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.