This is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.
—1 John 5:14
A friend once had a roommate who earnestly sought God’s will in all aspects of her life. When she went grocery shopping, she would agonize over which brand of lima beans God wanted her to purchase. Such thoughts could be paralyzing: “O Lord, the Green Giant brand is cheaper, but I’m not sure giants are Christian. . . .” One day, my friend entered her apartment to find that everything was messy. The table, chairs, and sofa all felt greasy. Even the lampshades were stained with an oily substance. She asked her roommate what had happened and was told that she had been praying and felt the Lord tell her to anoint the apartment, so she took a bottle of vegetable oil and anointed everything she could.
For some people, knowing the mind of Christ is a bit like Mr. Dick knowing the mind of Charles I. In Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Mr. Dick spent years writing a memoir, but every time he began it, he was interrupted by the thoughts of Charles I. He wasn’t sure how it had happened, but he was convinced that when Charles’s head was chopped off, his thoughts were put into Mr. Dick’s head, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get them out. Mr. Dick was certain he knew the mind of Charles I better than anyone else, which explains why he spent many years as a young man in an asylum.
Often we convince ourselves that we know the mind of Christ, but any sane person could tell us that we are wrong. Have you ever heard someone say, “I prayed about it, and God told me that it is okay to divorce my wife and marry my secretary,” or some other nonsense? In this way, “prayer” consists of telling God what we want and then assuming that because a loud clear voice did not tell us otherwise, our desires must be good.
As a matter of discerning the will of God in important matters, personal prayer can be a dangerous thing. Prayer is generally used in the Scriptures as a way to worship God or to ask for his help, blessings, or mercy, and it is the exception rather than the rule when it is employed with an expectation of receiving a clear answer to a specific question. In fact, by implication, John told us that if we ask for things that are not according to his will, God will not even hear us. That is why God gives us other methods in addition to prayer by which to know his will.
There are four “voices” to which we can listen if we wish to know God’s will. Ideally, we should hearken to them all. First, we have the Bible: God’s Word revealed to us. If the Bible tells us that something is wrong, we should not call it right. Second, we have the teachings of the Church—the Body of Christ. Those things to which the Church has held for nearly two thousand years should not be cast aside. Third, private prayer is an important way to open your heart to God and ask for his guidance. Finally, one should ask one’s spiritual father (typically one’s pastor). This should be a person further up the ladder than yourself whom you trust to point the way. Such a person can speak as the voice of Christ today to give you discernment to know if what you think may be an answer to prayer truly is.
The WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) movement popular among certain Christians is based on a good idea. But we must be careful when we seek God’s will lest we convince ourselves that we know his will when we really do not. The Mr. Dicks of the world can make for good comedy in literature, but they are tragedies in real life.
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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