It’s an easier question for Muslims to answer than it is for Christians…
We’ve never met. I don’t attend your church (or any other for that matter). I’m not what I guess you’d call a practicing Christian, but I do believe in God. A friend of mine who goes to your church told me you were taking questions for your sermons so I thought I’d write you with my question.
My husband and I have been married for fifteen years, and our marriage has been a real struggle for at least a dozen of those years. We’ve tried several different counselors over the years but counseling has never amounted to more than a short-term fix. Now I’m wrestling with whether to give the marriage another chance or to end it.
I don’t want to put my kids through a divorce but neither do I want to keep exposing them to a marriage that isn’t what it should be. I think I know what the Church says about divorce, but I also know how far we are from the vows we exchanged. I don’t want to know what you think I should do. I’m not looking for advice exactly, and at this point I certainly don’t need more counseling. What I want to know is: how do I know what God wants me to do?
How do I know God’s plan for me?
She ended her note with a PS: Maybe no one else has a question like this, but I’d really appreciate your thoughts.
She was wrong, of course. About her question.
In so many words or sometimes in those exact words, people ask me that question all the time:
Should I give my son another chance, or should I stop bailing him out of trouble?
Should I kick my daughter out if she won’t stop using or should I not?
Should I tell my wife the secret that may prove the last straw or shouldn’t I?
Should I do what my parents what me to do with my life or should I do what I’ve always dreamed?
Should I tell my parents the truth about me or should I stay in the closet?
Should I let my doctors try another procedure, or should I help my family say goodbye?
Should I or shouldn’t I?
What am I supposed to do?
How do I know what God wants me to do? How do I know God’s plan?
Should we? Or shouldn’t we? They sink their teeth into Jesus with the question.
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?
Politics makes for strange bedfellows and in what may be the Gospel’s strangest coalition the anti-Roman Pharisees ally with the Herodians, Roman collaborators, to trap Jesus with a question which was hotly disputed in first century Israel: is it lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the emperor or not?
The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied by Rome on every adult registered in the census. The tax was levied to pay for the Roman occupation of Israel, and it could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint.
One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor and on the other side the inscription: ‘Caesar is Lord.’
It’s a dicey question.
For the strictly observant Pharisees, not only did the tax pose the insult of forcing Jews to pay for the army that was occupying them against their will, the tax also violated the Torah.
It broke the commandments: ‘You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself any graven idols.’
And because it broke the commandments, the coin rendered anyone who carried it ritually unclean. It couldn’t be carried into the Temple, which is why money changers set up shop on the Temple grounds to profit off the Jews who needed to exchange currency before they worshipped.
So for the Pharisees and other Jews, the tax was theological TNT and had ignited not a few messy rebellions in Jesus’ day.
The Herodians, on the other hand, were civil servants of King Herod- Caesar’s stooge in Israel. Not only did they not have a problem with the tax, they lined their pockets with the cash extorted from it.
For the Herodians at stake wasn’t idolatry but their livelihood.
Therein lies the trap.
If Jesus says ‘pay the tax’ he risks offending his followers while saying ‘don’t pay’ would be tantamount to revolution. The Herodians would then have all they need to march off to the King and out Jesus as a threat.
No matter how he answers, Jesus is guaranteed at least half the crowd will be out for his blood.
Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus? Pick your poison.
By asking for the coin, Jesus makes clear he’s not carrying one and that the Pharisees are- even though carrying it made them the sinners they accused him of being.
Jesus looks the coin over and then pronounces: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.’
All who heard Jesus’ answer were ‘amazed,’ Mark says.
Confused is a better translation.
Jesus doesn’t answer their question but raises another question: What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to God?
Jesus has already made abundantly clear in his ministry that everything comes from and so belongs to God.
If God is the One from whom all blessings flow, then what really and truly and finally belongs to Caesar?
So if everything belongs to God and nothing ultimately belongs to Caesar, then should they pay the tax or not? If everything belongs to God then what does it mean to give everything to God?
Should we or shouldn’t we? Which is it Jesus? How do you know what God wants you to do?
The first time I can remember anyone asking me that question- I was a college student at UVA. A girl named Rasha was friend of mine. She was from Jordan. She was an English major and a committed Muslim.
