Romans 1:9-10, “For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you.”
Context: Paul greets the Roman Christians in the first chapter of his letter to them. His desire to visit them probably stems from a combination of wanting to strengthen their relationships with God and wanting to visit brothers in Christ whom he cares about.
Analysis: Here, the “will of God” represents the means by which Paul was to visit His Roman brethren in Christ. In prayer, Paul effectively asked God to include his request in His plan. Paul understood, as Moses did, that God can integrate our prayer requests with His plan for our lives and for the world.
Romans 2:17-18, 21, “But if bear the name ‘Jew,’ and rely upon the Law, and boast in God, and know His will, and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law…you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself?”
Context: Paul opposes judgmentalism.
Analysis: The will of which Paul writes in this passage represents that which is revealed in the Old Testament Law. The Jews were nuts about the Scriptures and were proud to know them well. Unfortunately, despite such great knowledge, they had a tendency to miss the point of the Scriptures.
Nonetheless, we, too, are required to know God’s will as revealed in the Bible. God’s biblical will applies to all of us. It’s a general will. If you want to know God’s will, you must go to the Bible to find it. That’s not to say God doesn’t have specific tasks for you to carry out that don’t apply to others, but 99% of what you need to know is found in the Bible.
Romans 12:2, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Context: Paul urges the Christians to live a life pleasing to God.
Analysis: This verse gives us another definition of “the will of God:” all that is good, acceptable, and perfect. Where do we go to learn what is good, acceptable, and perfect? The Bible. The Old Testament Law, the prophets, the writings (like Proverbs), the words of Jesus, and the letters of the Apostles, all contain revelation of what is good, acceptable, and perfect.
We can’t learn all of these things by simply praying and then obeying the gut feeling that follows. There are too many issues for us to take this approach. We’d have to pray for God’s direction on each and every issue, but we wouldn’t even know what questions to ask without the Bible’s guidance as to which issues are important. The only way to learn what is good, acceptable, and perfect, is by reading, studying, and knowing the Bible.
Ephesians 1:1, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God….”
Context: Ephesians, chapter 1, is known for being the chapter that gives the most support for the theology of pre-destination: the idea that God chose us (those who are Christians) to be Christians before the human race ever began. Even though it feels to us that we are choosing God, it’s actually God who places the desire to worship Him in our hearts.
Analysis: Not only does Paul credit God for choosing him to be a Christian, but Paul credits God for choosing him to be an Apostle of Christ. How did Paul learn of God’s will for him? Well, Paul didn’t exactly seek out God’s will through his own efforts. Instead, God converted him by means of a miraculous vision on the road to Damascus (see Acts, chapter 9) and then led him to a man named Ananias for instruction.
Of course, most of us will never see a vision from heaven that knocks us to the ground, so our best bet for learning God’s will is studying the Bible.
Ephesians 1:11, “In Him [Christ] also we have obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will [‘accomplishes all things according to His counsel and will’ in the NRSV], to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.”
Context: Ephesians 1 is well-known for Paul’s explanation of predestination in which all Christians were chosen to be Christians by God before the world was created.
Analysis: Notice that God “accomplishes all things according to His counsel and will.” That means He never fails to accomplish anything He wills; all things He wants to accomplish come to be; and everything He accomplishes matches His will. In summary: God’s plans happen no matter what. There’s no mistake we can make that will interfere with them. God has already taken all of our actions and prayers into account when determining His plan for history.
So what about the warning that if we don’t figure out God’s will for our lives that we will miss out on the wonderful journey that awaits us? It’s a lie! We will never miss out on God’s plans for us, because His plans can never be thwarted. It’s arrogant to think that we are powerful enough to ruin God’s plans. Are we more powerful than God? He is in total control, and He never loses that control for even the slightest instant.
1 Thessalonians 3:3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality…”
Context: Paul reminds the Thessalonians to continue following the instructions he had given them in person.
Analysis: Again, we see here a general will of God that applies to all Christians. To be sanctified is to become more like Christ. We do this by obeying the rules of the Bible, which apply to all people.
1 Timothy 2:3, “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”
Context: Paul gives Timothy instructions on how to govern a church, and urges Christians to pray for kings and others in authority.
Analysis: For those who oppose pre-destination theology, they find support for their beliefs in this verse. Because if God desires that everyone be saved, and yet most of them are not, then how can He be in control their choices to become Christians?
I was once told, however, that all doesn’t always mean all; but that it means all kinds about 75% of the time it’s used. Over the years, I have found this to be true. Paul speaks of praying for government leadership in the preceding verses. He is speaking of multiple nations and leaders. He says that God wants people from all of these nations to be saved, not just Jews, not just Romans. He desires salvation for all kinds of people, not for every man or person in the world.
