As I mentioned several days ago, one of the books I brought with me to read while I’m at the retreat house is Curtiss Paul DeYoung’s, Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice. In talking about how one determines an ethical code of behavior, DeYoung quotes something Dietrich Bonhoeffer said while in prison:
Whoever wishes to take up the problem of a Christian ethic must be confronted at once with a demand which is quite without parallel. He must from the outset discard as irrelevant the two questions which alone impel him to concern himself with the problem of ethics, “How can I be good?” and “How can I do good?” and instead of these he must ask the utterly and totally different question, “What is the will of God?”
Now this is language that tends to create some anxiety. We’ve heard all sorts of people through the years claim divine sanction for things that are quite evil. Hitler used the rhetoric of God’s will as does Osama bin Laden.
DeYoung suggests that what should remove that nervousness in the face of Bonhoeffer’s claim is Bonhoeffer’s understanding that a determination of God’s will has to be based on a “reading of the Bible as God’s mandate for social justice and reconciliation.” Thus, any claim that one is acting according to God’s will can be tested by whether it accords or is contrary to the Scriptural call for social justice and reconciliation.
This is not far removed from an Ignatian understanding to discerning religious experience, something I talked with my retreatants about the other day when a new retreatant asked, “how do we know what we experience in our prayer comes from God?” Always the test of whether something is from God or not includes whether it leads to greater faith, hope and love. If it does not, it is not from God.
And so, as Bonhoeffer and Ignatius both understood, God’s will is (to use DeYoung’s words) “less of a detailed plan and more of an overall direction,” a direction toward justice and reconciliation, toward faith, hope and love. And with that understanding, Bonhoeffer is quite right that the only question for a Christian is “What is the will of God?”