Another Look: “To Go through Life Guessing Wrong”

Snowpath, Photo by Dave Walker

Once, while reading Thomas Merton on the subject of vocation (No Man Is an Island), I came across this stunning passage:

Our vocation is not a sphinx’s riddle, which we must solve in one guess or else perish. Some people find, in the end, that they have made many wrong guesses and that their paradoxical vocation is to go through life guessing wrong. It takes them a long time to find out that they are happier that way.

What a generous and liberating thought!

Having spent so many years hearing teaching that warned Christians not to “miss God’s will” for our lives, usually accompanied by some vague but dire warning of the consequences, how I wish this grace-filled perspective had broken through to people bearing the heavy burden laid on them.

I never really bought into that theology and joined the frantic search for “God’s will.”

However, I have often mulled over my doubts in retrospect.

Why did I not listen to those who advised me about a different course of education?

Why did I not see the value of learning about different religious traditions when I was younger so that I might have been ordained to serve in a denomination early in my ministry?

Why did I not pursue chaplaincy earlier in life?


We all have the opportunity to look back and see various roads not taken. We sometimes dwell on them and nurse regrets. This is foolish. We did not know then what we know now. We did not necessarily have the capacity to choose differently, given our maturity and circumstances at the time. Of course there were moments when we might have have gone in other directions. But it is likely that we see even those occasions more clearly now.

It is also foolish to spend our time rehearsing the ways we might have missed because it keeps us from tracing the strange, labyrinthine path we actually took and what that has meant for us and others.

In the end, perhaps it is better that we sat around the table with our friends working on the puzzle than that we were skilled enough to put it all together.

To go through life guessing wrong.

To be happier that way.

And to see it as a gift from God.

Thank you, Brother Merton.

• • •

Photo by Dave Walker at Flickr. Creative Commons License

43 thoughts on “Another Look: “To Go through Life Guessing Wrong”

  1. Fortunately, Merton destroys that argument.

    1. If God were merely another contingent being like myself, then to do His will would seem to be just as futile as doing my own. Our happiness consists in doing the will of God. But the essence of this happiness does not lie merely in an agreement of wills. It consists in a union with God. And the union of wills which makes us happy in God must ultimately be something deeper than an agreement.

    2. First of all, let us not all be too glib in our statements about the will of God. God’s will is a profound and holy mystery, and the fact that we live our everyday lives engulfed in this mystery should not lead us to underestimate its holiness. We dwell in the will of God as in a sanctuary. His will is the cloud of darkness that surrounds His immediate presence. It is the mystery in which His divine life and our created life become “one spirit,” since, as St. Paul says, “Those who are joined to the Lord are one spirit” (I Corinthians 6:17).

    There are religious men who have become so familiar with the concept of God’s will that their familiarity has bred an apparent contempt. It has made them forget that God’s will is more than a concept. It is a terrible and transcendent reality, a secret power which is given to us, from moment to moment, to be the life of our life and the soul of our own soul’s life. It is the living flame of God’s own Spirit, in Whom our own soul’s flame can play, if it wills, like a mysterious angel. God’s will is not an abstraction, not a machine, not an esoteric system. It is a living concrete reality in the lives of men, and our souls are created to burn as flames within His flame. The will of the Lord is not a static center drawing our souls blindly toward itself. It is a creative power, working everywhere, giving life and being and direction to all things, and above all forming and creating, in the midst of an old creation, a whole new world which is called the Kingdom of God. What we call the “will of God” is the movement of His love and wisdom, ordering and governing all free and necessary agents, moving movers and causing causes, driving drivers and ruling those who rule, so that even those who resist Him carry out His will without realizing that they are doing so. In all His acts God orders all things, whether good or evil, for the good of those who know Him and seek Him and who strive to bring their own freedom under obedience to His divine purpose. All that is done by the will of God in secret is done for His glory and for the good of those whom He has chosen to share in His glory.