James 4:15, “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.’”
Context: In verses 13-17, James warns the Christians not to assume what will happen in the future, because God controls it.
Analysis: Now we’re back to God’s will representing His specific plans for our lives. Again, James warns that we cannot control even our short-term plans. Everything we plan is subject to God’s approval. That doesn’t mean God won’t let us sin if we plan to, although sometimes He doesn’t. God gives us free will, but sometimes gets in the way of us falling too deeply into sin, especially if we pray for His protection from our sinful ways.
1 Peter 2:15, “For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.”
Context: Peter tells Christians to obey the secular governing authorities.
Analysis: “Doing right” is following all of the Bible’s commands. Following them has numerous positive effects, one of which is that nobody has a legitimate reason to accuse us of being unlawful. This was important for early Christians, because they didn’t want to invite unnecessary persecution. Persecution would come at times, but Christians were never called to do anything that would provoke or increase it.
1 Peter 3:17, “For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.”
1 Peter 4:19, “Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.”
Context: Peter encourages Christians to be willing to suffer for living the Christian life, much like Christ suffered by remaining steadfast in righteousness.
Analysis: The phrase, “if God should will it [our suffering] so,” tells us that suffering should be of God’s will, but never of our own will.
While you might think it preposterous that anyone would impose suffering upon themselves, many Christians do. They believe that God is happy when we suffer, and they say we must deny ourselves and take up our own cross as Jesus did. They are correct about taking up our own crosses as Jesus did, because Jesus instructed us to do so in Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, and Luke 9:23.
Remember, however, that Jesus did not seek out a cross and ask people to nail Him to it so He could suffer for God; He was crucified simply for doing what was right—carrying out His ministry. 1 Peter 3:17 tells us that we, too, must do what’s right, but like Jesus, we should only suffer for it if we have to. We must be willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel, but we should not force suffering upon ourselves needlessly. That’s what the other religions of the world are all about. Christianity is so much better than that!
(For more on the anti-Christian nature of self-imposed suffering, read the Christian Freedom study.)
1 Peter 4:2, “…live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men [‘human desires’ in the NRSV], but for the will of God.”
Context: Peter inspires believers to be willing to suffer for Christ and no longer live sinfully like they had in the past.
Analysis: In the Bible, what’s the opposite of “human desires?” God’s desires! In other words, God’s will. We find biblical examples of human desires in Galatians 5:19-21. They are “…immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing…” And what does Galatians 5:22-23 say are God’s desires? They are “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…”
Here, again, we have God’s will for our lives revealed to us by the Bible.
Having examined all Bible verses addressing God’s will, we’ve found the source of confusion over it: the fact that God’s will has two primary definitions. The first definition is God’s plan. The second definition is God’s law. The first is a specific, personal will. The second is a general will, which is the same for all Christians.
The Bible verses that command us to know God’s will instruct us to know His general will for all of us. They do not tell us to figure out His plan for our personal future. And nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to figure out God’s plan for our entire lives.
While some might argue that life is short, there’s a sense in which life is long, too. A lot can happen in a lifetime. For some of us, it’s as though we live several different lives in one lifetime. Those of us who have been around for awhile can look back on our lives and see how God has led us in directions we never could have expected or even understood during our early adult years. God doesn’t require that we memorize the map to the long and winding road we are to travel. God knows the way, and He will see us through to the finish, because His plans never fail.
While the Bible never requires us as individuals to inquire of God about personal direction like the leaders of Israel had to, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. Why not check with God first before making any important decision? (Decisions over insignificant things like what to eat for breakfast and what to wear should not be brought before God, because Ecclesiastes 5:2 says, “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God.”) If God chooses to reveal direction to us, whether it comes by an angel, vision, burning bush, or a set of circumstances that make our decision easier, then we experience God’s involvement in our lives. If God remains silent, don’t worry; just make sure that your decision aligns with God’s general will that’s revealed throughout the Bible.
When seeking God’s will, we must place His general will for all Christians ahead of His specific plan for our lives. Imagine taking a class in school that’s crucial to your career. Throughout the semester, you fail to do your assignments, perform poorly on tests, and fail to participate in class. Toward the end of the semester, the professor informs the class that he has a special opportunity for a student to work on a project with a professional who is established and well-connected in your field of study. You enthusiastically volunteer in hopes of being catapulted into a successful career. Should the professor choose you—the one who failed to do what was required of everybody? The professor will most certainly not choose you. He will choose someone who has excelled at fulfilling the basic requirements.
