Without question, one of the most sought out answers within the church today is, “What is the will of God for my life?” If we do not ask this question, we definitely think about it and often times find ourselves more confused than informed about it. Most of that confusion comes from our lack of understanding about how God works to reveal His will to us, as well as a failure to comprehend what God allows His children to do. It is my hope that this position paper will help you gain a clearer picture on God’s will for your life. Both what it is and how you can know it. The focus will be upon both what it is and how you can know it. To know God’s will, one must first understand how the Bible describes God’s will. For this reason the first area of discussion must be the will of God Himself.
God Has a Will and Exercises It
The will of God is a very vast subject that is often times spoken of more often than it is actually studied. What do Christians mean when they talk about or refer to the ‘will of God’? The idea of will can refer to one of two things, primarily. First, it can refer to a capability. Persons possess wills, that is, they possess the capability to exercise their wills in making decisions. In this sense, every person has a will. A person’s possession of a will is due to the fact that persons are made in the image of God, who Himself has a will. For example, it was to this that James was referring in James 1:18 when he wrote, “In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we might be, as it were, the first fruits among His creatures.” It was the exercising of God’s will to which Jesus refers in Matthew 11, when He says regarding how one comes to realize and act upon who Jesus is, “25 I praise Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou didst hide these things from the wise and intelligent and didst reveal them to babes. 26 Yes, Father, for thus it was well-pleasing in Thy sight” (11:25-26). What is the point here? God has a will that He exercises.
In this sense, the will of God is free. By free what is meant is that the exercising of God’s will is based on God Himself and not upon His creation. Notice how Jesus remarked in 11:26 that God does what is “well-pleasing in His sight.” In other words, whatever God wants to do, He does. Job said of Him in Job 23:13, “But He is unique and who can turn Him? And what His soul desires, that He does.” When the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar came to his senses after being judged by God, he says, “And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What hast Thou done?’” (Dan. 4:35). Yes, God has a will and His will is perfectly free and self-determined. This is the foundational truth of knowing the will of God. God is free to do as He chooses and He is free to do with me as He chooses.
God has a Purpose for His Will
Now, will does not just refer to capability, it can also be used to describe the idea of purpose, plan, or intent and therefore can also refer to such ideas as desire, want, or expectation. To understand what the Bible has revealed to believers regarding the will of God used in this sense, theologians and pastors have used several terms to describe the will of God. Two to them are particularly instructive to this discussion.
The first set of terms is the decretive and perceptive will of God. The decretive will of God refers to the fact that God has decreed all that is to take place in the world, either by Him personally bringing it about or Him sovereignly allowing or permitting it. There are no accidents. The result of the decretive will of God is that the events of human history are set for certain. It is this facet of God’s will that are related to the ideas of purpose and plan. In this sense, God has devised a plan that cannot be thwarted. Those things that God intends to take place, take place. Isaiah 14:24-27 speaks of this aspect of God’s will. So, nothing takes place except what God has decreed it.
But, just as God has decreed what will come to fruition, He has also, as the Moral Governor of the universe, commanded what is to define the conduct of His creatures in the different circumstances in which they find themselves. We call this God’s perceptive will. God summarizes His perceptive will in Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?”
These two aspects of God’s will work in concert with each other. That which God commands is never in conflict with what He decrees to carry out, but it might conflict with what He decrees to permit to take place. For example, God decreed to allow mankind to fall, but did not actively carry out the fall Himself. That was man’s own doing. We see how this manifests itself in human history through the even of crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Although Christ died because of God’s plan and intention, He died because sinful man decided to murder Him (Ac. 2:22-23.
The second set of terms used by theologians and pastors to describe the will of God, in the sense discussed previously, is the secret and revealed will of God. The secret will of God refers to the purposes of God known only to Himself, hidden away in His mind alone. The revealed will refers to the purposes of God, which He chooses of His own free will to make known to mankind. Paul described the will of God from both vantage points in Ephesians 1. In reference to the revealed aspect of His will, Paul wrote in 1:9-10, “9 He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him 10 with a view to an administration suitable to the fulness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth.” Of the secretive element of God’s will, Paul wrote in 1:11, “In Him 11 also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.”
God’s secretive will is only knowable in part and can only be known in retrospect for it is not revealed. God’s revealed will because it is His intent that man do it, is found in His Word and is clearly knowable. The natural question is, to which aspect of His will do I pay heed? To which do you think Christians are responsible? Well, in reference to His secretive will, since it cannot be known, after all it is secret and will always come to pass, we need to do nothing but rest in and on it. This is what our grand parents meant when they told us that in spite of their difficulties “God was still in control.” Believers refer to this as providence.
What this means is that the aspect of His will to which a believer is accountable for their behavior is the revealed will of God. Of this reality Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” Throughout the history of God’s people there has always been recognized that there existed a secret will of God and a revealed will of God, with an understanding that the revealed will of God is the Scriptures, the Bible. It is to this that God will ultimately hold you and I accountable.
