A young Catholic man I know, who has become an atheist, posted a picture of a violinist on his Facebook page with the caption “When people tell me God has blessed you with the gift of music, you’re damn right I get offended. I did not practice hours a day for eighteen years to have my success attributed to a myth.” Well what would you say if someone challenged your faith like this? I hope you would say something like I did : “But unless he had talent, he could have practised for ever and still not been a good violinist.” Yes, our choices in life, and the work we do to make them happen, are very important indeed, but they have to be choices that fit our God-given talents. It is no good deciding to be an Engineer if you are no good at Maths, or a Musician if you are tone-deaf.
My reply did not please my Facebook Friend, and he replied with a word that I will not utter in public. He went on however to explain that he was dyslexic and everyone said he would never do well at school. But he worked hard day and night and made it not only to school but also to University. If he had sat back and simply accepted that it was God’s will that he should never achieve much in life, he wouldn’t be where he is now.
All this shows that when we Christians talk about “Doing God’s will” we need to be very careful that we don’t get misunderstood. Look at what St Paul says in our 2nd reading today (1 Cor 15:1-11) and you will see what I mean. He is talking about his work preaching the Gospel and then he says, “I, or rather the grace of God that is with me, have worked harder than any of the others.” Now we know what Paul means. He is quite rightly telling his hearers that without the grace of God working within him, he would never have done all that he has been able to do, and never had the energy and the courage to face the dangers and difficulties that went with this work.
We Christians still use phrases like this don’t we, especially when people praise us? We say things like : “I would never have managed without God’s help.”, or at least I hope we do. But, of course, we don’t mean by such a phrase that it didn’t require a lot of effort and sacrifice on our part. But turn this idea on its head, and it begins to be dangerous. I remember once walking through the back streets of Rawalpindi in Pakistan where an open sewer ran down the middle of the road; and when I said that I hoped improvements would be made, my friend shook his head and said “It’s all in the hands of God” . The poor fellow then got a lecture from me on how London used to be like that, until people in the 19thC made a supreme effort to improve things.
The danger is that when we say something is “in the hands of God”, people think we mean that all we can do is sit back and see if God will make it happen. We know we don’t mean that. Indeed it is a view of life called “fatalism” that is firmly rejected by the Church, but we need to be very careful that we don’t get over to people the wrong idea of God’s will.
The Gospel today (Luke 5:1-11) shows us what doing God’s will really means. The fishermen think that it is God’s will that they are fishermen. That is what they have been brought up to expect, and they have to be shown that the unexpected can happen before they are likely to respond to a call from Jesus to give it all up, and start fishing for men! So they have fished all night and caught nothing and are reluctant at first to have one more try. But they do, and end up with an enormous catch of fish. Faced with this extraordinary event they are astonished and fearful, and it is then that Jesus says “Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” The same thing happens to Isaiah in the 1st Reading (Isaiah 6:1-8).
In each case we see, that when God is at work in us then far from being stuck where we are, thinking that we only have limited talents, God’s grace opens up to us new possibilities. God’s will for us is not some limited blueprint, but an ever-expanding Universe. Of course, we have to use our God-given common sense here, and not think we can do something way beyond our talents, but we certainly must recognise that our assessment of ourselves is often too limited. Nor must we think that God’s will for us is set in stone, that somehow if only we can find out what God’s will is, then everything will become clear and easy: one path mapped out and all we have to do is walk along it.
We pray “Thy will be done”, but God’s will can mean any number of different things for each of us all through our lives. Some may be easy, but some may require hard slog and sacrifice. That is the Christian way, and it is sad when people misunderstand this.