Finding the will of God

Years ago, I was teaching a Bible study, and the topic of God’s guidance came up. A young man shared how much he desired the leading of God in every area of his life. “I want God to tell me when to go to the bathroom!” he said. “I want him to tell me what clothes to wear and what food to eat.”

Many of us will laugh when we read this, but it does sound kind of nice in a way, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be great if God took away all the uncertainty and ambiguity in our lives? It would be so much easier if he would just tell us exactly what to do, and how, and when, and for how long.

Those of you who are parents, do you do this for your children? Well, sure you do, when they’re too young to make decisions themselves. You tell them when to get up and when to go to bed; you tell them what to eat and specify how they should eat (or more precisely how they should not eat); you tell them to brush their teeth, stop hitting their sister, and that, no, kitties don’t like to go swimming. This is all well and good if the child is 4 or 5, but what about when they’re 23? Should you still be giving this kind of detailed guidance when they’re mature adults? We forget sometimes that Scripture speaks of us growing up:

Then we will no longer be immature like children. . . . Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ.

Ephesians 4:14-15

Many translations read that we will instead “grow up” and be like Christ. And we shouldn’t forget what the writer of Hebrews had to say to his readers:

You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.

Hebrews 5:12-14

What is the “will of God”?
We often talk about the will of God without really seeing how Scripture defines it. What does the Bible mean by the “will of God”? The Bible never actually speaks of the will of God the way we usually do. We find no place in Scripture where the will of God refers to who a person is to marry, where they are to live, which job they should take, etc. Not that these are unimportant decisions! The Bible does give us a lot of guidance regarding these areas. But it doesn’t speak of the will of God in the sense of whether I should choose what’s behind door #1 or #2. This idea of the “will of God” simply isn’t in there.

Many times we complain, “If only I knew what God’s will was for me . . .” But we do know! Is it God’s will for you to love him with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength? Is it God’s will for you to grow spiritually? Is it God’s will for you to love others (and not just those who love you, but especially your enemies)? Is it God’s will for you to be a loving husband, wife, parent or child? Is it God’s will for you to be a diligent, hard-working, responsible employee (or a gracious, generous employer)? Is it God’s will for you to use the gifts he’s given you to love your fellow believers in the church? Is it God’s will for you to tell others the good news of Christ? We could go on with this all day, couldn’t we?

The Bible doesn’t speak of God’s will as some secret knowledge we have to somehow acquire or gain access to. In fact, we are held responsible to know God’s will:

So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. . . . Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do [other translations: understand what the will of the Lord is].

Ephesians 5:15-17

No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right,
to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

We are told specifically that it is God’s will that we stay away from all sexual sin (1 Thessalonians 4:13), that we be thankful in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and that our honorable lives would silence any who might accuse us (1 Peter 2:15). Finding the will of God is really not that difficult. God speaks to us through his Word and Spirit. We just have to listen.

The Bible never teaches us to seek God’s will;
it teaches us to seek God, and do his will.

But how am I supposed to make decisions? 
Sometimes we think there’s one—and only one—choice that is the “perfect will of God,” only one perfect match for us in marriage, only one perfect job or ministry for us, one perfect car or house for us to buy. But we don’t find this idea in Scripture either. The Bible has a lot to say about how we make our decisions, but we don’t see in Scripture that Annette must somehow find God’s will as to whether she should marry Sam or Santosh, or that Andre must receive some sign from God before he decides to move to Buenos Aires or Bangalore.

Let’s go back to Scripture. The New Testament was written during the electrifying first decades of the church, when the Holy Spirit seemed to be at work in amazingly direct, supernatural ways. So how did these leaders make decisions? We should see them consistently waiting on direct guidance from God (or at least a strong feeling of “being led”), shouldn’t we? But that’s not what what we find:

Finally, when we could stand it no longer, we decided to stay alone in Athens, and we sent Timothy to visit you.

1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 

Meanwhile, I thought I should send Epaphroditus back to you. . . . I am sending him because he has been longing to see you, and he was very distressed that you heard he was ill.

Philippians 2:25-26

So I thought I should send these brothers ahead of me . . .

2 Corinthians 9:5

And if it seems appropriate for me to go along, they can travel with me.

1 Corinthians 16:4

You may be asking why I changed my plan. Do you think I make my plans carelessly? Do you think I am like people of the world who say “Yes” when they really mean “No”?

