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Readings for Reflection: April 2006
from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel

Looking for a Godly Outcome By David Watt

When Friends talk about our meetings for business, we sometimes talk about “discerning the will of God.”
Friends talk that way, in part, because we wish to remind ourselves that Friendly organizations ought to make decisions on different grounds and in different ways than do other sorts of organizations. We ought not, we believe, to make our decisions by standards dictated by the marketplace or by national opinion. And we ought not, we think, to make our decisions on the basis of avoiding doing anything that might make us uncomfortable: good decisions often produce a certain amount of discomfort.
Talking about the will of God is a good way to remind ourselves how peculiar our discernment processes ought to be. For that reason, references to God’s will often have a highly salutary effect on Quaker meetings.
However, there might be something to be said for using an alternative phrase. The one I have in mind is “looking for a Godly outcome.” When we speak that way, we are less tempted to think that there is only one possible outcome of which God would approve. (God might want us to give $1500 next year to help provide clean drinking water to people in Sub-Saharan Africa. On the other hand, she might want us to give $1800 for such a project. It is by no means obvious that there is a single will of God on this issue.) When Friends speak of looking for a Godly outcome we also give ourselves lots of room to see differences between Friends as a positive good rather than an obstacle that needs to be overcome. (The differences between Friend X and Friend Y concerning a particular matter do no have to be seen as the result of one Friend having come closer to discovering the will of God than the other one has. Both Friends might be attracted to an outcome that would be genuinely Godly).
Speaking of finding a Godly outcome is helpful in another way, as well. Doing so reminds us of an important bit of Quaker theology. For Quakers, God can never be simply something outside of us and above us. Quakers believe that God is, in a real sense, a part of us. Thus it might not be appropriate for Quakers to assume that God has already made up her mind what the outcome of any given meeting for business ought to be before that meeting has taken place or for them to assume that the job of a meeting for business is to try to come up with the same answer that God has already come up [with]. That makes it sound a little like Quakers are playing a parlor game in which we are trying to read God’s mind.
It might be helpful for us to entertain the possibility that meetings for business can be instruments that God uses to discover for herself what a Godly outcome might be. According to this way of looking at things, God could be seen pictured as sitting with us in our meeting for business. She has willingly taken on our limitations as well as our gifts. She is there with us: perhaps a little tired, but still knitting patiently and very much willing to learn something new.
Sometimes when she sees how arrogant and brittle and small-minded we can be, she blinks back a tear. Other times – for instance when she sees us being teachable and large-hearted – she beams with joy. But always she is with us. Hoping that she can work with us to make something useful and beautiful.
Perhaps that way of putting the matter is too extreme. God is certainly too large and too other to be captured by the homely metaphor I have adopted here. But you get the drift. It is possible that meetings for business are not really about discovering the one most excellent and predetermined course of action that God has already chosen for us. Instead they could be about learning to ask God to struggle for us and with us. Whether or not any given meeting for business is successful is determined at least as much by how open we have been to being used by God as by how wise the decision we reached turns out to have been.

Originally printed in the Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting Newsletter, November 2005. Reprinted with permission.

All Readings for Reflection
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