Be very careful, then, how you live-not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. (Ephesians 5:15-17)
In this article I will work towards an answer to the question ‘How can we know the will of God?’ Christians are interested in God’s will. In church we regularly pray the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Your kingdom com, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Often we face puzzlement about this will of God business. Is everything that happens in the world the will of God? Is life like a scripted drama and we are actors in a divine comedy for the entertainment of God? Is evil and suffering God’s will? Where does human freedom come in?
Some of the confusion lies in the fact that there are several categories of the will of God. We need to distinguish these categories when talking about the will of God. We shall look at four such categories. We shall then consider three elements in guidance. We shall examine six of the usual means by which God makes the Divine will known to us.
FOUR CATEGORIES OF THE WILL OF GOD
When we speak about the will of God we should be aware that the ‘will of God’ is used in several ways. I call these ‘categories of the will of God.’ We can distinguish four such categories. We shall discuss the will of God under four headings: the eternal will of God, the providential will of God; the permissible will of God, and the specific will of God. We will discuss each of these in turn.
1. The eternal will of God means God’s plan for the whole universe. Much of this remains a mystery to human beings. By our own natural lights (reason) we are unable to penetrate the Divine mind. Christians claim that through the ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ God disclosed the eternal plan with sufficient clarity so that we are not in complete darkness.
With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to the good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth… (Eph. 1:8-10)
God’s eternal, or perfect will, includes the consummation of all things in God. It is God’s eternal will to reconcile all things in Christ. God wills to redeem, not only human beings, but the “whole creation”.
For the whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of god; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:19-20 emphasis is mine)
The eternal will of God grants us a framework in which we live and order our lives. This framework means the all of life somehow moves towards the purpose which was preordained in the mind of God. God intends the redemption of all creation Indeed,
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
This is not a statement that everything that happens is by God’s decree. Much happens in this world that displeases God. The statement by Paul means that God can use anything, even evil for good. God uses something as horrendous as the crucifixion of Jesus for redemptive purposes. Nothing can ultimately frustrate the will of God. God is in control and can use even evil for the Divine purposes. In the Bible we see this truth in the story of Joseph:
But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. (Gen. 50:19-20)
2. By Providential will of God we mean God’s activity of ordering and sustaining creation. We may also call this the general or natural will of God. God upholds the regularity of nature through what we call ‘natural laws’. Natural laws cause gravity to continue to hold objects to the surface of the earth; hard substances resist fluid and pliable substances making it possible for human beings to make tools, construct water conduits to move water about, and build boats to navigate waterways. Certain substances predictably nourish organic life. We eat certain plants and animals but not glass, stones, or mollusk shells. Heat and cold affect objects with a high degree of predictability. Water freezes normally at 32° Fahrenheit and fire burns wood and emits heat. The general or natural will of God indicates the regularity of the natural order and makes life predictable with a fair degree of certainty. It is not absolute. God remains free to act in the world. Miracles can occur which suspend natural laws, or at least defy our understanding of their usual predictability. The world is not a mechanical devise. But God and upholds nature with consistency without which human life would be impossible. The usual regularity of nature then is reliable.
3. By Permissible will of God refers to those things that God allows or permits to occur that do not reflect the eternal or perfect. This can also be called the conditional will of God. God is love and God created out of the abundance of Divine love. God eternally wills the existence of human beings who love. But love is free. Love that is coerced is no longer love. Therefore, God created human beings who think, feel, and will, and act. Human beings are capable of receiving and giving love. Human beings possess the capacity of responding to love. God eternally wills the freedom of human beings. God permits human freedom to respond in love. But we may also respond in unloving ways, in disobedience.
Take for example, parents who just before leaving for a night out tell their children to clean up their room, put their toys away, and make the beds before they return later that evening. But when the mom and dad arrive home they find the room still untidy, dolls and plastic soldiers scattered on the floor, clothes strewn about, and the beds in shambles. The children did not do what the parents told them to do. They freely chose not to obey, although they did so within the parent’s will to allow them to exercise their freedom. Consequences follow conditionally. The parent permitted the children their freedom to obey or to discovery.
