It's one of the most often-heard prayer requests: I just need some clarity on what God wants me to do with my life.
Clarity, guidance and hearing God's voice are subjects that most Christians find themselves regularly concerned with. When the choices seem too many, or when things don't seem to be going according to (our) plan, we can frequently find ourselves in a similar mode of prayer. "God, what are you up to? When am I going to understand what's going on? Could you please just show me a little of your plan?"
Books on the subject have always sold well; seminars called 'What does God want me to do with my life?" are always packed out at Christian festivals. On one level there's no problem at all with seeking God's will; Paul in Romans 12 tells us to "be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern the will of God", but if we're honest, often when we ask God to show us his plan, we're actually revealing something else.
We don't really trust God.
At least, not completely. When things get tough; when things make no sense, these are the moments where our trust of God is really put to the test. Do we still believe in the light at the end of the tunnel when we can't see it? The more we ask God to show us what's going on behind it all, the more we're implicitly saying that we're worried he's going to let us down in some way. Despite that promise in Romans 8:28 that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him," we're hungry for it to be a little more nailed down than that. We're hungry and impatient for certainty, even in our engagement with the divine.
In his book Ruthless Trust, Brennan Manning tells the story of Christian ethicist John Kavanaugh, who was seeking guidance on how to spend the rest of his life. His quest took him to Calcutta, and Mother Teresa's famous 'house of the dying', and on the first morning, he met Teresa herself. When she asked what she could pray for him, Kavanaugh's request was that he 'would have clarity.' Manning writes that "She said firmly, 'No, I will not do that.' When he asked her why, she said, 'Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.'"
Not only does this prayer demonstrate a lack of trust, it also suggests a rather skewed perspective of our part in God's great plan. Like the stars of our own Truman Show, we can sometimes subconsciously believe that God's plan orbits around us; that we're the main player in his story. When we stop to think about it, of course we don't think that's true – yet our actions and our prayers so often suggest that we do.
So if we should stop asking God to show us his plan, what should we pray instead? Here are three suggestions which, despite my own failings in this area, seem to be better ways of dealing with our sense of uncertainty and me-centered-ness.
God, give me your heart
My own journey flipped dramatically when I was encouraged to ask this question. I'd attended a youth work conference under some duress, but when the speaker challenged us to pray this prayer, I was floored. As I prayed along with him that God would give me his heart for young people, something changed instantly inside me. The moment that I asked God to give me his passion, rather than self-centredly asking him to hurry up and grant mine, I had a new focus, and indeed a new sense of clarity. That was 12 years ago; I've been passionately involved in youth ministry ever since.
When we ask God to give us his heart – to 'break our hearts for the things that break his' as Vicky Beeching's worship song put it – we can be fairly sure not only that he will, but that he'll also guide us to ways of addressing those things. It might not always be a dramatic change, but over time, that sense of trajectory that we all desire deep down will start to become clear.
God, use me as you wish
The Vineyard founder John Wimber once said: "I'm just loose change in God's pocket. He can spend me as he chooses." That's a remarkably submissive thing to say to God, but it's also incredibly liberating. We're freed from the exhausting pursuit of working out our own importance. Yet of course, it's also an incredibly difficult thing to pray – it means truly putting all the things we hope and strive for, all our loves and material possessions, second to what God wants. It's great in theory, but to really mean it is huge.
When we do feel able to pray this from the heart, we shouldn't be surprised when God takes us at our word. The results might be unsettling; they're also likely to be the start of a great adventure.
God, help me to trust you
So if ultimately our request for God to 'show his workings' is hinting at our lack of trust, it's probably a good idea to pray that he'd help us to trust him more. The irony of course is that God (according to the theology of Evan Almighty) often gives us an opportunity to develop our character, rather than 'zapping' us with greater abilities. But at least when we pray in this way, we are constantly reminding ourselves of the need to trust and depend on him, which in itself will begin to transform our impatience.
When things do become clear, and after time they always do, it's a good idea to record our story and to share it with others. In that way we encourage and build up one another in this tricky area of trust, and we provide ourselves with vital reminders for next time things feel tough and uncertain.
At the end of that brief meeting between John Kavanaugh and Mother Teresa, the ethicist commented that, in spite of her protestations, she seemed in possession of exactly the kind of clarity he was looking for. According to Brennan Manning, when she heard this she laughed before replying: "I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God."
Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. He's also one of the hosts of the Youth Work Summit on June 20th. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders