How do I find my path in life? What job does God want me to have? How do I find my spouse? What is the secret to finding my calling? What formula do I fill out to find my purpose? Can I crack a secret code that tells me what steps to take in life?
These kinds of questions weigh heavily on many young Christians. Many of us are often brought to the point of desperation and confusion when it comes to discerning "God's will for our lives." It can be confusing, frustrating, and at times it may seem like there's really no satisfying answer. We read through the Bible, hoping to find a verse that can be read in a way that says "aha! - Here's the path for you to walk! Go to this school / apprentice in this trade / move to this town / date this person / volunteer at this organization - here's your purpose in life!" Perhaps we ask our youth pastor or a trusted mentor to explain to us what God's will for our lives is. It certainly can seem like the entirety of the rest of our lives is laying directly ahead of us, being shaped by every single little decision we make.
But this raises an uncomfortable question: if this stage in my life - and the series of choices that come with it - is so important, then why doesn't the Bible say anything more direct about what I should do? Why isn't there a clear formula? Why does it feel like most of my decision making is based on educated guess work and not an absolutely certain, clear path?
And this is the trick, the unpleasant truth: there has never been a predictable, tried-and-true formula for finding our way through life. The Bible has never pretended to offer us something like that. In fact, it has warned in multiple places that life is unpredictable and strange.
"Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them." (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 ESV)
The Bible Project's series on the Wisdom literature highlights this distinction very keenly. The book of Proverbs, for example, assumes a certain amount of predictability in how this life works: if you do the right thing, if you make right choices, then good things will happen to you and your life will be good. It's a straightforward return on what you put out. But Ecclesiastes and Job come along within the Wisdom tradition and say "Yes, Proverbs is right, but that's not always how it goes. Sometimes you do everything right and things still fall apart."
But perhaps the greatest example of this unpredictability and unfairness of life is Jesus himself. Think of it:
Jesus never betrayed anyone, but his closest friends abandoned him. Jesus understood people’s deepest thoughts, but few people understood him. Jesus was the most loving and lovable person, but he never got married. Jesus loved his family, but his family initially thought he was crazy and tried to stop his public ministry (Mark 3:21, 31-25). Jesus had skills in the trades and manual labor, but he still ended up basically homeless while pursuing his true purpose (Matthew 8:20). Jesus prayed to God a lot, and it did not stop him from facing pain. Jesus healed others, but he was beaten and killed. Jesus followed God’s will for him, and it led him to death on a cross.
The Bible acknowledges over and over again that this life is unpredictable and volatile, that we are not in control of the actions of others and that nothing we do, good or bad, guarantees any certain outcome.
If Jesus - God himself in human flesh - was not exempt from the unfairness and seeming randomness of life, then neither are we.
As young Christians, we often feel paralyzed with fear and anxiety, worrying that we’re not ready to serve God, to find their life’s calling, or to even make it through the day. In reality, nobody is ever truly “ready.” Even Jesus felt fear and hesitation before going to the cross. But we all have to keep pushing through. Sometimes we try, and we don’t succeed. Sometimes we make huge mistakes and have to pay the price. Sometimes, we do everything right and things still don’t work out because of circumstances we can’t control.
This is how life is for everyone, to some extent or another. We can choose to see that as frightening, or liberating.
God’s grace promises to hold on to you even when you do make mistakes. If you live in fear of trying and failing, then you will live in fear of learning. Nobody can give you all the answers for your life but God. But if you want His answers, you have to go live.
- Write down a list of every question you've ever had for your church leaders, pastors, teachers, or other Christians around you that you felt didn't receive a satisfactory answer. What kind of issues come up for you? Are they mostly theoretical (If God _, then why _ ?) or experiential (How to find my path in life)?
- Have you ever tried to apply a part of scripture to your life, but then found that it didn't seem to work out? What passage was that? What verse? Have you tried to re-interpret what that scripture might mean? Did you give up or feel burnt out on the Bible? Did anyone help you see it or apply it a different way?
- Have you ever applied a scripture to your life, followed a specific instruction or idea, and found that it actually worked really well? What was that like for you?
- Read Deuteronomy chapter 30 in it's entirety. What principle, in general, is Moses presenting to the Israelites?
- Are God's promises for them here unconditional or conditional?
- In what ways might these promises or principles apply to your own life? In what ways do these words seem exclusive to the ancient Israelites?
- Compare this chapter with Daniel 9:1-19. Based on Daniel's prayer many generations later, what seems to have happened? Did the people reap good or bad consequences for their actions?
- Based on Daniel's prayer, does there still seem to be hope for Daniel and his people in spite of the fact that they got the punishment that scripture had promised them?
- Does it seem, from these passages, that people get what they deserve? Why or why not?
- Read Ecclesiastes 9. There are two main sections here, 9:1-12 and 9:13-18.
- In Ecclsiastes 9:1-12, what seems to be frustrating or unexpected about "wisdom?"
- What does it mean when it says, "So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them." Have you experienced anything like this in your own life?
- Has it ever seemed to you that things go well in life for bad people, or that things go poorly for good people? Why did it seem this way to you? Or, why not?
- What role does death play in this passage? Why is the concept of death important to the point of this chapter?
- According to this, do people get what they deserve? Is the path of life clear and straightforward? Take note especially of verses 11 and 12.
- What is the point of the story in 9:13-18? Can you think of any examples of how somebody made a great discovery, or invented something, or solved a scientific or social problem, but didn't get any credit for it? What does that say about life, and about justice?
- Compare what you read and reflected on in Ecclesiastes 9 to Proverbs 3. Read through this whole chapter, and think about the relationship between wisdom, right choices, and good consequences.
- How does the relationship between choice and consequence in this chapter compare to what you read in Ecclesiastes 9? Does this seem like a contradiction to you, or are these approaches complimentary?
- Based on everything you've read so far, how would you answer if someone asked you "Does the Bible teach that people get what they deserve?"
- Read Proverbs 16 and Ecclesiastes 2. Which chapter do you find more relatable? More applicable to your own life and experience?
- Which chapter is more idealistic? Could you use these ideas as a guildeline or philosophy for how to move forward?
- Which one is more "down to earth" for you? Does one approach seem more grounded in "real life" than the other? Why?
- In light of everything you read above, read Matthew 5. Does Jesus here come across as an idealist, a realist, pessimist, optimist, or something else? How does Jesus' teachings on life and morality, wisdom and decision making, compare with what you read from the Old Testament chapters above? What's similar? What seems different to you?
- Does Jesus seem to be aware that things go wrong in life, that injustice is real, and that sometimes people get things that they don't deserve? How does he handle that fact?
- Does Jesus give guidelines for living that seem like they would actually work? Is there anything that he said in this chapter that seems like you could try applying it to your life right now?
- Do Jesus' teachings seem more abstract or practical?