Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Finding God’s Will Is Not As Hard As We Think

[The following longer article is a revised, expanded version of two earlier posts here and here from nearly three years ago.]

Growing up I heard several well-intentioned preachers describe being in the center of God’s will.  Taking a cue from one interpretation of Romans 12.2, which mentions the “good and pleasing and perfect” will of God, these teachers were inferring from that text that there is a specific dot in the middle of life where the perfect will of God resides, and that we should try to stay in the dot, the center of God’s will.  Because of that interpretation, I have seen numerous attempts to help explain God’s will in terms of concentric circles, a funnel, and lots of other interesting analogies.

Concentric circles At best these depictions of God’s will seemed a little humorous (can you imagine God shifting your personal cosmic funnel to make sure you get back down to the dot, the center?).  At worst, they appeared to describe God as essentially bending His will or not really being in control after all.  When properly understood, this type of description can be useful, but I think it lends itself to too much misunderstanding about God.

Others take a different approach that is also helpful, but not as much as it could be.  They define God’s will in various categories, or at least into differing ways in which we view God’s will.  They speak of God’s sovereign will, His moral will, and His personal will (again in concentric circles).  These somewhat align with the “good and pleasing and perfect” will of God.  Others describe the same basic ideas as God’s will of decree (sovereign), His will of desire (moral, found in commands in Scripture), and His will of direction (personal plan for me).

Please don’t misunderstand me: When properly understood, we absolutely must understand that there are differing facets in what we can comprehend about God’s will.  Each of the approaches above has value.  But let’s be honest.  Most of us simply want to ask God a question and have Him answer it.  Most of us are still focused on the personal, directional will of God—for me!

I realize that not making a decision “until I’ve heard from God” or “when I have a peace about it” sounds very spiritual, and it’s certainly well-intended.  However, more often than not we are paralyzed by indecision in our failure to use God-given wisdom.

There has to be a better way to understand God’s will, I thought.  Something that acknowledges His divine sovereignty and my human responsibility.  Something that allows me the opportunity to go ahead and make a decision and run with it.

__________

This next idea is not new with me, and I’m so thankful that some Bible teachers pointed me in this direction a long time ago.  It involves the question of doing God’s will versus finding God’s will.  It is entirely possible that the reason we cannot hear God’s voice in an unclear direction is because we are not following Him in His clear direction.

God has told us several times in Scripture what His will for us is.  Theologians call this God’s will of desire, or His moral will for us.  Here are five of the specific things that Scripture tells us is God's "will" (in Greek, θέλημα) for us.

1. It is God’s will that all who trust in Christ Jesus will have eternal life.

For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day (John 6.40, NASB, emphasis added).

2. It is God’s will that all believers be consumed with His Spirit.

Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.  So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.  And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit… (Ephesians 5.15-18, NASB, emphasis added).

3. It is God’s will that all believers be progressing in holiness.

For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you.  For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4.3-7, NASB, emphasis added).

4. It is God’s will that all believers be constantly joyful, prayerful, and thankful.

Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18, NASB, emphasis added).

5. It is God’s will that all believers be obedient for the sake of nonbelievers.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.  For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men (1 Peter 2.13-15, NASB, emphasis added).

My wording on point #5 is not meant to imply that our obedience isn't for the glory of God, or secondarily for our benefit in growth, or anything else for that matter.  Peter simply reminds us that our obedience in submission validates the gospel in our lives, to the degree that others notice and cannot deny the power of God at work in us—the power of a changed life.

This idea of doing God’s known will, as opposed to chasing after a mysterious plan from God, runs throughout the Bible.  Here is a partial list of New Testament verses that speak clearly of doing God's will.  Each text appears to assume believers should already know God's will in these areas in order to do it.

  • Matthew 7.21
  • Matthew 12.50
  • Mark 3.35
  • Luke 12.47
  • John 4.34
  • John 9.31
  • Acts 13.22
  • Acts 21.14
  • Ephesians 6.6
  • Hebrews 10.36
  • Hebrews 13.21
  • 1 John 2.17

Finding God’s will is not as hard as we think—it’s in the Bible.  So, how are you doing?  Are you fulfilling what you know is God's will for you?  None of us can say that we are always doing God's will—all the time, in every area listed above.  But are you pursuing these things?  Are you maturing in them?  Are you making progress?

So often, we don't or cannot hear God's voice on the unknown, specific, personal areas, because we are not attempting by His Spirit to do His will in the known, general, universal areas.

