Don’t hide behind ‘God’s will’

After publishing my article, The Catholic Weekly followed it up the next week with a wonderful response by Philippa Martyr.

Philippa picked up where my article left off – on the importance of not storing up your treasures here on earth but in Heaven, our ultimate destiny.

She addressed an important issue that I didn’t specifically touch on, but is highly relevant to the whole debate; namely not getting caught up in the narrative of “marriage will solve all my problems”, something young men and women (myself included) are prone to.

She writes:

It’s possible that most young Catholic men and women aren’t married yet because God is very merciful. He knows they have serious things to deal with before they get married.

This could be anything from your porn addiction and mental health problems to your inability to balance a budget or do your own laundry. Seeking the Kingdom first might involve facing these challenges, rather than pursuing a future spouse like the last snow leopard.

I can attest to the truth of this. It wasn’t until I began seeing a psychologist a few years ago for issues relating to stress and anxiety that I was made aware of the vast number of problems I had to wrestle with, including my own perspective on many things.

As desperately as I wanted to get married in my 20s, I see now that I was far too apt to look at love and marriage through rose-coloured glasses. One thing I was blind to was a near-obsession with events or circumstances meaning something else. A guy I was interested in would say something I’d long thought privately, but never heard anyone say, so that must mean something! I was thinking about so-and-so and at that very moment he texted me – that must mean something!

I was never quite clear on what that “something” was, though of course my hope was that it meant he was the one!

In my mind, it was God who was behind all these apparent-coincidences. For surely He must know what I was thinking! Indeed He did, but the conclusions drawn from those circumstances were entirely my own. However, by ascribing “God’s will” to these things, I convinced myself it really was God’s will that I end up with this or that person, and that each little circumstance was a nudge from Him telling me so.

Not surprisingly, I came in for a few rude awakenings later on which caused me a great deal of anguish and suffering.

Philippa addresses delusions such as these:

At the risk of puncturing some illusions: Catholic marriage is two sets of people’s problems, not one. Catholic marriage is living with a stranger and learning to adapt to them. Catholic marriage is mortgages, in-laws, school fees, infertility, pregnancy loss, arguments, infidelities, heartbreak, compromise, parenting failures, chronic illness, broken dreams, weight gain, disappointing children, and varicose veins.

The whole ‘will of God’ thing, in terms of marriage, desperately needs an overhaul of common sense. I’ve seen young people tie themselves in knots over this, which I am sure is not God’s will for them.

I can tell you exactly what God’s will is for you. It’s your salvation: that you find Him, have a relationship with Him, and eventually get home to Him. How you get there is largely up to you – it’s choose-your-own-adventure, using your free will. God is omnipotent, so He writes the story around your choices, both good and bad.

Give God credit for some intelligence and kindness. If He wants something super-special from you, like consecrated celibacy or marriage to a very specific person, He will make that clear to you. He hasn’t hidden it somewhere, planning to damn you for all eternity if you fail to dig in exactly the right spot on the archaeological site of your life.

Most people choose to get married; a natural state that’s been raised to a sacrament. The desire for marriage and parenthood is written deeply in the human heart – so much so that it takes daily fidelity to grace to embrace a different state of life, and a Christian who doesn’t fulfil it physically should fulfil it spiritually.

Too often we as Christians explain many little things in our lives by attributing them to “God’s will”. In talking about this, I feel it’s important to distinguish God’s passive will from His active will. Let me dip into the dark recesses of my memory for a moment to dredge up lessons from my Little Green Catechism.

In a certain sense, everything that happens is God’s will, insofar as He keeps everything in existence and allows it all to happen. This is because He has given each of us free will to do as we choose. I like to think of this as God’s passive will.

However, when we open ourselves up to God, and allow ourselves to be used as His instruments, we allow His active will to work through us.

There are many occurrences of God’s active will throughout history. I won’t go into any of them, but certainly all genuine miracles are examples of God’s active will.

Hindsight is a very handy tool for seeing where God’s active will has worked through your life, and when I think of my own, it is clear that the times when He steered me in a direction I might not otherwise have gone were actually very few.

As an example, I once wanted to quit my job desperately, but felt I couldn’t leave until I’d found another position. I was scared of my manager, a very intimidating man, and was convinced that I needed the security of being in someone else’s employ before I could muster the courage to tell him I was quitting primarily because of him and how he managed the staff. (I didn’t want to tell him this, but felt I had to.)

After weeks of seeking another position and coming up empty, I was kneeling in the pews after First Saturday Mass, and despairingly begged Our Lord to just find me another position so I could quit my job.

A voice flashed across my mind: you could just quit now.

I was terrified by these words and what they might mean. Mentally scrambling away, I shouted this voice down. No, no, no. Not that, I couldn’t bear it. Just find me another job, okay??

I literally prayed these words. Then a short while later, my two friends and I left and had breakfast at a cafe. After some idle chatter, one of them asked me about my job situation, and I told her I was waiting to hear back about a possible position. She looked me square in the face and said, “have you considered just quitting your job now?”

I was startled – the very words that had come to me while praying were being repeated to my face not half an hour later. My other friend chimed in and the pair of them talked to me for a good 40 minutes about the benefits of quitting my job and talking to my boss now, even without the safety net of being employed elsewhere.

I didn’t want to accept what they were saying, but I felt in my bones that they were right. So I eventually gave in. One week later I handed in my notice, and it went far better than I could have imagined. My manager took it really well; he actually apologised to me and wished me well. I could hardly believe my ears.

The job I’d been waiting to hear back about turned out to be a no-go, but a week after quitting, a friend sent me an ad for a dream position exactly suited for me – less well-paid but much less stress. I got it and it has turned out to be the best job I’ve ever had.

But that’s not the end of the story.

A few months after accepting the new job tragedy struck my family. Had I still been at my old workplace, it would have been disastrous. I would not have been able to remain, and would have had to quit in far less ideal circumstances, as it was very close in time to a huge project. I would have let everybody there down, rather than giving them enough time to find a replacement by quitting when I did.

In my new job, I could not have been in a more supportive environment during what was an exceptionally difficult time. It made all the difference in the world and I now see very clearly God’s hand in the whole affair. I couldn’t see what lay in my future, but by accepting the call coming my way – made explicit both while praying and by my friends’ influence – I was in a position to be able to deal with what followed.

One of my friends later told me that while speaking to me in that cafe, she felt the Holy Spirit working through her words. She told me nothing she said came from her – she felt compelled to say everything she did.

The point of this story is that it’s important not to attribute everything that happens in your life to God’s will, or to wait for “God’s will” to occur to you before deciding anything. People who say they need to understand God’s will first before making a decision will likely end up not getting a whole lot done.

Most times, God will sit back and allow you to choose your own path. But when necessary, He will intervene and make His will clear to you. What we are meant to do is to pray, trust, and be open to His call when it comes.

A few more words from Philippa on Christian marriage:

But human marriage is not necessary for your salvation. Catholics have never believed that, and hopefully never will. Personally, I ended up single through choices, good luck, and the grace of God. It took time to accept it, but I’m hugely grateful for it, and God is working with me every day on this.

So what can these women do? What they’ve always done – continue to seek the Kingdom first in their everyday life. I’ve watched as God has given them everything they need. Their lives are a beautiful and potent witness of the providence and tender love of God for the broken-hearted.

If they can do it, so can you. Try it and see. You might find that if you seek the Kingdom first, you really do get everything else that you need. For where your treasure is, there is your heart also.

Read Philippa’s full article.

33 thoughts on “Don’t hide behind ‘God’s will’

  1. This subject has come up multiple times this week with friends. Three different Christian men I know have heard some variation of, “I prayed about it and I don’t think it’s God’s will,” when it comes to dating a Christian woman. One friend went on one date with a girl, all seemed fine and she even spoke of a second date, but then abruptly called and said she prayed about it and felt no peace. Another friend simply was trying to ask a woman out and wasn’t even able to get the words out of his mouth. The third friend is trying to figure out whether or not to ask a girl out and was praying a lot about it.
    I’m all for prayer, but it seems to me we often, especially with dating which requires risk and “tough” decisions, overthink things and use prayer and “God’s will” to avoid or even mask making decisions. I told a friend if I asked someone on a date and heard, “Let me pray about it,” I’d probably tell her not to worry about it. It’s as if we live in constant fear of doing the wrong thing and incurring God’s wrath. Yes, seek to follow His will, but the Father is gracious and won’t punish us for potentially choosing wrong. In a Bonhoeffer’s biography, he talked about how too many Christians let fear of sin paralyze them into inaction, so he made a bold claim — potential failure and/or sin is better than inaction.

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    1. I get exactly what Bonhoeffer is saying here. It’s a variation on St Augustine’s ‘Love and do what you will’ – acts made in sincerity of heart, that aren’t obviously sinful right away, are probably the way to go, and the way to discern God’s will.
      I’m also prepared to concede that we live in pretty terrible times, and it just may not be prudent for everyone to be getting married right now. What St Paul says about the whole matter, in similarly terrible times, makes a lot of sense. There’s no sin in getting married, but it has its own burdens and people are often happier as they are.

