Faith, Leading, and the Will of God

“I’ve been ministering in this church for three years and have seen no fruit. Most days I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall, but I’m never going to quit because I have faith God wants me to be here.” Maybe you’ve heard a testimony like this from a missionary or Christian worker and walked away encouraged by their resolve and spirituality. But maybe the conversation went like this: “We have tried everything we can think of for three years. We have prayed, we have worked, and we have prayed some more. God is leading us to another ministry.”

Which person was actually doing God’s will, the one who stayed or the one who left? Is there any objective way to find out? How do I know what God’s will is when I am faced with a similar situation?

Can I Know God’s Will?
How does one go about “finding God’s will”? How do we know if we are “in God’s will”? Although we have many buzzwords, it seems we are getting at one main question: what does God want me to do?

“God Spoke to Me”
Christians have utilized numerous methods of finding out what God wants them to do, many of which fall into the category of mysticism. Mysticism claims to have a direct link with God whereby he reveals his will, which is a theological problem if we do not believe in ongoing revelation. Unfortunately, most of the people espousing this type of view neither claim nor want to be theologians, so the theological objection holds little weight with them. Some of the popular variations of mysticism include the following.

Some speak of a feeling of peace (presumably placed there by God). This is captured by the phrases “I have a peace about something” or the converse “I don’t have peace.” This is a completely subjective argument since no one else knows whether you “have a peace” or not! In 2 Corinthians 7:5–7, Paul says that when he and his companions came to Macedonia, “our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within.” This certainly does not seem like Paul “had a peace” about doing what God wanted him to do—in fact, the “peace” came after he had done what God wanted, indicating that perhaps searching for a feeling of peace is not the best way to know if we are doing the right thing.

Others “put out a fleece.” This testing supposedly finds biblical precedent in Gideon’s actions (Judg 6:36–40). By presenting some sort of “test case” to God and then dictating how they will interpret the outcome, some claim to be able to verify what God wants them to do. Unfortunately, this idea also falls upon theological difficulty since Gideon was acting in faithlessness (Judg 6:36). Ultimately, this is also a very subjective method, since a so-called “fleece” could be influenced by any number of outside entities.

Others claim that “the Holy Spirit is leading” them to do something. This is biblical terminology used in an unbiblical way. Romans 8 speaks very directly about being “led by the Spirit,” but the passage is not talking about a subjective decision-making ministry of the Holy Spirit. Rather, the passage says that those who are “led by the Spirit” are “the sons of God” (Rom 8:14). It is clear from Romans chapter eight that every Christian is “led by the Spirit” in the sense that we are no longer enslaved to sin, but are now under the authority of God’s Holy Spirit.

The upshot of these arguments is that a person can claim any course of action is God’s will, even if it is completely unverifiable or even illogical.

“God Doesn’t Really Care”
On the opposite swing of the pendulum is a thinking that denies God has any specific will for any believer. This viewpoint claims it is immaterial to God what car you drive, what career you pursue, even what person you marry, as long as you do not violate any biblical command or principle. You shouldn’t worry about trying to “find” God’s will, because it was never “lost”: just love Jesus and “let it rip!”

However, the entire tenor of Scripture teaches us that the “mere details” of life are not irrelevant to God. He knows about us intimately (Ps 139:1–6). He has planned and decreed every detail of our lives (Jer 29:11). He knows and cares about the smallest creatures he has made (Luke 12:6–7). Finally, he tells us that in everything we do, even down to the routine tasks of eating and drinking, we are to bring glory to him (1 Cor 10:31). In other words, the details are important to God.

What Is “God’s Will?”
Perhaps much of the confusion comes from the different meanings we give the phrase “the will of God.” While the phrase is found many times in the Bible, we can distinguish at least three separate aspects of the will of God.

The Secret Will of God
God’s secret will includes whatever comes to pass. God knows the future as certainly as he knows the past. He knows what will happen tomorrow, next month, or a thousand years from now. Since we as human beings do not know the future, this aspect of God’s will is secret to us (Deut 29:29a; Dan 3:17–18; Jas 4:15; 1 John 5:14).

Our response to this aspect of the will of God is not to find out what God has decreed for the future; rather, our response is to accept everything that comes from God’s hand. He is sovereign and he knows best. In this way, we follow the example of the Lord Jesus, when he prayed in the garden of Gethesemane, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39).