__________

We have looked at the question of doing God’s will versus finding God’s will, but what about those folks who are truly, as best they understand, following God’s known, stated will?  That brings us to the second question, regarding divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

As long as you are doing God’s known will—what He has told us in the Bible, and the above list of five areas is a good place to start—then there is nothing wrong with pursuing what you believe to be God’s plan for you in how He has designed you.  So what should we do with basic life decisions such as: Can I leave this job?  Do I move to that area?  Should I ask out or go out with this person?  Can I make this purchase?  And on and on?

It is interesting to me that very few New Testament texts discuss God’s will regarding a personal decision—at least in the context in which we think of it (job, move, dating, etc.).  Big clue: Sometimes the silence of Scripture—the absence of something from Scripture—is teaching us something by implication.  Although there are many more texts regarding God’s will that speak of doing God’s will instead of finding it, when it comes to using the term, will, in the sense of a personal decision, we see two uses in Romans that I think are particularly helpful. The first is in the first chapter.

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 (Romans 1.9-10, NASB, emphasis added).

Here we have the missionary apostle, Paul, who is trying to reach more people with the good news of Jesus.  He wants to make it to Rome, but has not found a way within God’s will to do it yet.  He sure has tried, but the proverbial doors have been closed.  Notice what it says in the sentence above.  He hopes to “succeed” “at last” by the will of God.  In other words, he has tried before, and failed, so to speak, because it was not—or perhaps not yet—God’s will.  It was not a failure to keep trying to make it to Rome for the gospel's sake; it simply wasn't the right time.  I love how the NKJV translates this verse (10).  Paul says he is “making request if, by some means, now at last I may find a way in the will of God to come to you” (emphasis added).  That translation doesn’t distort the Greek text at all.  I believe that is what Paul is essentially saying: “I’ve been trying to go there, but haven’t yet found a way within God’s will to go.  God has been changing the path every time I’ve tried.”  Notice the dual role of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.  Scripture teaches that they go hand in hand.

The second clarification for us comes in Romans 15.

For this reason I have often been prevented from coming to you; but now, with no further place for me in these regions, and since I have had for many years a longing to come to you whenever I go to Spain—for I hope to see you in passing, and to be helped on my way there by you, when I have first enjoyed your company for a while—but now, I am going to Jerusalem serving the saints. …Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me, that I may be rescued from those who are disobedient in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may prove acceptable to the saints; so that I may come to you in joy by the will of God and find refreshing rest in your company (Romans 15.22-25, 30-32, NASB, emphasis added).

Again, we see Paul saying that he has been prevented from going to Rome to see them.  And although it may have appeared to be earthly forces that kept him from going, the implication seems to be that God has caused or allowed the delay for reasons unknown to Paul at the time (see also Acts 16.6-7, and Acts 19.21).  Paul kept making plans, believing himself to be in step with God’s Spirit (i.e. in part, the five clear areas of God’s will that we listed above), and moving forward with his plans to do what he thought was best according to how God designed him.  He knew that if it did not turn out to be “God’s plan,” then it would not ultimately happen—or not happen in the same way Paul intended.

Or think of it another way.  Perhaps he could (humanly speaking) recklessly “force” something to happen, which might open up God’s clear disapproval and discipline.  Sometimes God causes or allows us to move forward with plans, knowing that we will fail and learn from the failure.  Everything is a teachable moment for us.

So, we see the apostle Paul walking by the Spirit of God, all the while making plans and decisions based on God’s design for him.  We don’t see him stressing over the fact that he doesn’t know God’s exact, perfect will, and therefore paralyzed from making the next decision or taking the next step.  He knows God will change the plans if needed (as He certainly did with Paul—he eventually made it to Rome, but not at all in the manner in which he envisioned in his letter to the Romans).  The Bible calls that wisdom.  Wisdom for life’s daily decisions.

Making wise decisions and moving on with our lives.  …Not a bad pattern to follow.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Loving Command – Miniseries Archive

We began this series on the biblical letter known as 1 Timothy with a miniseries called A Loving Command.  Paul starts off his letter to Timothy with a loving command for the church there.  The command?  Don’t teach strange doctrines.  Instead, they and we along with them, are to protect the integrity of the gospel, promote the goal of the gospel, proclaim the grace of the gospel, and preserve the progress of the gospel of Christ.  It’s for the glory of God, and it’s for our good.  Here are links to the miniseries.

