Is God’s Will Something
We Need to Find or Something We Help Create?
By Julie Exline
God might be leading us in a divine dance, one where we actually get to improvise.
Aren’t Christians supposed to seek and obey God’s will? This is what I was taught, growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church. Our faith leaders taught us to see God as the Creator, the ultimate authority—one with a good, specific plan for our individual lives. So we should seek God’s direction for everything in life.
And we tried. I mean, we really, really tried. To be sure, we turned to God for guidance about right and wrong, but we also wanted to find God’s path for our lives: what our roles were as men and women, who we should marry, where we should live, and our life’s work. After all, if God has created us for a specific, special purpose, then we should try to find out what that purpose is: our own personal mission from God.
And it’s important to get it right. Because not only is God’s guidance the best guidance, but you certainly don’t want to be OUT of God’s will. Not only would you be wandering around lost, but you might disappoint God. And if you’re actively resisting or rebelling against God, you could be punished—maybe even be tossed into Hell for eternity!
But how are we supposed to know what God’s will is? How do we get it right?
My church looked for answers through the Bible. Of course, the scriptures gave tons of direction on moral issues, and much of it was helpful. But I also saw how people could use the Bible as a bludgeon—a way to keep themselves and others in line. It was natural to feel self-righteous if we followed the rules and fearful if we did not. Plus, it was all too easy to use the text to judge and vilify others who seemed to be committing obvious sins: drug use, divorce, sexual impurity, abortion, and following “false” religions were some of the big ones. Was this focus on rules really leading us to follow Christ’s loving example?
And what about the literal interpretations of this infallible text, said to be “God’s Word”? Messages in the Bible didn’t seem as straightforward as leaders said they were. I remember hearing things like, “The Bible’s message of salvation is so simple. Even a child can understand it.” I wasn’t so sure. Have you ever read Leviticus? What about Revelation? Was I really supposed to pluck out my eye if it offended me? I didn’t see people doing that. And besides, how could we trust our own interpretations of the Bible, much less our own moral compasses, if the devil is running around, spewing lies and corrupting people’s minds?
Not only was the Bible confusing and even contradictory in places, but a lot of it was just plain scary. Was God really going to send people to Hell for eternity simply because they didn’t believe in Him or understand Him? We also lived in great fear of the Rapture: Jesus could come back at any moment and take those who were saved back to heaven, but the rest would be left to suffer the horrors of the Great Tribulation. So when I would come home from school and no one was home, I had that little flutter of fear: Had I been left behind?
These experiences left me with a fair amount of religious trauma and a lot of baggage around the Bible. Now my goal is to help others who are having similar challenges. I work as a psychology professor, and my colleagues and I have spent several decades studying the struggles that many people have around religion and spirituality, including issues with God. My colleague Ken Pargament and I have written about how therapists can help clients work through these spiritual struggles. And in my own case, therapy definitely helped. Just having that listening, supportive ear made a huge difference. Even though neither of my therapists had the same religious affiliation that I did, I felt a true spiritual bond with each of them. Their love and care were key parts of my own healing.
My beliefs continued to shift, too. After a long spiritual-but-not-religious period and some church hopping, I joined a charismatic church about 20 years ago. All in all, my experiences there were positive. The environment felt warmer and more loving, more open, and less judgmental than what I remembered from my childhood church. I was still trying to figure out God’s will, but there was more flexibility in how divine messages might come through. We talked a lot about hearing God’s voice—through Scripture, of course, but also through signs, words of prophecy, and even the occasional miracle! God’s love seemed more alive and accessible now, more exciting.
Later, I went through training at a Jesuit university to become a spiritual director—someone who talks with people about spirituality and helps them try to hear what God might be saying to them. Echoing themes from the charismatic church, we talked about how God speaks in many ways—not only through Scripture but also through life events, other people, or our own reason—and maybe even through physical sensations.
What’s more, this spiritual direction training introduced me to some new ideas about God’s unconditional love—views that included a genuine hope that all people might ultimately “be saved” and end up in heaven together. Internally, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I now felt like it was possible to be a Christian without worrying so much about hell. I didn’t have to abandon my Christian faith. I could seek God’s will with more joy and passion, as part of a more intimate relationship. Still, though, I saw God’s will mostly as something to be discovered.
Around 2016, my spiritual director lent me a sermon series by Martin Smith, a Bishop of the Episcopal Church, entitled “Co-Creators with God.” Smith introduced the idea of a more dynamic view of God—one in which God is continually involved in the process of creation. It’s not just “one and done;” it’s still going on! Also, to add an inspiring twist, Smith suggested that we are actively engaged with God in the ongoing process of creation—one that includes the unfolding of our own destinies. So God’s will is not just something we discover; we may also help to create it.
Over time, I started to see my relationship with God as a dance. Yes, God may be leading, and always leading us in the direction of love and wisdom, but perhaps God also takes pleasure in giving us freedom to improvise. While doing our best to keep our eyes on God and stay in step together, we also get to add our own flourishes, our own beauty, our own style… and God is PLEASED with all of this. God WANTS us to make meaningful choices, to follow our deepest desires, and to be the most authentic and alive people that we can be. We can do all of this and still stay close to God. It’s all part of the dance.
In a recent survey of adults in the United States, we found that many people see God not only as a source of safety, security and love; they also see their relationships with God as exciting and energetic, spontaneous, passionate, and sometimes even playful. Importantly, when people see their relationships with God in these energizing ways, they feel more grateful to God for their blessings and express more desire to pass on kindness to others.
But what about those times when we feel confused or enraged about suffering or evil in the world—or when we feel mad at God? We’ve found that when people face these kinds of spiritual struggles, they often do better if they see God as a partner who collaborates with them to solve problems. And when people are angry at God, it usually helps if they can recognize, accept, and perhaps even express their negative feelings, instead of just keeping them bottled up inside. I’m starting to wonder whether these ideas about co-creation and energy—about seeing God as our partner in the dance—might also help us to work through problems in our relationships with God. I’m not sure, but I’d like to find out.
How have things changed for me? I do still seek God’s direction and listen for God’s voice. I look for signs, and I try to follow God’s lead, but I’ve lost much of that fear of being out of God’s will. Why? Because I believe that God’s love is within us—and all around us. It moves and sustains us. It’s where we live and breathe and have our being… and we can learn to awaken to it, to see it, to let that love light radiate into us and through us, then guide it out into the world. We each get to do this in our own unique ways, with our own style, our own palette, our own spice. These are our beautiful acts of creation—of co-creation with God.
Julie Exline, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, specializing in spiritual and religious topics. She is a licensed clinical psychologist in Ohio and has been certified as a spiritual director through the Ignatian Spirituality Institute at John Carroll University. Her research focuses on spiritual struggles and supernatural beliefs.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love