We are rational, purposing, and willing creatures. We are not automatons. We have volition. But human freedom also has a dark side. We may use our freedom against God. We may act in unloving ways. We may refuse God’s love and withhold love from other human beings. God permits this. God permits human beings to act contrary to the eternal will. To do so is called sin. God does not intervene and retrain us from doing something destructive to ourselves or to another. Therefore, not everything that happens can be said to reflect the perfect will of God, although God does permit such things to occur.
For example, if a drunken driver hits and kills a child, this does not mean that God willed the death of that child. God did uphold the freedom of the drunken driver to imbibe and intoxicating amount of alcohol. God also permitted the laws of nature to remain constant: When the bloodstream reaches a certain level of alcohol, the human brain becomes intoxicated and its reasoning abilities and reaction times are impaired; hard objects (i.e. the automobile) destroy more malleable objects (i.e. the child). A murderer may discharge a bullet from a gun and the trajectory of the bullet will abide by the usual factors of gravity and resistance. If the bullet strikes a person it can penetrate the body and inflict injury or even death. God does not always suspend the natural laws. Not everything that happens pleases God. This is the awful freedom that God grants to human beings.
It is a limited freedom, however. We can declare independence from God, but we cannot really live free from God or from natural laws. It is sufficient freedom within the limitations of finitude. Finitude means limitations. We are bound by space, time, causality, and substance. For example, we cannot ultimately escape our own death, or the need for food, water, and air to sustain our lives. We cannot abuse others and have a harmonious life here on earth. Whereas God permits sufficient freedom, yet there are boundaries to that freedom. We are free to love or to hate. But hate has consequences. We cannot hate and then enjoy the peaceful harmony of love. Sin begets consequences that serve to chasten sin. The punishment for sin is more sin. In this way God upholds the order of the eternal plan.
Now someone may raise several questions like, “Why did god create creatures endowed with such awful freedom and permit them to use that freedom destructively?”; “Could not god have created a perfect world wherein there is no sin, no pain, and no disobedience?” Such questions cannot be answered as we are unable, by our finite minds, to penetrate into God’s infinite mind. I suppose God could have created a very different universe. Perhaps God has. After all, how do we know what God hasn’t already created all kinds of universes existing simultaneously in different dimensions! But the one we experience is all we know, or can know presently. Apparently, God thought this measure of human freedom worth the risk. We would be foolish to say that our ideas about God’s world and human freedom are better than God’s own ideas. Our very reasoning abilities come from God, who is the Supreme Mind. Some things we simple accept as given and trust the Creator’s plan. We may imagine a world without pain, suffering, and death. We may long for a world where injustice cruelty and oppression have been abolished. In fact, that is exactly what God has promised!
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold the dwelling place is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more death, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away”. (Rev. 21:1-4)
We are not always able to understand the permissible will of God. ‘We know only in part and we prophesy only in part…For now we see a mirror, dimly… ’(1 Cor.13:9, 12). Our understanding is fragmentary and partial. However, we can with confidence resist those things which contradict the eternal will of God. Any act that is destructive, unloving, or harmful we refuse to accept. Also, though we do not see and understand all, faith still clings to God and acknowledges that what we have seen and have understood teaches us to trust the goodness of God through all of life’s dark alleys. God is present in the darkness just as much as in the light. The eternal, providential, and permissive will of God are not three separate wills of God. They are interrelated. We may not be able to see the relation, but God sees the big picture. We can only make out a faint outline with scramble threads. But we trust that the Creator has this beautiful embroidery in the making. We are part of that grand design. And that brings us to our discussion on the specific will of God, known also as Divine Guidance.
4. The personal or specific will of God refers to God’s intention concerning each person’s own life. Is God calling you to do some specific task? God called Paul to spread the gospel to the Gentiles. But God called peter to preach to the Jews. God calls and equips persons to fulfill particular tasks. When we received baptism as Christians, we were enrolled in God’s mission in this world. God has a plan for each one of us. God knows us by name, calls us by name, and will lead and guide us into the fulfilling of the Divine purpose. When people hear ‘the will of God’ most think about how God’s purposes are personalized in their lives. Usually a person faces a crisis demanding an answer. They ask questions like “What does God want me to do?” It may be concerning the choice of a marriage partner, a decision about which college to apply, or what job we should take. This aspect of the will of God brings us to the question of Divine guidance. How does god communicate specific directions for our lives?
