What are the ways of God? There are twin dangers for us when we consider this question. On the one hand, some people consider God’s ways so inscrutable that they no longer trust we can know how God acts or what God demands of us. This draws some people to the point of disbelief. If God’s ways challenge or confound human expectations, can God be trusted? On the other hand, some might march in the direction of rigid certainty, confident that with the revelation of Scripture and the sure guidance of the church and its tradition, there is no way of God left unknown, no answer they cannot give, regardless of the question, for the ways of God are always obvious.
But while the danger of turning one’s back on God is apparent for Christians, there is peril in reducing God’s ways to the certainty of our assumptions. To claim to know the ways of God in every respect implicitly rejects the possibility that God can do something new and reduces our relationship with God to a set of presuppositions. Isaiah beseeches his readers to repent, “to seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts.” In this context, that of God’s plan to redeem Israel, God promises that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.”
The claim of the otherness of the thoughts and ways of God in Isaiah with respect to ancient Israel should be kept in mind in every historical context and every human life. While we might not comprehend how God is working in the world or in our lives, amid doubt or confusion, do we trust that God is in control, working on behalf of the world to bring good out of the evil we have chosen? For those who grasp God as the essence of all being, God is always in charge, even when we do not understand God’s ways.
Paul was imprisoned—we are not certain where—when he wrote his letter to the Philippians, and he faced the necessity of trusting in God while not understanding what path his life would take. He did not know what the outcome of his imprisonment would be, though capital punishment was a strong possibility, but he trusted that death would allow him to “be with Christ,” a state he considered “far better.” Yet, though he desired to “be with Christ,” he hoped that he would “remain in the flesh,” which he saw as “more necessary for you.” Paul’s desire ultimately was to serve the ways of God, whichever path he would be required to follow.
It is especially in times of crisis and change that the deep wisdom of Paul’s stance emerges. Paul’s advice to the church, whatever the outcome of his imprisonment would be, whatever situation would befall the Philippians, was simply to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”To do this we have to be prepared to accept paths that turn where we did not expect them to turn, which entails constant attentiveness to the voice and call of God.
Matthew’s Gospel contains a parable about the kingdom of heaven in which a landowner seeks laborers for his vineyard. Some of these workers are hired in the morning at 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.; some are hired later at noon, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. All of them are paid the same wage, regardless of when they began to work, so the parable has rightly been seen as a comment on God’s justice.
The grumbling of the laborers hired early makes it clear that this is an essential element of the parable: God’s generosity with the workers hired late does not align with ordinary human expectations for the just management of workers. But we can also see this parable as a comment on the readiness of the workers. For the laborers hired late, the day was almost over when they were hired, but they had remained ready and prepared. They were rewarded because they remained attentive when hope seemed gone.
God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts not our thoughts, but if we remain open to God doing something new, we will find the way.