Let’s see a show of hands. How many of us grew up hearing testimonies and sermons at Vacation Bible School, church camps and revivals, implying that God’s will is an ironclad, one-option-only maze? One wrong turn, and you’re toast. Such teaching left the impression that if we are spiritual enough, we will always know with scientific certainty how and where our Creator is leading.
A careful reading of scripture reveals that discerning God’s will is much messier, less formulaic and much, much less certain than we may have thought. In Acts 1, we read of the infant church facing one of its first post-resurrection decisions. Who would replace Judas Iscariot as an apostle? Most Baptists would recognize the early steps the church took: Simon Peter preached on the importance of their decision (vv. 15-20). Then the qualifications for the position were enumerated (vv. 21-22). Next, it appears the small congregation was allowed to nominate persons (v. 23). Finally, they prayed, acknowledging God’s sovereign purposes and humbly asking for divine direction (vv. 24-25).
So far, this discernment process sounds much like a 21st-century church. But then the story gets strange. The next step in the “call” process? “They…drew straws” (v. 26, The Message). Really? That’s what my mom used to do when my three siblings and I argued over who would have to be first to take a Saturday night bath! OK, so the NRSV says “they cast lots,” instead of “they drew straws,” but explain to me how that is different.
Some commentators claim that the casting of lots was the way the early church practiced democracy, that each of the two candidates had a basket and people dropped a pebble in one or the other to “vote.” But that’s a stretch. The Greek words used in verse 26 are identical to the ones found in the gospels, describing the Roman soldiers casting lots to divide up Jesus’ clothing (Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24). I seriously doubt that those guards were casting democratic votes. No, as we listen to the biblical text honestly, we are faced with the reality that the first Christian congregation probably put two pebbles in a basket and whichever name came tumbling out determined the future makeup of the apostolic band.
And here is the real kicker: We never hear another word about Matthias, the one chosen. We don’t know if he was a great success or a dud. Yet even that is instructive. Instead of being embarrassed by the humanity of our sacred story, why can’t we just embrace it? Discerning God’s will is a mixture of faith, prayer, careful listening and eventually, “rolling the dice.” If the first followers of Jesus had waited on certainty, they might still be waiting!
“The first Christian congregation probably put two pebbles in a basket and whichever name came tumbling out determined the future makeup of the apostolic band.”
When all is said and done, perhaps discerning God’s will is neither as glamorous nor as esoteric as we thought. Perhaps, like the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is a mysterious mixture of the human and divine. In our journey to know God’s will, after we have prayed, sought appropriate counsel, considered circumstances, studied scripture and used the brains given to us by God, we eventually have to “put our money down” and make a faith bet. That faith bet is in the form of a humble prayer, uttered from our hearts, “God, I have sought your will and still long to do it, but I am not sure what I am supposed to do. To the best of my knowledge, I make this choice. If it is not your will, please show me my error and forgive me.” I am a child of grace. I am free to fail. God will love me anyway!
And besides, if you believe God has only one plan, think again. Scripture reveals that the One who oversees the cosmos is sovereign and perfectly capable of adjusting to our imperfect and sporadic obedience. After all, when my siblings and I drew straws, what really mattered to my mother was that all four of her children went to bed clean. Perhaps our loving Heavenly Parent doesn’t sweat the small stuff as much as we do.