  1. A Loving Command (Introduction)
  2. Protecting the Integrity of the Gospel (1 Tim 1.3-4)
  3. Promoting the Goal of the Gospel (1 Tim 1.5-7)
  4. Proclaiming the Grace of the Gospel (1 Tim 1.8-11)
  5. Preserving the Progress of the Gospel (1 Tim 1.18-20)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Preserving the Progress of the Gospel

My two-year-old son last week lined up all of his cars end to end, and announced to his mommy and daddy that he had made a car train.  He then proceeded with a people train and a book train.  Car train  The book train was especially interesting, because after constructing it he realized that it would serve as a great track.  He placed one of his motorized toy trains on the “book train”—the books were laid flat—and tried to make his toy train go down the new track.  The problem was that every other book was thicker than the ones next to it, so after every couple of books he had to assist his motorized train in going forward.  It was a ton of extra work, but he didn’t care as long as his train was making forward progress.

His quirky and fun resolve made me think.  Seriously, I wish I had as much resolve for the forward progress of the gospel and the glory of God!  He was so diligent, but I get lazy.  That’s the concern that Paul had for Timothy in writing the letter we call 1 Timothy.  He wanted to ensure, as much as possible, that Timothy (and we) preserve the progress of the gospel.

At this point in the series we have seen that, like Timothy so long ago:

1. We are to protect the integrity of the gospel of Christ.
    (1 Timothy 1.3-4)

2. We are to promote the goal of the gospel of Christ.
    (1 Timothy 1.5-7)

3. We are to proclaim the grace of the gospel of Christ.
    (1 Timothy 1.8-11)

4. We are to preserve the progress of the gospel of Christ.
     (1 Timothy 1.18-20)

You’ll notice that we skipped verses 12-17 for the moment.  That’s because in this miniseries of posts we’re looking at the command that Paul instructed Timothy to place before the Ephesian church.  The folks in Ephesus, certain teachers in particular, were commanded not to teach strange and false doctrines (v. 3).  The same Greek word for command is used in verses 3 and 5, and then we see it again in verse 18.  Some folks write off the instance in verse 18 as Paul moving on to another idea and simply using the word again in a different sense.  I don’t think so.  I think he’s finishing the thought he has been explaining and illustrating since verse 3.  We talked a little about that loving command in the intro post.

So here Paul concludes that thought, beginning in verse 18:

This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith.  Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme (1 Timothy 1.18-20, NASB).

Paul is carefully reminding Timothy that it will cost him to keep the glorious gospel (v. 11) advancing.  To do so, he must maintain a faithful heart and a good conscience (v. 19).  At times, he must contend (fight) for the faith (v. 18).  At times, he must exercise gracious and tough discipline on those who have strayed from the faith (v. 20).  All of these things will be difficult at times, but each of them is necessary to preserve the forward progress of the gospel of love and grace.

It even took Paul to prison, but that didn’t stop the gospel from advancing—it actually aided its progress:

Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear (Philippians 1.12-14, NASB).

What a life to be lived: one in passionate pursuit of the glory of God to the degree that personal temporary (earthly) sacrifice is a norm, in order that others may hear and know of the glorious gospel!  Because of what God has done for me in giving me a future and hope, I desire to do all that I can to preserve the progress of that good news, and to model it and share it with those who don’t yet have the hope that Jesus provides.

So Paul starts off his letter to Timothy with a loving command for the church there.  The command?  Don’t teach strange doctrines.  Instead, they and we along with them, are to protect the integrity, promote the goal, proclaim the grace, and preserve the progress of the gospel of Christ.  It’s for the glory of God, and it’s for our good.

[This is part 5 of 5 in a miniseries titled, A Loving Command.  The larger series on 1 Timothy is called The Community of Truth.]

Friday, August 13, 2010

Proclaiming the Grace of the Gospel

Be honest: How many of you, when you hear the words, law and Bible, think of Charlton Heston as Moses holding two very large stone tablets?  Of course, the tablets need to have very nicely rounded edges at the top, and be straight across the bottom, as do almost all depictions of the Ten Commandments.  If you don’t believe me, just search Google Images for representations of the Ten Commandments.

Charlton Heston Ten Commandments Confusing the intent of biblical law has been a perennial problem.  Perhaps among the greatest temptations in handling the Scriptures is to paint biblical law as something other than what it is, and its intended effect, especially when it comes to that which is known as Mosaic Law found in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible were one five-part book, sometimes referred to as the Book of the Law).  There are multiple ways to misuse biblical law, and I don’t intend to exhaust all of them here.  I’ll only mention two.

The first is to say that following the various laws of the Bible is necessary for salvation.  However, the biblical gospel makes clear that, left to ourselves, we are completely incapable of fulfilling the law, and thus could never be saved if that were the requirement.  Another temptation is to go to the other end of the spectrum and claim that, since following the law doesn’t provide salvation, the law must be bad.  To the contrary, the Scriptures clearly speak to the goodness of the law, and its intended effect.  Note what Paul says about the intent and purpose of the law:

So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith (Galatians 3.24, ESV).