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      1. Yes, we live in “terrible times” but the idea that it isn’t “prudent” to get married right now is a strange one. I think of my Irish ancestors who were conquered, oppressed, had their Catholic faith banned, were systematically starved, then shipped off to foreign lands with barely the rags they wore on their backs — and yet they were STILL able to get married and have large families.
        Our (anti)culture is degenerate and I mean that quite literally, i.e. it is unbirthing us. We have been catechized to see and live our lives in its counterproductive ways. Even if one doesn’t participate directly in this moral inversion it is nearly impossible to avoid participating in it indirectly through popular/corporate culture etc. Propaganda is at its most effective when it is ambient and pervasive. We have been duped.
        We need marriage and family and rooted communities at least as much as we ever have and our current situation is a solvent to that. Which doesn’t mean that we aren’t responsible for our bad situation–quite the opposite– it means we can no longer accept the status quo. There is an ugly spiritual war going on and few are willing to even see it, let alone admit fighting it will cost us.
        The Amish are on the rise and the fertility rate here in America is the lowest it has been in 30 some years. The more “progressive” we are, the less fruitful we become. Maybe that isn’t an accident.

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      2. Thomist, that is not really true. The post-Famine Irish were famous for a low marriage rate and for late marriage even for those who did get married. It is true that those who did get married young had very large families, of course.

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    2. Steven, I’m really sorry to hear that you and your friends have had those experiences. I think that some women “play the God card”, and it’s a cop-out.

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  2. Well that was better and kinder than I deserved – thank you! I wish I could tell people that I acquired all this wisdom through long hours of patient meditation and careful reading of the Carmelite mystics, but to be honest, I’ve learned it by spending my life doing dumb things and falling on my face, and also watching my nearest and dearest do the same. This area is no exception.
    All the false ideas about Catholic marriage – the burdens we place on it, and the ridiculous expectations of it – have been ones I have faced myself. There are others I’ve seen worked out in other Catholic lives:
    ‘I need to get married before my sister/rival in our clique/fellow homeschoolie does.’
    ‘I need to get married to silence those bitches in high school once and for all.’
    ‘I need to get married to get out of home and away from my parents.’
    ‘I need to get married to start my life properly.’
    ‘I need to get married so I can buy good china/a home/a dog.’
    ‘I need to get married because I just left religious life and have no idea who I am any more.’
    The list is endless. It’s also being fed by a billion-dollar wedding industry. I am pretty certain this is not what God intends when He joins people in marriage.
    Even the people who say they get married because they want to have children: some of them have no experience of the day to day demands of small children, and have never so much as changed a nappy. The (entirely laudable) desire to have sex is very strong; Catholics sometimes baptize this as a desire ‘to have children’. However, in real life sex doesn’t last very long, but children last for 18 years. Unrealistic expectations of the fulfillment that children are supposed to bring can leave married Catholics high and dry when the children don’t always deliver on the false promises.
    The will of God. Now there’s a topic that can never be exhausted. But yes, I think you are right: pray, then ACT. God is so often waiting for us to get off our lazy backsides and DO something, precisely so that He can help us do it. (I am sure we have both met the perpetual vocation discerners who never set foot in a religious house or seminary to give it the old college try – why spoil a perfectly good fantasy?)
    But yeah – give God credit for some kindness and mercy with your life. Don’t fence Him in. He knows every corner of you, including all the hidden talents and strengths you have absolutely no idea about yet. He has a brilliant imagination, and He never wastes anything at all.
    And yes, He knows the future – He’s the only one who does know the future, completely and utterly. This is where trust becomes so essential, but it’s so hard. Heaps of good Catholics don’t trust God. Not really.

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      1. Mostly by LISTENING.
        *Thousands of hours spent with married Catholics, in and out of their homes, often under wretched circumstances.
        *As a subset, hundreds of hours spent supporting and counselling married Catholic women whose marriage was in serious trouble. In some cases those marriages are still intact, but I have also supported some through divorce and rebuilding their lives afterwards.
        *There are masses of first hand accounts available as well, if you like reading.
        *Reading the research literature, and the work of excellent Catholic therapists like Richard Fitzgibbons.
        *Having gone through marriage preparation myself.
        All marriages are unique, but there are a set of basic weak points in each of them. These are usually money/finances, division of labour, relationships with in-laws, and everything to do with children (numb, discipline, education). Marriages have a much better chance of working well if these issues are thoroughly discussed and agreed upon before the wedding.
        The kinds of things I have talked about in my own article and in the follow ups are all drawn from real life – things that actual married Catholics have said to me about what they wish they had done better.

