God's will. You've heard about it. But how do you know what God's will actually is?
So you’ve decided to follow Christ. Awesome! But soon—perhaps very soon—after making that choice, you’re likely to be confronted with a host of others: Is my job the right one for me? Should I join this church or that one? Should I marry? Whom should I marry? When?
What decision will most please God?
Theologian J. I. Packer said, “No other concern commands more interest or arouses more anxiety [among evangelicals] nowadays than discovering the will of God.”1 He’s right. Those who follow Christ are anxious to please him—in both the big and small choices we make in our everyday lives. We want to “get it right” and be confident that we’re doing what God wants us to do.
The first step in knowing God’s will is simply to know God.
Imagine you’ve come into a marriage truly blind: you know nothing about your spouse, other than the fact that he or she is the one your family has chosen for you. How could you possibly know what your new mate prefers in any matter? Do they take their coffee black or with cream and sugar? You don’t know. You can’t know, because you don’t know this person at all. Of course, in time you will become aware of these things, but only as you get to know your spouse.
In the same way, you come to know the basics of God’s will for you by getting to know God himself. Read his Word—the Bible—to learn about his nature and character. Discover what he says about what pleases him and what does not. “God’s regular way of showing us what he calls us to is by appropriate application of the once-for-all revealed truths of the Bible.”2
But as you learn about God, remember this: your relationship with him is based upon his performance, not yours. No choice you could make, no decision you could arrive at, will cause him to love you more—or less—than he already does.
A Cosmic Scavenger Hunt?
A view frequently put forward is that discerning God’s will is like going on a cosmic scavenger hunt. We imagine that God has one single, perfect plan for our lives (which is, of course, hidden) that we must discover, recognize, and then follow to a tee.
Author Bruce Waltke calls this view “a version of the old con man’s ruse, the three-shell game.”3 Which shell is God’s will hidden under? What if I lose track of all the moving parts? How can I be sure of what and where his will is?
This view implies that in every matter, God has a specific, hidden Plan A. Failure to discover it results in a life-long sentence to Plan B.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
Years ago, a man very learned in the Jewish Law asked Jesus an important question about “doing the right thing” in order to please God. He asked, “‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’”4
In other words, God is pleased when we love him with our whole heart and love others as we do ourselves. This much is his will for every believer—and it is certainly not hidden from us. Jesus put it out there for the entire world to see.
It’s Not About You
As pastor Rick Warren famously said in his book The Purpose Driven Life, “It’s not about you.”5 God’s will is about, well, God. As you seek his will, endeavor to see beyond your immediate questions or desires and focus on bringing glory to God through your life.
God has a plan for his kingdom. As a believer, you are a part of the kingdom—but you’re not the only part. He is pleased and satisfied with you based on Christ’s sacrifice, not your performance.
In fact, many of the small decisions you agonize over could work out for your good and God’s glory in a number of different ways. His primary desire is that you love him—and others—well.
Obey What You Know, Trust, and Go
“We cannot predict or control what hasn’t happened yet, nor can we change the past, but God is sovereign over both,” writes Gerald Sittser. He suggests that instead of asking God whether you should be a teacher or an accountant, “a better question might be ‘God, what do you require of me now, today? What would please you and bring you honor in this immediate circumstance?’ Somehow, these decisions seem less paralyzing, and easier to discern.”6
Rather than becoming stuck and self-focused with each individual decision, it would be wiser to consider God’s Word carefully, ask the advice of mature believers, consider the doors that God may be opening or closing on opportunities, then simply obey what you are able to discern in faith.
God is wise, powerful, and good. He is able to cause all things to work together “for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”7 Once you’ve thoughtfully and prayerfully considered your options, simply obey what you know, trust in God, and move forward.
Finally, as you consider the will of God, be flexible. A yes to one situation does not necessarily mean yes forever, nor does it mean that a similar question won’t come up again in different conditions. Circumstances may change, but God does not.8 He is always faithful to his covenant children.
“This week,” writes Pastor Gregg Matte, “a relational intersection could change the course of your life. A conversation on bended knee could be the tipping point of your prayer life. By the same token, an unexpected phone call could bring you to your knees in grief. Life isn’t always easy. Its course can change in seconds, even as we try to plan out the years.”9
A hiker knows that, no matter the destination, he needs to be able to orient himself to true north. If he can keep this constant before him, he can find his way. True north for the believer seeking God’s will is the answer to these questions: Will God be glorified in this choice? Does it demonstrate my love for him and for others?
If you can answer yes, your decision is in harmony with God, and you can be confident as you move in faith.