So the gospel enters to point us to faith in Christ, not law.  To miss this point is to miss the gospel—which is all about grace.  This idea is all throughout the Bible, and we see it again here in 1 Timothy with regard to our responsibility as believers: we are to proclaim the gospel as grace.  Here is what we have seen thus far:

1. We are to protect the integrity of the gospel of Christ.
    (1 Timothy 1.3-4).

2. We are to promote the goal of the gospel of Christ.
    (1 Timothy 1.5-7)

3. We are to proclaim the grace of the gospel of Christ.
     (1 Timothy 1.8-11)

In these next verses we see that if we miss the grace of the gospel, there is no gospel at all.  It may be tempting to try to apply laws to earn favor with God, but that was not God’s design.  The law is good because it points us to our need of One who can actually fulfill the law.  That is Paul’s point in this next section:

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted (1 Timothy 1.8-11, ESV).

To say, as Paul does above, that the law was not laid down or given for the just, is to say that those who assume they are righteous through following the law will never actually be righteous through the law.  They are self-righteous, in their own minds.  Actually, the law is in place for sinners (all of us apart from Christ) to see that we are sinners and need a Savior in accordance, as he says above, “with the glorious gospel.”

Notice what Paul is specifically doing in his sin examples: he is purposely drawing a parallel to the Ten Commandments, to show that not even trying to follow the Ten Commandments can remove one’s need for the gospel of Jesus.  Note the general correlation of the verses above to the Ten Commandments, listed in Exodus.  Here’s the latter portion:

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor
(Exodus 20.12-17, NASB).

Obeying laws can never remove sin.  That truth is all over the Bible.  So part of our job as believers is to proclaim the gospel for what it is: that Jesus saves us by grace through faith in Him, in His accomplished work on our behalf.

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy… (Titus 3.4-5, NASB).

[This is part 4 of 5 in a miniseries titled, A Loving Command.  The larger series on 1 Timothy is called The Community of Truth.]

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Clarity Gain of Pain

Several weeks ago, from about mid-June through parts of July, I experienced some of the worst physical pain I have ever felt.  During those days, I began a post to remind myself and share with you some things I was learning through that difficult time.  However, the pain was so intense that I began this post in late June and did not return to it.  Until now.

Here is a portion of what I wrote.  I say a portion because the other parts are unintelligible (just kidding):

Although the last three days have shown slight improvement, today marks two weeks of pain in my left upper back due to a pinched nerve.  As I write, I am in pain.  It has been near constant, gnawing, sometimes piercing, and at intervals excruciating, pain.  I can certainly imagine worse pain, but don’t desire to experience it.

In order to relieve some of the pain, I have tried every way I can imagine to reposition my body.  I have laid down.  I have sat as tall and straight as I can.  I have slumped.  I have paced the halls at the office and at home.  I have stretched and stretched.  Almost no relief.  I have tried acetaminophen and ibuprofen, and then tried alternating the two.  Nothing.

With this type of discomfort, it is phenomenal how much of one’s life it takes over.  My wife can tell you that there have been long stretches of these days when I have been basically helpless—and useless!  It has even placed a strain on our interaction.  For most of the day, I have not been able to mentally concentrate, and very little physical activity has taken place as well.  Several nights I have paced the floor at 1 or 2am trying to reposition my neck and back to ease the pinched nerve, before falling over into our guest bed and crying in pain.  I mean tears.  I had prayed about it, but not “cried out” to God.  In these instances, I quite literally cried out to Him....

Where was I going with the above post?  I wanted to remind myself, during the few daily moments when I could focus my attention, that God was teaching me about my dependence on Him.  Continually on my mind were all the folks around us who have chronic pain.  God was giving me a reminder, once I (hopefully) exited on the other side of those tough days, that I could do nothing unless God granted it.

It was during those few moments when I wasn’t focused on the pain that I was able to regain an acute clarity of all the things I needed and wanted to accomplish just as soon as the pain was over.

And so I developed plans, in my head, of goals and tasks that I needed to complete if and when I regained the ability to do them.  The pain was acute and necessary to remind me just how miserable it felt to be personally incapable—apart from ability that God graciously provides.  Eventually a team of chiropractors was able to help fix me.  But the whole episode gave me perhaps the best clarity I have discerned in several years regarding what matters most, and that I cannot squander any of the days of my life and the opportunities they offer—all of which are precious gifts from our Creator.

So teach us to number our days
That we may gain a heart of wisdom
(Psalm 90.12, NKJV).

There is of course an old, frustrating cliché that says, “No pain, no gain.”  It’s annoying primarily because it’s true.  And I pray I don’t forget it.