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.
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.
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].
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.
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.
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.