One of the struggles we all face is knowing what the heck we should do with our lives. The myriad opportunities and choices we face can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to the big questions:
What career should I pursue? Whom should I marry? Should I take that job and move to a different state?
I have always struggled with knowing what to do, and because I can never approach these questions without reference to my faith, forefront in my mind (at least ideally!) is what God would want me to do.
This question can often paralyze us, for if we come to think that God has a certain will for us in one of these decisions, it stands to reason that we can blow the decision and end up with something second-rate. A greater danger, of course, is that our self-will tends to inject itself into nearly everything we do, and far too often we employ God’s will as a sort of justification for whatever decision we wish to make.
St. Paul offers us a tantalizing insight into discerning God’s will in his epistle to the Romans:
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2 NIV)
Immediately we come to a quandary- if God has a good, pleasing and perfect will, then does that mean God has a will that is not good, pleasing and perfect, or perhaps less than perfect and good and pleasing? Another way of looking at it- could we receive something as part of God’s will and have it be less than part of God’s perfect will?
Oscar Wilde famously said: When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers. It could be that he he stole this from the church father Origen, who comes at this passage in Romans and God’s will in a remarkably similar manner.
Origen begins his commentary by noting that the dichotomy implied by the imperative to renew one’s mind indicates that one cannot hold onto the old form of mind while having the new. The default pattern belongs to the world, but the transformed mind belongs to the world to come.
If there are those who love this present life and the things which are in the world, they are taken up with the form of the present age and pay no attention to what is not seen. But the things which are not seen are eternal, and they are being transformed and renewed in the from of the age to come. For this reason the world does not acknowledge them but hates them and persecutes them. (Origen, Commentary on Romans)
There is a fundamental vision problem for eternal things- that is, the things of God- do not belong to this world but transcend them. A mind which tries to approach eternal things according to the old form of thinking simply is incapable of apprehending them, like a human eye trying to see ultraviolet light. It’s not that it is any less real; our eyesight is simply too dull.
In a similar manner God’s will belongs to the form of the world to come, and thus cannot be parsed out in terms that have currency in world of the old form. There must be a renewal, a transformation on the part of the believer so that he may be able to see with new eyes:
“Be transformed by the renewal of your mind” tells us what form is guilty, for every soul once had the from of wickedness. But the apostle’s words urge us to cast that off and to be re-formed in the likeness of the individual virtues, so that once the face of our heart is revealed we may be transformed by God’s image and contemplate his glory. (ibid.)
Origen sees a twofold process in the progression in the spiritual life. To begin, we are all in need of reformation. Our sins mar and disfigure God’s image in us, and this wickedness darkens our minds and makes it incapable of seeing the light of God. The practice of the virtues, however, has the ability to reform our hearts minds so that we desire to do good and in fact do so.
Secondly, this re-forming of our minds gives it the capacity to be remade into God’s image. There is a distinct reformation in which virtue works its leaven in our souls, straightening out the bent of sin. But there is a also a transformation by which God’s image allows us to contemplate his glory. Interestingly, humanity is already created in God’s image; thus, this is not a salvage operation but rather a transcendent effect, for human nature is raised above its state and refashioned in God’s image. In this state we can apprehend God’s glory, and thus begin to contemplate his will.
But how does knowing God’s will come about? Origen proposes that
Our minds are renewed by the practice of wisdom and reflection on the Word of God and the spiritual understanding of his law. The more one reads the Scriptures daily and the greater one’s understanding is, the more one is renewed always and every day. I doubt whether a mind which is lazy toward the holy Scriptures and the exercise of spiritual knowledge can be renewed at all. (ibid.)
The reformation of our minds and the transformation by God’s image is not a one-off event but is a daily experience, and one that requires an application of both wisdom (a virtue) and contemplation. God’s will is found in the Scriptures, and wisdom’s part is to discern the ways in which the human life can follow God’s will in any given circumstance. Thus, God is generally not going to give us signs pointing to his will, but rather wishes for us to grow in wisdom and the contemplation of him. It is in this that we find ourselves being reformed and transformed, and thus able to actually understand his will:
Many people think they know what God’s will is, and they are mistaken. Those who do not have a renewed mind err and go wrong. It is not every mind but only one which is renewed and conformed (as I say) to the image of God which can tell whether what we think, say and do in particular instances is the will of God. (ibid.)
Knowing God’s will, according to Origen, is something that is easy to go wrong on. Accordingly, the lack of a renewed mind is the source of the erring, the implication being that a renewed mind allows one to know God’s will. Here wisdom as a virtue comes into play in that it allows one with a mind conformed to God’s image to understand what his will is in a given circumstance. As such, there is a certain measure of prudence in determining God’s will, yet at the same time it is never merely a matter of doing circumstantial calculus. Rather, one transformed into God’s image begins to see things as God does, not as the world does, since that person has the form of the world to come rather than that of the world.