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    1. Even the people who say they get married because they want to have children: some of them have no experience of the day to day demands of small children, and have never so much as changed a nappy.

      So what? Those in the contemplative life have no experience of the suffering they will face if they are generous with God. People who become priests have no experience of the real sacrifices they will have to make in order to serve the laity. Does this mean that those people don’t genuinely have the generosity to face whatever may come for the love of God and others? They’ll learn in time what the nitty gritty will take, but an idealized conception of what parenthood, priesthood, or religious life will require is not an impediment to a genuine and sincere intention. Suggesting that those who say they want to get married to have children don’t really want children is rather uncharitable.

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      1. I do think they want to have children – but that they haven’t any real grasp of what that involves.
        Like the priesthood and religious life, this is not an issue when there are generous hearts who are truly committed.
        Like the priesthood and religious life, there IS a problem when there’s affective immaturity, an attitude of entitlement, laziness, insincerity, and a habit of opting out when things get tough.
        Priests and religious undergo long training to identify these weak points before they make a final commitment – five, six, seven or more years. Most Catholic married couples don’t go through anything like this full time training, and they’re lucky if they get a few months of sometimes rather scanty marriage preparation.
        The love goggles tend to blind many couples to potential danger areas as well.

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      2. Priests and religious undergo long training to identify these weak points before they make a final commitment – five, six, seven or more years.

        The training that priests and religious receive before final commitment is about as relatable to what they are committing to as being a part of a family is relatable to the experience of marriage. 8 years in a seminary with one pastoral year isn’t exactly the typical way a priest lives.
        And sure, a lot of those weak points need to be ironed out before ordination, but for a long time this wasn’t the case with religious life. Aquinas argues that one need not be practiced in virtue in order to enter religious life, since it is a school of perfection; often in the middle ages penitents would be counseled to the religious life as penance for their sins, and final vows were not usually long in the waiting.
        Marriage is similarly a school of perfection, though to a lesser degree and with more stumbling blocks. I think it’s pretty much always been the case that relatively immature (or, rather, lacking in virtue) men and women married and learned to overcome their vices together through the trials of marriage and with the help of their family, friends, and community.
        And the love goggles is why parents ought to be involved, since they often have much more clarity of vision. If the parents don’t think the relationship is too dangerous, then in general it probably isn’t too dangerous.

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    2. Sounds like I need to get married because I want to get married.Is this an incompatibility based on a future fantasy. Oh Philippa ,I get the feeling God takes direction from you😂.

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  3. I think churches everywhere are so concerned of driving young people away that they don’t want to confront basic facts like God’s not going to likely reward you with a good spouse if He sees you fornicating with your significant other.

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    1. And right there – that word ‘reward’ – is another lie we tell ourselves about marriage, and another false burden we place on it.
      Marriage is NOT a reward for good behaviour. Catholics who are living chastely in the hope of blackmailing God into giving them a spouse are just as misguided as the ones who are trying to fornicate their way into marriage.
      This leads to bitterness and entitlement when God fails to deliver the spouse in response to the soi-disant virtuous living. It’s the spirit of the Elder Brother writ large, and too often Catholics simply give up virtue when it doesn’t get them what they want, and join the try-before-you-buy movement in the hope that THIS will produce the desired end.
      Seeing marriage as a gift of a person – of yourself and of another person – doesn’t have room for this kind of nonsense. But these are default patterns of thinking that Catholics can often engage in privately, and perhaps even they don’t realise it.

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      1. Catholics who are living chastely in the hope of blackmailing God into giving them a spouse are just as misguided as the ones who are trying to fornicate their way into marriage.

        Your comment borders on calumny regarding their motives and regardless it is always worse to choose grave evil than to do what the Lord has commanded with impure motives. Most of the people you think are blackmailing the Lord are simply operating from the assumption of “He is faithful, I will be faithful and eventually He will reward me.” Abraham took matters into his own hands and the Lord did not judge or condemn him, but suffered through his frailty and still counted his faith as righteousness.

        Catholics simply give up virtue when it doesn’t get them what they want, and join the try-before-you-buy movement in the hope that THIS will produce the desired end.

        Most of the people who claim to have struggled mightily with singleness seem to have jumped pretty early on into this mindset.

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      2. Agreed, jesus’ abstinence is the reason we feel so drawn to Christ . Mystery is vital for sustaining love.JA understood the fragility of the heart.Yes it is a fine line indeed.

