Nothing tangled me up or stopped me dead in my tracks faster than mixing God up in an important decision. Let me explain with some personal history.

Growing up in the home of a Southern Baptist minister, I heard from the pulpit and around the dinner table the importance of seeking God’s will and following God’s leadership in all things. That did not extend all the way to seeking God’s will in choosing my shirt for the day, but we were taught that God had a hand in everything. So when it came to making decisions of any real consequence, we somehow should discern God’s will. The more important the decision, the more important it was to do so.

child prayerGod’s will was portrayed as some illusive preference or outcome God had in mind, and it was my job to figure out what that was. I either had to pray intensely enough to hear God’s voice, which I never did, or to somehow just figure out the mind of the Divine. This was important, because if I discovered God’s will and followed it, things would work out. If not, I could expect disastrous things to happen. Bible stories and selected verses were shot like spitballs to reinforce this.

To miss God’s call would be to miss the main exit to to Disneyland and have no choice but to follow the road in the wrong direction, ending up in the wrong place entirely, like a Polka festival. That, my friends, will paralyze a child as he grows up, particularly when he tries to become more independent, as he should. It will distort a person’s career, marriage, or anything else if he fears he is not following the path God has laid out for him, simply because he did not get a clear voice command. Welcome to my first 30 years and many episodes since then.

basketball coachThrough the help of some loving friends who were not bound by the rigid beliefs I had grown up with, I came to discover that the God I was following was a small, petulant, picky God, a frustrated coach with a loud whistle around his neck, holding a clipboard, making check marks and X’s. I wasn’t sure how God felt about others, but for me God was mostly concerned about my being good, not upsetting others, and getting it right, whatever “it” was.

If God truly is an expansive, inclusive God who loves us and wants us to grow and experience life, than there is more to “God’s will” than making the “right” choice.

In Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she writes, “My friend Terry says that when you need to make a decision, in your work or otherwise, and you don’t know what to do, just do one thing or the other, because the worst that can happen is that you will have made a terrible mistake.” I love that. How freeing.

And along with that “terrible mistake” is the assurance that God is no less present, no less loving, no less able to help us learn from what we have done. I have met far too many people who have made “terrible mistakes” who have learned and grown from them, and found ways to live a satisfying life. I have also met people who seemed to do everything right, and their chances of being joyful and satisfied were about the same as those who made terrible mistakes.

Whether you want to attribute it to God, Karma, Life, or whatever, life does go forward and we either learn from it or not. We find creative ways of addressing what we face or we get bogged down.

I live in a religiously conservative area. People routinely say things like, “God put me in the right place yesterday…” “God led me to…” and other such things. Of course, it is always in the context of something that worked out well for them. I never heard them say, “God put me in the right place yesterday when that pickup plowed into us.” I’m still a bit stunned when I hear such God talk, because that’s too much like the God with the clipboard.

For me, God is more likely to say (if God spoke to me), “Go ahead. Take your best shot. We’ll see what we need to do after that.”  The outcome and next step are wide open.