I’ve made a habit lately of studying the Amish. I use the word “study” loosely as this is not a simple curiosity of mine or some kind of theological experiment. My exploration flows out of a deep respect and admiration for their faith and spirituality. We English (that’s what the Amish call us outside their communities) recognize them because of their familiar beards, horse-drawn buggies, fine woodworking, or barn-raisings, but there’s a lot more to this group than sturdy furniture and firm dispositions. They have a lively, vibrant faith despite their archaic lifestyles.
The Amish (and their cousins the Mennonites, Brethren, and a few other groups) I have come to know are lovers and active makers of peace. They value simplicity above almost any other thing. They love their families and community, and they have a profound trust in God. This trust, employing a good Amish-German word, is called “Gelassenheit.”
“Gelassenheit” is usually translated into English as “submission,” “yield,” or “serenity,” but it is so much more. It is a total letting go of entanglements. It is a relinquishment of the self. It is an exchange of human, personal will for a “thy will be done” kind of life – not a blind, hopeless fatalism, but a defiant and restful faith in God. One Amish farmer summed up “Gelassenheit” like this: “We don’t pray for rain,” he said. “But we are thankful to God when the rain arrives.” This perspective gives the Amish a completely different understanding of “the will of God” than most of the Christian universe.
Many of us have been taught, tacitly or overtly, that “God’s will” is this magic be-all-end-all, which, if discovered, can end all the angst and indecision of life. So we chase after and fret over what God wants us to do, thinking there will be complete and total disaster if we miss the secret plan he has for us. We twist and writhe in the anguish of our decisions, never feeling good about any choice we make.
Finally, we conjure up all the bravado or foolishness we can muster, smile through gritted teeth, and give a direction a whirl. If it all works out, we praise God for his magnificent direction. If it is a belly-flopping disaster we scratch our heads, feel terribly ashamed, and blame God or our weak faith for leading us the wrong way.
The truth is, most Christians really want to do what God wants us to do; we want to do “the will of God.” Equally as true, however, is this: There is no exact formula for finding this will. This does not sound very spiritual, but in my experience, finding God’s will is as much about trial and error as it is about praying and seeking. And yes, sometimes it ends in a big mess. Maybe we can take a cue from the Amish and neutralize the mystery of finding and doing God’s will. Maybe we can learn to simply trust God with our life and our circumstances. Maybe, if we keep hitting the wall, we can stop, listen, and trust for a while. Maybe we can learn to yield our own wills, or at least stop using God’s name to sanction our decisions.
Maybe we can stop putting ourselves through the torturous exercise of chasing after something we can’t even define. Here is the thing the Amish can teach us: Rather than trusting an exact path and direction for your life, just trust God with your life. After all, God is bigger than your plans. God is stronger than your failures, and God never fails to reward those who seek after him. You can find peace by quit trying to figure out what to do for God and simply rely upon God.
Meister Eckhart, an old medieval mystic from Germany who knew a few things about “Gelassenheit” himself, wrote: “God wants no more from you than you letting go of yourself. Then you can let God be God in you.” If that’s not God’s will, then I don’t know what is.