it so that he will see how much it has grown in us when he returns.

In education, I know there are always two extremes. You can be too modern, too experimental, too Deweyan, too structureless. But you can also be too classical, too rigid. Students need initiative and creativity and originality too. God’s law is short. He gave us ten commandments, not ten thousand. Why? Why not a more complete list of specifics? Because he wanted freedom and variety. Why do you think he created so many persons? Why not just one? Because he loves different personalities. He wants his chorus to sing in harmony, but not in unison.

I know Christians who are cultivating ingrown eyeballs trying to know themselves so well – often by questionable techniques like the enneagram, or Oriental modes of prayer – so that they can make the decision that is exactly what God wants for them every time. I think it is much healthier to think about God and your neighbor more and yourself less, to forget yourself – follow your instincts without demanding to know everything about them. As long as you love God and act within his law, I think he wants you to play around a bit.

I’m happily haunted by Chesterton’s image of the playground fence erected around the children on top of the mountain so that they could play without fear of falling off the side. That’s why God gave us his law: not to make us worried but to keep us safe so that we could play the great games of life and love and joy.

Each of us has a different set of instincts and desires. Sin infects them, of course. But sin infects our reason and our bodies too; yet we are supposed to follow our bodily instincts (for example, hunger and self-preservation) and our mind’s instincts (for example, curiosity and logic). I think he wants us to follow our hearts. Surely, if John loves Mary more than Susan, he has more reason to think God is leading him to marry Mary than Susan. Why not treat all other choices by the same principle?

I am not suggesting, of course, that our hearts are infallible, or that following them justifies sinful behavior. Nor am I suggesting that the heart is the only thing to follow. I mentioned seven guidelines earlier. But surely it is God who designed our hearts – the spiritual heart with desire and will as much as the physical heart with aorta and valves. Our parents are sinful and fallible guides too, but God gave them to us to follow. So our hearts can be worth following too even though they are sinful and fallible. If your heart loves God, it is worth following. If it doesn’t, then you’re not interested in the problem of discernment of his will anyway.

***

Clue number seven is an example from my own present experience. I am writing a novel for the first time, and learning how to do it. First, I placed it in God’s hands, told him I wanted to do it for his kingdom, and trusted him to lead me. Then, I simply followed my own interests, instincts, and unconscious. I let the story tell itself and the characters become themselves. God doesn’t stop me or start me. He doesn’t do my homework for me. But he’s there, like a good parent.

I think living is like writing a novel. It’s writing the story of your own life and even your own self (for you shape your self by all your choices, like a statue that is its own sculptor). God is the primary author, of course, the primary sculptor. But he uses different human means to get different human results. He is the primary author of each book in the Bible too, but the personality of each human author is no less clear there than in secular literature.

God is the universal storyteller. He wants many different stories. And he wants you to thank him for the unique story that comes from your free will and your choices too. Because your free will and his eternal plan are not two competing things, but two sides of one thing. We cannot fully understand this great mystery in this life, because we see only the underside of the tapestry. But in heaven, I think, one of the things we will praise and thank God the most for is how wildly and wonderfully and dangerously he put the driving wheel of our life into our hands – like a parent teaching a young child to drive…

God, in giving us all free will, said to us: “Your will be done.” Some of us turn back to him and say: “My will is that your will be done.” That is obedience to the first and greatest commandment. Then, when we do that, he turns to us and says: “And now, your will be done.” And then he writes the story of our lives with the pen strokes of our own free choices.

Kreeft’s image of God as the universal storyteller is appealing.  This God who loves creativity and fun and variety, who wants us to be happy in following His will, not paralyzed for fear of making the wrong choice, is no Puritan.

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