January 17, 2021

“To go through life guessing wrong”


While reading Thomas Merton yesterday on the subject of vocation (No Man Is an Island), I came across this stunning passage:

Our vocation is not a sphinx’s riddle, which we must solve in one guess or else perish. Some people find, in the end, that they have made many wrong guesses and that their paradoxical vocation is to go through life guessing wrong. It takes them a long time to find out that they are happier that way.

What a generous and liberating thought!

Having spent so many years hearing teaching that warned Christians not to “miss God’s will” for their lives, usually accompanied by some vague but dire warning of the consequences, how I wish this grace-filled perspective had somehow broken through to people bearing the heavy burden laid on them.

I never really bought into that theology and joined the frantic search for “God’s will.”

However, I have often mulled over my doubts in retrospect.

Why did I not listen to those who advised me about a different course of education?

Why did I not see the value of learning about different religious traditions when I was younger so that I might have been ordained to serve in a denomination early in my ministry?


We all have the opportunity to look back and see various roads not taken. We sometimes dwell on them and nurse regrets. This is foolish. We did not know then what we know now. We did not necessarily have the capacity to choose differently, given our maturity and circumstances at the time. Of course there were moments when we might have have gone in other directions. But it is likely that we see even those occasions more clearly now.

It is also foolish to spend our time rehearsing the ways we might have missed because it keeps us from tracing the strange, labyrinthine path we actually took and what that has meant for us and others.

In the end, perhaps it is better that we sat around the table with our friends working on the puzzle than that we were skilled enough to put it all together.

To go through life guessing wrong.

To be happier that way.

And to see it as a gift from God.

Thank you, Brother Merton.


  1. I agree with you, Chaplain Mike, in that “God’s will” theology for one’s life cannot be known.

    But the wonderful thing about being His, is the freedom we have to step out in faith. And to do whatever it is that we desire to do. And to know that through it all…He is at work in it. In the failures and successes (which we can’t really know, either).

    • It’s not even necessary to do what we desire, or to know what we desire. How many of us know ourselves well enough, the dark, hidden recesses of our selves, the vast hinterland of our selves, to know our true desires? Coming to know what we desire is a discipline, that is, an exercise in learning, and God is our teacher.

      The above quote from Merton illuminates why he later became so interested in the practice of Zen: he saw it as a path to getting himself out of the way, to giving up control over his life and control over the world he lived in, so that he might clearly see the world that God has created, and might clearly see God shining through it.

  2. Just read this again yesterday!. No Man is an Island is my favorite book of Merton’s and the chapter on vocation is the best.

    • Amen. Merton is also one of my favorite writers and of his books, No Man is an Island is my favorite.

      Last May when I was on retreat, I had occasion to share a couple of meals with an older nun. I expressed a regret for something regarding education/vocation I had failed to do earlier in life. She said, “We pick what seems right at the time and usually it is right.” That was a very great comfort to me and as you have expressed so well, Mike, a generous and liberating thought. Thank you.

      • When it came to finances my modus operandi has been: “We pick what seems right at the time and usually it is WRONG!”

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I’m very used to that. It seems everything I pick or do or decide in my life has been scrutinized under an electron microscope and ALWAYS found to be WRONG WRONG WRONG.
          “Why couldn’t you have done…”
          “Why did you have to…”
          “How could you have done….”
          “You’re Supposed to be a GENIUS!”

          Finally I came to the conclusion that if you never attempt anything, you’ll never catch hell for doing it wrong. Better to catch lesser hell for being so lazy. After thirty years, I am finally coming out of that, but always expecting the next shoe to drop.

          Don’t even talk to me about “Well Done, My Good and Faithful Servant”. That is something I learned to NEVER expect to hear. Especially in regards to God.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > “We pick what seems right at the time and usually it is right.”

        Eh, I think is as likely to be wrong as correct.

        I can think of many choices I have made that were stupid, impetuous, proud, self-centered, or ignorant. These choices were not in any way “right”.

        But we are where we are. A quote I prefer is “Life sucks, get a helmet”.

        • Laura Hedglon says

          Sure, your choices might have been all of those things and more…..but the learning that came from being in those situations was “right” or at least usable in the future.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > but the learning that came from being in those situations was “right”

            Yea, I just cannot connect that with any useful definition of “right”. The goat learns not to touch the electric fence because doing so hurts – that does not make the pain in any way “right”. And in that case the pain also does not hurt anyone but the goat, human error is rarely so contained.

            I’ll stay on record that using “right” in this sense is wrong.

            > at least usable in the future

            True, sometimes. Other times one just realizes what an ass one was/is. Nothing really illuminating other than to try not to be such an ass next time. But, honestly, I knew that in the first place, I just didn’t care enough or justified myself with some excuse.

        • I think Merton is saying something more like: We try to pick what seems right at the time, but however it turns out, it’s okay.