    [chapt. 4, No Man Is An Island]


  2. Had a good friend / roommate from central Africa. After attending a parachurch workshop (in college 30 years ago) on “Determining God’s Perfect Will for your Life.” He snickered and said, “I get it. You decide what you really want to do and then you do a long set of exercises to make it look like it was God’s idea.” I thought he had great wisdom in that.


  3. Now some forty-odd years later, I am most grateful that after I had said “yes” to Jesus, Spirit led me to a mellow little Foursquare Church in Grants Pass, Oregon where I spent five years learning the ins and outs of walking in Spirit. They had this wacky idea that one of the benefits of saying “yes” to Jesus was having God’s Spirit indwell you and guide you if you chose to be open to it. Sounded good to me, and experience bore it out, just like the Bible says. I was always attracted to supernatural things anyway, and if nothing else the Bible is filled with supernatural stories from end to end. Yes, there were difficult learning experiences along the way, but Spirit saw me thru them all. Still standing on that rock solid foundation and it still works.

    Richard Beck in Reviving Old Scratch speaks of his difficulty in ministering to two groups of people for whom the supernatural was an everyday reality, a maximum security prison Bible study, and a neighborhood ministry to the poor and homeless. Both groups were quite familiar with dark spirits and Old Scratch, an old time name for the devil, as well as Holy Spirit, which for Beck were abstract intellectual theological concepts. Beck speaks of people such as himself as doubters and the disenchanted, and to my mind he has a lot of company here in the Monastery, and not just Dottie. It seems to be an affliction of the so called educated class. I would call it spiritual deprivation.

    I don’t know that Beck comes up with any good answers to his dilemma, tho probably working with people dealing with other than middle-class white people’s problems was his best shot. Don’t know if anyone would find the book helpful, but it helped me find a little more patience with the doubters and disenchanted here, maybe not a lot. I know a lot more now than I did forty years ago, but I wouldn’t trade those five years for anything.


  4. Years ago, when I was just out of college, I asked one of my favorite professors, for whom I had a great deal of respect, if she and her (also professor) husband, former missionaries to Cuba and one of the “closest to God” couples I’ve ever known, if they always knew God’s will ahead of time or if they just made the best decision they could at the time. She said they made the best decision at the time, and in looking back, saw that it was indeed God’s will for them. As I have prayed for guidance through the years, that has held me and continues to hold me in good stead.


  5. It is an old Christian tradition to pray at the crossroads.
    A Christian woman’s prayer from almost a thousand years ago:

    “O Lord, make haste and illumine the night ……
    Show me the way and make me ready to follow it.
    It is dangerous to delay, yet perilous to go forward.
    Answer my petition and show me the way.
    I come to You as the wounded go to the physician in search of aid.
    Give peace, O Lord, to my heart. ”
    (Birgitta of Sweden)


  6. “The joy of life seems to me to arise from being where one belongs, of being four square with the life we have chosen. All the discontented people I know are trying assiduously to be something they are not, to do something that they cannot do. With how little wisdom we farm the soils of our own nature.”

    “Every man and every woman is a magnet, highly and singularly sensitized. Some draw to them fields and woods and hills and are drawn in return. We may be assured, if we draw freely like the magnet of steel which draws its iron filings about it in beautiful, symmetrical forms, that the things which we attract will also become symmetrical and harmonious in our lives.”

    David Grayson -Adventures in Friendship

    If we fall into the flow of life we draw to ourselves the things which belong to us. Nature screams it; that is that there is a pace and a flow to things. Our vocation appears to us as opposed to us clumsily seizing it. Our true vocation never comes cheap either. There is always some burning of the dross. It’s a requisite of life. Suffering, the cross, is always the door that must be gone through, and not on our schedule, which makes patience and openness requisites as well.


  7. So refreshing and liberating to read this reminder. I grew up and lived for a long time in the evangelical bubble, being warned not to waste my life, to seek God’s plan, etc etc. The older I get and the farther away I move from that bubble, the less seriously I take all that and the more seriously I take faith lived out in the everyday mess of life. I’ve had Micah 6:8 on my office wall since the day I started my current rather mundane and obscure job more than 11 years ago.

