The Safe Bet

“We try to be formed and held and kept by him, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, ‘Surprise me.’” — from Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen

I have been writing a lot recently in my personal journal about discerning God’s will. Here’s an excerpt from last weekend’s entry. The young man I describe graciously gave me permission to share this anonymously, so I slightly adjusted some details to respect this. This is a story I, and others I know, have heard innumerable times from young men and women.

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I came across a young man [a time ago] who wanted to speak to me about the paralysis he was feeling over what to do with his life. He was terrified of choosing the “wrong thing,” missing what God had, as he said, “selected” for him to do with his life. Evidently, someone had told him that if he wanted to sustain the intensity of the robust prayer life he’d developed, the “safe bet” was to become a priest or religious. His original college plan was to go into law, as he had been inspired by his grandfather’s legal career. But the “safe bet” approach had gotten lodged into his head and he now felt immobilized. This has killed not only his desire to enter law, but his desire to do anything. A law career now seemed to be an obstacle to his spiritual life, and priesthood and religious life seemed like an imposed requirement.

We talked for almost two hours, and focused on the importance of interior freedom, flanked by peace and joy, as the hallmark of vocational discernment. We talked about the need for wise counsel and self-knowledge. We also talked about distorted views of vocation, like this “safe bet” proposal, that create false dilemmas and, so, paralysis. Among other things, I said something like this:

When Jesus called Matthew to abandon his tax collector post to follow Him, Matthew followed in spontaneous freedom as he recognized in that invitation the sweet-spot for his own ‘Yes’ to serve God. When Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the sycamore tree to abandon his unjust business practices as tax collector, and become a ‘son of Abraham’ in his home and at his tax post, Zacchaeus followed in spontaneous freedom as he recognized in that invitation the sweet-spot for his own ‘Yes’ to serve God. But notice, in neither case was the standard for the decision-making the ‘safe bet’ option. The safe bet is “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). And everything human beings can do in life, save the choice of sin, contains within it the capacity to glorify God and to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, strength by loving neighbor.

For Matthew it meant giving up his trade to become a disciple-apostle-evangelist of Jesus, and eventually a martyr; for Zacchaeus it meant sticking with his trade, admitting openly (in front of his peers!) his injustices, remediating these four-fold, giving alms to the poor and becoming an upright tax collector who invited his fellow ‘sinners’ over dinner to do the same. In other words, vocations must be about the choice to glorify God by a life of self-less love, which is always the gist of every call of Jesus. “Pick up your cross and follow me” gives us that sense, as cross carrying is what loving in a fallen world looks like. Being called to be holy, holy, holy is to be all about other, other, other. God-neighbor. Jesus. Once you get that, discerning becomes a whole new thing, far from concerns hyper-centered on oneself. And your spiritual life does not become an end in itself, an obstacle to the freedom to respond to the inconvenient details of reality.

The million dollar vocational questions sound something like this: ‘Standing before the face of Jesus in prayer, how do I see myself best loving God by serving others with what I have to offer, in the direction my heart seems to be drawn in freedom as I reflect on the needs in the church-world around me?’; ‘What makes my heart naturally leap outward in love toward God-neighbor?’; ‘What sins might be hindering my accomplishing that?’ Then, start walking and put a smile on God’s face with the offering you make of your life.

I once encountered a priest who served in Sudan who said to me [I pulled up this quote for him on my phone]: You Americans, I’ve noticed, tend to begin the discernment of God’s will by thinking of personal fulfillment. ‘What will make me happy? Bring me a sense of fulfillment? Prosper me?’ It’s difficult to think of God’s will from that starting point. God is handcuffed. But in my village, my family, we start with: What do my people need? Or what does the church need? What do I have to offer? And if I see these match, and it’s a way for me to love best with the abilities God has given, deciding is easy. Loving God, which is doing God’s will, is found when you start with your neighbor’s needs. This is how I chose to be a priest. There was a need, I had an inclination and the gifts. I’m a priest. It was a simple decision, but not an easy one.

After we spoke, this young man said, “It’s like chains just fell off me.”

Then I pulled up an article by Peter Kreeft, and read this to him:

My first clue, based on my purely personal observation of this kind of people, is that we often get bent out of human shape by our desire—in itself a very good desire—to find God’s perfect will for us. We give a terrible testimony to non-Christians; we seem unable to relax, to stop and smell God’s roses, to enjoy life as God gives it to us. We often seem fearful, fretful, terribly serious, humorless, and brittle—in short, the kind of people that don’t make a very good advertisement for our faith.

