Some Christians are obsessed with knowing whether they are ‘in the will of God’. What do they mean? Usually they have in mind a plan for their lives that God drew up in eternity, and which they are now duty-bound to discover and follow, rather like a road map to a specific destination.
In a previous article we saw the error of this view. God does indeed ordain all things but, as we saw, his secret will embraces everything, including the consequences of sin. For example, Judas’ betrayal of the Lord Jesus was in the sovereign purpose of God. However, knowing the secret will of God is not our business. Our concern should be to discover the revealed will of God given to us in the Bible. In practice, this means finding out the kind of life that is pleasing to him.
A personal illustration
The danger of the ‘road map’ view is that people can take a wrong turn, or think they have done so, and then feel that they are ‘out of the will of God’. Perhaps a personal illustration will help here. Many years ago I was engaged in pharmaceutical research. My company was to begin the manufacture of veterinary vaccines in New Zealand. There were four positions advertised, and I was one of those selected. Just before the job opening came up, there had been an unpleasant situation in our church, and I thought it was a good time for a change. However, after being offered the job, the church situation improved and I was not sure what to do. Prayer didn’t seem to bring any light so I asked my pastor for advice. He said I should stay (who likes to lose able-bodied men?), so I turned down the job in New Zealand. For about two years I had nagging doubts. What if it were God’s will for me to be in New Zealand? Then I was ‘out of his will’ and would remain so unless I could find some other way of getting ‘down under’.
What is wrong with this approach? Certainly we must seek to honour God in every decision we make. But the reality is that we do make mistakes, we do sin. A dozen times a day, perhaps, we are ‘out of the will of God’, that is, we have acted contrary to the Bible or biblical principles. Where does that leave us? In a position where we need to ask for forgiveness! But does that mean God abandons us? Of course not. If our children make mistakes, or are deliberately naughty, we do not stop loving them, nor do they cease to be our children. We have to discipline them, but it is done in love, and the incident can teach them valuable lessons. Similarly, as Christians, we can confess our sins to our heavenly Father, and learn from our mistakes. The fact is that many times we make mistakes without ever being aware of it — our hearts are dull and not as sensitive to sin as they ought to be. We need to confess our sins specifically where we are aware of them, but also generally, because we are not always conscious of sin. The psalmist said, ‘Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults’ (Psalm 19:12). Christ has died to forgive all our sins, and our relationship with God does not depend on the specific confession of every single sin!
The rôle of repentance
If God has a road map for our lives, that would not only include ‘big’ decisions but small things as well; for example, the route we take to work each day. Every turn would be ordained and we would need to discover it. It could be a bit nerve-wracking for those driving behind us as we pray at every intersection!
Of course some mistakes we make can have far-reaching implications. To work in New Zealand instead of England would bring about major changes. Some mistakes, if recognized, can be put right. If I had come to see that I should have gone to New Zealand, I could have got there somehow. However, some mistakes can never be rectified. If a Christian marries an unbeliever and later realizes that is sin, the marriage cannot be ended. Does that mean that the offending Christian is permanently out of God’s will? Not if there is repentance and return (see Hosea 14:1-4). For a believer wedded to an unbeliever, there will be many heartaches; they can never have the joy of Christian fellowship with their partner, for example. But they are not abandoned by the Lord. David’s sins were great. He committed adultery and compounded it with murder. He was sorely chastened. The sins could not be undone, but David’s fellowship with the Lord was restored, through true repentance and the mercy of God. How many have been blessed and helped by Psalm 51, David’s heart-cry of repentance?
In the earlier article I pointed to the danger of dividing life into important and unimportant matters. It is a false distinction to think we should seek guidance about a marriage partner but not about the purchase of a newspaper. That is inconsistent. There are very few who will apply the principle of specific guidance to all of life, but some do. Hannah Whitall Smith tells of a woman who sought the Lord’s direction in literally every detail of her life, including when to get out of bed and which articles of clothing to put on.
‘Very often the Lord would tell her to put on the right shoe and leave off the other: sometimes she was to put on both stockings and no shoes; and sometimes both shoes and no stockings.’
We find this both amusing and absurd, but she was at least being consistent. However, as we have seen, the approach is fundamentally flawed, for God gives us choices. We have choices of houses, of husbands and wives, of newspapers, of shoes and of socks. As long as we do not transgress the commands and principles of Scripture we are not sinning. In my own case I had the choice of going to New Zealand or staying in England. Clearly, in the sovereign will of God, he ordained that I should stay in England, and I am grateful for his providential over-ruling. But neither choice would have involved sin.
Our need of wisdom
The last article stressed the importance of the ‘Bible principle’. God’s will for our daily life is to be sought in the Word of God. Some may think of occasions when they have sought the Lord’s will through circumstances, feelings and even signs, and have indeed been directed in that way. We cannot deny that the Lord is gracious and, at times, honours simple, even naïve, faith, particularly in a young Christian whose knowledge of Scripture is as yet small. However, we should not presume upon such guidance. As our own children grow, we expect to see them mature. When they are very young we have to choose which shoes they will wear and put them on their feet. As they grow they may choose their own shoes and put them on, but still need help in tying the laces. When they are teenagers they are choosing their own shoes in the shop, and by the time they are twenty, hopefully, they are paying for them too! So it is in the Christian life — there is a maturing in Christ. We grow in our knowledge of Scripture, but also in the wisdom of knowing how to apply it.
Wisdom is a key word. James says: ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God’ (James 1:5). Prayer is an important part of guidance, but our prayers should be not for God to reveal his will apart from his Word, for example in choosing which socks to wear. Rather, we should ask for wisdom in understanding his will as revealed in Scripture, and in applying it in our lives. The apostle Paul wrote: ‘For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way’ (Colossians 1:9-10).
Wisdom and spiritual understanding are what we need. If we want to be sure that we are walking in the will of God, we need to give much time to reading Scripture, studying it and meditating upon it so that we will know what pleases him. This should be accompanied by much prayer so that we may understand God’s Word and be able to apply it in our lives. Yes, there will be times when we go astray. We will sin; we will make stupid mistakes; we will take a wrong turn, but God is gracious and forgiving, and we can learn from those mistakes. We need to pray with David, ‘Show me the way I should go’ (Psa1m 43:8). But we should seek that way, not in some sign or supernatural revelation, but in the Bible. May the Lord help us to be his wise and mature children!