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    2. Thedeti it sounds like your calling out for correction or are you in need of little mothering?,either way your very brave

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  4. A chaste lifestyle before marriage is as bad as fornication? Wow.
    The likelihood of a woman divorcing her husband rises exponentially with the number of sexual partners she’s had. Do the mystics write about this?

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      1. That’s a very non-Catholic perspective. It is not *as great* a merit to the person to do the right thing for the wrong reason, but doing the right thing *for any reason* is literally always better than doing the wrong thing.

        I suggest you go read Matthew 21 again.

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    1. Yep. It’s because we see it from the outside – and because we LISTEN – that we can do that. Who knew?
      Married people reveal their struggles and triumphs in everything they do, and in everything they leave undone.
      In other words, they’re just like everyone else on the planet.

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    2. Ah ‘my friend ,this is what JP ll referred to as “The brilliance of Woman”.Make no mistake Woman knows what she needs for marriage to be sustainably happy.JP was spot on,”Woman knows us better than we understand our selves”.

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  5. “If the rule you followed led you to this, of what use was the rule?” -Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men.

    Miss Hitchings-

    We live in a fundamentally disordered Socio-Political Economic regime (i.e., liberal-capitalist modernity). A state of affairs which is altogether contrary to what is proposed in Catholic Social Teaching (see “The Framework of the Christian State” by S. Cahill, for details). Like it or not, however devout, we have all been catechized into its worldview.

    This is done most effectively through “popular” i.e., corporate-controlled (anti)culture. We are extremely susceptible to its messaging/programming. If you think that is hyperbole, look into the Asch Conformity Experiment.

    A good take on it can be found here:

    There is a strong likelihood that whatever our professed beliefs we are often being unconsciously motivated by ideas that are not to our benefit, but to our destruction. I can hardly imagine a more effective means of pushing nihilism and narcissism than the current popular culture.

    Check out sitcoms without their laugh track:

    https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=sitcoms+without+laugh+track

    Or even more amusing Breaking Bad as a sitcom!

    The explanation for our disorder is not as lofty or as theological as proposed above. For one, I can’t imagine that God doesn’t want us to be fruitful and multiply and that for some quasi-therapeutic reasons. Closer to the truth is that we have absorbed the dysfunction and disorder of liberal modernity and have (more or less) unconsciously applied it to our lives.

    The rule we followed has led us to this…of what use was the rule?

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  6. I think that your conception of God’s active will is much too limited (and that your conception of God’s passive will is much too broad). As far as I’m aware, God’s passive will only pertains to evils: He allows evil to occur for some greater good. Everything else, every good is actively willed by God. Even something as simple as which toothpaste to use is, in my estimation, actively willed by God. The one that is in your bathroom is the one you ought to use, or the one that actually encourages you to do the good thing of brushing your teeth, or the one that saves you money. All in all, even this choice has something to do with our use of reason, and as long as it is in accord with right reason it is good and actively willed by God. If our choice is contrary to right reason, then it is evil, and is allowed by God so that our free will and ultimately our salvation can be secured (since we cannot be saved if we don’t have free will).

    Where people get hung up is that it is our will which is ultimately moved by God. You can’t sit around not willing anything (i.e. not making any choices) and expect to discern God’s will. It’s not possible. God’s will is revealed when He moves us to choose some particular course of action; this is how grace interacts with our free will. But acting in accordance with God’s will and right reason takes practice; we’re going to make mistakes until we’ve learned enough and prayed enough that our soul becomes docile, and that’s where the Saints got. Every decision they made, no matter how small or big, they allowed their will to be led by grace. It takes time in prayer, generosity, and some gratuitous gifts of God to get to that point, but it isn’t extraordinary.

    This interaction of grace and free will is mysterious; we don’t know all the inner workings of it. But we’ve made an unnecessary mystery of how to act because we expect to feel grace. If the guy/girl you are interested in is virtuous, is reasonably ready to be a wife/mother or husband/father, there’s at least some mutual attraction, your parents think it’s a good match, there are no impediments, and you both find yourselves leaning towards the choice to get married, then unless there’s something extraordinary this is God’s way of telling you that he wills this. He often isn’t going to speak words directly to you or give you feelings of assurance, He’s just going to guide your will towards reasonable decisions as you allow Him by presenting the reasonable as a choice. Pray, then act.

    Thomas Aquinas on grace and free will is super helpful here, as are the Carmelite mystics. For a simple introduction to the Carmelites, I suggest Thomas Dubay’s “Fire Within.” For Thomas Aquinas, Fr. Richard Butler’s “Religious Vocation: an Unnecessary Mystery,” especially the chapters on grace and free will.

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