Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.—Romans 12:2
I am getting older. One of the proofs of this is the grouchy feeling that wells up inside me when a younger person tries to have a conversation about an important subject via text or some kind of instant messaging. Yes, I love to talk about the Bible and theology. No, I will not be typing out an answer to your question about predestination with my thumbs. Our culture wants everything summarized in 140 characters or less, but many of the most important things in life are just too complex for that. Some things just can’t be adequately addressed in a tweet or a meme (or if you’re old-fashioned, a bumper sticker), and deserve an unrushed, face-to face conversation.
One time, a friend sent me a text that read “Hey, how do I discern the will of God for my life?” It paralyzed me. What a great question! And where to begin? Is it possible to give a decent answer in just a few sentences? I decided it wasn’t, and insisted we talk about it over the course of a long, slow run on the beach. Since then, I’ve continued to refine my thinking about that question. I know that many good books have been written on the subject, and there’s almost no way to talk about it without leaving something out. But here are some convictions that guide me as I seek to know God’s will for my own life, in a little over 1000 words, which is as close to a tweet as you’ll get from me.
First, God has already revealed much of His will in the Bible. God has not been silent in telling us how He wants us to live. The Bible has a lot to say about relationships, finances, work ethic, etc. We can call this God’s “general will,” meaning it’s His will for everybody, all the time. Now, usually when someone says they want to know the will of God, this isn’t what they’re talking about; they want a specific answer about their particular situation. But the two are more closely related than we realize. We can’t be selective, and seek God’s will in some areas of our lives but not in others. If we aren’t currently obeying what He has already said about the best way to live, it’s unlikely He’ll show us the next steps. Either we want God’s will for our life, or we don’t. If we do, then we will obey Him in the things He has already revealed before we ask Him to reveal more.
Next, God wants us to know His will. People often talk about the will of God as if it were something He were intentionally hiding from us, like some kind of frustrating game He makes us play. This is not so. I believe that God does not ask His children to take steps in the dark, and if we aren’t clear about what step to take, this means He hasn’t made it clear yet, and it’s not time to decide. We keep praying and seeking until we are confident we have heard from Him. Usually, this takes the form of a settled peace in our heart about one course of action over another. I counsel people never to make big decisions if they are still in a place of uncertainty. Simply put, if He hasn’t answered, you’re not done asking.
This next one has to do with trusting that God is wise, and sovereign over His creation: God’s will is never at odds with itself. If two or more believers are genuinely praying for the will of God, when they find it, it is His will for everyone involved. If I apply for a job with a Christian ministry, and they prayerfully decide I’m not the right person for them, then it wasn’t the right job for me. When everyone is seeking God, there are no losers. God doesn’t bless some of His children at the expense of others. In my previous church I had to make a decision as a pastor and a parent: Our church’s kindergarten was dying due to lack of enrollment, and someone had to make the difficult decision to pull the plug. As a leader, it was clear to me what we needed to do. But this would mean my son wouldn’t have the same positive, Christ-centered kindergarten experience his older sisters did. What to do? I took comfort in this: God’s will for His church is not at odds with His will for my son. If godly people are seeking His will without an agenda, He is sovereignly at work in the life of every individual involved.
But of course, that’s a big “if.” This next one might sting a little: Often people who pray for God’s guidance are not truly open to it. In my experience, people who say “God, show me Your will” fall into three categories.
1) People who are unwilling to have their minds changed. They know what they think should happen, and when they pray, their own opinions just echo back to them, and—surprise!—they conclude that God’s will is the same as theirs.
2) People who pray for God to move and speak, but then still act like everything is up to them. I’ll confess this has often been me. I ask God to guide me in a particular decision, but in a way it’s just lip service, because I’m still stressing myself out trying to solve the problem. I’m still carrying the responsibility to figure everything out, and so then the conclusion I come to is more a product of human logic than the Spirit of God.
3) People who are genuinely open, and will do whatever God says, even if it’s the opposite of what they think needs to happen. This is far too rare. It’s difficult for us to let go of our opinions and say to God “I will do whatever you want. Just make your will clear, and I will obey.” I once had to decide whether or not to fire a good friend. It was agonizing, and our elder board was at a loss as to what was the right thing. So that is what we prayed: “God, we truly don’t know what is best. Show us the way, and we will walk in it.” When you arrive at that place, it’s surprisingly freeing. You realize that if God is real, and if it’s really His will you want, then your responsibility isn’t to solve, it’s to trust and obey. As with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, God often does great things with us when we are truly surrendered.
Finally, Knowing God’s will is connected to knowing God. Christianity is a relationship to be developed, not a puzzle to be solved. Discerning the will of God is something we get better at over time, as we get to know our Father better. We learn what He is like, the ways He tends to operate in our lives. We learn to trust His heart and His intentions. Sometimes, when someone says “How on earth am I supposed to know God’s will?” the problem is not that God is silent, but that they do not know His voice. If we want to get better at finding His path for us, one of the best things we can do is invest time in prayer and the Word even when there are no major decisions to make. It’s better to be guided by a friend than by a stranger.
Are you facing any major decisions? If so, which of the above principles might apply to your situation? And if not, what can you do this week to draw near to the Father, so that when the time comes, you recognize His voice?