Recently, I had an old friend from college get back in touch with me through Facebook messenger. He looked me up specifically because he was struggling with the existence of God and he thought I would be a good person to talk to.
Our conversation turned into something of a debate on the existence of God and we went back and forth for quite some time.
Then something unusual happened.
The next day he sent me a message saying that he used to consider himself a strong Christian, but then he began to fall away. The issue that started driving him away was feeling like he didn’t know the will of God for his life. The way he described it, he asked God what God wanted him to do with his life and he never got an answer.
Then, some tremendous opportunities in his career path began opening themselves up to him. The problem was, they weren’t what he truly wanted so he started thinking that they weren’t from God and that everything that he had been attributing to God lining up was just coincidence.
He said that was a big reason for the decline in his faith. He also confided this to me: “Even when I had strong faith, I was daily guessing God’s plan for me, and it was exhausting.”
I told him that sounded exhausting.
As I was reflecting on the conversation, I realized that many people probably share part of his pain, or at least struggle with feeling like they don’t know what God’s will is. When that thought came to me I knew that I would have to take my best stab at presenting a practical, Theological framework that believers can use to confidently pursue the will of God.
The Sovereignty of God
The first place that we need to start is with God’s Sovereignty over all things. Consider this passage from the prophet Isaiah:
8 “Remember this and stand firm,
recall it to mind, you transgressors,
9 remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
10 declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
11 calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it.
In this passage, God begins by calling attention to his uniqueness. He, and he alone, is God. In verse 10, God brings up his foreknowledge of future events to evidence this uniqueness. Then, stunningly, in verse 11 he presents his Sovereignty as the foundation for his foreknowledge. How does God know what will happen in the future? Because he is going to bring it to pass, he is going to accomplish his purposes.
So in one sense, everything that happens is Gods will. Yet we know there is much that grieves God and is against his will. How are we to understand this?
The answer is that there are two “wills” in God, and understanding them is crucial for our purposes of learning how to discern His will.
God’s Will of Decree
This could also be called God’s Sovereign Will. This is the will by which he “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). Everything that happens from the largest events in human history to the smallest workings of subatomic particles, happens because God decreed it to happen.
Consider the fact that the most significant event in human history (and the most evil) was planned out by God. I’m talking of course about the murder of the only truly innocent person who ever lived, Jesus the Son of God. In Acts 2:23 we read that Jesus was sent to die “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” In Acts 4:28 the believers pray to God (addressing him as “Sovereign Lord” –verse 24) and say that those who murdered Jesus did “whatever your hand and your plan predestined to take place.”
Another helpful passage that illustrates that God’s will is to sometimes decree things that he doesn’t desire is 1 Peter 3:17 where Peter says: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” In context, Peter is talking about persecution (see verse 16 where he talks about those who revile your good behavior in Christ). Clearly, God does not desire unbelievers to unjustly persecute believers, but this verse says that sometimes that is in fact his “will.” The will of God here can only be understood as God’s Will of Decree.
Where the issue comes in for us practically is that God’s Will of Decree is usually secret. Deuteronomy 29:29 says: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” This verse almost seems to set up a dichotomy where the only part of God’s will that is revealed is his Will of Command (indicated here by the need to obey the words of the law). Although you could talk about Gods will as fitting into two separate categories, revealed and secret, these categories don’t line up exactly with God’s Will of Command and Will of Decree.
Usually the Will of Decree is secret, but there are some exceptions, most notable prophecy. In fact the event of the crucifixion of Jesus that I described earlier is an example of a part of God’s decree that was revealed (see for instance Isaiah 53).
God’s Will of Command is, by definition, always revealed.
God’s Will of Command
When we talk about God’s will of command, we are talking about the things that God wants us to do, they way he wants us to behave, the moral rules he wants us to follow.