2 Corinthians 1:17

This is just a small sample to give us a flavor. It’s not hard to find examples of this kind of decision making throughout Acts and the letters to the churches. And it’s not just something the apostles did; Paul expected the same kind of decision making from the people in the churches as well. To those who had to decide between two believers in conflict, he says:

Isn’t there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these issues?

1 Corinthians 6:5

And, on the issue of who a widow should marry, he instructs:

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but only if he loves the Lord.

1 Corinthians 7:39

Notice the will of God is that she marry only another believer, but beyond that she is free to marry anyone she wishes! Paul never even hints that she should seek God’s will regarding the individual she should marry (nor does he instruct this to anyone else in this long chapter on marriage). So how can she know which Christian man to marry? Here’s what we need to distinguish:

We aren’t seeking to find the one right choice,
but to make a wise choice.

“But wait a minute,” someone might protest, “didn’t God supernaturally direct Paul’s ministry?” And, of course, this is true. God gave Paul very clear, direct guidance at certain times. The Holy Spirit instructed the elders of the church in Antioch to send out Barnabas and Saul (aka Paul). In Acts 19:21, we’re told that Paul was compelled by the Spirit to go to Macedonia and Achaia before going on to Jerusalem.

But in Acts 16:6-8 we see an intriguing account that reveals how Paul made ministry decisions. He and Silas travel through a couple of areas and then head for the province of Asia—but the Holy Spirit prevents them from going there. Now, at this point wouldn’t we expect them to “seek the will of God” as to which direction they should go? But that’s not what they do. Instead, they reconsider their options and make their next best choice—which God also halts. (“. . . but again the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go there.”) So they figure the third time’s the charm and settle for Plan C! And that night Paul has a vision from God leading them on into Greece, which they obey. All of this illustrates biblical principles that we see throughout Scripture:

  • God may at times give us very clear, unambiguous direction. When he does, it will be unmistakeable and undeniable. We won’t need to guess. Our only decision will be whether to obey God or not.
  • Most of the time God doesn’t give this kind of supernatural direction. When he has chosen not to give us this kind of guidance, we aren’t to keep seeking a sign from him or try to manufacture it on our own.
  • If God hasn’t clearly shown us which choice to make, then he is expecting us to use the wisdom he has given us. He wants us to grow up and become like him, knowing right from wrong, and what is wise from what is foolish. Instead of trying to get some sign as to the right choice, we’re to strive to make the wisest choice possible.
  • Even when we don’t see God’s supernatural guidance, he’s orchestrating our lives and guiding us behind the scenes. He already knows the decisions we’re going to make, and he’s incorporated all of this into his plans for us. If we’re sincerely trying to live a godly, wise life, we can trust him to steer us away from danger.

But I don’t have this kind of wisdom!
No, we don’t, and it’s good that we realize it. But we have the source to all the wisdom we need. James 1:5 says:

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you.

And Romans 12:2 gives us an even more clear picture how we can grow in this wisdom, and know more fully the will of God:

Don’t copy the behavior
and customs of this world,
but let God transform you into a new person
by changing the way you think.
Then you will learn to know God’s will for you,
which is good and pleasing and perfect.

                            

Previous post in this series

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

Walk with the wise and become wise;
associate with fools and get in trouble.

Proverbs 13:20

Sounds like good advice, doesn’t it? Thankfully, the Bible provides a number of books we refer to as ‘wisdom literature.’ Last week, we explored the Book of Psalms, and many of the psalms were intended to pass on wisdom. In addition to these psalms, we have the books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. We’ll take a look at each of these, but first we need to know exactly what we’re talking about.

The passage I quoted above teaches us to walk with the wise and to not associate with fools. Does this mean we should seek out the brightest people to spend time with, and avoid those who are not quite as sharp? Should we have people take an IQ test before we hang out with them? The word wise in the Bible doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence. It refers to someone who has a ‘skill for living,’ particularly in the sense of making choices and decisions that are truly godly. On the other hand, fools aren’t people who are ignorant or unintelligent, but those who willingly resist and defy what they know to be right, and insist on stubbornly doing their own thing. This is why:

Fear of the LORD is the foundation of wisdom.
Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment.

Proverbs 9:10

So if these biblical books will help us gain this skill in living godly, healthy lives, we should take a closer look.