This is not to say that God isn’t free to choose an underachiever for a special task. God may do whatever He wants. Nonetheless, our focus is to be on the primary assignment that all Christians must complete: knowing God’s will and adhering to it as commanded in the Bible. God’s will as revealed in the Scriptures is necessary “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work [2 Timothy 3:16-17].” Without these essentials, we are unequipped to carry out God’s will for our personal lives. So if you’re worried about missing out on a wonderful journey planned by God, then get to work on knowing and doing God’s will as revealed in the Bible.
Don’t just study the New Testament, either. Keep in mind that Paul spoke of the Old Testament Scriptures when he wrote verses 16 and 17 to first century Christians (the New Testament had not yet come together at this time). We may not overlook the Old Testament. Contrary to popular Christian belief, the New Testament is a supplement to the Old Testament, not a replacement for it. We can’t ignore it because Paul failed to re-write it in the Epistles and because Jesus failed to recite it in the Gospels. Both of them chose not to reiterate it, because early Christians understood the importance of the Old Testament law and knew it well.
Why doesn’t God expect us to figure out His plan for our entire lives? There are a couple of reasons. The first is that we would let our misconceptions about what God’s plans might look like interfere with seeing God’s plans clearly. For example, we live in a romantic age. I’m not talking about dating and marriage; I’m talking about literary romanticism. Most of us have big dreams of getting out there and living a spectacular fairy tale life, like we would see in a movie packed with inspiring heroism and narrow escapes.
While we are certain to have some powerful experiences in carrying out God’s plans, the plans He has for us are often not grand from our point of view. A Christian might imagine that God will want him to become a famous Christian rock star, when God’s true plan for him may be to befriend a person who’s unpopular and down on his luck. God may then want him to be a good representative of Christ in the workplace, so that a co-worker will be open to becoming a Christian when the timing is right, years down the road. Later in life, we may look back on these experiences and know God’s power through them, even though they were never experiences we would have foreseen as wonderful.
Not only do we over-romanticize God’s plans, we tend to limit them to what we deem to be important. For example, in America, we are very career focused, because we have a historically high number of career choices available to us. Throughout history, however, peoples’ options were limited. Most people had little choice but to do what their parents did. God still worked great plans for those peoples’ lives, even though their careers had little to do with their duties to God. Today, in trying to figure out God’s plans for our lives, we tend to focus too much on careers and not enough on the little opportunities around us that just might make all the difference in light of eternity.
The final reason that we’re not required to foreknow God’s plans for our entire lives is that we simply can’t see the all of the long and winding road that lies before us from where we stand. Take this website for example. Could I have known back in 1990, at Belmont University, when trying to determine God’s plan for my life, that God wanted me to someday minister to people through a website? Websites didn’t exist in 1990! Neither were my talents and passions in writing. They were in music. I loved music, wanted to commit my life to it, and had developed some talent (although not much) around it. Meanwhile, I dreaded writing, wasn’t very good at it, and considered English to be my least favorite subject. Also, I was a semester away from experiencing word processing for the first time. Would I have looked forward to writing so extensively using nothing but a typewriter, where if I wanted to change something, I would have had to type the page all over again? Christian writing was the furthest thing from my mind. Yet God ultimately led me down an unforeseeable, yet amazing, path to doing just that.
While we are called to use our talents to serve God, we must take care not to limit ourselves to our talents. I once met a woman who told me that God’s call for her was the Christian music business (I heard that one a lot in Nashville), and that she refused to do anything else but that. She complained to me how her former pastor had encouraged her to teach Sunday school, and she replied to him that doing so was not her calling, only the music business was. She may have been right in that Sunday school was not the appropriate ministry for her. Nonetheless, I sensed a reluctance to remain open to where God would lead her.
Not to be self-focused, but as I look at my journey (it’s the one I know best, since I have been present for the whole thing), I realize that I never would have expected my sales career to figure into ministry plans, because I initially lacked natural talent in sales; I was terrible at it. But that’s exactly why God placed me there. My people skills were pathetic. Only out of a need to survive did I improve them over many years of working in sales.
In the corporate sales world, I faced a lot of temptation to deceive potential customers. It was the norm for sales reps and their employers to do so. This experience proved invaluable when I wrote my study on Greed & Oppression of the Poor on the Essentials page. A pastor who majors in religion, goes straight to seminary, and then goes straight into the ministry, could never relay the same message, because he has never experienced the harsh realities of the corporate sales world like I did.
When trying to determine God’s plan for my life in 1990, it was inconceivable to me that God would use things I did poorly, like writing and sales, to train me for it. I could only imagine back then that He would use my passion for music in His plan, because the music business was where I envisioned my future at the time.
Seeing the long and winding road in God’s plan from the present all the way to the end of our lives is nearly impossible. That’s why God never requires us to see it. He only requires that we learn His will as revealed in the Bible, and that we seek His guidance on the decisions we must make in the immediate future. We need not worry about the more distant future, however, because God’s plans never fail.