Three Elements of Guidance
1. Commitment and trust: Discernment of God’s guidance in our lives begins when we commit ourselves to the LORD. ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom’ (Proverbs 1:7). Without our deciding to know and do God’s will, discernment of the specific command of God is impossible. God discloses his will to those who determine to do it. ‘Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will act’ (Psalms 37:5). We commit our lives to God and when we trust God to make the way plain before us. ‘Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths’ (Proverbs 3:5-6). Commitment means personal surrender. This is a matter of the heart. We offer ourselves to God as though we are sacrifice placed on an altar before God. ‘I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (Rom. 12:1)
2. Prayerful seeking of God’s will: when in prayer we ask God to show us the way and to help us in making decisions we open the door for God to make our path way more clear. (Matthew 6:10; 7:7-12; Colossians 1:9; James 1:5-6). In prayer we open ourselves to God’s guidance. Prayer may be a struggle as we wrestle to align our will with God’s will. Sometimes we pray as Jesus prayed ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done’ (Luke 22:42). When we struggle in prayer we can rest assured that God is also at work in us. Paul mentions this struggle when he writes “… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (phil. 2:12-13). God already works in us causing us to want to do the Divine will. God initiates the process.
3. Acting in faith: We commit our lives to God and seek prayerfully to know the will of God. Then we act. This means we obey. We practice active obedience. Jesus taught ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock’ (Matt. 7:24). Conversely, ‘Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven’ (Matt. 7:21). God’s will demands action; it insists that outside and inside cohere.
Six Usual Means by Which We Come to Know God’s Will
1. The clear witness of Holy Scripture: The Bible contains many clear commands that reveal the will of God. The Ten Commandments disclose the will of God. The commandments to love God and love neighbor tell us the will of God. Paul writes in the First Letter to the Thessalonians:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; That each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things . . . . . . . (1. Thess. 4:3-6)
From Holy Scripture we learn that God wills us to believe in Jesus:
Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’ (John 6:28-29).
From Holy Scripture we learn that normal family life fulfills God’s will. Children are to honor and obey their parents. Parents are to bring their children up in the Faith:
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord (Col. 3:20). Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Eph. 6:4)
Scripture also witnesses that God generally upholds the state and that Christians should submit willingly to the just demands of the state. God’s will includes good social order that benefits the community. Christians live in this world and must support God’s means of maintaining the relative peace and security within nations and between nations.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment . . . for he is God’s servant for your good; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. For this same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are the ministers of God. (Rom. 13:1-2, 4, 6) Christians are to pray for the governing authorities that they do their work well and maintain relative peace.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and for all in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceful life godly and respectful in every way. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:1-4)
Paul instructs Christians to live joyfully, prayerfully, and in an attitude of gratitude ‘. . . for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you’ (1 Thess. 5:16-18). Scripture gives us clear guidance in many matters. As we meditate on scripture and ‘hide the word in our hearts’ we learn about God and what God wills. The Bible is the first and greatest source for discovering the will of God.
Scripture does offer guidance, but we should avoid using the Bible as though it is a daily horoscope. Opening the Bible and pointing randomly to a verse for guidance is a misuse of Scripture. Daily reflection and meditation on Scripture, however, allows the Holy Spirit to apply the Bible’s message to our hearts. The Bible doesn’t often give direct guidance or tell us what to do in a specific circumstance.
2. Use common sense: God wills Christians to use their common sense. God does not require people to sacrifice their intellect or to check out their brains. We discern the will of God in everyday life often by simply using common sense. The book of Proverbs contains collections of wise sayings drawn from everyday observable life. Most of the wisdom sayings in Proverbs are available to plain old common sense. The book of Proverbs repeatedly admonishes the readers to avoid foolishness and choose wisdom. The writer of Proverbs draws from common observable behavior to counsel against laziness, procrastination, love of ease, adultery, anger, vengeance, entering unwise business deals, and rash speech. The Proverbs encourage us to exercise good judgment in settling disputes, to keep careful watch over our words, and to act prudently when dealing with wealth. The Proverbs instruct us to apply loving and consistent discipline to children and youth, and it counsels children of the necessity heeding their parents’ wisdom and instruction. This is all done within the framework of understanding life lived under God. God does not suspend common sense, but rather God encourages us to use our heads in making good judgments. This is all part of the Great Commandments to ‘ . . . love the Lord your God with all of your mind, heart, soul, and strength.’
3. Draw wisdom and advice from wise counsel: Another means by which God offers direction for our lives is through asking the advice of persons who are wise and experienced in life. God often speaks to us through other people offering advice and insight into life.
In seeking God’s will for our lives whom should we consult?
God gives parents the special responsibility to guide their children towards maturity. The family provides a place where a community of love can flourish and freedom and responsibility can be balanced in loving, non-violent ways. Loving discipline is administered. God commissions fathers and mothers to teach their children in God’s ways. Wise parents understand this awesome calling. Wise children heed the discipline.
Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and reject not your mother’s teaching; for they are a garland for your head, and pendants for your neck. (Proverbs 1:8 see also Prov. 4:1; 6:20)
B. pastors and mature Christians (see 1 Kings 12:6-12)
Along with parents God appoints special people in our lives. They influence us and provide examples to help guide us. Hopefully, pastors exhibit exemplary Christian lives and are sources of wisdom. Within the community of faith we also find mature Christians from whose wealth of experience we may draw wisdom and insight. God surrounds us with these special “incognito angels” to offer us advice and guidance.
But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. (1 Thess. 5:12-13, 1 Peter 5:5)
C. Persons with expertise in specific fields (e.g. financial advisors, medical professionals, legal experts, guidance counselors, etc.) God works through people who make it their business and profession to understand a field through both study and experience. We would be foolish to disregard their counsel. (see Exodus 31:1-6; 35:30-36:1)
This is not an exhaustive list of persons from whom we can seek counsel. But parents, pastors, mature Christians, and persons with expertise all can be valuable counselors as we seek to discern God’s will.
A caution is in order here. Often, when seeking advice, we are tempted to look for someone to tell us exactly what we ought to do. Sometimes we keep looking until someone tells us what we already want to do. However, we must be aware that no one can pronounce the absolute will of God for our lives. This must be discerned through our personal encounter with God and our own wrestling with God’s will for our lives. God does not relieve us from responsibility of asking, seeking, and knocking as we struggle to discern God’s will. The process of seeking the will of God is valuable because it provides the occasions in which our faith and discernment can grow. A person who assumes that he or she can pronounce the specific will of God for our lives is a dangerous person. Seek advice, but do not seek easy solutions that relieve you of responsibility of making decisions.
4. Be attuned to impressions, spiritual intuitions, dreams, and visions: God can speak in a still, small voice to our inner person, our spirit. Though God can speak audibly, more usually God gently communicates through the Holy Spirit to the human heart through impressions. (e.g. Simeon in Luke 2:25-27; Philip Acts 8:29; Paul while deciding about his mission Acts 16:6-10). God also uses dreams and visions to communicate (Joseph in Matt. 2:13, 19-22; Peter in Acts 10:9-20; Paul in Acts 16:9). Do not seek dreams or visions. God does not promise to answer in that way. God can use them but seems to do so only on rare occasions. We must also distinguish between God’s Spirit and our own warm imagination. Not every feeling indicates God speaking to us; not every dream comes from God.
5. Circumstances can indicate open and closed doors: Sometimes God uses circumstances to direct our lives. Open doors of opportunity can mean that God wishes us to seize the occasion (1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 2:12; Col. 4:3). On the other hand, sometimes a closed door means that God is redirecting our lives. There is no use of banging our heads against a closed door! God can open and close the doors (Rev. 3:8) and this means steer us in the way we should go.