Job

The book of Job is a very ancient book, possibly even written before the time of Moses. Many people are familiar with the basic story: God allowed Satan to harm Job (but not to kill him). Through tragedy after tragedy, Job lost almost everything he knew and loved. Despite being tempted even by his wife to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9), Job held onto his faith in God, movingly expressed in words such as these:

Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.

Job 13:15 (NIV)

 

The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
may the name of the LORD be praised.

Job 1:21

The book of Job begins and ends with the story of Job, but most of the book is a poetic exchange between Job and his friends (and ultimately God). It’s easy to get lost in all the Hebrew poetry, so it’s important to pay attention to who’s speaking at any given point. This is especially necessary because Job’s friends have an understanding of Job’s predicament that is completely upside down. They tell him repeatedly, in very poetic words, that all of his troubles are because of his sin. They insist that if he would simply repent to God and stop sinning, then all the bad things will stop happening and he’ll experience only what is pleasant. (We still hear this today, don’t we?) Toward the end of the book, God himself rebukes the friends and their condemnation of Job. So we want to make sure we’re not drawing our wisdom from the unwise friends of Job! And we certainly don’t want to be teaching their erroneous thoughts as the wisdom of God—as I’ve seen done!


Ecclesiastes

If you don’t understand what this book is all about, it can be the most depressing book in the Bible. Many believe the author was Solomon, although other scholars disagree. Solomon does seem to fit the author’s descriptions of himself. He was king of Israel, ruling from Jerusalem. He had almost unlimited resources and power. And he made it his goal to discover the ultimate meaning of life. He begins the book with his conclusion:

“Everything is meaningless,”
says the Teacher,
“completely meaningless!”

Ecclesiastes 1:2

Isn’t that uplifting? After describing the continuous, unending cycles within nature, he writes:

Everything is wearisome beyond description.
No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied.
No matter how much we hear, we are not content.
History merely repeats itself.
It has all been done before.
Nothing under the sun is truly new.
We don’t remember what happened in the past,
and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now.

Ecclesiastes 1:8-11

In the rest of his book, he tells us of everything he tried in order to find meaning and purpose in life. He poured himself into great accomplishments and building projects, into learning and wisdom. He sought to bring justice and benefit to society, and he sought pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Everything became ultimately meaningless to him, like “grasping oil” or “chasing the wind.” The best he could come up with is to fear God, work hard, and enjoy whatever you have with those you love for as long as you can. (Doesn’t sound that different from the common wisdom of today, does it?) For a book we find in the Bible, it’s surprisingly cynical.

But then we notice a phrase that is repeated throughout the book. The author is describing what he’s found “under the sun.” The meaninglessness and elusive, fleeting sense of purpose is the best one can expect to find by looking merely “under the sun”—that is, from a purely human perspective. Unless we can somehow see life from God’s perspective, this is the most we can hope for. I like to compare the depressing, “under the sun” meaninglessness of Ecclesiastes with the words of Paul in his letter to the Philippians:

I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

Philippians 3:7-8

So we see only what is under the sun, or we see everything that is under the Son.


Song of Songs

This book (another one associated with Solomon) can be confusing to readers. If you don’t know it’s there, it can seem surprisingly graphic for something in the Bible:

Your lips are like scarlet ribbon;
your mouth is inviting.
Your cheeks are like rosy pomegranates
behind your veil.
Your neck is as beautiful as the tower of David,
jeweled with the shields of a thousand heroes.
Your breasts are like two fawns,
twin fawns of a gazelle grazing among the lilies.
Before the dawn breezes blow
and the night shadows flee,
I will hurry to the mountain of myrrh
and to the hill of frankincense.
You are altogether beautiful, my darling,
beautiful in every way.

Song of Songs 4:3-7

Now, today we wouldn’t ordinarily compliment someone by telling them, “Your teeth are as white as sheep”(!) but it’s not hard to look past the ancient Hebrew expressions to see the emotions being expressed. These are emotions that most of us know well. The church went through a period of history when many were embarrassed by the sexual frankness of this book. So they decided it was an allegory about Christ and the church. The problem is that this book is about precisely what it seems to be about! It’s difficult to read Christ and the church into a passage such as:

You are my private garden,
my treasure, my bride,
a secluded spring, a hidden fountain.
Your thighs shelter a paradise of pomegranates . . .

Song of Songs 4:12-13

Okay, but why is it in the Bible? And why are we talking about this book in a study of the wisdom books in the Bible? Don’t forget what “wisdom” is all about in Scripture. It’s a skillfulness in living a life that is pleasing to God (and therefore healthy). Next to our relationship with God, what is more central to our lives than our marital relationship? And what demonstrates the wisdom of God better than a healthy, vibrant marriage?

I think it’s wonderful that this book is in Scripture. Many times, Christians have viewed sexual intimacy as a necessary evil. But the Bible celebrates this beautiful intimacy between husband and wife. We need to remember that the magic of romantic love and the wondrous intensity of emotional, physical and spiritual intimacy we experience in marriage were all created for us by God. The more we see the precious beauty of God-given sexual intimacy in marriage, the more we clearly see sex outside of the marriage relationship as the cheap imitation it is.


Proverbs

When we think of wisdom literature in the Bible, we usually think of the book of Proverbs, so I’ve kept this book for last. We first need to remember that this is a poetic book, so we should expect the usual poetic forms as I described last week. For instance, one proverb tells us:

Sensible children bring joy to their father;
foolish children despise their mother.

Proverbs 15:20

I recall studying this verse in a Bible study years ago, and someone was trying to explain how this proverb showed the different ways mothers and fathers relate to their children. Of course, if we understand how poetry works in the Scriptures, we’ll know this proverb is simply saying the same thing in two different ways. Don’t make the mistake of overcomplicating poetry.

As we’re reading proverbs in the Bible, one of the most important things for us to remember is the nature of a proverb. What is a proverb? We’re all very familiar with proverbs, even if we’ve never read the Bible before. Every culture has proverbs. A proverb is simply a catchy saying that expresses a general truth. Here’s a common American proverb:

Early to bed, early to rise,
makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

Is this proverb true? Well, yes, sure it is. But is it an absolute law? Is every person who goes to bed early and rises early guaranteed health and wealth and wisdom? No, of course not. It’s not some kind of law; it’s just expressing a general principle. It’s a short, pithy expression of something that is generally true, without including all of the clarifying details. That’s what a proverb is—and that’s also what a proverb is in the Bible. Let me give you an example:

Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools,
or you will become as foolish as they are.

Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools,
or they will become wise in their own estimation.

Proverbs 26:4-5

Now, is the Bible contradicting itself? No, because these aren’t absolute commands; they’re expressions of principles that are generally true, and very wise. It’s not hard for us to see the wisdom in both proverbs. We don’t want to lower ourselves to the level of the fool (the person stubbornly defying God) and enter into their silly arguments. It just makes us look as foolish as they. But then there’s also a time to counter foolish arguments. If we just remain silent, the claims of the fool could appear unassailable. So we have two proverbs, wisely giving us both perspectives of this problem.

It’s important that we read the proverbs as they’re intended. The proverbs in Scripture are general principles, not absolute promises. It’s common to hear people claim certain proverbs as promises from God that will never fail.

Direct your child onto the right path,
and when they are older, they will not leave it.

Proverbs 22:6

Is this really telling us that if we raise our kids right, when they’re older they will remain faithful? Are good Christian parents guaranteed to have good Christian children? (Does this mean that God was a faulty ‘parent,’ not directing Adam and Eve onto the right path?) Can we claim this as a promise from God? No, because this isn’t found in the book of Promises, but the book of Proverbs—and that’s exactly what it is, a proverb. This is expressing a general principle—kids tend to continue in life according to how they were raised—not an absolute promise or guarantee. The book of Proverbs was not intended to catalogue promises from God, but short, catchy sayings that make us wiser in how we approach life. We need to use them the way God intended.

A proverb is a general principle,
not an absolute promise.

You’ll find humorous proverbs:

A beautiful woman who lacks discretion
is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout.

Proverbs 11:22

Sarcastic proverbs:

Without oxen a stable stays clean,
but you need a strong ox for a large harvest.

Proverbs 14:4

And proverbs with sober warnings:

There is a path before each person that seems right,
but it ends in death.

Proverbs 14:12

There are two primary truths the wisdom literature in Scripture emphasizes over and over again:

1. True wisdom (skill in living a healthy life) comes from God.

2. Wisdom is of inestimable value, something to be earnestly sought.

Tune your ears to wisdom,
and concentrate on understanding.
Cry out for insight,
and ask for understanding.
Search for them as you would for silver;
seek them like hidden treasures.
Then you will understand what it means to fear the LORD,
and you will gain knowledge of God.

Proverbs 2:2-5

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom [see above]

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle