Sunday, February 5, 2023 | Trey Comstock
Discerning God’s will is more art than science. Last week, I went on a pastor’s retreat and got to sit and talk with my friend Heather. We got assigned the task of telling each other how we ended up in ministry, and Heather offered up a powerful analogy. She described her experience of ministry as a hallway. Imagine a corridor lined with doors, her life has been walking down it and trying the doors. When she reaches a locked door, she moves onto the next one. When a door opens, she goes through it. To find the will of God, just find the doors that are unlocked and only go through those.
I deeply appreciate this analogy. Live cannot hold still waiting to know what doors to you. You keep moving, trying doors, and seeing what opens and what remains stuck close. Most humans don’t have the luxury of waiting by holding still. Bills must get paid. Family must be kept alive. Emergency always arise and must be dealt with. Through all of that, we seek the will of God by seeing the doors that open for us.
Still, how do we know that a door opening is God and not us just doing what’s easy for us? Staying in our comfort zone or doing what is easy rather than what is right might also feel like a door opening. The prophet Isaiah seems to give his own answer to this – know God. If we build a strong enough relationship with the Lord, we start to learn the contours of what God might want and what God definitely would not want. I’m a big fan of the fictional detective, Nero Wolfe, who is created by Rex Stout. When he is sending his assistant, Archie Goodwin, off to do his bidding, he often tell him to “use intelligence guided by experience.” The two men have a long enough history together that Archie has a good chance of knowing what Nero wants without Nero having to direct Archie’s every move. A Christian walk creates that same relationship between the Christian and God. God’s will might not feel totally clear, but we’ve built up the experience to have a pretty good idea if the door that opens looks like something God would want us to do.
In the context of Isaiah 58, the prophet helps the people discern what it means to worship God. Isaiah goes through the religious rituals of the time, particularly fasting, and reminds the people that ritual observance comes up empty if the people forget to care for their neighbors.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7 NRSV)
As we’ve been exploring the past couple of weeks, the connection between religious practice and caring for others resounds throughout Scripture as a consistent theme. It’s in the Ten Commandments, the prophets, and get carried forward by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon of the Plain. The early church as to deal with it in Acts 6. The Apostles are doing so much evangelizing and teaching that the widows in the community aren’t getting the care that they need. God’s people again face the question of what matters more, spiritual connection or tangible care? They answer, yes, to both appointing a new kind of minister to make sure that no one gets left behind.
A knowledge of Scripture helps us set the possibility space for God’s will. It gives us a concrete resource to know God’s history with our ancestors. We can know and hear from God beyond its pages. God’s spirit blows through our world today. Revelation didn’t stop with the last words of Scripture. Instead, Scripture serves as the rubric to score what we hear and feel against. It gives us a way to discern if the door that opens sounds like something God would do or not. We can see in our collective past what God has done, how God has spoken, and what God has declared to be true. As we move through the hallway of life, and a door opens, we can have a better sense if its God or just our own convenience.