KNOWING THE WILL OF GOD
The Great Search
I don’t know any Christian who hasn’t wondered about the will of God for their life. What does God want me to do? How can I know if God’s will, not mine? What am I supposed to do next?
Unsure of what to do, many people feel that they must “pray hard,” “live right,” and “look for a sign” in order to discover God’s will for their life. What a destructive lie!
But I heard it growing up in church. I heard it in youth group. I heard it in sermons. I heard it in classes at the Christian college I attended. And I see versions of it almost every day on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
It’s like everyone wants to know what God’s will for their life is, but almost no one seems to know where to find it.
Here’s the good news: God’s will for your life is not a mystery. He is not hiding it from you. He is not forcing you to go looking for it. He has told you plainly what he wants from you.
“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of mankind.” (Eccl. 12:13)
Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:36-38)
There you have it. That’s what God wants from you. Love and obey God as you love and serve others. Or as Jesus put it in the sermon on the mount, he wants you to trust him and build your life upon his teachings. Of course, if you want to know what that looks like, you need only look to the Scriptures. There God reveals to us plainly who he is, what he is doing in the world, and what we ought to do about it.
For example, the Scriptures tell us that Jesus came to defeat sin and evil, and that he will one day return to destroy them both forever. Anyone who refuses to go to him for forgiveness and redemption will be swept away at his return for continuing to collude with the evil his kingdom will destroy.
But we aren’t left to “put the pieces together” for ourselves, because God has told us plainly what he wants. He loves us and gives us commands for our good, and these commands are not random. Rather, they are designed to demonstrate God’s glory and power as they promote our own flourishing as his people in his world.
Ignoring or Twisting the Will of God
So what’s the problem? Well, most of God’s commands are remarkably straightforward. The problem, it seems, is that we just don’t like them. Perhaps that is the deepest reason beneath why so many people have turned knowing the will of God into a game of hide and seek. Consider the following examples.
Jim and Laura have been married for several years. They have a large home with several bedrooms, but no children. They know that God has commanded his people to be fruitful and multiply. They’ve read where God says children are a blessing. But they like not having kids, and they hope to keep it that way. And besides, they’ve asked God to give them a sign if he wants them to have children. But they haven’t seen any clear sign from him yet.
Rachel is about to graduate from high school. She’s thinking about going to a college that will cost her over $150,000 in loans by the time she graduates. She plans to be a general studies major because, as she readily admits, she just wants to be a stay-at-home mom. When asked how she plans to pay back those loans, Rachel just shrugs her shoulders and says, “I guess God wouldn’t let me get into the school if he didn’t want me to go there.”
Mark is a worrier. He’s broken off his last three relationships because, in his words, “God didn’t tell me that she’s the One.” Now he’s in another relationship, and he really, really likes the girl. She loves God, serves others humbly, and seems to be madly in love with Mark. But God hasn’t given him any signs, so Mark is worried. “What if she’s not the One either?” He’s beginning to think he should go ahead and break it off before he gets even more attached to her.
Billy and Susan are thinking about moving in together. They attend the same church, and they’ve heard the same sermons about God’s design for sex in marriage. But this is the 21st Century. Surely God doesn’t mean all that stuff, right? Just to be sure, they ask God if it’s OK for them to move in together. After a quick prayer, they both agree that they have a really good feeling about it.
Alice and her roommate Tiffany have been fighting again. It seems like they argue about everything these days. Alice is a Christian, but Tiffany is not. Often after their fights Alice wonders if she should apologize and ask for forgiveness, but she never gets around to it. “After all,” she thinks, “Tiffany will never ask me for forgiveness. So why should I forgive her?”
James and Philipp have been in an open homosexual relationship for a few months now. They came out of the closet together for mutual support. Both of them grew up in the church, but neither of them goes very often anymore. “Who wants to put up with bigoted people who don’t accept us?” they say. They used to wonder whether or not homosexual eroticism was sinful, but not anymore. “Everyone knows that the part of the Bible that condemns homosexuality also forbids shrimp, bacon, and clothes of blended fabric,” they explain. “And since plenty of Christians don’t mind those things, why choose to condemn us?”
Tim has been a deacon in his home church for years. He’s a good, clean, moral person. He gives to the church regularly. When not serving as a police officer during the day, he volunteers at the local hospital for disabled kids. But Tim is also deeply prideful and prejudiced. He often posts rants on his Facebook wall about minorities, illegal immigrants, and people who use food stamps. He knows what Jesus says about loving your enemy and helping the poor, but that hasn’t stopped him. Besides, he’s just repeating what he hears from Fox news, country music, and his pastor’s sermons. They can’t all be wrong, can they?
Ted and Janice are looking to buy a new home. Although their current home more than meets their needs, they are already tired of it after just five years. Not to mention, Ted just got a substantial raise, so now they can afford the dream home they’ve always wanted. It’s much larger than they actually need, but it’s so beautiful. They pray about it, and decide that it must be God who put that desire in their hearts. Why else would they love it so much?
Different Stories, Just One Problem
Despite their different stories, all of these people have the same problem. They have some vague familiarity with the Bible, perhaps, but they are not submitting to what it says. That is God’s will for their lives (and yours). He wants us to trust him and obey what he says (Eccl. 12:13).
So when Jim and Laura, the couple with no children, come across the verses in the Scriptures where God clearly commands them to have children, they shouldn’t continue in their selfishness. Though they “pray for a sign” from God to have kids, they ought to realize that God has already told them to do so. His will is for them to have children as soon as they can afford to (which is much sooner than many people think).
When Rachel, the recent high school grad, considers that she may never be able to pay back $150,000 as a stay-at-home mom, she should probably pick another school (or perhaps even skip out on college altogether). And though she might be tempted to think that an “open door” means that God wants her to walk through it, she should consider the fact that the Scriptures never teach us that simply because we have an option left open that necessarily means that God wants us to choose it. His will is for her to obey what he has told us, not guess about what he hasn’t.
Mark, the worrier, is no better off. He’s ended several perfectly good relationships because he is afraid that he will miss out on “the one” that God has for him. Yet God never tells us to spend their life looking for “the one.” Instead, he just tells us about what mature Christian men and women ought to look like. If Mark’s girlfriend is a mature Christian woman, then he doesn’t need any other sign from God. His will is for Mark to get married to a girl who loves him and wants to follow him as he follows Christ.
Billy and Susan, the couple who have moved in together, don’t need to pray about what God has already forbidden. He designed sexual expression for marriage, and they don’t need to pray about whether or not he still wants them to follow those commands today. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His will is for them not to move in together, and not to sleep together until after they are married.
Alice, one of the arguing girls, shouldn’t pray about whether or not to forgive her roommate. God says that we should forgive one another as the Lord has forgiven us. That doesn’t leave any room for her to pray and ask God for a sign about whether or not to do it. His will is for her to forgive her roommate.
James and Philipp, the gay couple, have made the mistake of assuming that because God asked the theocratic nation of Israel to abstain from certain foods and civil practices, that he must not care about sexual ethics anymore. They completely ignore the rest of the Bible’s clear teachings on sex and marriage, however, as well as the teachings in the New Testament that condemn homosexual acts of eroticism. God’s will is for them to honor his commands regarding sex and marriage, even if that means that they remain celibate. (Jesus was celibate, and it didn’t seem to bother him.)
Tim, the prideful deacon, misses the will of God for his life, too. While he understands that God wants him to be involved in his church and his community, he is like the Pharisees who overlooked mercy and justice, the weightier matters of God’s law. God’s will for his life is that he stop looking down on other people in pride, and stop posting inflammatory things on Facebook that don’t actually help the people that Jesus calls him to love and serve.
Ted and Janice are guilty of assuming that just because they want something, it must be God who gave them the desire. Not only have they overlooked the fact that our hearts are easily able to trick us and lead us astray, they also have ignored Jesus’ repeated warning against the dangers of materialism. In fact, more than any other issue God warns his people against the dangers of greed. Jesus devoted one quarter of his teaching to this point, but it doesn’t seem to affect Ted and Janice—and that’s the problem. More than they love heeding God’s warnings about materialism and greed, they love having nice things and endless comforts. But in view of God’s call for his people to sacrifice, that sort of comfort isn’t God’s will for their life.
I know what you’re thinking. The title of this article was “Knowing the Will of God” but most of it has been talking about different ways that people don’t submit to the will of God that’s already been revealed in the Scriptures. So, what gives?
The truth is that most of the important decisions you will have to make in life are the ones that the Scriptures talk plainly about. It may not feel that way, but it’s true. If you already know what the Scriptures say, but you still have no desire to trust and obey them, then you need a heart change…
But what about areas that the Scriptures don’t talk about? What about things that are not so black-and-white? For example, what about a person who is trying to decide whether or not to spend their life as a lawyer or a social service worker?
In cases like these, the Scriptures are still our guide. Though they may not give us verses that speak directly to every situation, they contain all the wisdom we need in order to make informed, Spirit-led decisions in our lives. What we mean is that God has already said a great deal about the kinds of motives we should have and the kinds of outcomes we should seek when making decisions.
Here is a list of practical questions to help you with the areas where the Scriptures do not directly tell you what to do. (In the cases where they do, you don’t need to question any further.)
Are you leaning toward this decision because you think it will make you look good?
Are you pursuing this because you want to be rich or famous or powerful?
Are you the only person who will benefit from this decision? What will it cost others around you?
Are you pursuing this because you want to be loved, accepted, valued, or approved? Have you forgotten that your value comes from what Jesus has done for you, not what you do for him?
Will your decision hinder something of greater importance, like your fellowship in a local church?
Have you talked with mature believers and the pastors in your church about this decision?
Are you being patient and wise about this decision?
Will you be setting yourself up for greater temptation if you make this decision?
Have other people warned you not to do this but you insist upon doing it anyway?
Are you hoping for a change of circumstances to fix your problems? Or are you relying on the Spirit to change you as trust and follow Jesus?
Is this decision something that will better position you to serve other people or tell them about Jesus?
Does your decision make sense in light of the story of the Bible? Or will it be wasted time and effort that contributes nothing to the kingdom of Christ?
What will your decision ‘say’ to others about the mission of the church in the world? Will it make Jesus look like the surpassing treasure that he is?
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.