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The Will of God Print E-mail

Written by Rick Wade

This article is also available in Spanish.

"Evangelicals differ from most Roman Catholics and liberals in that they are constantly uptight about guidance," says J.I. Packer. "No other concern commands more interest or arouses more anxiety among them nowadays than discovering the will of God."{1}

I know what he means. How many times have I fretted over what I was supposed to do? And when? And how? A number of readers are probably nodding in agreement right now. The desire to do what God wills for us slips almost unnoticed from a simple desire to please into a fretful anxiety. We're confronted with a decision that must be made, and when no solution comes readily to mind, we look to God to tell us what to do. When no answer is immediately forthcoming, we begin to panic. Or maybe we've been taught that our hearts are "desperately wicked," so any idea or desire we have just has to be opposed to what God wants. So we throw that possibility out and look for the answer that must be right because it's just what we wouldn't want to do!

Packer's experience is that "the more earnest and sensitive a believer is, the more likely he or she is to be hung up about guidance."{2} We want to do what is right, but we aren't sure what we're to do or how we're to do it. And we fear the consequences if we get it wrong.

Why do we worry so much about finding God's will? Could it be we have a distorted idea of what it is or of how to find it?

An idea about God's will found frequently in the church is that God has a plan prepared for each individual life and it is our duty to discover what it contains and follow it. If we fail to do just the right thing, we will probably have to settle for second best or worse. And a number of us seem to have a really hard time finding out what it is. Garry Friesen calls this the "traditional view,"{3} but Packer points out that this "traditional view" goes back no further than about 150 years.{4}

What's going on? Does God have us on a great big scavenger hunt, poking about here and there, trying to find His elusive will before time runs out? Bruce Waltke likens this view to "a version of the old con man's ruse, the three-shell game,"{5} where a rock is put under one of three shells that are slid around the table in a confusing fashion to make you lose track of where it is. Is God playing games with us? Or is He telling us but we're hard of hearing?

Packer notes that this view can leave Christians feeling second-rate. "You may not be on the scrapheap, but you are on the shelf," he says. He also says that this perspective leads to fear, causing some to avoid making decisions for fear of messing up, or others to live their lives with heavy hearts, believing they've already messed up and are stuck with less than God's best. Of course, God must then be rather upset with us.

Besides this, Waltke believes this view can result in immaturity since it isn't really up to us to choose, but rather to simply pick the shell under which is the rock.

Does it make sense that God would make finding His will so hard? That can't be right. Maybe we have a wrong understanding about what it means to know God's will or even what God's will is.

The Will of God in Scripture

In the Bible, the "will of God" refers to a few things. It can mean the eternal, sovereign plan of God, which will be accomplished regardless of any conscious acceptance and participation on our part. (Dan. 4:35; Eph. 1:9-11) We cannot undo the sovereign will of God. The phrase can also be used "to describe God's desire or consent -- what He wants and what is favorable to Him," as Waltke puts it.{6} This includes God's laws or specific instructions that we can choose to obey or disobey, or a desire of His for a specific situation as when Moses had to settle disputes between the people of Israel. (Ex. 8:15,16)

More often than not, the "will of God" in Scripture refers to God's moral laws or commands dealing with the stuff of everyday life. In the Old Testament we read, "Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law, And keep it with all my heart. Make me walk in the path of Your commandments, For I delight in it" (Ps. 119: 34,35), and "I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart."(Ps. 40:8) In addition to these general laws, however, occasionally, prophets gave instructions regarding specific matters.

In the New Testament we find Paul giving the Ephesians general instructions for not living as the world does. He writes, "So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is." (Eph. 5:17) Instructing the Thessalonians about sexual purity he writes, "For this is the will of God, your sanctification." (1 Th. 4:3) Waltke sums up several passages when he says that "God's will is that you be holy, wise, mature, joyful, prayerful, and submissive."{7}

Does He have a specific plan for each of us? Surely He does, for how could He work the whole of history toward His desired end if the individual parts were left indefinite? Paul introduced himself as "an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God." (Eph. 1:1; 2 Tim. 1:1) The question is: Is God going to tell us what to do in each specific situation? And, is it true that there's only one right choice?