    And what does the Lord require of you?
    To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

    I guess you could add Jesus command to follow Him.

    But really, that’s it. That’s the life of faith, and Lord knows it’s near impossible to actually do. Thank God for grace.

    But there’s a whole industry (or multiple small industries) out there built on convincing people that so much more is required — so much so that the above basics sometimes get lost. I can’t dwell on that too long or I get depressed.

    Sometimes there’s no one scarier than those who think they have all the answers.


  8. Important topic. This whole Christian notion of “decision making” needs to be re-thought. We are not puppets or a train on a rigid, celestial track that God controls (unless we get it wrong). History is real. It is messy. It is dangerous. God dwells within reality and the more out of touch we are with reality, the dimmer God must become. Within this real world we can, and do, make many wrong decisions. Some work out good and some not so. How many evangelical marriages (where they believe in the concept of one soul mate chosen by God) ends in divorce? I think it is around 50%. By God’s grace we must do our best to choose, not the one correct answer to our path, but, hopefully one of the better paths. And knowing, even if we screw it up totally, God still loves us and will redeem this life in the end. No life is wasted by the wrong choice. It can be redeemed.


  9. I was raised in the Church and taught always to “wait upon the Lord”. Like a bolt out of the blue the heavens would open and all confusion would be cleared away and my path would be sure. When this didn’t happen I spent a lot of confused years wondering what was wrong with me. In the end I would have been better off if I had been taught to follow my own desires and then call it God’s will which is of course what most people do anyway.


  10. I had a Catholic friend who was raised in the old, pre-Vatican-2 way. To punish her, her mom would sometimes put a poster of the devil in the little girl’s room. My friend, like me, went to college and grad school and got a Ph.D. and taught for years, but she never outgrew her fear of devils and hell. To the end, she was simply sucked down with guilt, though the life she actually lived, supporting all of her family including her elderly parents and her schizophrenic brother, was totally self-sacrificial.

    I like to think I was able to help her, at least temporarily sometimes, with my hard-headed Protestant logic. She would call and say her friend had visited Medjourke (however it’s spelled — that place in Eastern Europe where they see visions of Mary). She’d say her friend told her that soon the end of the world was coming and there would be total blackness over all the earth. Demons would come to the door in the guise of your friends. If you could light a sacred candle, you could discern that they were demons. But my friend was convinced she would not be able to light the sacred candle, because she was not in a state of grace. Having learned a bit about her brand of Catholicism, I’d say, “But Johnny is not sane, so he is in a state of grace and he could light the candle.” Believe it or not, that would comfort her; she’d say, “Yes, that’s true” and sound relieved.

    Other times I’d just ridicule her beliefs, which sounds terrible but I could get her laughing by pointing out some of the improbabilities in them: “So how long is this total blackness gonna last? If it means the electricity is going off, then you’d better take that sacred candle and survey your fridge and eat that stuff first! What’re you gonna use for heat to cook with, by the way? I guess you could rip up some of your paperbacks and build a fire in your washtub downstairs. Sounds pretty messy, though.”

    It’s hard for me to forgive the Catholic Church (not that they’ve asked!) for the horrible damage they did to sensitive souls. I thank God they have changed many of their ways. I went to a funeral of a Catholic friend who had committed suicide a few years ago, and braced myself for words of condemnation which did not come. The priest kindly and gently pointed out that Paul’s mind had broken with age and illness, and he left no doubt my friend was in a spiritually good afterlife.


  11. > parents who had let their children down

    Are there parents who didn’t let their children down? … yeah, there are some who likely believe that – I pity their children.

    Just because Oprah said it doesn’t mean it is NOT true. 🙂 Everybody is right about something eventually.


  12. I grew up mainline and did not encounter it at all until I hung out w/evangelicals for a while circa 2000-2010. It was a prime fear among many that they would somehow miss or reject the ONE thing that God wanted them to do. And so they spent a lot of time worrying and wondering why this ONE thing wasn’t readily apparent to them. Obviously it was because they didn’t [“pray” “love Jesus” “serve” “believe” “give” etc.] enough, or had some secret sin, blah, blah, blah. Otherwise, God would surely reveal it to them. Exhausting.

