Mistaking God’s Will for Our Own

Patheos.com | Published on October 8, 2013

By Peter Wehner

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As much of the political world continues to be consumed by the government shutdown, I wanted to focus once again on recent remarks by one of the most remarkable and intriguing figures on the world stage: Pope Francis.

In his recent interview with Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, Pope Francis spoke about certitude and mistakes. Here is what he said:

[I]n this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

The former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, added this:

The risk in seeking and finding God in all things, then, is the willingness to explain too much, to say with human certainty and arrogance: ‘”God is here.” We will find only a god that fits our measure… We have to re-read the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11. Abraham leaves his home without knowing where he was going, by faith. All of our ancestors in the faith died seeing the good that was promised, but from a distance.

It is unusual for a religious leader to speak out in favor of doubt and uncertainty – particularly of a faith whose founder said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” What, then, might Pope Francis have had in mind?

As I understand him, Francis was not casting doubt on the reality of God; he was raising doubts about our capacity to fully see and know God and His ways. That is a crucial distinction. St. Paul himself, not a figure generally thought to have been gripped by doubt and uncertainty, wrote, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

One common tendency within Christianity is the artificial certainty of identifying our purposes with God’s, which often leads to trouble. We see it in religious leaders who believe they can discern the mind of God in mass killings, in terrorist attacks and in natural disasters. And we see it in those who insist that their political ideology is almost perfectly aligned with the will of God. (I think a more honest account of things is that God stands in judgment over all political ideologies and can never be placed in a neat and convenient political category.)

Much more prevalent, and therefore perhaps more pernicious, is the degree to which we hitch our own personal and professional ambitions to the purposes of the Almighty, convincing ourselves that pursuing them is simply the response of an obedient servant. We tell ourselves we are “called” in ways that just happen to gratify our ego and/or advance our material comforts and power. This is what using religion for ourselves means.

To be sure, God guides individual lives, including successful lives. He can open any doors He wants. But the danger, I think, is that our hearts are divided and our motivations are tainted; that we are prone to seek the imprimatur of the Lord in efforts that are really a good deal less spiritual and elevated than we pretend.

What Pope Francis was saying, I think, is that while God may be infallible, we are not; that genuine faithfulness often involves humility rather than certainty; and that we must be ever alert to how prone we are to hijacking God’s will in order to satisfy our own longings and desires. Part of all of us wants to be successful in the eyes of the world – and we want to comfort ourselves with the belief that God is as thrilled about our worldly success as we are. Conceivably He is not.

Here I need to insert an important qualification. Many people become involved in politics because they believe their views and philosophy best approximate what justice requires. And many of the greatest advances for social justice and the betterment of the human condition were successful because they fought with dedication and passion for the moral good. They were not seized by self-doubt and they did not rally others to their cause with self-doubt. But I do think that Francis was making a somewhat different point.

We want a God who fits our measure; who conforms to our times and our will and our ways. But that is not the way the human drama is supposed to play out. As America’s greatest president, and a person of some theological sophistication, reminded us in the context of the Civil War, both sides read the same Bible and prayed to the same God. Each invoked His aid against the other. The prayers of both could not be answered, and that of neither was answered fully. Because the Almighty has His own purposes.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.