“It was God’s will.”
We hear this trope a lot in many situations. A child dies. “It was God’s will.” A child recovers from a deathly illness. “It was God’s will.” A storm blows away our house. “It was God’s will.” Unless our house was spared. “It was God’s will.” We don’t get the job, the house, the car, the whatever material goodie we want. “It was God’s will.” We do get the job, the house, the car, the whatever material goodie we want. “It was God’s will.”
We use the phrase so much, for so many wildly different situations, it has become almost impossible to figure out what “God’s will” is all about. Is it about disaster, joy, or something in between? No matter what, we seem to believe that “God’s will” is about something personal, and specific in our lives. We happen upon the terrible accident seconds before it happens and remember that momentary delay that put us behind. Was it “God’s will” to spare you with that momentary setback? Was it “God’s will” that those who did die in that terrible accident end their time on earth that day? We seem so sure that “God’s will” is at work, even in the lucky and unlucky events of our day, as if God is a big traffic cop in the sky making sure we’re all in our places at the right time, doing the right thing, being spared at just the right moment, and dying at just the right moment. I have to admit, this is the God I grew up with – the one whose “will” seemed so capricious, but at the same time very carefully planned so it could be fully explained after the tragedy or victory. My mother was always eager to provide the explanation. If I got some overtime at work one week, the next week my car would need repair and my mother would say, “You see, God knew you would need that extra money.” So, in some twisted way, it was “God’s will” that I got overtime, because it was “God’s will” that my car would die the next week. Eventually, it made me dread getting any extra money because I knew it was soon going to be “God’s will” to take it from me to fix something. I often wondered why it was never “God’s will” to keep my old jalopy running, or let me get ahead in my bank account.
There are some people, though, who believe they are experts in estimating “God’s will” – especially for other people. As a lesbian, I am often faced with people who are certain that I am living “outside” of “God’s will” for my life – simply because of my sexual orientation. They believe that being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is sinful, simply because they have believed the misinterpretations of a handful of verses in the Bible. They are so convinced that I, and others like me, are living “outside of God’s will” that they will take drastic measures to try to force us back “inside” that “will.” They will work to ensure that we cannot marry our same-gender partners. They will work to ensure that churches will not welcome us, not just in their pulpits, but even in their pews. They will work to so thoroughly demonize us that we can no longer be treated fairly in the workplace, or in housing, or society at large. They do this, they say, out of love. If we can be so marginalized as to be miserable then perhaps we’ll “change” and come into “God’s will” for our lives – which they say means abandoning our natural sexual orientation or gender identity and becoming what they believe is “normal” – simply because they think it’s “God’s will” to be like them. One of the tactics they use to demonize us is to compare our lives with other sins. You’ve heard it so much you can say it with me: “We love homosexuals (or transgender people). Their sin is no different than the thief, the adulterer, or the murderer. We must treat them with the same compassion!” How big-hearted and loving of them – to treat us with the same disdain they treat thieves, cheaters, and killers with. I often marvel at the arrogance of these statements. How would they feel if we constantly compared heterosexuality to thievery or prostitution? I mean, there are a lot of straight people who steal and sell their bodies for money. There are plenty of them who cheat on their partners and I’m sure the straight killer population outnumbers the gay or transgender killers in the prisons. But, apparently, comparing their sexual orientation to other sins isn’t the same, somehow. What they fail to understand is this: sexual orientation is not a sin, but how we use it can be. Using or abusing others and ourselves sexually is always wrong – no matter whether the object of our use or abuse is the same or opposite gender. What they also fail to understand is what “God’s will” really means. For them it means being a heterosexual married to someone of the opposite gender in order to have kids. Really? Is “God’s will” that specific? I would submit that it is not.
In his new book, The Evolution of Faith: How God Is Creating a Better Christianity, Philip Gulley devotes an amazing section to the idea of God’s will. He writes about how many people come to him deeply worried that they are not living “God’s will” for their lives. They believe that God has a unique plan for them and they must follow it to a tee or they are definitely living “outside of God’s will.” Gulley marvels at this belief because, “it seems contradictory to speak of a God who has given us free will and at the same time has devised a precise plan for our lives that must be followed for us to be blessed. It suggests God is double-minded, extending the gift of human freedom one moment, then punishing us for exercising that freedom the next moment.” Gulley suggests that God is a generalist, not a specialist, and really means it when She granted us that free will. We can live how we choose – but, that doesn’t give us the freedom to live lives that harm others or treat others unfairly. “Seeking God’s will,” Gulley writes, “means giving careful attention to the ultimate priorities of God, which are love, mercy, wisdom, justice, and integrity. It is to keep these priorities ever before us, letting them inform our lives so that all we are and all we do serves to expand these virtues. It is to consider such questions as these:
“Will what I am about to do result in the growth and betterment of others?”
“Will this action increase love or diminish it?”
“Will humanity’s wisdom be expanded by my efforts, or am I appealing to ignorance and narrow-mindedness?”
I suggest that these three questions are the ones we must all ask ourselves to discern God’s will in our lives. I also suggest that when we put these questions to our sexual orientation or gender identity, we will find our more religiously conservative brothers and sisters are wrong about our “sinfulness.” Let us ask this: “Does living into my identity as a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person with integrity and love result in the growth and betterment of others?” Yes, it does. We improve society by educating them about the reality of our lives – that we long for the same thing all humans long for – love, companionship, and joy. The world becomes a better place when we realize that we are all connected, all deeply human and in need of that deep connection with one another across cultures, generations, races, and even sexual orientation and gender identities.
If we ask the same about thieves, adulterers and killers, we cannot answer in the affirmative. Even if you are the best thief, adulterer, or murderer around, living into that identity will never result in the growth and betterment of others. We can also ask: “Does living into my identity as a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person with integrity and love increase love or diminish it?” It certainly only increases it. When we live into our authentic selves as LGBT people we bring more love into the world – even for those who are against us.
Again, thieves, adulterers and killers can only diminish love in the world. Finally, we can ask: “Does living into my identity as a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person with integrity and love expand humanity’s wisdom, or are we appealing to ignorance and narrow-mindedness?” Again, we have an affirmative answer. Living as God created us increases the wisdom of those in the world, and we must guard against becoming narrow-minded to those with whom we disagree.
Thieves, adulterers and killers, however, appeal only to ignorance and narrow-mindedness. Our detractors, too, seem bent on continuing to spread ignorance and narrow-mindedness when it comes to their LGBT brothers and sisters. So, I think it’s fair to ask who is it that can really be best lumped into the list of “sinners” in need of “compassion?”
In the end, when we talk about “God’s will,” we are not talking about the specific things God wants us to do in our lives like our jobs, who we marry (or what gender they are), or where we live. That’s not how it works. Instead, “doing God’s will” means living a life that increases love, that increases justice, that increases mercy, that increases wisdom, that increases our connection to all humans. If we do that, then it doesn’t really matter what job we have, or who we marry, or where we live. So, instead of pointing fingers at other people and telling them they are “outside of God’s will,” we must concentrate on our own lives and ensure that we are doing everything we can to live our own lives as God wills it – as loving, merciful, and wise people ready to extend compassion and care to everyone, friend and foe alike. “When God,” Gulley concludes, “is understood as that universal and inward impulse that inspires us to seek the best for others, to seek the growth of the beloved, which is to say everyone, we are able to move from fear to freedom, knowing God wants only the best for us and never the worst.”
The founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, Rev. Candace Chellew earned her Masters of Theological studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Her first book, “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians”, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2008. She currently serves as the Spiritual Director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C.