    Those who thought they had gotten their calling right then went on to worry and wonder (see above) whether they were in the EXACT CENTER of God’s will for them.

    This “one plan” and “exact center” stuff — wow. I tend to agree it comes from interpretations of Jer. 29:11. It also correlates with “you did not receive God’s healing because you lack faith, or you sin, etc.” All the same kind of guilt.


  13. Well, yeah. But that doesn’t stop people from doing it. They do the same thing with 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If my people who are called by my name….pray…I will heal their land.” and a thousand other verses.


  14. I mentioned this guy yesterday. Dr Bruce Morgan. In the first two minutes of this teaching he has some very poignant statements about location and what it is we need to be doing. Melchizedek and the Eucharist – Pt. 1 – Dr. Bruce Morgan Great, great stuff.


  15. I once considered ‘Chick tracts’ to be gospel myself. Even as I began to move beyond them, they lurked in my subconscious, reappearing on occasion to haunt me. It took many years of reading the Bible for myself to arrive at the place where I can regard them as just a sect’s view of what constitutes Christian reality.


  16. The good news is always joyful, life generating and liberating when you hear it. His yoke is easy. Merton’s statement illustrates that. God is so much more wildly generous with us than we ever imagine from a guilt ridden perch. He elegantly glides by like a mother eagle and beckons us to take wing. Ever surprising. And aren’t we just making it up as we go?


  17. Though Merton and Chaplain Mike are more worthy dispensers of wisdom I’m sure, this does remind me of what Oprah used to say when referring to parents who had let their children down: “They did what they knew to do at the time. When they knew better, they did better.”


  18. > Is it possible for two people to chase to independent dreams “together”?

    I think it depends on the dream(s). Life is messy and very very contextual. Some dreams likely cannot coexists in a household, others can.


  19. Yep, but that is a prophet speaking to the exiles people corporately. Reading that as speaking to *ME* is ridiculous.


  20. –> “We all have the opportunity to look back and see various roads not taken. We sometimes dwell on them and nurse regrets. This is foolish. We did not know then what we know now. We did not necessarily have the capacity to choose differently, given our maturity and circumstances at the time. Of course there were moments when we might have have gone in other directions.”

    My wife and I saw “La La Land” yesterday and absolutely loved it. From the opening song-and-dance number on the LA freeway to the closing poignant shot, great movie. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling…amazing performances. And the script really surprised me, very thoughtful and thought-provoking, and that’s why I even mention the movie here.

    My wife and I had a good discussion about a couple of themes of the movie, both of which seem to fit this “to go through life guessing wrong”. One thing we discussed is: Is it possible to get off of a path you will later regret (not knowing you’ll later regret it) and back on one you won’t regret? In other words, when is it “too late”? Another theme: Is it possible for two people to chase to independent dreams “together”? (The movie did a good job of showing both answers to that one.)

    –> “But it is likely that we see even those occasions more clearly now…It is also foolish to spend our time rehearsing the ways we might have missed because it keeps us from tracing the strange, labyrinthine path we actually took and what that has meant for us and others.”

    I think that was the beauty of the closing shot in “La La Land.” The release of what could have been.


  21. I don’t know who said it, that life can be appreciated backwards, but it can only be lived forwards.

    God has all the bases covered.

    You will not finish everything, and that is all right.


  22. I have often heard “God’s plan for your life” associated with Jeremiah 29:11:

    “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”


  23. Once presented to the mind, and seen in the imagination, hell is hard to rid the soul of. It was introduced to my soul as a child, when I was most impressionable…

    Jack Chick Tracts (primarily “This Was Your Life” and “The Beast”) around age 12, followed by Hal Lindsay around high school age. Damage still there.



    Sometimes your are blessed and your vocation IS your avocation.