We see God’s Will of Command referenced in places like Matthew 7:21 where Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Now clearly he can’t be talking about God’s Will of Decree, because he mentions that those who do his Father’s will enter heaven while others don’t. If he had meant God’s Will of Decree then everyone would be going to heaven since everyone does God’s will. What he is talking about is God’s Will of Command, how he wants us to behave.
If you are “seeking the will of God,” chances are this is what you are talking about. You are concerned with pleasing God and so you want to know what actions does God want you to take.
The problem for us in terms of practicality is that this will is most often revealed to us in general terms, not specific ones. We are told things that we ought not do (murder, adultery, etc), and things we ought to do (love each other, serve each other, etc), but we are rarely told specifically what God wants us to do with our life.
Sometimes in the Bible, God’s will of command is quite specific. In Acts 9:1-19 which details the conversion of Paul, God gives some very specific instructions to both Paul and Ananias. These instructions represent both God’s Will of Command (what God wanted them to do), as well as his Will of Decree (we know it was His Will of Decree because they obeyed his instructions). God often called people in the Old Testament to appoint them for one task or another, whether it was Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt, or Samuel to anoint David as king, people were given specific direction.
The thing is, even as we have record of God doing these things, we have no indication that he was giving specific direction to everyone, only certain people chosen for specific tasks. The rest of the people find themselves in the situation that most of us are in, lacking any sort of specific divine guidance for important choices in our life.
Stepping Out in Faith Not Knowing Where You Are Going
There is a phrase in Hebrews 11:8 that has always been interesting to me. It says that when Abraham was called by God to go to a new land that he would inherit he obeyed in faith and “went out, not knowing where he was going.”
He didn’t know where he was going?
He had a specific call of God on his life, how on earth is it possible that he didn’t know where to go, what to do?
If you go back and read the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, God doesn’t actually tell him where to go. He says to go “to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1), but he doesn’t say where. In verse 5 it says that Abraham set out for Canaan, and in verse 7 God shows back up and says that the land of Canaan is the land that he will give him.
Normally, I wouldn’t think that’s enough to mean that God didn’t give Abraham specific direction on where to go, but that’s what Hebrews 11:8 clearly seems to be saying. It’s astounding to me that God would reveal himself and his plan to Abraham, but not fully. There were still instances in which he was navigating without a divine map (probably without a literal map as well).
What This Means For Us
I think the practical implication for all of this is that God might reveal a specific Will of Command for your life, and he might not. Even if he does, you won’t have every detail spelled out for you. You will still have to act without direction, travel without a map. So here’s how I think you set yourself up to pursue God’s will. None of these steps involve any sort of crystal ball mysticism or speculation, just good, practical, actionable steps:
1) Read Your Bible Every Day
Does that sound out of place to you? Think again. A habit of daily Bible reading is the single best thing that you can do to pursue and discern God’s will and there isn’t a remotely close second. God’s Will of Command has been authoritatively revealed in the Bible and the best way to become familiar with his will is to become familiar with the Bible. The best way to become familiar with the Bible is to read it every single day.
2) Ask God for Wisdom
James 1:5 says if you lack wisdom you should ask it of God who will give it to you. Wisdom is of tremendous value in terms of discerning the will of God. It’s not the same thing as having God’s particular will specially revealed to you, but it seems to be the way that God prefers that we make decisions.
Of course, you could also ask God directly what he wants you to do in a given circumstance. I see nothing wrong with this whatsoever. The point that you need to keep in mind is that he may or may not grant such a request. And the whole point of these four steps is to help guide you through the times where he doesn’t answer such requests so that you don’t get stuck and paralyzed into inaction.
3) Learn How to Apply Biblical Principles to Areas the Bible Does Not Address
There are many topics that aren’t covered in the Bible. Should Christians smoke marijuana? The Bible doesn’t say. But you can look for Biblical principles and attempt to apply them to other situations. The Bible talks about drunkenness, so you can think about the connection between the impairment caused by alcohol and the impairment caused by marijuana and make a Biblically informed decision on marijuana use.
