Before my ordination in 1990, when I was asked when I would be ordained, I would respond (like other candidates for Holy Orders), “Next May, God willing.” At the time, I thought it was a perfectly humble pious phrase, commending my future to the providence of God.
But a closer inspection of the phrase reveals potential hubris. Until ordination, using the same logic, I could conclude the fact of my ordination to the priesthood was certainly God’s sacred will. But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was my self-will; maybe the oversight of the bishop.
The danger of presuming God’s will is illustrated in the extreme by the chilling transcript of the intercepted cell phone conversation between Islamic terrorists. The phone call was recorded during 2008 attacks in Bombay. At least 173 people were killed and at least 308 were wounded:
Caller: “Keep in mind that the hostages are of use only as long as you do not come under fire because of their safety. If you are still threatened, then don’t saddle yourself with the burden of the hostages, immediately kill them.”
Receiver: “Yes, we shall do accordingly, God willing.”
Caller: “The Army claims to have done the work without any hostage being harmed. Another thing; Israel has made a request through diplomatic channels to save the hostages. If the hostages are killed, it will spoil relations between India and Israel.”
Receiver: “So be it, God willing.”
“God willing”? What breathtaking presumption.
In the 1990s, then-Cardinal Ratzinger discussed the will of God and the action of the Holy Spirit when the Church selects popes. Asked on Bavarian television whether the Holy Spirit is responsible for the election of a pope, he said:
I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope. . . .I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined. There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!
Even a pope is not necessarily the “pick” of the Holy Spirit. But His grace protects the Church nevertheless: “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mt. 16:18)
Up to ordination, God may have had other plans for me, with tugs of grace in this or that direction. So my ordination – or had I refused ordination – may have been the permissive will of God.
But after ordination by way of the graces of the Sacrament, God ratifies the will of His human instruments. Upon ordination, He gives me sufficient grace from within His Mystical Body to fulfill my duties as a priest and to validly celebrate the Sacraments.
Something similar can be said about marriage. God, in a sense, ratifies our choice to enter into a valid marriage even if the decision may have been – from various points of view – unwise: “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Mk. 10:9)
Such is the mystery of the interplay between God’s will and His Church, and our free response “with His grace.”
Nevertheless, it is holy and good to strive to do God’s will. Psalm 119 is particularly profitable as prayer. But notice the humility of the Psalmist in this sample: “Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe in thy commandments. Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep thy word. Thou art good and doest good; teach me thy statutes.” (Ps. 119: 67-68)
The Psalmist does not presume that it is easy to discern God’s will and he depends upon God’s grace in learning and choosing His laws.
Of course, when we break one of the Ten Commandments or the precepts of the Church, we can easily say we’ve “failed to do God’s will.” But in matters of everyday choices involving prudence and one’s personal vocation, God’s will is more difficult to discern.
And it can be somewhat presumptuous to suggest with certainty that we’ve “done God’s will” except perhaps well after the fact – after much prayer and pondering when everything seems to make sense – with God’s grace. Then we are able to sense with confidence whether we are on the path of His plan, or whether we’re off the rails and need to recalibrate our lives, with His grace.
Hence, in the ordinary course of speaking about God, Catholics should be (and generally are) more inclined to say, “With God’s grace” rather than “God willing.” Grace is nothing other than the presence and action of the Holy Spirit within and on our souls.
And the most reliable font of grace is the Church and the Sacraments. When we invoke His grace and pray for His assistance, we do not presume His will be done. We hope His will is done through us despite our weakness if we are appropriately responsive to His grace.
Jesus always respects the gift of freedom. He never forces Himself or His Spirit upon us. This is the reason that beautiful, brief prayer of petition, “With God’s grace” should be frequently on our lips and in our hearts. We can do nothing of eternal value without Him.