(Copyright © 2009 by K. Scott Schaeffer)
“How do I know God’s will for my life?”
For teenage and college-aged Christians, no question arises more frequently. As young people look toward their futures, they want direction. And young Christians have the right idea by looking to God for that direction.
This question gets asked more often than it should, however, because few people can provide a sufficient answer to it. Therefore, young Christians keep asking it. The most common answers anyone gives are, “Pray to God and listen quietly for His answer. If you’re not hearing God’s voice, you’re not listening hard enough,” or, “God isn’t listening to you because you have sin in your life. You have to eliminate all of your sin in order to hear His voice.” These answers have many Christians going out of their minds, because they try their best to follow this advice, yet they remain confused about God’s will for their lives.
Adding to the frequency of this question’s utterance is the fact that its asking is often commanded. Many pastors and youth leaders tell their followers, “You must find out God’s will for your life!” They follow with the warning, “If you don’t, you’ll miss out on the wonderful journey God has for you.”
Nobody wants to miss out on something wonderful, so the curiosity about God’s will becomes an urgent crisis—a need to know His will before it’s too late. An inability to figure out God’s plan could lead to a disastrous life followed by an encounter with an angry Maker on Judgment Day. Wow! Talk about pressure!
How do many young Christians respond to this pressure? By grasping at straws. They pray for God to reveal His will for their lives, and, within a short time, they have an answer. Unfortunately, the answer rarely becomes reality. In fact, many believers find themselves pursuing a different path in a matter of only a few months.
Back in my college days, I knew a couple Christian men who had a tremendous heart for God and desperately sought His will. What did they find? A call to become missionaries to China. One of them told me all about this calling with great enthusiasm. Six months later, I spoke to that same man again.
I asked him, “When are you going to China?’
He said, “What?”
I said, “Weren’t you and your friend called to become missionaries to China?”
He replied, “Oh, that. That’s ancient history. God wasn’t really calling us. In fact, my friend and I don’t even talk to each other anymore. It’s funny you remembered that. I had forgotten all about it.”
My friend wasn’t the only person I knew who was misguided about God’s will for his life. Another person, who I often refer to as “me,” made a similar mistake. When I first arrived at Belmont University as a Music Business major in the fall of 1990, a former president of Belmont’s Baptist Student Union insisted that we young Christians figure out God’s will for our lives ASAP.
Of course, I focused on this task immediately. After a couple days of prayer and deep thought, I concluded that God wanted me to be a successful performer in the music business who then spread the gospel through my fame. This was quite a coincidence, since I already desired to be a rock star. God’s will and my will matched!
So have you heard my songs on the radio yet?
Do you know why?
Because I never came anywhere close to becoming a rock star!
I fell for the common lie that circulates among young Christians that if you pray over God’s will, and you have a desire to do something, that it must be God’s desire for you to do that very thing, because God gives you your desires for a reason. However, we are about to find that the Bible never says this.
The moral of these stories is that we’re often mislead about God’s will for our lives, because we go about seeking it the wrong way and sometimes have the wrong motives when doing so. The only way we can find it is to seek it the proper manner.
How do we do that? A good start would be to examine everything the Bible says about God’s will.
Genesis: 12:1, “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.’” [All verses from the NASB unless otherwise noted].
Context: The 11 chapters preceding these provide a quick overview of many generations; but here, the Bible slows down and gives us a detailed look at God’s relationship with Abraham, because it is through Abraham that God initiates the process of building Himself a nation.
Analysis: This story of Abraham makes no mention of the term, God’s will. But it paints the kind of picture that comes to many Christians’ minds when we think of what it means to know God’s will.
Many of us long for an experience just like this one, where God speaks to us in an audible voice and gives us a task for the present, as well as a direction for our personal future. When we try to obey biblical commands that tell us to know and obey God’s will, this is what we aim for. We want Him to tell us in plain words what He wants us to do, and why He wants us to do it.
Unfortunately, occurrences like these are incredibly rare. Therefore, many of us become frustrated in seeking God’s will. Out of our impatience, we often try to force it. We do so by praying to God to tell us His will, and then we assume that the desires we have thereafter must be from Him. The sad reality is that these desires are often nothing more than our own desires; they’re not God’s desires at all.
Why do we want God to work through us in this manner? Sometimes we desire a command like Abraham’s out of our pride, because we want to feel as though we are more important than others. We know that God instructs few people in this manner, and that we will feel special if God addresses us like He addressed some of the Bible’s greatest heroes.
Sometimes we desire instructions like this one, because they are easy to follow and have guaranteed positive results. We hate to be confused over what to do next, and we hate the vague uncertainty of the future. We want God to tell us what decision to make and to assure us a future as great as we had ever hoped for.
Genesis 25:22-23, “The children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If it is so, then why am I this way?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your body; the one people shall be stronger than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.’”
Context: Isaac’s wife Rebekah prepares to give birth to Jacob & Esau.
Analysis: Again, most of us dream of having God reveal a plan this spectacular to us with spoken words. Imagine God telling you that He plans to make a nation out of both your children. During their childhood years, you wouldn’t even have to worry about them running onto the road or sticking a fork in an outlet, because God’s plan would see them through to child-bearing years safely. It would take all of the worry out of being a parent.
Of course, imagine the pride that many of us would have, too, because God chose us out of all people for this special assignment. Unfortunately, pride is sin according to numerous Bible verses.
On the other hand, imagine the love we would feel from God because He chose us for this task. Feeling God’s love isn’t sin. But we shouldn’t have to have a miraculous personal plan revealed to us in order to feel it. The fact that God chose us at the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) to be His children and have eternal life should be enough for us to feel His love. Also, we should not feel His love any less because His plan for us may not be as grand or romantic in our opinion as the plans revealed to the heroes of the Bible.
Unlike Abraham, Rebekah voiced a concern to God, and He eased her mind by telling her what was going on. How many times do we wish that God would ease our concerns by telling us what He plans to do? Many of us pray for God’s direction, not because we want to do what He wants, but because we want to eliminate any concerns we might have about an uncertain future.
Exodus: 18:15-16, “And Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God (“seek God’s will” in the NIV). When they have a dispute, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and His neighbor, and make known the statutes of God and His laws.’”
Context: Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, expresses concern over Moses’ heavy work schedule. The Ten Commandments and the rest of the Mosaic Law have not yet been given at this point (that happens in chapter 20), so the people have to inquire of God through Moses as to how to behave. Moses reveals the will of God by making “known the statutes of God and His Laws.”
Analysis: This is the Bible’s first example of someone seeking God’s will. Abraham did not seek God; God approached him. And Rebekah simply asked what was going on; she did not ask for direction.
There’s one big difference between the Israelites’ pursuit of God’s will and our pursuit of it: Here, the Israelites had not yet received God’s law. That’s why Moses was so overwhelmed with requests. We, on the other hand, have God’s law revealed to us in the Bible.
Unfortunately, many of us fail to examine these biblical laws when seeking God’s will. Instead, we pray for God’s guidance and then rely on gut feeling for the answer. Or we ask our pastor for guidance—a solution better than relying on gut feeling, but still less reliable than knowing the Bible.
Sometimes, it’s as if the Bible is the last place we want to look to find God’s will. This is especially true for charismatic Christians who indulge in the emotional spirituality of the faith, but avoid examining the Bible with the mind. In fact, some of these churches tell their members that it’s a sin to study the Bible with their minds, and that they may only study it through the Holy Spirit. Of course, guess who has the Holy Spirit? The church leadership. This theology is nothing more than a tactic to keep congregations from questioning the church’s non-biblical and anti-biblical rules, beliefs, and practices.
Joshua 9:14, “So the men of Israel [‘leaders’ in the NRSV] took some of their provisions, and did not ask the counsel of the Lord.”
Context: The Gibeonites, having seen the military might of the young nation of Israel, tricked Israel’s leaders into making a treaty of peace with them, so they wouldn’t be destroyed.
Analysis: The nation of Israel was a theocracy in which its leaders were to inquire of God before making a decision. They were to either inquire of God directly, through a prophet, or by doing the ancient equivalent of flipping a coin (i.e.: casting lots). When the Israelites failed to seek the Lord’s guidance, bad things happened, as is the case in this story.
I will not include in this study every instance in which Israel’s leaders inquire of the Lord on the nation’s behalf, because we cannot assume that God’s requirements for individuals are the same as His requirements for His nation. Therefore, going forward, I will only cover verses that reveal God’s will for our personal lives.
1 Chronicles 10:13-14, “So Saul died for his trespass that he committed against the Lord, because of the word of the Lord which he did not keep; and also because he asked counsel of a medium, making inquiry of it, and did not inquire of the Lord. Therefore He killed him, and turned the kingdom to David the son of Jesse.”
Context: Saul, the first king of Israel, died. He had turned away from God during His reign.
Analysis: Again, this verse focuses on Israel’s king seeking guidance for the nation. Nonetheless, this verse applies to us, too, because it shows the dangers of seeking council from the dead through mediums and spiritists.
Why does God forbid such a thing? Is He so hungry for attention that He doesn’t want us talking to other spiritual beings? That’s not the reason at all. No spirit or deceased person can advise us as well as God can, and none of them know the totality of God’s plans. Even more worrisome is that many channeled spirits are evil (I won’t say that all of them are, because Saul had a medium channel Samuel in 1 Samuel, chapter 28, and Samuel was righteous in God’s sight), so they might guide us into committing evil and hurting others.
Jeremiah 10:21, “For the shepherds have become stupid, and have not sought [‘do not inquire of’ in the NRSV] the Lord; therefore they have not prospered, and all their flock is scattered.”
Context: Jeremiah prophecies against the house of Israel.
Analysis: This may be the first verse to criticize individuals for not seeking the Lord’s guidance. However, it’s more likely that this prophecy uses the word, “shepherds,” to denote Jewish leadership. Notice that the word, “flock,” is singular, implying that the shepherds share a common flock, rather than each having a flock of his own. It’s the nation’s leaders who share a common flock; whereas, shepherds tend to individually own flocks.
According to this verse, failure to seek the Lord’s guidance brings about a negative result: lack of prosperity. God wants us to enjoy life. When we seek and follow His guidance, we find happiness; when don’t, we’re left searching.
Zephaniah 1:6, “…those who have turned back from following the Lord, and those who have not sought the Lord or inquired of Him.”
Context: God says that He will destroy Judah and Jerusalem (which fell to Babylon in 586 B.C.) and lists the types of people He will punish.
Analysis: This verse appears to be about those who turned away from the Lord altogether. Nonetheless, this verse assumes that those who follow the Lord seek Him and inquire of Him.
Many of us Christians today claim to follow God but rarely seek out His will. Instead, we use Him to support our personal agendas. Sometimes, we find ways to twist solitary Bible verses so that they appear to support our political or religious beliefs. Other times, we think of God as someone who smiles on everything that we do; therefore, we never change our ways to match His will. When we fail to seek His will, we fail to follow Him altogether.
Matthew 12:50, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.”
Mark 3:35, “Whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother.”
Context: Here, someone had told Jesus, as He spoke to a crowd of people, that His family was waiting for Him. These quotes are Jesus’ response.
Analysis: Do you want to be close to Jesus? So close that He feels like family? If so, these quotes direct you toward achieving your objective.
Of course, at this point, we have yet to find out what this “will” is. This verse may be giving us a hint, however, as it ties family and God’s will together. Will obeying God’s will turn us all into a close-knit family?
Matthew 26:39, “And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, ‘My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
Context: Jesus prays to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. He dreads going to the cross where He will bear the punishment for our sins.
Analysis: This is the only example in the entire Bible of someone ending a prayer with the words, “not as I will, but what Thou wilt” or, “not my will but Yours be done.”
These words have inspired many Christians to end prayers in the same manner. This gesture is noble, but is it really how God wants us to pray?
No other prayers in the Bible end in this manner, not David’s prayers, not Moses’ prayers, not any of the Psalms. The reason for the difference between their prayers and Jesus’ prayer is that Jesus, being the Son of God, already knew God’s plan. He knew God sent Him into our world to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. He knew He had to die on the cross. His prayer was both an expression of dread and a last minute check to be sure there wasn’t a less painful way for Him to save us from God’s wrath on Judgment Day.
When we pray, on the other hand, we don’t know God’s plan as Jesus did, and we don’t know how God might respond. When we end a prayer by saying, “not my will but Yours be done,” that’s the same as saying, “Never mind what I just prayed; go ahead and do what You were going to do anyway.” We show a total lack of faith that God will fulfill our prayer requests, and thus we fall short of Jesus’ encouragement to “have faith and do not doubt (Matthew 21:21 – also see Luke 17:6).”
It’s good to acknowledge that God’s plan is of greater importance than our desires, but we underestimate God’s ability to work our prayers into His plans. We give up too easily when we pray. If Moses would have said, “Not my will, but Your will be done,” when pleading for God not to destroy the Israelites in Numbers 14, the rest of Judeo-Christian history may have never happened. So while Jesus may have negated His prayer because He already knew God’s plan, that doesn’t mean that God requires us to do the same.
Notice that I said Jesus already knew God’s “plan.” In this quote, that’s the definition of God’s will. However, in verses to come, we will find other definitions for God’s will.
John 6:40, “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”
Context: Jesus explains how He is the bread of life.
Analysis: This is the first place in which the Bible spells out a definition of God’s will. This will is not a plan for an individual’s life, but a desire for all who believe in Jesus to have eternal life. It’s a plan of God’s that’s sure to happen.
The certainty of this plan becoming reality is not unique in the Bible. The Bible contains numerous prophecies, etc, that have come true and others that will be fulfilled in the future. All of God’s plans recorded in the Bible succeed. None of them have ever failed. Neither does the Bible give us a single example of a person thwarting God’s plans, whether it be intentionally or by mistake. Even when Satan schemed to kill the Son of God, God worked that scheme into His plan for the redemption of His people.
It’s important that we understand the certainty of God’s plans coming to pass. Many Christians worry that God’s plans will fail if they don’t figure them out and make them happen. That worry in unnecessary. God’s plans will happen.
John 7:17, “If any man is willing to do His will, He shall know of the teacher, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from Myself.”
Context: While at a feast, the Jews expressed wonder at how Jesus could teach without having the proper religious education. Verse 17 is part of Jesus’ answer.
Analysis: One who “is willing to do His will” is someone who commits himself (or herself) to God and places God’s desires above his (or her) own. For any of us to do this, we must first learn what God desires. The big question is, “How do we learn what God’s desires are?”
Jesus says here that anyone who seeks to do God’s will is certain to recognize that His teachings are from God and not from men. Perhaps, those who seek it are God’s chosen people and God simply gives them a gut feeling that Jesus’ words are truth. Or it may be that God’s will itself—for those able to discover it—reveals whether or not Jesus’ teachings are true.
Acts 16:7, “When they had come to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them….”
Context: Paul and his companions pass through Asia Minor (modern Turkey) en route to Macedonia on Paul’s second missionary journey.
Analysis: Here’s a biblical example of how God’s plans happen no matter what we do. Even though Paul headed toward a place where God did not intend for him to go, God steered him in another direction.
Was Paul concerned that He almost missed out on God’s plan for him? Was Paul even repentant of the fact that He had not figured out God’s plan ahead of time? The answer to both questions is “no.” Paul was content to let God guide him, and he was never worried that God’s plans for him would fail. Therefore, we should rest assured that God will steer us in the right direction, regardless of whether we figure out His plans or not.
Acts 21:4, “And after looking up the disciples, we stayed there seven days; and they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem.”
Acts 21:14, “And since he would not be persuaded, we fell silent, remarking, ‘The will of God be done.’”
Context: As Paul prepares to go to Jerusalem, other Christians, including Jesus’ disciples, begged him not to go, because they expected him to be arrested or killed. Even the prophet Agabus foretold Paul’s imprisonment. Nonetheless, Paul insisted upon traveling to Jerusalem, because He possessed a greater desire to do God’s work than to ensure his own safety.
Analysis: These verses are interesting in that verse 4 says that “through the Spirit” they told Paul not to go to Jerusalem, and then verse 14 says that they decided to let the Lord’s will be done. At first glance, these verses seem to say that the Holy Spirit opposed God’s will. What’s more likely is that these Christians knew through the Holy Spirit that something bad would happen to Paul if he went to Jerusalem. (They were right. Paul would go on to be imprisoned there.) While they feared for Paul’s well being, God, on the other hand, planned to spread the Gospel through the events of Paul’s journey.
Acts 22:14, “And he said, ‘The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will, and to see the Righteous One and to hear and utterance from His mouth [“own voice” in the NRSV].’”
Context: Paul recalls his conversion experience in which Ananias informed him of God’s intentions.
Analysis: Is this will a general will that applies to all people, or is it a plan for Paul’s life? It could be either, but since Paul says in Galatians 1 that he received the gospel through revelation, it’s more likely that he speaks of that revelation, which God revealed to him with “His own voice”. Fortunately for us, Paul recorded this gospel and other revelations in letters to churches (the Epistles), and these letters are now in our Bibles, so we need not look anywhere else to experience Paul’s revelation.