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“God” is no Substitute for Strategy

"God" is no Substitute for Strategy

The title of this post alone may have already made me a Quaker heretic, but I hope you’ll hang with me on this.

One of the unspoken rules of the Quaker tradition is that you’re not allowed to admit that you have a clear plan. According to this school of thought, any strongly-held, long-term planning is dangerous because it draws us away from our sense of immediate dependence on God. If we think we’ve got things figured out, we’re almost certainly wrong. What’s worse, we’ve set up a false idol; our ideas of what should happen become more important than how the Spirit is leading us at any given moment.

This tendency against advance planning and rational thought has been so intense in the Quaker community that many old-time Quakers referred to the Devil as the Reasoner. George Fox, in one of his most beautiful and profound epistles, urges his readers: Do not think, but submit [to God].

George had a point. There is a kind of thinking that traps us, makes us fearful, causes us to trust our own strength rather than resting in the presence of God. George and his fellow Quaker evangelists had seen quite clearly how well this fallen human logic stands against the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Like every powerful social movement, though, Quakerism has lent itself to excesses. For centuries, there has been (and continues to be) a strong strain in the Quaker tradition that is suspicious of reason in general. According to this extreme interventionist view of God, human reason can only get in the way of divine inspiration. With the Spirit available to guide us, why should we think at all? 

Quite frankly, this is crazy talk.

While I don’t deny the dangers of ego-driven thinking and decision-making, we Quakers have often held a profoundly mistaken understanding of human nature. We have been tempted to see the Holy Spirit as replacing human faculties, when God’s intention has always been to restore the whole creation – body, mind, and spirit – to its intended maturity and vitality in Christ.

There’s nothing in the Bible that leads me to believe God wants us to be Holy Spirit robots. I’m inclined to think that God had a purpose in giving us the ability to think, deliberate, and envision the future. We do our Creator a disservice when we fail to exercise our reason amidst a life of prayer and openness to the Holy Spirit.

What’s the practical import of all this? Quite simply: By embracing human reason as a good creation of God, we can openly make plans for the future, without pretending we don’t really know where we want to go. We don’t have to pretend we’re hearing whispers of the Spirit before we choose what color carpet to install. Just admit that you like green, and get on with it!

I’ve gained so much of value from the Quaker community, but one aspect of Friends culture that I have found crippling is our general inability to do long-range planning. I would encourage Friends – and anyone who comes from a faith background that is skeptical of our ability to plan for the future – to consider the possibility that God wants us to co-create the future with him.

Like Abraham, who (successfully) argued with God about the destruction of Sodom, we today are invited into a relationship with the Spirit that actively shapes the future. God wants our full participation.

This doesn’t mean we stop listening. It doesn’t mean God gets cut out of the decision-making process. But it does mean that we’re honest about what we really want. It means we’re clear and focused on what we need to do to move one step closer to attaining our objectives.

Will our plans always work out? Of course not. But we’ll be better off for making the attempt. Heck, we might even learn something! I can say from experience, God is really good at correcting me when I’m off on the wrong track.

What would it be like to be willing to trust your own judgment and leave the rest to God? What might change if we were willing to think and act boldly?

Related Posts:

Why sometimes Failure is the greatest Success

The Fine Art of Knowing When to Fold ‘Em

  • Diane Benton

    Because the desire of my heart is to live and move and have
    my being in Christ, I know I can boldly do what I know to do and God will work
    all things together for good. Sometimes
    that means turning what I do into good fertilizer.

    God does have goals of all kinds and he invites us into reasoning
    with him.

  • isaacsmith

    Thanks for this. I don’t see much anti-intellectualism in my Meeting, but I do a real difficulty with integrating reason and spirituality, particularly when it comes to decision making. It’s as if they’re in two separate domains that don’t overlap.

    • Thanks, Isaac. I’m relieved to hear that you don’t experience much anti-intellectualism in your meeting.

      I’m convinced that we have to bring the “real world” of reason and the “spiritual” world together if our faith is going to have any tangible relevance in the life of our communities. I’m glad to be working on this important project with you.

  • As I recall, Acts talks about Paul planning on going to Asia a couple of times, but the Holy Spirit kept him from going and then later allowed him to go when the timing we right. That serves as my guide.

  • forrestcuro

    I agree about the powers of the intellect being ours to use, that as long as we don’t let that be the deciding factor it makes a useful servant.

    But people do, in fact, let it master them; and what Jesus says about the impossibilities of pleasing two masters is entirely valid. Let it consider what is desirable, and the most direct means of accomplishing that; and it will probably lead to the ends you can imagine. But what drawbacks will you fail to consider, what intangibles you haven’t thought of will be lost by this success?

    Always keep in mind the truth of James 4.13: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we well go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain;’ whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.’ ”

    To always ask the One who knows for a Whether Report, and do that ‘cocreating’ as the junior partner! Of course we are to want what we in fact want, rather than lie around asking “I dunno, what do You want.” But to recognize that we don’t, in fact, know what result would be best.

    • forrestcuro

      That is, it would be silly and wrong to pretend we don’t know what we know — but I never know which parts of that are wrong.

  • broschultz

    I noticed another post on Quaker Quaker taking exception to your post so thought I should revisit it. I guess we all have our sensitivities. As my fellow members of my monthly meeting will affirm, I am always getting ideas on things the meeting should do. Then I lay out a plan on how to accomplish it and then when the problems with the plan are pointed out I redo the plan. Some things we do and some take more time. When the plan is right everyone feels content and peaceful that it’s worth a try. If it fails, it fails. Sometimes it’s not about the destination but the journey. The key is to trust that the Quaker Process works and not to let negativity influence you. As one of my bumper stickers says: TRUST THE PROCESS, TOUCH THE SOURCE!

  • PatriciaDallmann

    Hello Micah. In the sixth proposition, Barclay uses a couple of metaphors to describe the relationship between reason and the Light. After comparing the moon’s borrowing light from the sun to reason’s enlightenment by the Light, Barclay then states:

    Which enlightened reason, in those that obey and follow this true Light, we confess may be useful to man even in spiritual things, as it is still subservient and subject to the other; even as the animal life in man, regulated and ordered by his reason,helps him in going about things, that are rational. (Italics mine.)

    And reason in this instance has the same relationship to the Light that other gifts to our nature (and our culture, such as our tradition and the Scriptures) have: we are to use them and benefit from them, but keep them “subservient and subject” to God.

    I recently wrote a paper on the relationship between the reason and the Light, which you can read here: http://www.quakerquaker.org/profiles/blogs/the-only-antidote-introduction-and-part-one?xg_source=activity You may have already seen it as it was on nffquaker.org and I believe you’re a member there.

    • Thanks, Patricia! I think that’s a helpful observation from the tradition.