Out on a Limb: Trusting Providence or Tempting the Lord?

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak


You shall not put the Lord, your God to the test.

 ~Dt 6:16 and Mt 4:7

 “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I guess I’ll just assume that whatever comes next is God’s will.”

“We don’t worry about our finances. God will take care of the bills however he sees fit.”

“We don’t use Natural Family Planning (NFP), we just trust the Lord to give us as many children as He wants.”

In my work counseling Catholics all across the country, I regularly encounter comments like the above and, to be perfectly honest, they always make me cringe just a little bit.     On the surface, these comments sound very pious, even noble, and they are always spoken by well-meaning individuals whose hearts are decidedly in the right place. Even so, I can’t help but think that they are missing something.  It is true that time and again, Scripture cautions against worrying too much about things of the earth. “Consider the lilies,” the Lord says, “they neither toil nor spin, but not even Solomon was arrayed as these.” (See Matthew 6:25-34  for the full passage) On the face of it, it would seem that the Lord is telling us that we should just hang loose, relax, let His will take over and stop trying so hard to figure everything out.  And yet, through the Parable of the Talents, the Lord teaches us that we are to make full use of all the gifts we have been given. Our intellect and will are two of those gifts, and while we should not rely on them to the exclusion of seeking God’s will, neither should we ignore them, because they are important tools which help us clearly discern God’s will.

Abandon All Common Sense?

It seems to me that there is a fine line between abandoning ourselves to God’s will, and just being foolish. I remember back in college, some peers I knew in my bible study group were doing what they called “the Novena of Novenas” (Note: A  Novena is an ancient spiritual practice, approved by the Church, which consists of praying for a nine-day period for some specific, important intention)  As I recall, this was an eighty-one day cycle of prayers that would enable them to discover–presumably in a dream or some other major theophany (vision or manifestation of the divine)–what God wanted them to do when they graduated.  I remember commenting on their spiritual stamina, and then asking, “Have you been to the career counseling office?”

“No” they answered.

“Oh.” I said. “Have you taken any interest tests?”

“Nuh-uh.” They said.

“Have you talked to any people who do the kinds of work you might be interested in?”

“No.” They replied in exasperation at what they considered to be my obvious lack of faith. “We don’t want to do that because that is seeking what we want. We want to know what God wants.”

What my friends failed to realize was that the process of discernment requires the full participation of our will and intellect. As each one of them discovered eventually, God would indeed tell them what he wanted them to do, but only after they actively, willfully and intellectually investigated all of their options, using all of the resources (i.e., the career counseling office, magazines, interviews with professionals, survey courses, interest inventories, etc.) God had already made available to them.     When the Lord said, “Consider the lilies” he was not saying “Don’t do anything, just accept whatever you trip over as if it was my will.” He meant, as Proverbs says, “Work at your tasks in due season, and in time, God will give you the reward of your labors.”  In other words, seeking God’s will for your life does not mean throwing up your hands and saying, “Silly me. I couldn’t possibly ever wrap my puny little brain around that big ol’ problem. I guess I shouldn’t even try.”     It means saying, “I’m not sure how to solve this problem, but if I pray like it is all up to God, and work like it is all up to me, then I can trust that the Lord will bless the work of my hands and guide my steps so that, in time, his will would be made apparent.”

Having Faith vs. Shirking Responsibility  

Too often, when people say they are “letting God decide” what to do with their life, finances, or even family size, what they really mean is that they are chickening out. They don’t want to make a difficult decision, so they would rather just go along, ignorant, reserving the right to blame God if anything goes wrong. I am often saddened to confront this reality in my practice. I recently heard from a woman with ten children whose husband left her. She told me that she felt so abandoned by God. She admitted that yes, she and her husband had always had a very difficult marriage, but she just assumed that if God kept giving her children, it meant that he would look after the security of their relationship.     What she failed to realize was that God had given her and her husband the responsibility of balancing the unitive and procreative ends of their marriage. Through the doctrine of responsible parenthood, the Church tells couples that each month, they are obliged to prayerfully take into account the state of their marriage, their financial resources, their health, and ability to meet the needs of the present family members as they discern whether now is the time to bring a new life into their “community of love” (i.e., “family”).     This woman, for whom my heart broke, said she had refused to use NFP over the years because she thought that to do so would be asserting her will over God’s. But again, she didn’t understand that NFP is not “Catholic birth control.” Rather, it is a discernment tool, a call to prayer that encourages couples to reflect, each month, on the state of their lives and relationship with an eye toward either strengthening what already exists, or adding a new life to the family as a way of celebrating and witnessing to the strength and love that already exists in the family.     Now, after years of abandoning the intellect and will God had given them to balance the need to strengthen their unity with the need to be open to life, this husband and wife were angry at God for letting them down.

I recently spoke to another couple that was filing for bankruptcy. It seems that they had been having financial problems for a long time, but they didn’t know what to do about it. Rather than seeking credit counseling, or consulting a financial planner, or even making a budget, this couple simply decided to throw up their hands, put on a smiley face and assert that “God will not let us fall.” Well, he did. And the fallout was not only financial strife, but marital and spiritual upheaval as well. They blamed each other for failing, and they blamed God for letting them down.  But the fact is that even though God is a generous and loving Father, who tries to save us from our own stupidity, he is also a just God who allows us to experience the very real consequences of our folly; the consequences that accompany failing to use the gifts we have been given, most of all, our will and intellect.  Of course, none of this is to deny the amazingly generous providence of God, nor does it deny that there are times when God will ask us to do impossible things and bear us up while we do them. But even in these times it is absolutely necessary to use our will and intellect to discern whether it is really the voice of God speaking, or merely wishful thinking.     The Lord has intervened in miraculous ways many times in my life, but he has rarely done so when I have attempted to manipulate him into a miracle by blindly screwing up my life so much that the only way I could be saved was through massive divine intervention. Instead, in those times, God has given me the grace to clean up my own mess and move on.  And I always got the sense that as He looks on in love, he smiles, shakes his head, and says, “Next time, do ya think that maybe you could just USE THAT PERFECTLY GOOD BRAIN I GAVE YOU?!?” To which I respond,  “No promises, Lord. But I will certainly try.”

If you or someone you love are struggling with finding the balance between determining what is yours to do in life and what is left to God, call your PaxCare Tele-Coach today and get the solutions you are seeking.

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