    I’ve been fortunate that way. I always wanted to “sit in the gate.” I have been able to do so over some decades


  25. > We did not know then what we know now.
    > We did not necessarily have the capacity to choose differently,



  26. Good Question. I did not encounter the idea until the early ’90s when I entered the Evangelical sphere. So it was well established by then. I do not recall the local Catholics or Lutherans talking that way; in fact I remember – date unknown – early 1980s? – a Lutheran minister slamming the idea.

    It feels very similar to Finding The One [True Love] romantic idea – which was certainly out-and-about in the 1980s.

    Aside: Attempting to Interwez Search that question is epic fail!


  27. > the idea that it is most important to get things right,

    I prefer to say it is important to get things right-ish. It took be a lot of Wrong to understand that Right-ish was a notable accomplishment.


  28. Late evenings, where I live, I have more time to be in my huge garden and being “mindfull” of God’s creation. Early mornings are dew sparkled . Heaven is just there for the picking.

    I am not in the deep mid winter although we have snow in July. Where I live is now hot Summer, we relish the cooling breath of evening. The daylight is long. I recall the walk of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden we have been talking about. Birds talking with me and my roses drink up the garden hose. Their fragrance better than Chanel.
    God is with me in my garden. A great place for silent prayer.

    I spoke today with a Baptist friend how I wished God would give me an answer to my fervent prayers. She and I talked and then she said ” God does not answer Yes or No to our prayers, just pause a time . God answers “Just wait”.
    Sometimes I confuse my will for the one God offers. My life’s journey has been complex and now I find in my elder years some contentment in my daily tasks.

    I later thought this out with my counselor’s help and the fact that in my waking breath I breath in God’s Holy Spirit and am aware or the Spirit of God opening my day to me is a divine gift. “Be still and know that I am God”. Psalm 46.

    What a great start to any day of problems. God with us. What more we need?
    My day comes to an end in the garden with God. I repeat, what more do I need?

    I pray we may all have peace in our various situations.

    We can all look in retrospect at the ‘Road Less Traveled’. So early in the day looking at our path ahead through the eyes of God can be a bit muddy and we have to blink and focus to see His path for us. Sometimes we choose the wrong branch and have to seek God’s advice, or the advice of those who walk this path with us. None of us make all the right decisions re the best directions for our life’s path. I find that being in the companionship of other Christians of what ever points of view can give me insight as to the ‘Road best Explored’. We all make wrong guesses. Thanks be for those who care and give us direction through God’s word.
    Life is a gift from God, best shared with friends.

    “No man is an island” John Donne. So fellow Christians can be there to support us .

    (“All shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.”)
    Julian of Norwich.


  29. Is there any record anywhere of where this idea of “a singular plan God has for your life that you must puzzle out or else” idea came from?


  30. The insight expressed in the Merton quote, and in this post, is a liberating one. For some time now I’ve been trying to cultivate an attitude in myself that embraces this understanding as central to my own religious, and human, life. It can be difficult to hold onto this attitude when struggling against the idea that it is most important to get things right, at least in certain areas, and the consequence of not getting things right in those areas will be ending up in everlasting/eternal conscious torment, otherwise known as hell. Once presented to the mind, and seen in the imagination, hell is hard to rid the soul of. It was introduced to my soul as a child, when I was most impressionable, as part of my formal religious education; nevertheless, I believe that in recent years I’ve gained ground in the battle to eject this thinking from my mind and heart, and to learn to really trust a God who is greater than my mistakes, and more loving than I was taught.


  31. In this deep mid-winter, may we still remember to celebrate The Coming of the Light

    “Let nothing trouble you,
    Let nothing frighten you,
    All things are passing away:
    God never changes.
    Patience obtains all things
    Whoever has God lacks nothing;
    God alone suffices.”

    (St. Teresa of Avila)


  32. Breaking cover as an IM lurker, I simply must thank you Chaplain Mike (and Thomas Merton of course) for this post. At age 67 I can’t begin to describe how much it mirrors my own life journey and the accompanying hidden sense of failure. My heart feels lighter having read this. Thank you again.


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