"Hello?" I intoned. "Who's calling? ... I said, who's calling? ... Which Bill? I know three ... Oh, Jill, how are you? ... What do you mean, who am I? Didn't you just call me? ... I'm sorry, I thought you were a different Jill. This is Theophilus ... I said Theophilus ... M.E. Theophilus ... No, there is no Theodoropoulos here ... No, that is not my first name. You must have dialed the ... Yes, I am quite sure I am not Milton Theodoropoulos. I hope you find him. Goodbye."
A sound of suppressed laughter came from the door. I swung around to see Mark Manasseh. "Sorry," he said, "I couldn't help overhearing." His grin widened. "It was pretty funny, though. 'Who's calling?' Sounds like you and I have the same problem."
I waved him to a seat. "What problem is that?"
"Calling. Vocation. I still don't know what God wants me to do with my life. A couple of times I thought He was calling, but it was just a wrong number."
"I see," I smiled. "What telephone are you using?"
"What do you mean?"
"How do you discern God's will?"
"Oh, Lord. People have suggested all kinds of methods to me."
"When I was in high school, my uncle told me that whenever he needed to know God's will, he opened the Bible at random, read the first verse that met his eyes, then did whatever it told him."
"So you tried it?"
"Don't laugh. At first it seemed to work. One time I asked God whether I should go out with this really pretty girl named Melissa. When I opened the Bible, the first verse that met my eye was Proverbs 6:25, 'Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes.' So I asked, 'Then who should I go out with?' This time when I opened the Bible, the first verse that met my eye was Isaiah 55:12, 'You shall go out with joy.' So I asked out Joy."
"You shouldn't have asked me not to laugh. What opened your eyes?"
"Two things. First, Joy said no."
"What was the other?"
"Well," said Mark, "one day I happened to ask that same uncle why he'd taken up cigarettes. He said 'God told me to smoke.' First he'd opened the Bible at random and read the 1 Corinthians 6:19, 'Do you not know that your body is a temple ... ?' Then he'd opened it again and read Revelations 15:8, 'The temple was filled with smoke.'"
I hid my smile in my coffee cup.
"That's when I figured it out," he said. "We were taking passages out of context and filling them with meanings God never intended."
"Good lesson. What other methods have people suggested to you?"
"What haven't they suggested? The organist for my church's College Choir is big on miraculous experiences, like when Moses saw the burning bush and when Paul was struck down by a vision on the road to Damascus."
"I don't doubt that God sends visions and performs miracles," I said, "but it doesn't seem His routine way of making His will known."
"That's what I think," he answered. "I told her that not many people see burning bushes or lights from heaven."
"How did she reply?"
"She said 'Maybe they're not looking.' Then she told me the story about how she decided to go into the religious music field. Something about a missing cross pendant that turned up inside a piano. I'm sure she made the right decision, but I thought that was a pretty silly reason for making it. She was reading a private meaning into a coincidence."
"Like when you and your uncle read private meanings into the Bible."
"You implied that you've rejected a lot of different methods for discerning the will of God," I answered, "but so far you've only mentioned two. Depending on how you count, maybe three."
"Yeah. The Random Finger Method, the Miraculous Event Method, and, um, let's say the Striking Coincidence Method."
"So what are all these many others?"
"A deacon at my church mentioned what you might call the Casting Lots Method. I know people tried to find God's will by casting lots in Old Testament times, but it worries me that the New Testament mentions it only once, in Acts 1, when the Church was just getting started. If the Church gave up casting lots, maybe there was a good reason."
"Aren't you going to give me any help here, Prof?"
"So far you don't need it. You're doing fine. What's next?"
"Well, a guy I know who's in seminary advised what he called the Putting Out a Fleece Method. When he needs to know God's will he prays 'God, if you want me to do such-and-such, show me by doing so-and-so."
"Like Gideon did in Judges 6."
"Right. There was some fleece, and Gideon prayed — never mind, you know the story."
"But didn't Gideon's prayer show lack of faith, Mark? In the story, God had already made clear what Gideon was supposed to do."
"That's what the minister for my college group pointed out. So it doesn't seem like putting out a fleece is such a good idea after all — at least not until every other way of seeking God's will has failed."
"My roommate follows what he calls the Open Door Method. In 1 Corinthians 16, Paul mentions he was going to stay in Ephesus until Pentecost because a wide 'door' for effective work had 'opened' to him. So according to the Open Door Method, whenever God opens a door for you, you should take advantage of it right away."
"And does that seem reasonable to you?"
"At first it did, but after thinking about it I've changed my mind."
"Because in 2 Corinthians 2, Paul mentions another door that opened to him in another town. He didn't take advantage of that one, because he couldn't find his partner Titus. So I think 'open door' must just mean an opportunity. Not every opportunity is a sign of what God wants you to do."
"My other roommate follows the Closed Door Method. When an obstacle arises to your plan, assume that God's will is behind it, and back off. But that makes even less sense. In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul doesn't say 'We back off from proud obstacles to the knowledge of God;' he says 'We destroy them.'"
"Cut to the chase. Where does all this leave you?"
"There's one method of finding God's will that I'm still considering."
"What way is that?"
"I guess you could call it the Still Small Voice Method. You know, like in 1 Kings 19, when Elijah is fleeing, desperate to know the will of God, and he hears the 'still small voice.' I love that story. I know it almost by heart."
"When the Lord passed by Elijah," I said, "a great and mighty wind tore the mountains in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind."
Taking up the story, Mark continued "After the wind came an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake."
"After the earthquake came a fire," I responded, "but the Lord was not in the fire."
Mark spoke the conclusion. "And after the fire, a still small voice."
We were silent for a few moments.
"But Mark," I asked, "how is that a method?"
He was surprised. "You listen for the still small voice. Once you've identified it, that's the voice of God."
"What do you take this still small voice to be? A literal voice?"
"No, it's a — well — an inward impression or something."
"And how do you identify it?"
"I suppose it would be like a feeling."
"But there are a lot of feelings, aren't there, Mark? At the times that you're most in need of God's guidance, don't you often have several at once? So if the still small voice is a feeling, which feeling is it?"
"The stillest, smallest one."
"Does that mean the weakest one?"
He seemed confused. "I guess so."
"Then is this what you mean by your Still Small Voice Method? First look inward to your feelings, then see which are strong and which are weak, and finally, whatever the weakest one prompts you to do, do that?"
Mark reddened a little. "When you put it that way — I guess not. But if that's not the method for identifying the still small voice, what is?"
"I didn't say there was a method. You did."
"What do you mean?"
"The story doesn't teach a method for discerning the will of God; what it teaches is that the will of God has to be discerned. The reason God's voice in the story is called still and small is that sometimes — as in this case — it isn't easy to do that."
"I didn't say the still small voice would be obvious."
"For Elijah, the problem wasn't that it was less than obvious, but that it wasn't what he wanted to hear."
"What do you mean?"
"If God's will wasn't obvious to him, it should have been. He had no reason to flee. Yes, he'd been threatened by the king, but by the power of God, he had just won his greatest victory. So why was he running away? What was he doing out there in the wilderness, all alone?"
"That's just what the still small voice asked him."
"Yes, and it told him to go back."
"You're saying there isn't any method?"
I hesitated. "Not what you've been calling a method. Discernment has its own spiritual laws, and of course they have to be followed. If you want to call that a method, you can, but it's not like what you've been calling methods. Those so-called methods are just gimmicks — not ways of discerning God's will, but ways of avoiding discernment."
"So what do I have to do? Become a prophet or a mystic or something?"
I smiled. "The first law of discernment is Preparation. Seek God's help to become the right kind of person inside — develop the right spiritual habits. Otherwise you haven't a chance to find His will."
"Habits like what?"
"The habit of prayer. The habit of faith. The habit of distrusting the desires and devices of your own devious heart. The habit of patience — what Scripture calls 'waiting on the Lord' — because God might guide you only a few steps at a time. The habit of submission in every matter where you already know His will, for He has already blessed us with revelation. The habit of seeking wisdom — learning to know His ways. Most of all, the habit of loving Him with your whole heart, and of loving your neighbor as yourself."
"Pardon me for saying so, Professor T, but that all sounds pretty obvious."
"It wasn't obvious to the people who invented the gimmicks."
"Hmm. I guess not. What's the second law?"
"The second law of discernment is Meditation. In the presence of God, contemplate all the relevant features of the decision. Seek human advice too — the Proverbs say 'plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many counselors they succeed.' Since you want to know how God is calling you, the relevant features of your decision include your gifts and talents, your weaknesses and tendencies to sin, the courses of action available, and the opportunities each one affords to glorify God and serve your neighbor. You come last, of course."
"But that all sounds pretty obvious too."
"Yes. What's the third law?"
"The third and final law of discernment is Obedience. You follow whatever path is wisest."
Mark was silent for a few seconds. "That's all you're going to say?"
"That's all there is."
"But that's not what I came here to find out," he pleaded. "How do I know which path is wisest?"
I looked at him with compassion. "If you have to ask the meaning of the third law," I said, "then you aren't taking the other two seriously."
He didn't understand yet, but I knew he would.