Foundations of Decision Making

Typically when we find ourselves concerned about the will of God, it's in the context of decision making. There are several elements in the decision making process. Before looking at some of them, however, I need to establish a few foundations.

First, we need to reintegrate the concept of knowing and living in God's will into the whole fabric of our lives. It is a matter of importance for all our lives, not just for decision making. Understanding this casts a new light on what is meant by the "will of God."{8}

Second, against the "traditional" view of decision making, I believe that there isn't necessarily only one right choice with respect to nonmoral decisions. We give the different elements of decision making their due place in our consideration, make the best choice we know how, and trust God to accomplish His will. Unless there is undoubtable direction by God to go a specific way, we have the freedom and the responsibility to choose.{9}

Third, there is a change in how people seek guidance from the era of the Old Covenant to that of the New. In Old Testament times, people used various ways of divining God's will, including casting lots, using the Urim and Thummim, and interpreting dreams. However, things changed after the coming of the Holy Spirit. Bruce Waltke points out that "after Pentecost there is no instance of the church seeking God's will through any of the forms of divination" seen in the Old Testament. "The New Testament gives no explicit command to 'find God's will,' nor can you find any particular instructions on how to go about finding God's will."{10} He later adds, "God does not administer His church in the same way He administered old Israel."{11} In Acts 1:24 we read of the apostles casting lots to know God's will about choosing another apostle to take Judas' place, but after this, "there are no examples of explicitly seeking or finding God's will" recorded.{12}

Fourth, good decision making comes through having a close relationship with God, which is fostered in a variety of ways.{13} It is the very things that we do or should do routinely that assist us in making decisions, things such as learning the Bible, praying, being in close fellowship with other believers, etc. We do the kinds of things that work together to conform us into His image, and these very things feed our ability to make wise decisions along the way.

Fifth and last, the elements of decision making don't form some kind of neat, orderly system in which particular steps are taken in a necessary order, one following the other, so that when we reach the end the decision pops out.{14} Each element is weighed along with the others with some having more weight than others. For example, both my desires and the Bible are elements of decision making. But the Bible carries more weight. Sometimes one of the elements might incline us to say "no," but consideration of another, more weighty one will change that to a "yes." This is a part of wise thinking: understanding the weight of each factor using God's understanding as the standard.

So how do we go about seeking guidance for making decisions? Let's look at a few elements of decision making.

Elements of Decision Making

The Bible

Romans 12:2 says we are able to "test and approve what God's will is" as our minds are renewed. And this renewal comes through a knowledge of His Word illuminated by His Spirit.

As God's Word is our final authority for faith, it is our final authority for practice as well. It is our most authoritative source for knowing God and His will. Solomon said we would know how to live as we follow God's commands: "When you walk, they will guide you; when you sleep, they will watch over you; when you awake, they will speak to you." (Prov. 6:22) Waltke notes what Paul says about the purpose of Scripture: teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. It is there that we learn about God and His work, find rebuke and correction when we stray, and discover what makes for righteous living. This includes the decision making part of life.

Because of the clarity of Scripture on many things, we have an immediate answer for a lot of the decisions we have to make. For example, a man doesn't need to ask if it's God's will for him to fool around with his neighbor's wife! The Bible is clear on that.

In addition to telling us what not to do, the Bible also has a lot to say about what we should do. We learn about the love of God and what that means for relating and reaching out to other people. We learn about the value of the created realm, of work, of personal gifting, of money. We learn about the overall project of God (redemption), and we see how we can model a redemptive love in our world today.

The desires of our heart

Another source for obtaining guidance is the desires of our heart.{15} Are you surprised? Psalm 37:4 says, "Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart." Delighting in Him involves wanting what He wants, molding our desires to His. This comes through walking closely with Him.

God gives us talents and abilities for a reason! If these things are honorable and useful for God's kingdom, they aren't to be rejected simply out of fear that God might not like us to do something we enjoy! As one man put it, we can "love God and do what we please" when we walk close to Him, because we know Him and the kinds of things He desires.