With this in mind, one of the best summarizes of what God requires of His people, of His revealed will is found in the Old Testament prophet Micah, “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you, But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8)? If you are not doing this, do not think you can know anything else from God.
So, we see clearly that God has a will and He exercises it. In His exercising of His will, there is a clear purpose or intent that He has. One of His intents is that believers would do those aspects of His will that He has chosen to reveal to them. This is how the will of God has always been understood in Christianity until recently. To this historical understanding of the will of God, in recent Christian history has been added another aspect of God’s will called the perfect will of God, punctiliar will of God, or the dot. It must be explained before it is evaluated.
The Perfect Will of God Explained
The concept of the perfect will of God is a combination of the secret and revealed will of God and was designed to address the supposed gaps between the two. What are these gaps? These gaps are those major aspects of life that the Bible does not address and are part of the secret will of God. In other words, what the believer is supposed to do in reference to the major decisions of life. The basic understanding of this supposed aspect to the will of God is that God has a specific set of things for you to do and be, such as what person to marry, what job to do, what house to buy, and a myriad of other key issues, that He has not revealed in the Bible. However, although not in Scripture directly, this view teaches that God still expects the believer to discover these things before they make the decision relative to that item. Finding these things out is imperative because to fail to walk in them will lead to you missing the will of God for your life and thus will mean a life of second best.
A problem arises in this position, however. If these things are not revealed in the Bible, then how is a person to discover what they are? This position advocates that there is an alternate means for finding them, other than studying and applying the Bible. This alternate way usually termed seeking the will of God, most often includes a combination of prayer, reading and interpreting circumstances, receiving counsel, listening for the inner voice of God, putting out fleeces of various types, and sensing the peace of God regarding the particular decision. Depending on how many of these signs align with each other, determines how sure one can be as to whether they have found the perfect will of God for that particular decision.
The Perfect Will of God Evaluated
The idea of the perfect will of God, while ambitious and commendable, fails to garner the necessary biblical support to be something for Christians to actually believe and follow. There are several problems with this position. First, the concept of finding the will of God is surely misdirected for it supposes that God has something that He wants His children to do that He is purposefully hiding from them. God’s pattern is to reveal things to His children, not hid them from them, playing cat and mouse. How does the idea of God hiding something He wants His children to carry out fit with statements like Deuteronomy 29:29, Micah 6:8 and 1 Thessalonians 4:1-3?
Also, the reading and interpreting of circumstances is never advocated in the Bible and is definitely no where given as an example for determining how God wants His children to live. Third, the inner voice of God is a concept that fails to find any support in the Bible, for when God speaks it is either audibly, in a vision or dream, by an angel, or by a divinely commissioned messenger. Further, a fleece is a sign of doubt, not a sign of trust. In the one passage in which actually tried by a member of the people of God, Gideon (Jgs. 6:36-40), it is a witness to his lack of faith in God’s Word. Fifth, the peace of God, referred to in Philippians 4:7-9, is resting in the providential care of God in the midst of difficult circumstances, not peace that directs one in making certain decisions. Top these problems off with the fact that the idea of signs having to line up for any measure of surety to be gained ought to by itself call into real question whether the results of this type of process could be trusted anyway. Some people liken this type of reading of signs to being nothing more than divination of which Moses referenced in Deuteronomy 18:9-14.
To what Scripture might one turn to demonstrate that God reveals His secret will in this manner and to provide Christians with the necessary standards to guide it? In all the different methods God uses to reveal His secret will, this supposed sign watching for the perfect will of God is the only one that is not addressed within the Bible itself. Prophecy as a revelation of the secret will of God is regulated by such passages as Deuteronomy 18:9-22. The Bible as a revelation of the secret will of God is regulated by such passages as 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:16-21. Visions and dreams as a revelation of the secret will of God are regulated by such passages as Numbers 12:1-8.
But to where can we turn to see the regulations of God revealing His secret will through circumstances, inner voices, and the peace of God. We can turn no where, because there are no regulations. It is each man or woman for themselves. One is left to place their hope in such things as impressions, intuitions, suspicions, and feelings about the matter, rather than God’s Word. God has not left believers to manage their way through life reading signposts and hoping that they have it right. Within the Bible itself, it refers to the Scripture as a “lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Pet. 1:19), not my feelings or impressions.
The Road Map for Knowing and Being in the Will of God
Well, where does this leave the Christian, then. The perfect will of God as espoused in many Christian circles is false. How are Christians to make decisions, particular key decisions in life? Remember, it was indicated that although this idea is false, God has not left believers to grope our way through life. He has left us a road map. There are three important responses of the believer to this road map.
Follow the Prescriptions of God
The first stop along the way that leads to living within the will of God is you must follow the prescriptions of God found in the Word of God. In God’s Word, He has clearly and without any mystery outlined for His children what His will for their lives is. God does not want His will for His children to be a mystery. They are to: 1) be Spirit-filled (Eph. 5:17-19); 2) sorrow for sin, that is repent (2 Cor. 7:9-10); 3) be submissive to both God and their ordained human heads (Jn. 7:16-17; Heb. 13:20-21; 1 Pet. 2:13-17); 4) be sanctified (1 Thess. 4:1-7); 5) be satisfied in the Lord (1 Thess. 5:16-17); and 6) suffer for His name sake (Heb. 10:32-39; 1 Pet. 4:12-19). Each of these six items are clearly identified by the Bible as will of God. This is the first step to being on the road called the will of God. Without adherence in each of these areas it is nonsensical to believe that one can be in the will of God.