          • Or perhaps: We choose what we choose, but relax, because it will be okay.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            >We choose what we choose, but relax, because it will be okay.

            That is how I read his statement.

            I’m just saying I do not accept it; it will not just-turn-out-okay. Somethings turn out really really crappy, and real people experience real suffering. That is not “okay”. It sucks.

            The only way I can parse that “okay” is for the author to be running and hiding behind the oh-well-Gods-gonna-torch-this-planet-and-all-them-sinners-anyway-I-am-on-the-winning-team-cannot-wait-for-heaven curtain.

            Perhaps not growing up in the Evangelical culture I just can’t get it. These statements just sound like nonsense at best or at worse pat-on-the-head spiritual who-who. I’m a big boy, I do not need someone to tell me everything is going to be okay; and if someone tries, they are a liar.

            Fortunately, Love does not need everything to be okay. It keeps no count of wrongs, is enduring, and patient.

          • Well, Merton certainly didn’t grow up in the Evangelical subculture, and neither did I, and neither he nor I have any interest in the Earth being torched or sinners being tossed into the Lake of Fire (although I do like the Meat Puppets song of the same name).

            What Merton means is more like:

            “And all shall be well, and all all shall be well,
            and all manner of thing shall be well….”

            Which does not contradict your concluding affirmations.

          • Also, Merton is speaking to the spiritual pride that puts us and our decision-making prowess at the center of the cosmic drama, as if everything, including God, is dependent on us making the “right” decisions; he’s not advocating antinomianism, but saying that the way to leading a God-centered life is not to put ourselves, and our own competence, at the center of reality.

            And big boys especially need to hear that truth.

      • I appreciate what the nun said to Lisa. The nun’s perspective has been informed by prayer and contemplation which has drawn her into God’s love and thus she has learned to think other than in our default binary/egoic way. We make choices because we’re made to look for cause and effect and meaning. In the long perspective all will be well and all manner of things will be well. As Merton said in the chapter that CM is citing;

        In any case, our destiny is the work of two wills, not one. It is not an immutable fate, forced upon us without any choice of our own, by a divinity without heart. Our vocation is not a supernatural lottery but the interaction of two freedoms, and, therefore, of two loves.

        In chapt. 4 of No Man Is An Island Merton says this about “God’s will”;

        First of all, let us not all be too glib in our statements about the will of God. God’s will is a profound and holy mystery, and the fact that we live our everyday lives engulfed in this mystery should not lead us to underestimate its holiness. We dwell in the will of God as in a sanctuary. His will is the cloud of darkness that surrounds His immediate presence. It is the mystery in which His divine life and our created life be-come “one spirit,” since, as St. Paul says, “Those who are joined to the Lord are one spirit” (I Corinthians 6:17).

        There are religious men who have become so familiar with the concept of God’s will that their familiarity has bred an apparent contempt. It has made them forget that God’s will is more than a concept. It is a terrible and transcendent reality, a secret power which is given to us, from moment to moment, to be the life of our life and the soul of our own soul’s life. It is the living flame of God’s own Spirit, in Whom our own soul’s flame can play, if it wills, like a mysterious angel. God’s will is not an abstraction, not a machine, not an esoteric system. It is a living concrete reality in the lives of men, and our souls are created to burn as flames within His flame. The will of the Lord is not a static center drawing our souls blindly toward itself. It is a creative power, working everywhere, giving life and being and direction to all things, and above all forming and creating, in the midst of an old creation, a whole new world which is called the Kingdom of God. What we call the “will of God” is the movement of His love and wisdom, ordering and governing all free and necessary agents, moving movers and causing causes, driving drivers and ruling those who rule, so that even those who resist Him carry out His will without realizing that they are doing so. In all His acts God orders all things, whether good or evil, for the good of those who know Him and seek Him and who strive to bring their own freedom under obedience to His divine purpose. All that is done by the will of God in secret is done for His glory and for the good of those whom He has chosen to share in His glory.

        The greatest problem in Christian religious systems which constantly agitate about “finding God’s will” is that God’s will is perceived as an abstraction rather than living in the atmosphere of loving relationship.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Like finding yourself in the Timeless Halls of Iluvatar and turning your back on The One so you can use His Shekinah Glory as nothing more than a reading light for Studying your Bible.

  3. Amen. Add to this the fact that we are as ignorant now, despite all our best or worst efforts, about what course we should take in the present as we were then in the past, and we have the full picture. God makes the path in the midst of our lives as we stumble through them. This is what it means for us to be free, and God to be God.

  4. Such freedom! Shout it from the mountain tops. Tell it to your friends. We need to hear this more and share it more with others. Thank you for these words: Thomas Merton and Chaplain Mike.

  5. Daryl Wheeler says

    How do we know we guessed wrong? Maybe the “wrong” guesses were just part of the journey.

