Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
How do you discern God's will? We have a situation in our church where a significant purchase is being considered. The side that wants the purchase to go through is praying for God's will to be part of their decision-making. The other side, which is questioning the wisdom of this purchase, is also seeking God's will in the matter.
At what point in our prayer life should we be able to feel that what we're about to decide is truly God's will and not merely our own desires? Where are the boundaries between our human choices and God's will in relation to decisions and direction? Will the decision about the purchase ultimately be a human choice, a choice made according to God's will or something else?
-- C., via email
The problem with freewill is that many of us really don't want it. We'd be much more comfortable having all our decisions made by an all-knowing, benevolent and all-powerful God. However, that's not how God made us, and for good reason. Freedom is what makes us human. Other animals are not free in the same way. Instinct, and not freedom, control their actions.
I'm afraid that you and your fellow congregants are stuck in the muck of freewill and must do your best to make a wise and spiritually authentic choice. My advice is to consider prayerfully the reasons to make the purchase you're contemplating.
Ask yourselves whether the purchase will further your mission or just decorate your building. What do you most want to do as a religious community, and will this purchase help you reach your highest goals? Will this purchase constitute the best use of your resources? Would you be wiser to invest in a new youth minister or a new outreach director? Hiring new people is often a better decision than buying new things. This doesn't mean that fixing up your building is wrong. If you have a hole in the roof, fix it now.
On a deeper level, your question raises the ultimate mystery of revelation: How do we ever know that God is speaking to us? My general answer is that if you hear a voice telling you to trash the accumulated wisdom of 2,000 years in favor of some new and unproven spiritual fad, the best move is to hang on to the old and leave the new and improved versions of religion to those who think wisdom improves like smartphones.
Even so, there are moments when I believe that God does speak to us in what the Bible calls a "still small voice" (I Kings 19:12). This true story was the most powerful moment of divine intervention and revelation in my life, and it had to do with my dear friend Father Tom Hartman: We met on a spring Sunday in 1987, when, as strangers, we were paired together on a cable news program about the similarities and differences of Passover and Easter.
Tommy smiled and was wonderful. I was nervous and suddenly blurted out, "Look, it comes down to this. There are no chocolate bunnies in Passover and there is no horseradish in Easter!" The interview ended quickly. After two hours, we found ourselves still talking in the parking lot. I then said to Tommy, "You seem like a great guy and I'd love to get to know you better, but I'm going home now to call a congregation in Florida and accept their offer to be their new rabbi." Tommy just looked at me and said softly but firmly, "You are not going to Florida." I was taken aback, but he continued, "I had a dream last night. In it, God came to me and said, 'You will meet someone tomorrow. Tell him, "I am not through with you here.' " I couldn't say a word, and it was not just because of the goose bumps. You see, the night before, I had prayed and asked God to send me a sign to help me make my decision about the move. I'd never asked for a sign from God before or since. It seemed like a kind of spiritual cowardice.
Tommy swore to me that he'd never experienced God in a dream giving him a message before that night or since, and yet my prayer and Tommy's dream were real. That was the moment we formed the God Squad, and I stayed. I can't explain any of it, but I can tell you it really happened. Not every sign is so explicit, but I believe God showers our lives every day with signs and love and freedom. What we do with them is all that matters.