Doors go somewhere. You walk through them to get somewhere: no one loiters alone in a doorway without looking very silly, unless he is waiting for someone. Now I hear much reference in evangelical Christian talk about interpreting God’s will through open and closed doors: typically, a “closed door” is taken to mean that God has denied a certain path. It’s true that it makes sense that if God is truly the almighty King of the universe He can choose to direct our paths. However, I want to question the explanatory power of this model, which I find to be rather simplistic.
Is it always the case that circumstances dictate what action God means for us to take? If so, what are we to make of persecution of believers in China, Iran, Laos and Kazakhstan? What are we to think of the martyrs of past ages who have been crucified in the flesh — that is, physically — and not only to the sins of the flesh? Surely they of all people were working for God’s will, the proclamation of salvation for those who did not yet believe, yet resistance came vigorously, even violently. We see, therefore, that this kind of thing cannot be a “closed door” for an opportunity: indeed, Scripture urges us to press on even through fiery trials.
So when to go ahead in spite of resistance, and when to turn back because of opposition? After all, it is foolhardy to think that we can do anything we want to do just because we want it and have the willpower, notwithstanding what the prevailing culture of self-esteem might say. I cannot jump off a cliff and expect to fly just because I wish for it. That’s just not how God works. So what we must look at is purpose, more specifically God’s purpose.
What is the distinguishing mark of God’s purpose? I think, if we can believe God is better and wiser than we but not arbitrary, it is goodness of the kind we may call rectitude. Rectitude, which in Chinese we call 正, is adherence to the nature of things. It is in this that we define excellence, and in excellence, success — for no other measure of success can be adequate. If this is so, we need to pay more attention to excellence, indeed excellence in Christ, than to the mechanics of any situation, because it is if and only if God has empowered us for something that we “can do all things in Christ who strengthens [us]” (Phl. 4.13). If God blesses, He provides; if He does not bless, we have only human infirmity to look at, and no amount of misplaced “faith” will then effect anything.
What follows the nature of something? Humans are sinful. Does that part of their “nature” say anything about how we ought to act, or is there something more fundamental than the mere appearance of what “is” and therefore what ought to be? Take the wood of a willow, which can be carved into cups and bowls. Mengzi says that carving the wood in this way does violence to its nature, which is to be a tree (Mencius VI.A.2). If we look at this from a Aristotelian point of view, by “nature” Mengzi means the final and formal cause of the wood: the fact is that the wood is in turn the material and efficient cause of a tree. I was afraid I’d have to start making circular definitions. This is not circular after all, though: instead, we find purpose by looking at God’s purpose in other things and for all things.
Now what is our purpose, then? How are we to be good at being human? To be good at being human, we must be good for God, in whom is found all good that an Aristotelian might say is for its own sake, because no one else, and nothing else, is so set above us that it dictates what our causes are, even nature, which is defined in terms of God’s nature.
Human depravity is part of us, but it is so foreign to our causes that we cannot treat it as original. Sin is harmful. A parasite that has spawned all over us we do not tolerate by saying it is part of us. Instead, we reject it and embrace the true functioning of the body instead of cooperating with the parasite and the superficial “nature” of the situation, which is that the parasite has become part of the human, from which a deluded man might conclude that instead of excising the parasite he should feed it enough that it does not starve the man.
Only what is to the glory of God is good for man. Anything else is loss, a waste of time, a waste of resources, a waste of our selves. So the doors may sometimes be immaterial to what we should do. Perhaps it’s just about what’s excellent. If it doesn’t produce excellence in me, why should I do it?