Humility in Discerning God’s Will

One hopes – sometimes in fulfillment, sometimes in vain – that the simple circumstances of a small town might encourage humility in discernment.  In the course of listening to politics, one may encounter a local politics that is grandiose where it should be plain.  Indeed, local claims of this kind may arrogate to people and mere human institutions an authority properly belonging to the eternal.

Better, much better, to rely instead on counsel both serious & enduring.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, delivered when the war was nearly won, is a haunting reflection on human events and God’s will. A lesser man might have been tempted to grasp at triumphalism, or descend to platitudes.

Lincoln, great and profound, never departs from the wiser course of caution in discerning God’s will in the actions of men and nations.  Part of that address from 3.4.1865 is especially instructive to us:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

The Founders understood that the defense of individual rights required that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

They described the instrumental and human character of government.

Neither statehouses nor city halls make good churches; churches make good churches.  Neither governors nor mayors make good priests; priests make good priests.

For it all, the Almighty has His own purposes – Lincoln rightly saw the difficulty of a particular discernment of God’s will, refrained from implying for government a call that can emanate from God alone, and mentioned not at all imposition of  seemingly unpayable debts that, traditionally understood, God, himself, forgives (in expectation that we might do likewise).

For those of us who believe in God’s providence (as I do), we see the wisdom in the Founders’ recognition of the limits of human institutions, and in Lincoln’s humility in discerning the divine hand in human events.

There need be no yielding to a contrary view, however passionately advanced.

4 comments for “Humility in Discerning God’s Will

  1. Attendee
    06/06/2018 at 10:59 AM

    Great point. We need practical solutions for a town-gown problem that hasn’t improved. A university professor lecturing the city doesn’t fix anything. Talk about going over the top. That’s not why people pay taxes. It also helps to make the point when you are obviously religious. People can support religion without claiming a mandate for every little policy. Look, if you’re downtown, you know there are problems that need solutions more than speeches. many of us are optimistic that we will have a better approach with the new chief. We feel really good about what we’ve seen so far.

      06/06/2018 at 12:51 PM

      The benefit to individuals and to the whole community (in safety, happiness, and reputation) through a genuine community-enforcement approach would be significant – indeed, easily one of the biggest public-policy gains the city could make. The question in Whitewater has never been all or nothing, it’s been effective or ineffective, with the understanding that effective requires fair and inclusive.

      Human nature is fundamentally unchanging: the crude application of additional pressure has solved not a thing. We are a demographically diverse community. However different in backgrounds, there’s not one group more or less entitled than any other. There are no ‘real’ residents, there are only residents. There is no ‘real’ city, there is only the city.

      A professional, normalized, and reflective approach would work a powerful difference for Whitewater.

  2. J
    06/06/2018 at 12:09 PM

    This is a fascinating post.
    Being on campus gives a different perspective. My students would say this is like a “subtweet” on Twitter; a response to an event without mentioning by name the particular locals involved. That makes sense because despite what people think specific names don’t matter (especially on campus).
    Much of the content here has the quality of a Greek chorus commentary on Whitewater, and that’s fascinating.
    The earlier commenter mentioned that you have religious side. In a way, many of these posts here are notably a critique of local “exceptionalism” from a traditional historical/political/religious view. It says a lot that a critique based on a defense of a type of Americanism (albeit a cosmopolitan one, with its own strain of exceptionalism) probably looks radical to some of the locals.
    The anti-Trump news now a staple at this site is an argument for one kind of America against an alternative view.
    That debate is all over the country, and this website has taken one side of it. (There’s no disagreement from me on that point.)
    This post about caution in discerning divine intentions for politics is grounded in religious and political terms. It’s so easy to refer to figures from American history on the topic; many of them shared that same view. It’s solid historical/philosophical terrain.

      06/06/2018 at 1:26 PM

      We have behind us centuries on this continent, and thousands of years before, on which to draw for guidance. Our heritage is political, philosophical, religious, scientific, technological, and artistic. We have so much of the best from around the world, and our country has advanced in remarkable, astonishing ways.

      You’re right that I do see an American exceptionalism, first in the successful establishment of a republic over an extended territory (something the Ancients and their expositors doubted possible), and then in a growing, evolving tradition of liberty, that has made America the hope and inspiration of so many. Our free markets at home, and free commerce with friendly nations abroad, bring both a general prosperity and a peaceful foundation to international relations.

      This long tradition is deeper and better than Trumpism.

      As for a local critique, playing the role of a Greek chorus, I’m a mixed picture, at best. I’ve fair Greek, but no singing ability whatever. (If you hear dogs in the city howling late at night, it’s because they’ve heard me trying to carry a tune.) More seriously: one simply observes, reads, thinks about what one’s observed & read, and thereafter writes. The worthy tradition that stretches behind us is accessible to all. We’ve done little – our forefathers have done much.

      There is no circumstance under which one should subordinate the greater work of generations in favor of a lesser localism.

      Whitewater is lovely naturally, but our country’s long heritage enriches, uplifts, and beautifies Whitewater beyond any mere localism.