Prayer and meditation

Walking closely with God can only happen through constant prayer. This is another significant element of decision making. Through prayer, we force ourselves to stay attuned to God. Our prayer is fed by a knowledge of and meditation upon His Word. Sometimes wise decisions become clear when distractions are put away and our minds are allowed to focus and do their work uninterrupted. We pray about particular issues, but we also pray for understanding in general. Paul prayed that the Colossians would learn God's will "through all spiritual wisdom and understanding." (Col. 1:9) To all who ask believing, as James says, such wisdom will be given "generously and without reproach." (1:5)

One very important element of knowing God's mind and will is the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives. His presence within us is one of the major differences between us and Old Testament saints. This, I think, is significant with respect to knowing God's will.

One way the Spirit helps us in knowing God's will is what we call illumination, the means by which He helps us understand the deeper significance of Scripture. Another way is through bringing things to our attention. J. I. Packer speaks of "nudges" of the Spirit, or a "focusing of concern." (See Acts 17:16) "When we say we have a 'vision' or 'burden' about something," he says, "we are referring to an impression. When our concern is biblically proper, we are right to regard our impression as a nudge from the Holy Spirit."{16}

Sometimes Christians say the Lord has "told" them to do something. While we cannot -- and do not wish to -- define the limits of how God can guide us, we can learn from Scripture what we might expect. Those who say God gives special revelations of His will sometimes refer to instances such as Paul's experience on the road to Damascus, or Peter's on Simon the Tanner's roof where he learned that a change in dietary laws was being made. But notice that such special revelations came without being asked for; they didn't come in response to a desire to know God's will. Bruce Waltke notes that, "There is no place in the New Testament where we are taught to seek a special revelation" from God.{17} Paul spends a good amount of time teaching the church how to do the will of God. One might expect at least some attention given to seeking God's will through a direct word of the Spirit to individuals if that's how God typically works. But it isn't there. Again, the question isn't whether God can speak this way, for surely He can. We're speaking here of the norm, of what we can expect from God in the normal course of life.

What should we do if we believe the Spirit is speaking directly to us? Packer believes (and I agree) "that impressions must be rigorously tested by biblical wisdom--the corporate wisdom of the believing community as well as personal wisdom. If this is not done," he continues, "impressions that are rooted in egoism, pride, headstrong unrealism, the fancy that irrationality glorifies God, a sense that some human being is infallible, or similar misconceptions will be allowed to masquerade as Spirit-given."{18}

The church

Speaking of corporate wisdom, the counsel of others is an important element in making decisions. "Where there is no guidance the people fall, But in abundance of counselors there is victory," we read in Proverbs 11:14. Such counsel is to be found primarily in the church, for it is the church that is responsible to do the will of God on earth. Sometimes we can find good counsel on some matters from non-Christians. But when we're thinking of the major decisions of life we look to the church where we should be able to find those who share our Christian beliefs, who have the mind of Christ, and who are mature in godly wisdom. "Personal guidance," says Packer, "that we believe we have received by inner nudge from the Lord needs to be checked with believers who are capable of recognizing unrealism, delusion, and folly when they see it."{19}

Not only can we find guidance for dealing with ideas we have, but also the church is a channel for the Spirit calling us to do something new. Through the church, the Spirit called Paul and Barnabas to be missionaries. (Acts 13:2,3){20} In the fellowship of believers we have a place to discover the abilities we have and to put them to use, and to be drawn into places we never thought we could go.

Providence

The providence of God is another element of the decision making process. This is God's direct dealing in His world in general and in our lives in particular -- His sovereign governance of the world.{21} By God's providence the stars stay in their orbits and the rain waters the earth. By His special providence "God's hand is 'visible' in a sense to Christians who have watched all the pieces to one or more of life's puzzles fall into place in a very special way."{22}

Often, things seem to just happen in our lives by chance. More often than not it is in hindsight that we see the Lord at work. By "chance" you meet someone who turns out to be a valuable resource for some project you're working on. Without thinking anything about it you say something encouraging to someone who was that very day going to quit her job out of a sense of hopelessness, and she reconsiders. Just a week or so ago a pastor told me about a certain speaker that he was going to have come to his church next year. I told him about some things that the man had written that he might not know about, which could prove the speaker a poor choice. After I told him, he said our conversation was providential. He researched the matter himself and agreed with me.