I am not suggesting that we compromise one iota of our faith to appeal to unbelievers. I am simply suggesting that we be human. Go watch a ball game. Enjoy a drink—just one—unless you’re at risk for alcoholism. Be a little silly once in a while. Tickle your kids—and your wife. Learn how to tell a good joke. Read Frank Schaeffer’s funny novel Portofino. Go live in Italy for a while.

I said, “Just take a deep breath and relax. Or as my kids say to me, chillax dad! It’s not supposed to be this hard, brother.”

He choked up.

Then he said, “Okay, so I’m going to go to the zoo now, because I’ve loved zoos since I was a kid. And I will pray on all this there.”

9 comments on “The Safe Bet

  1. Anne Garnett says:

    Another wonderful and thought provoking post! The fears the young man you referred to of “messing up God’s plan” for his life are fears that I often suffer. It’s like I imagine God’s plan for me to be in the middle of a huge and complicated maze and in the middle of the maze is a box that has a tag on it that says, “God’s will for my life” and I am like a confused mouse running through this maze, constantly going down dead-ends, having to backtrack, all the time convinced that I will never find the prize. I find SUCH comfort in hoping that perhaps there is more than one way to achieve God’s plan for my life. That maybe, even when I get confused and run down the wrong path, He is there to gently guide me back on track. That He is not playing a divine game of “Gotcha!” with me. That He does not sit passively by and shrug His shoulders when He sees me going in the wrong direction and says, “Well, that’s too bad. If she was more discerning to My promptings, she never would have gone in that direction but what’s done is done”. I hope, I pray I BEG God to prevent me from myself. From my own misguided sense of direction and disordered affections. I think we need to be careful to not place too much “power” in our weaknesses. God once told me in prayer that I place too much trust and confidence in my weaknesses/inclination to sin and not enough trust in His strength and power. … This post makes me smile as I can hope that God is looking down at me and telling me to relax! That I don’t have as much power to “mess things up” as I think I do. What a comforting thought! And now, I am going to grab an iced tea, sit outside and watch my children play, marvel at the little boy growing inside of me and just “chillax”, knowing that it doesn’t have to be as “hard” as I make it. Thank you for this reminder!

    • Jennifer says:

      You’re pregnant! Joy!!!! Congratulations and blessings to you and your little miracle.

      • Anne says:

        Thank you! I am counting down the weeks and feeling every bit of eight months pregnant ☹️. This too shall pass, right???

      • Anne — I just want to thank you for investing your voice in this searching exchange. So much wisdom, realism, faith seeking understanding. I read and treasure every word, in all these comments that come here, even if I do not comment always or quickly. Blessings on these days of waiting.

      • Jennifer says:

        Speaking of unavoidable pain… Just kidding! God bless these long last days!

  2. Jennifer says:

    I heard an example in the radio this morning that was a perfect example, I think, of heroically embracing one’s vocation.

    The neurologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (major permanent brain damage caused in professional athletes from repeated head injuries) was being interviewed about his story and his recommendations that no children play contact sports until they are 18. Make of that what you will, but while the danger of repeated concussions is recognized now by the NFL and other pro leagues at the time that he first announced his findings this guy was receiving death threats from sports fans and was completely ostracized by colleagues. He spoke of coming to America (from Nigeria) for a good, quiet life and place to raise his family but now he is accosted in the grocery store for speaking out for brain-injured players.

    This path for him all started when a retired NFLer came into the hospital during this doctor’s shift and he began investigating his case.

    The doctor’s name means something like “he who speaks loudly of what he understands”, in Nigerian, and the interviewer asked lightly, so, has your name been a blessing or a curse?

    His answer is what blew me away: he said he wished that he hadn’t been the doctor who was working the day that patient came in.

    This is what knocked me off my feet: this man had no desire at all to do this, yet, because of his sense of duty to his patients — his vocation — he willingly gave up his comfortable lifestyle and completely changed the trajectory of his career because that was what he was called to do. It’s a cross to him, one that he is picking up every day for the love of his patients and their families and players in general.


    THAT, my friends is freaking courage!

    Here’s the interview if you’re interested:

    • My wife saw the movie and said it was phenomenal. THAT is a totally perfect lay apostolate, secular sanctity story. COURAGE! A man whom, as a friend of mine says, “God has hurled into the world.” Thanks for sharing this story and your passion for this topic

  3. Katy says:

    I have posted, texted, emailed, and passed on that beginning quote particularly several times over the last couple days. That, along with “I’m going to the zoo…” articulate so well how serious Jesus is about loving, and being with, and fulfilling (in other words “redeeming”) my humanity, our humanity.

    Thank you for posting this; it’s all beautiful.

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