    • +1, Daryl!

      I have always envied those who get clear messages from God, big jahonking signs that they cannot miss or misinterpret. Meanwhile I, like so many of my sisters and brothers, am walking by faith, not sight. I also try to remember the fact that the Lord can make my crooked journeys straight….but all that walking can be tiring, for sure!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      What happens when you were raised a Kid Genius where the MINIMUM expected of you was Absolute Perfection? Expected to master everything perfectly the first time you ever attempted it? Where you caught hell for making ANY wrong decision — period? For guessing wrong even once?

      And then “get saved(TM)” into the God’s Perfect Plan — don’t mess up! Don’t guess wrong! NOT EVEN ONCE!

  6. I believe that God’s will is made known to us through time & more often through hindsight. Who’s to say that those who seem to get clear messages from God aren’t ascribing God’s voice to their own ego? We have to let go of attaching right & wrong to God’s will. Abraham was sent on a journey. Our Bible is the story of God acting through time told by those with the benefit of hindsight.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      >I believe that God’s will is made known to us through time & more often through hindsight.

      I believe that is a stretch to apply God’s will to what I do for a living on this little planet. I have to provide for myself, my family, and hopefully have enough to help my community. That is all. God created a man, me, God did not create a Systems Administrator.

      >Who’s to say that those who seem to get clear messages from God aren’t ascribing God’s voice to their own ego?


      • Yeah, I don’t think there’s much demand for Systems Administrators in eternity, although probably more demand than for lawyers and doctors.

  7. After looking back over my life these days, I have adopted a new life motto: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

  8. LOVE Merton!

  9. The only part of God’s will that I’m 100% sure of is for me to walk with Jesus and be Jesus wherever I’m at. That way, even when I guess wrong, I’m okay.

  10. All the hand wringing agony that happens over finding God’s will for your life. Our church has offered ‘courses’ on how to find it and how to finance your new ministry. Ya see now, it isn’t really God’s will if it doesn’t involve a non-profit and actively going out to convert people.

    A friend of mine says God’s will is that we get to know him, then God may (I repeat, may) use us for a specific purpose that we may or may not know. Somehow there is little stress in his life.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      >All the hand wringing agony that happens over finding God’s will for your life

      And what a useless concept. How does this idea inform me as to WHAT TO DO? All it does is cause me to dwell on what has been. Pointless.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        And there are always those all too happy to rub your face in “what has been”.

      • Adam,

        You know what to do. You are doing it and you will be doing it. What you are looking for is “God’s validation” by way of obvious “success”. Detach yourself from “success” and live in the goodness of your doing. Right doing is the fruit of right being.

  11. Thank you, Father Louis.

  12. It’s taken me a long time to figure out that I’m happier not trying to be, or become, happy.

  13. A really wonderful thought, Chaplain Mike. I’m pretty sure I’m one of those who “find, in the end, that they have made many wrong guesses and that their paradoxical vocation is to go through life guessing wrong.”

    I studied very hard to master a professional vocation that melted under my feel like an ice floe under a polar bear. I adopted a child, secure in the knowledge that my vocation would always supply a good income, and then spent her childhood and adolescence working for little above minimum wage. I finally got a job I thoroughly enjoyed, but it paid just enough for me to qualify for free government cheese. I then switched to a series of jobs in the computer industry which paid beautifully but nearly bored me out of my skull. And that’s just the *economic* wrong guesses, without touching the “many dangers, toils, and snares” through which, like everyone else of my advanced age, I have already come.

    I do believe, though, that everything I’ve done and gone through made me someone that can be useful to other people today. Of course, I’d rather be rich than not, but, as our 12-Step program promises, “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.” That doesn’t mean just that I can serve as a bad example (though there are times…) but that I can help other humans who are struggling with the same problems I’ve faced.

    In the 12-Step Big Book, one thing author Bill W. suggests is that you just start off each day by asking God to take the day into His hands. Then, you relax! You don’t check in every 15 minutes wondering whether you’re *really* on the right track. If you mess up, He will help you fix it. Day at a time. Works for me, usually.

    • Sort of like the old wall hanging…..

      “Good Morning, This is God. I will be taking care of everything in your life today!”

  14. Amen to this. I used to sort of subscribe to the idea that God had a single (usually inscrutable) plan and will for our lives, but that stage didn’t last long. I came to realize that that kind of thinking assumes a scarcity of good in God’s plan, in the world he created, and the kingdom he rules. In reality, we are often faced with many good choices; our problem is sometimes our inability to see them that way. I’m not being facile; I’ve had a lot of difficult times and choices. But in the end all were good as long as I was seeking to follow Jesus. We make it more complicated than it needs to be. I work a very mundane job. I have Micah 6:8 on my wall at work to remind me of what it takes to make it good.

Speak Your Mind