A note of caution must be sounded here. It is possible to misinterpret the events of our lives, leading us to think God is doing one thing when it is really something else He's up to. As with the other elements of decision making, our interpretations need to be considered in light of the other elements.

Because God's sovereign plan will be done, it isn't up to us to consciously bring it about. However, by being aware of how God is at work, we have clues about how to make decisions. We also grow in our faith as we see plans fall together that we have presented to Him, and we learn to relax in His control in our lives.

Wisdom

Wisdom is a major element of decision making that operates throughout the whole process. Garry Friesen calls his understanding of biblical decision making "the way of wisdom." Paul wrote, "Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise." (Eph. 5:15)

Wisdom is fundamentally a character trait. One writer notes that "the major thrust of wisdom in the Old Testament was a code of moral conduct . . . a way of thinking and conduct that is orderly, socially sensitive, and morally upright."{23} This theme is continued in the New Testament, for example, in Paul's prayer that we gain "spiritual wisdom and understanding," so we "may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work." (Col. 1:9,10) We might define wisdom as "a right ordering of life in keeping with the nature and will of God."

James tells us if we ask for wisdom believing, we will receive it. (1:5-8) But note that "wisdom" isn't the same as "wise answer." We won't have to grow in wisdom if God tells us everything to do. We would always like children need to be led. If we understand the character of God and walk closely with Him, learning to think with the mind of Christ, we will grow in our ability to make wise choices.

Faith

Finally, we come to faith, an element that is essential in all areas of the Christian life. All things the Christian does are to be done in faith. Paul says that whatever isn't of faith is sin. (Rom. 14:23) Recall that James said we must ask for wisdom in faith (1:6). Faith allows us to rest, to not be anxious, to believe God cares and is in control.

We learn and live the Christian life, walking near to God, growing in wisdom. In times of decision, wisdom chooses the best course while faith rests on God's promises to guide us and be with us. We decide a course of action, and faith carries us through.

Summary

To sum up, then, knowing God's will means fundamentally knowing Him and what pleases Him. Although on occasion there could be an unusually clear leading of God, for the most part we make decisions based on the input we gain through the normal course of discipleship, pulled together in spiritual wisdom, trusting God to accomplish His will, and resting in that confidence.

Notes

1. J.I. Packer, "Guidance: How God Leads Us" in Hot Tub Religion (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale Publishers, 1987), 105.
2. Packer, 106.
3. Friesen rejects this view. See his Decision Making and the Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1980).
4. Packer, 110, 116.
5. Bruce Waltke, Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 7. "Most ancient texts still extant [nearly 80%] deal with divining the mind of God," 26.
7. Waltke, 71.
8. As an aid to this, Waltke suggest we talk about the guidance of God rather than the will of God when making decisions. Cf. Waltke, 169.
9. Cf. Friesen, 179.
10. Waltke, 12.
11. Waltke, 54-55.
12. Waltke, 53. The word translated "show us" isn't used again in the New Testament after Pentecost. It is only used elsewhere in Luke 10:1 referring to when Jesus appointed or "showed" the seventy disciples whom He sent out.
13. Waltke, 16.
14. Waltke believes there is an important order to the steps (see Waltke, p. 59), but I disagree. I do see a certain order of priority with respect to the weight of particular elements, however.
15. Waltke, 86.
16. Packer, 128.
17. Waltke, 19.
18. Packer, 129.
19. Packer, 122.
20. Cf. Waltke, 109.
21. Walter A. Elwell, ed., Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), s.v. "Providence," by Walter Elwell.
22. Rick Wade, "Miracles." Probe Ministries, 2001. Available on the Internet at www.probe.org/theology-and-philosophy/theology---general/miracles.html.
23. Elwell, s.v. "Wisdom," by C. Hassell Bullock.

© 2002 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Rick WadeRick Wade served as a Probe research associate for 17 years. He holds a B.A. in communications (radio broadcasting) from Moody Bible Institute, an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology/philosophy of religion) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Master of Humanities (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Dallas. Rick's interests focus on apologetics, Christianity and culture, and the changing currents in Western thought. Before joining Probe Ministries, Rick worked in the ship repair industry in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at rwade@pobox.com.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

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