Making decisions as a Christian is not an easy business. This is because in all Christian decision making is the question of ‘Where is God in this for me?’ or more pointedly perhaps ‘What is God’s will for me?” What is more, there is no one model in the bible to help me.
When I was thinking about coming over to Switzerland to work I was speaking to a friend who asked ‘Well what do you think God says to you?” I thought for a bit and replied “ God says ‘Well you’ve got a brain, have a think and work it out. You can’t tell beforehand what the result will be , but I did not endow you with reasoning capacities for you not to use them!’
This reply is I a good biblical tradition. When Moses is wondering if it is God who has really sent him to Pharaoh God says, more or less, “When you have done what I asked you, then you will worship me on this mountain.’ The reply is in effect saying ‘You cannot know the outcome in advance, but once you have done something, you can evaluate it.’ Tis is another version of the rule ‘Life is lived forward, and understood backward.’
A similar approach is taken by some prophets in the Bible. When Samuel is talking to Saul he says ‘Do what ever your heart finds to do, for the Lord is with you.’ This is interesting. It’s not a case of Saul wondering what the will of God is, but of God assuring Saul, that God is with Saul. Saul’s judgement will be supported by God.
In parish life, there are lots of plans that a priest might make in negotiating to go to a particular place. To some degree like Moses, he or she then asks the people to ‘sign up’ to those plans. They say ‘If we follow you, will you deliver parish success, growth, and financial security?” The priest (I) would love to answer ‘Yes, of course.’ But they can’t!! All that can be said is ‘I have a particular ‘take’ on things. I have an idea about what needs to be done here. Once we have done a thing or two, we will find out. It is a matter of mutual trust on the journey. As we find out from the story of Moses, when the going gets a bit tough, sometimes the people lose that trust, dig their heels in and go for the security of a golden calf and the regular round of nature worship than the riskier God of the desert who asks them just to follow, and who gives them just enough manna: their ‘daily bread’.
So apart from the trust in God, there are also examples in the Bible of how people did theological reflection as a way of deciding what God wants of them.
King David wants to build a temple for God. The prophet Nathan gives the classic ‘off the rack’ answer “Do what ever your heart finds to do for the lord is with you. Your heart is a heart after the Lord’s.” But later, Nathan begins to think. He goes to sleep, and I can imagine in that half-light, between waking and sleeping it comes to him ‘Wait a minute. God is a god ‘on the move’. HE loves in tents. He has never had a ‘house’ to dwell in. God does not want David to build a temple for him. But wait! God does want David’s dynasty to be established. That’s it! Instead of David’s building a house for God, God will build a ‘house’ and lineage for David!’ That was Nathan’s theological reflection.
At Pentecost and all through the Acts of the Apostles, and everywhere else in the New Testament, the meaning of the ‘event’ of Jesus is unpacked. At Pentecost the apostle Peter uses the prophet Joel to indicate an outpouring of the Spirit. The Gospel of Matthew is full of theological reflection about the birth of Jesus.
There are a lot of conflicting theological traditions in the Bible, so choosing one that is right for a any given moment still leaves one open to doubt, and self serving theological reflection. I remember hearing about the Prime Minister of South Africa asking his chaplain for a ‘word’ from God, when he was contemplating setting up the apartheid regime and taking over black lands. The pastor quoted Joshua “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses.” That was a self serving theological reflection.
Stephen Fowl, author of ‘Reading in Communion’, suggests that we look for scriptures that challenge us, and that we sit down in table fellowship with those with whom we have difficulty, in order to arrive at theological reflections that are based on being with others. This is what happened with the Gentiles in early Christian times.
A common theological reflection that is offered to me, when I have had difficult decisions to make, or difficulty with individual people in congregations is the one that says ‘Be a servant to them. Wash their feet.’ This is most challenging, because the implication that I draw from it is that I should let myself be crucified. That is where the ‘foot washing’ episode leads.
Bonhoeffer used to say this. He said words to the effect of ‘Do not resist evil. It will eventually burn itself out because there is no opposition. Evil has no energy of its own.’ In the meantime, lots of people are being made martyrs in the face of evil.
On the other hand, St. Paul says that the judgement of God on humanity is not an active punishment, but consists in God’s refusal to save us from our turning away from God. God is love, and cannot act in ways that are violent. If, as I mentioned above, the people don’t want to go into the desert with Moses, in the hope of reaching a promised land, then God cannot force them. This is what Jesus says too over Jerusalem. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that murders the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
I’ve been a priest for 34 years now. As I near retirement, or perhaps a certain age, I can no longer find the energy for the political battles in the Church. I can only work with mutual trust and vulnerability. That too is a good theological reflection. The collect for Lent 1 is very helpful for me this week. It goes
your Son battled with the powers of darkness,
and grew closer to you in the desert:
help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer
that we may witness to your saving love
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
That is my prayer in the unknowns of this Lenten desert time.