Origen senses a bit of an ambiguity in what the scriptures say here, and plays off that ambiguity to develop more fully what it means to understand God’s will, and more importantly to know his perfect, pleasing and good will. The Latin rendering of the passage has it as such:
“What is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (ibid.)
Origen takes this to mean that
Because the will of God is something good and acceptable and perfect, there is no doubt that it is pleasing to God. For God cannot will anything which is not good, and if something is good and perfect, then it must be pleasing to God. (ibid.)
In other words, God’s will is not necessarily the choice between two equally good alternatives, but just is that which is good, since God is the author of all goodness and in fact is Goodness itself. The mind conformed into the image of God is always looking for and searching out the good, and this sense we can always know what God’s will is since God wills for us to do that which is good. The Greek rendering gives a similar perspective:
But if we read this according to the Greek manuscripts, i.e., “that you may prove that the will of God is good and acceptable and perfect,” it can also be interpreted in the same sense. (ibid.)
While this is a perfectly valid interpretation, and indeed is a fairly common one in patristic writings, Origen senses something a little bit deeper. While we cannot know why he particularly felt there needed to be a deeper sense, one can immediately see how from his premises there must be more. After all, if only the mind conformed to the image of God can avoid erring in knowing God’s will, there must be a part of God’s will which requires this supernatural vision.
As it stands in the literal interpretation, all one would need is an understanding of the Good to know God’s will. While we can certainly go astray in our knowledge of the good because of our sin, weakness and the like, there is the danger of reducing God’s will to merely what can be deduced by reason alone, and thus a purely natural morality could contemplate the will of God, know it and apply it without fail- and more importantly- without the need of the revelation of the scriptures or the work of the Holy Spirit in conforming and transforming one’s heart.
Regardless of Origen’s motives, he is not content to remain on the literal level; there are deeper waters to chart:
Yet something else may be felt in these words, viz., that God’s will is always god but that we do not always deserve to receive what is good by his will, nor what is acceptable and perfect. For example, when Saul was anointed king it was according to God’s will, but it was not acceptable or perfect. For God was angry at the people because they refused to have him as their king, and he ordered a man to be set over them as king… (ibid.)
Origen makes a fascinating point here, in that sometimes we end up receiving God’s will for us in a negative sense. Saul was chosen by God and was doing God’s will, and the Israelites got their king as part of God’s will, but in doing so they got more than they bargained for. The irony is that God gave them exactly what they wanted, and it was his will to do so, but what they received was not good or perfect. Since they had their minds conformed to the world and the world’s way of doing things, they wanted to be like the other nations and have a king. So God chose a king for them, but it was not his perfect will because God himself was meant to be their king. They thought they received what they wanted from God, but they ended up settling for second best, choosing to value their own desires over those of God.
Origen caps off his commentary by prefiguring Wilde’s aphorism:
Thus from time to time God’s will gives us what we want and desire, but the man who is renewed in his mind must ask whether this will of God is good and acceptable and perfect, and not more likely to indulge our lusts than to serve our needs. (ibid.)
We come full circle to realize Origen’s (and St. Paul’s!) insistence on having one’s mind renewed and being transformed into the image of God. We will many times get exactly what we want, but far too often our wants and desires are set too low, are still stuck in the same mindset as the rest of the world. Too many times we are content to have our pleasures, and without batting an eye ascribe them to God, when it could be that we are actually reaping the consequences of going after our own self-will rather than God’s perfect will.
After all, God’s will is good, and the flip-side of this goodness is that any privation of goodness will bring about its consequent destruction. The horrifying truth is that unless we allow our minds to be renewed and conformed to the image of God, we may be tearing away at our own souls, all the while oblivious to the deleterious effects of getting everything we want from God.
Knowing God’s will does not come automatically, but means that one must have constant recourse to the Scriptures, to prayer, to the development and nurturing of wisdom. The denial of self also comes into play, for as Origen relates, we must be more mindful of receiving what is more likely to serve our needs (and what could be more needful than to take care of one’s soul!) than that which is more likely to save our lusts. The Scriptures, after all, are replete with examples of those whose hearts have been hardened through the indulgence of their appetites, and even God is said to get in on the act, for he ends up giving them exactly what they want, leading them on towards their own self-destruction.
Self-will can only end in disaster, and we must seek God’s will over our own so as to receive from God what is good and perfect according to his will. More likely than not it will not be what we want, not until our minds our conformed to his and we begin to see like God does. The Beatific Vision is when the demands of self-will finally surrender forever and the conflict of will is laid aside, for the scales have fallen off of the spiritual eyes and they can behold God’s will in all its beauty and purity and perfection.
That’s when we will finally get what we really want. We will finally discover what the perfect will of God was all along:
The perfect will of God is that the soul be changed by reverence, having been brought to the full flower of its beauty by the grace of the Spirit, which attends to the sufferings of the person who undergoes the change. (Gregory of Nyssa, On the Christian Mode of Life)