Seek out and Implement Godly Counsel
Also key to walking steadfastly within the will of God is seeking out and implementing godly counsel. It is the will of God that His children live lives marked by wisdom. Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:15, “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise.” In this passages the walk of wisdom is carefully defined by the apostle in 5:16-21. In congruency with this passage, the primary source of this wisdom is to be found in God Himself, which is the point when Paul later wrote “be filled with the Spirit.” This aligns with the great book of wisdom, Proverbs, and the rest of Scripture which position God as the primary source of what the Bible calls wisdom (Pro. 1:7; 15:33; Ps. 111:10; Job 28:28; Jam. 1:5-8). Wisdom is the ability to live life correctly, that is as it is intended to be lived morally before God in righteousness. It is to make right choices no matter what the circumstances. It is to know exactly when to do or say something and what that something should be (Pro. 1:1-3 NIV; 2:9).
However, the book of Proverbs also identified three other sources of wisdom. These other sources are: 1) observing the sowing and reaping principle in lives of others and things (Pro. 1:20-33; 11:1-31); 2) the counsel of one’s parents (Pro. 4:1-2; 6:20); and 3) the counsel of the wise (Pro. 11:14; 15:22; 22:17; 24:26). Therefore, to live a wise life and thus live within the will of God, one must seek out and implement godly counsel for their life. When a scriptural prescription is lacking to follow, wisdom should be sought out from others and the observation of life, and a decision should be made that corresponds to one’s inner desires regarding the matter.
Inner desires? What is meant by that? Psalm 37 has the answer to those questions. The Psalmist in Psalm 37 dealt with the natural questions surrounding the prosperity of the wicked and the difficulties of the righteous. His answer was that these were matters that will be completely handled by the Lord and His children should trust in Him regarding these matters. After directing them not to whine and fuss over these matters because of the end of the matter in 37:1-2, he then encouraged them to first direct their hearts in faith towards God and live righteously before Him (37:3). He then told the believer to, “Delight yourself in the Lord; And He will give you the desires of your heart” (37:4). On this verse Charles Spurgeon has rightly commented,
A pleasant duty is here rewarded with another pleasure. Men who delight in God desire or ask for nothing but what will please God; hence it is safe to give them carte blanche. Their will is subdued to God’s will, and now they may have what they will. Our innermost desires are here meant, not our casual wishes; there are many things which nature might desire which grace would never permit us to ask for; these deep, prayerful, asking desires are those to which the promise is made.
Plan and Trust the Providence of God
The third and final piece to living each day of one’s life within the will of God is plan and trust the providence of God. Often times when Christians who believe in a perfect will of God come to difficult, major decisions, they freeze up or are indecisive. Rather than walking in the will of God, they often times regress into bondage to their decisions or decisions are often made for them due to their delay. This is hardly the posture taken by the Scripture on the matter of decisions and living life. The posture of the Bible is plan and trust God. Anticipate, but also yield yourself to the all caring hand of your Heavenly Father. The author of Proverbs wrote, “The mind of man plans his way, But the Lord directs his steps” (Pro. 16:9).
The Bible continuously recognizes that man plans and God commends Him to do such. The difference between the planning of the wicked and the planning of the righteous, however, is the recognition in the righteous of God’s ever present hand in the plan’s outworkings. The book of Proverbs is replete with such references. Proverbs 3:6, “In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight.” 16:1-2, “1 The plans of the heart belong to man, But the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. 2 All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, But the Lord weighs the motives.” 16:33 “The lot is cast into the lap, But its every decision is from the Lord.” 19:21 “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, But the counsel of the Lord, it will stand.”
This reality is not just an Old Testament reality for James declares such in James 4:13-17. The most intriguing thing about James’ statement in light this discussion is that James faults the men, not for their lack of attempting or trying to discern whether it was the will of God for them to go and do business, but rather that they planned with no recognition of the need to act in recognized submission to the secret, sovereign will of God. The fault is not that they did not seek the supposed perfect will of God, but rather that they did not plan in yielded posture to God’s providence.
An example of living as I have described to you is found in the life of Paul himself. At the beginning of the book of Romans Paul identified what his plans were in 1:9-13. The failure of his plans did not at all quench His planning or make him question himself as to whether it was the perfect will of God or not to go to Rome. He continued to plan to travel to Rome according to Romans 15:30-33. What then is the map leading to finding the will of God. It is a three part process. First, you must follow the prescriptions of God carefully and fully from the Bible. Second, you must seek out and implement godly counsel. And third, you must definitely plan and trust the providence of God. How will understanding the biblical pattern for decision making help you make decisions in the future?