4) Create Your Own Path
The Bible says that we were created in the image of God. In the very same chapter, the main thing that we see God doing is creating the world. So while the concept of being created in the image of God is likely an extremely rich and complex concept, it’s reasonable that it includes at least in part the notion that we were created to be creative.
Here’s the thing about creativity, there is no map. If there is, you aren’t being creative.
If you are immersed in the word of God, reading it daily and seeking to obey and apply what you read, you should be able to make choices that please and glorify God without needed him to tell you exactly what to do at every step.
So here’s how I see this playing out. Imagine that you are a guy who has been dating a girl and you have begun thinking about proposing, but want to know if it’s God’s will, what should you do?
Well, hopefully you have become familiar with the Bible so that you know that marriage is a good thing and that “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD” (Proverbs 18:22). Hopefully, you also know what a serious commitment marriage is and that you are called to love your Bride like Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25-32). So all that’s left is to ask yourself some questions:
1) Is the woman I’m thinking of marrying a Godly woman who lives her life to the glory of God?
2) Do I want to marry her?
3) Am I prepared to commit to all that marriage involves?
If the answer to all three questions is yes, what are you waiting for? Go buy a ring. Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be.
You could object that even after answering “yes” to all three questions you’re still not 100% if it’s God’s will to marry her, but let me ask you this: do you think it’s God’s will for you to string her along emotionally while you are indecisive and then eventually break up with her?
If the answer to all three questions is yes, your work is pretty much done. If the answer to any is no then it’s probably time to have a very uncomfortable conversation (at the very least you owe her a dreaded “state of the relationship” conversation).
The same questions could apply to the woman who gets proposed to: is your potential future husband a Godly man living his life for the glory of God? Do you want to marry him? Are you prepared to commit to all that marriage involves? If the answer to all three is yes, then you have your answer.
The Renewed Mind and the Will of God
Likely one of the clearest verses in terms of discerning the will of God in the Bible is Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The first portion of the verse is a sobering and much-needed reminder: without any resistance on your part, the world will conform you to its image. Your mind is changed by whatever it continually gives itself over to.
The alternative to being conformed to the world is to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. This would certainly include the top three practical steps mentioned above: daily Bible reading, asking God for wisdom, and the work of applying Biblical principles to extra-biblical situations.
The renewing of your mind allows you to “discern what is the will of God.” This is clearly talking about God’s will of command since it describes the will of God as that which is “good, and acceptable, and perfect.”
Notice here there is no instruction to refrain from doing anything until you have clear and decisive revelation from God. Guard yourself from the world. Transform you mind. Discern the will of God. That’s the advice the Bible gives concerning the will of God.
This issue of discerning the will of God often comes up in regards to really big life issues. Who should I marry? What should I do for a living? Where should I move? When should we start trying to have kids? But the reality is that we makes dozens, if not hundreds of choices each and every single day. Many of these play a significant role in our life, if not due to immediate impact then certainly due to cumulative effect. Almost no one that I know consistently “seeks the will of God” on every decision that they face.
While I’m not against taking the time to “seek the will of God” on an issue, I think that more often than not it is just a spiritual-sounding excuse to be indecisive. The reality is that the Biblical model of being transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you can discern God’s will is the most incredibly practical way to approach the subject of God’s will.
The fact is that there are deeper issues at stake than just decision-making. Growing in holiness is a serious endeavor that requires real transformation not just information. To really be pleasing to God, we need to be transformed and conformed to the image of Jesus so that not only our big and small decisions, but also the thoughts and inclinations of our hearts are in line with his desires. This is not accomplished through the short term tactics of pursuing God’s will, but through the long-term strategy of renewal from the word of God, prayer, and application.
Ultimately, the fact that God is sovereign means that you can take comfort in the fact that he is in control of your future. However, the fact that he has given us his Will of Command means that you need to be diligent to obey him and live a life pleasing to him. Your blueprint for a life pleasing to him is the Bible.
I hope you use it well.
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