6. Our own desires: Often God places wholesome desires in our hearts. What we want is not always contrary to what God wills. God uses our natural desires also to guide us. For example, if we are talented in and find fulfillment in doing art, we may assume that God has gifted us in that field and is directing us to purse it. One way of thinking about vocation is this: We are probably doing the will of God when we meet the deepest human needs and at the same time experience our most profound fulfillment.
Sometimes God’s will and our own desires coincide beautifully. But in other times what we want and what God wills are at some distance. Sometimes our desires interfere with God’s will. Not every desire in our hearts can or should be fulfilled. Joseph fulfilled the will of God through much hardship and suffering. Jesus fulfilled the will of God by enduring the cross. God may allow us to suffer (1 Peter 3:17). This is never pleasant. But if and when we suffer, we know that God is with us to sustain us and that God is testing our faith so that it may be like purified gold (1 Peter 1:6-7; Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-4). We should not seek suffering, but if and when we do encounter hardship in our lives we can rest assured that God remains with us.
Action: Doing the Will of God
1. God desires us to act. If we sit still there will be little chance of God directing our lives. God is able to turn us and guide us as we actively obey. We plan, make choices and act! We do what we know to do, even if that means that we act with some lingering doubts and uncertainty. Sin is not in the uncertainty. Sin is in the inactivity. Sin is in refusal to do anything until we are certain. If we wait until we are certain, then we may be paralyzed and do nothing at all. Do not sit idle. Do what you know to do and God will do the rest. God looks at the heart and our willingness to obey. God knows our limitations and our uncertainty. God understands our struggle and all of our weaknesses.
2. Doing the will of God involves risk. We act in spite of uncertainty and doubt. Faith implies risk. We naturally fear failure, suffering, or opposition. Faith includes the courage to act in spite of fear. Faith means the refusal to allow fear to paralyze us. If we play it safe and remain in inaction and inertia, we will certainly meet with God’s disapproval (see Matt. 25:14-30 The Parable of the Buried Talent).
3. The will of God often remains unclear until we enter in the way of obedience and action. When we are in motion God can guide us. In some instances, God may wish us to make up our own minds about a matter (see Acts 16:6-10; 1 Cor. 7:36-40; 16:12). God is responsive to our wishes and delights in our mature decisions. God delights in our making good judgments. We arrive at many, if not most of our decisions, by simply prayerfully submitting our way to God and following common sense and good advice (see James 4:13-17).
4. If God wishes to redirect our pathway God is able to make that clear to us. Sometimes God may give us impressions, or hunches. A little inner voice gets our attention and causes us to question the wisdom of our direction. Occasionally, God may warn us in a dream. Now and then our desires may change. At times we may receive good advice from someone we respect. We can always rest content and trust that God’s plan is always for our good (Rom 8:28).
5. A mistake is not irremediable. Sometimes we may feel paralyzed to act for fear of making a mistake. That fear keeps us from any positive action. We stand timidly before an opportunity delaying to exert action or make a decision. This fear prevents us from doing God’s will. Just remember: God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power, love and of self-discipline (2 Tim. 1:7).
Now and then we may make a wrong decision. We may find that we have done something unwise. We may realize that we have acted contrary to God’s intentions. In such a case God does not abandon us. Like a caring parent, God patiently corrects and disciplines us for our good (Hebrews 12:4-12; Proverbs 3:11-12).
The many decisions we make, right or wrong, are all part of the experience of life in which we gain wisdom and grow in character. God uses our bad decisions, our misguided directions, even our sins, to perfect holiness in us. God is far more interested in our success than we are. When we discover that we have made a bad decision, the point is not to wallow in remorse. Don’t let guilt throw you into despair. Ask God to forgive and show you the steps of correction. Then get up and go on! Leave your past with God and start over fresh.
The Lord’s . . . compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lam. 3:22-23).
God loves you.
God has a wonderful plan for your life.
God wills your wellbeing
God’s will is always for your good.
God wills to guide you.
God may lead you into suffering, but God will never leave nor abandon you.
God is the Good Shepherd who leads you into green pastures and besides still waters.
God will provide everything you need to fulfill his will.
God is too powerful to fail.
God is too wise to make a mistake.
God loves us too much to hurt us.