It being college, she and I were about the only religious people either of us knew on campus. Probably for that reason, we talked religion a good deal of the time.
We were both at a costume party one Halloween night. She came dressed, ironically, as a Catholic nun. I’d come to the party wearing what I thought was (self-evidently) a pirate costume. I had the black boots, crushed velvet tights, flowing white blouse and earring for the part. It turned out, however, that an eyepatch or sword were essential pirate accessories. Not recognizing me for a pirate, everyone mistook me for the Olympic figure skater, Brian Boitano, thus marking the last time I’ve put on a Halloween costume.
I was busy sulking and listening to a scratched House of Pain CD when Rasha just came up to me and asked: ‘How do you know what God wants you to do?’ She wasn’t looking for advice or counsel. She was curious.
‘I just read the Gospels for a class,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know how you Christians ever know what God wants you to do.’
I asked her what she meant, and she said:
‘Jesus never gives a straight answer to people’s questions. I think that’s the biggest difference between the Gospels and the Qu’ran.
Muhammad tells us exactly what God wants on every possible question, sometimes in more detail than I want, but with Jesus…it’s like he wants to leave you searching for the answer.’
It took a Muslim to bring Jesus into focus for me, to notice how Jesus has this annoying habit of evading a straight answer to our questions.
Instead Jesus almost always responds to our questions by provoking other questions. He insists on answering our questions with unexplained stories. Even when it seems Jesus gives an answer to a question, as soon as you turn it over you realize just how slippery an answer it really is.
‘What’s God like?’ the disciples ask. And Jesus responds with a story of an old lady sweeping her house for loose change that fell behind the sofa. A simple question about divorce, and Jesus answers by talking about committing adultery in the heart. A straight-forward question about the difficulty of forgiveness, and Jesus answers by raising the degree of difficulty and offering no concrete advice on how to accomplish it. A predictable question about what the Kingdom is like and Jesus answers by telling us we have to become children without saying what that means or how we do it.
And ask Jesus about taxes and he answers with:‘Give to Caesar that which bears Caesar’s image; give to God that which bears God’s image.’
You bear God’s image. You’re made in the image of God. You’re God’s.
That just begs a whole other question: What does it mean for you to give yourself to God?
Should they pay the tax or not?
It’s like Jesus knows if he just gives us the answer then you and I would be quite content to have just the answer.
And not have him.
So, to this question and so many others Jesus answers in a way that forces us to pursue him, to follow after him and ask another question and then ask another, to wrestle with who he is and what he means.
As much as we’d like God to give us the answer to our every question, the answer God gives us for everything is Jesus.
God doesn’t give us ten more commandments. God doesn’t give us more law or rules to obey.
He gives us a person to follow.
Where we want to have the right answers from him, he wants us to have a friendship with him.
Should I give my marriage another chance, or not?
Should I kick my daughter out or should I not?
Should I tell my wife? Should I tell my parents?
How do I know what God wants me to do?
How do I know God’s plan?
The fact is most of the questions people ask in my office lack easy answers. And any honest pastor will tell you: few of life’s questions come with neat chapter-and-verse Gospel answers.
But that’s the way it has to be. Listen up: this is the part where I offend all you closet Calvinists and all you fans of the TV show Lost.
As much as each one of us likes to speak of ‘God’s plan for my life’ that’s not something Methodists have ever believed.
For John Wesley, God isn’t just the All-Knowing Maker of the Universe. He’s also Love. More so than Power or Providence or Almightiness, in Jesus Christ God defines himself- binds himself, by Love.
Sure, if God wanted God could be in control and have a step-by-step, micro-plan for your life.
But instead God chooses to love us and God invites us to love him in return and God gives us the freedom to live our lives and struggle with our choices and wrestle with our decisions in a way that honors and reflects that love.
The bad news is that that doesn’t make your life any easier. The Good News is that you don’t have to get everything right. You don’t have to get everything right.
God’s not looking down waiting to see if you get every decision in your life right according to his pre-prescribed, mirco-managed plan. He’s waiting to see if you’ll love him. God doesn’t have a plan for your life; God has promise: if you will be his People he will be your God.