We’re constantly making choices about how we spend our time. We’re also living with the consequences of those choices. Of course, how we choose to spend our days is how we end up spending our lives.1 All the big and little choices we make every day make us who we are and determine the quality of our experience of life. Jesus’ story about a father and his two sons (Matt. 21:28-31a) drives straight to the question of choice, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” What choices bring us closer to the abundant life God wills for us and Christ offers?
What choices make a good life? What’s the best thing to do now, and what gets in the way of doing it? What are you living for, in detail, and what do you think is keeping you from living fully for the thing you want to live for.2 It’s a pair of questions to live with daily: What is the center of values in your life, around which you will make the choices that define who you are and how you experience life, and what pulls you away from your center of values?
About ten years ago, Bronnie Ware paid attention to what she was learning while working with people who were approaching the end of life, and she wrote a book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Here’s the list: 2, “I wish I hadn’t worked do hard”; 3, “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings”; 4, “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends”; 5, “I wish I had let myself be happier.” And the number one regret of those who were dying? – “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
Living a life that’s true to yourself, that’s true to the person you are created to be, was at the heart of an exchange between Jesus and his disciples. “Don’t spend your life,” Jesus told them, “on things that don’t matter; spend your life on things that really matter in the end.” “And what are those things?” his disciples asked. “What really matters in the end? What must we do to be doing what God wants us to do” (John 6:27-28)?
The Christian scriptures offer several answers to that question, and I think they all boil down to this: What matters in the end is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:28-31). What matters is to live with all people as fully integrated members of God’s family (Luke 4:19). The will of God, that which matters in the end and opens us to the life we’re created to live, is this – and this is my way of saying it – to live in authentic relationship with God, with others, and with all of creation.
We are blessed in order that we will be a blessing to others (Gen. 12:1-3), and we are a blessing to others not by what we do for them or by what we give them, although what we do and what we give are essential to God’s will. We bless others by entering into relationship with them, a relationship in which we value them as persons who are essential to our own abundant life and essential to what God is doing in the world. And in that kind of relationship, we discover the reign of God on earth.
Doing the will of God is more than a list of tasks to check off. The will of God doesn’t give us a to-do list; it gives us a to-be list, and that’s more challenging. Check off an item on a to-do list, and it’s done, you can move on. But we can never stop being in relationship with God and with our neighbors. Our only choice is about the quality of attention we give those relationships. Either we give our best attention to them, or we don’t; we value them, or we don’t. And the quality of our life depends on how we value and respect our relationships with God and with our neighbors.
When North Dakota farmer Lane Unhjem fell critically ill following the fiery loss of his combine harvester on Sept. 9, his family’s future was suddenly in peril. It was the beginning of harvest, and the loss of his crop would mean financial ruin. Almost immediately, Unhjem’s neighbors in a county of only 2,000 residents, near the little town of Crosby, gathered to put out the fire that engulfed his harvester and wheat field. Three days later, dozens of farmers and neighbors from up to thirty miles away congregated at the farm, bringing with them eleven combine harvesters, six grain carts, and fifteen semi-trucks. They spent almost eight hours harvesting 1,000 acres of wheat and canola, a job that would have taken Unhjem nearly two weeks to complete on his own.
“There were guys there who had their own harvest to do, and they just quit and came to help,” one neighboring farmer said, who came with his machinery that day. “In this part of the country, any time anybody needs a helping hand, everybody will stop what they’re doing at the drop of a hat and come help,” the neighbor said. “That’s just the way it is here.”3
That’s just the way it is, doing God’s will. Nobody ordered those neighbors to be there; no one weighed the cost of a day’s work that wasn’t done on their own farms. No one asked how Unhjem plans to vote in November. But something moved them to care for their neighbor who needed their help and didn’t have to ask for it – a quality of relationship in which the reign of God is present. What does doing the will of God look like? It looks like what happened near Crosby, N.D., this month. Which of them did the will of God? Every one of those people who are bound together in love.
- Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
- From Thomas Merton, My Argument with the Gestapo
- “A farmer fell ill,” The Washington Post, 23 September 2020.