A sovereign God knows everything that will happen because he ordained it. Therefore, his secret will includes everything that he has decreed (or in other words, everything that happens). How do we know what God has decreed? We know when it happens! It is hidden until it takes place. It is in this sense that the will of God is often referenced in the New Testament. When a New Testament writer says he did or is something “by the will of God,” he means to say that God had decreed his doing or being that thing (Rom 1:10; cf. 15:32; 2 Cor 8:5). For example, Peter says, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Pet 4:19; cf. 3:17). In other words, if Christians suffer for their faith, it is only because God has decreed that they should suffer.

The Preceptive Will of God
A second aspect of God’s will involves the commands and exhortations of Scripture. Much of what Christians ought to do is readily found in Scripture. Deuteronomy 29:29 (cited above) is instructive: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” On the one hand, God has not revealed everything that will happen to us (his secret will). However, he has given us substantial revelation that instructs us how to live (e.g., Scripture).

God’s preceptive will is what he wants or commands us to do. Several passages of Scripture could not be more clear about what God wants us to do. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess 4:3). “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:16–18). This aspect of the will of God does not need to be “found” or determined; it simply requires our obedience. Jesus said, “For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35; cf. Eph 6:6; Col 4:12; Heb 10:36; 1 John 2:17).

The Unspecified Will of God
This final aspect of God’s will is unspecified. It is what we are usually referring to when we talk about God’s will: What does God want me to do? This aspect includes personal or corporate concerns: Who should I marry? Where should I live? Should our church begin a certain ministry or initiate a building project?

These things are clearly significant to God, and as his children, we must “try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph 5:10). Many of the situations we face on a daily basis are not specifically addressed in Scripture. Nowhere does the Bible talk about using credit cards, cable television, buying an automobile, or attending college. This aspect of the will of God specifically requires biblical wisdom and guidance. As stated above, God does not communicate this information to us in dreams and “still, small voices.” We need biblical wisdom, godly counsel, and clear thinking.

It is interesting to note that not one of the 23 occurrences of the phrase “will of God” in the New Testament fall into this category of trying to discern God’s unspecified will for an individual’s life or a ministry’s future. The majority deal with what God has already done (his decreed will) or what God commands us to do (his preceptive will). In fact, there is little or no reference to New Testament believers trying to “find God’s will” for their life.

Fitting It All Together
How do these different aspects of God’s will interrelate? Perhaps the chart below is helpful.

The secret will of God (what he has decreed will happen) is unrevealed. What has already happened in the past is now “revealed,” and what God promises will happen in the future is also revealed. However, we simply do not know everything that God has predetermined to take place.

The unspecified will of God (what God wants me to do with my life, who he wants me to marry, etc.) is also unrevealed. Nowhere in the Bible do I find answers to the questions I have about specific situations in my life. Since someone could do something that is “outside of God’s (moral) will,” this aspect is not a part of God’s decreed will.

The preceptive will of God is revealed in Scripture. It tells us explicitly what God wants us to do. However, we may violate that and disobey, indicating that it is not part of God’s decreed will. God’s decreed will and his moral will overlap at some points but are separate at others.

So How Can I Know?
The question still remains, “How can I know what God wants me to do? How can I make sure I am following God’s will for my life?” Perhaps we can picture the answer to this question as a target with several concentric circles, a cone that funnels down to a small opening, or a grid with filters that are increasingly fine. We will start with broad statements and try to eliminate possibilities, narrowing down to one thing.

We must obey God’s clearly revealed will in his Word.
When God says that his will for us is our sanctification (1 Thess 4:3) and for us to give thanks (1 Thess 5:16–18), we do not need to wonder what we should do. This is the first step in any serious effort to find God’s will for one’s life. When we refuse to do God’s will that he has already graciously revealed, it is ludicrous to pretend to seek God’s will for our life in terms of marriage, career, or life decisions.

There is more than enough for each of us to work on in this area. Mark Twain allegedly said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” We need to be committed to obeying God’s will as it is clearly revealed in Scripture.

We must live our lives in conformity with scriptural principles.
A biblical principle is a statement of God’s authoritative truth that transcends time and culture. Everything we do (without exception) should have a biblical principle behind it. We should be able, if asked, to give a biblical reason why we do anything. If we cannot give a good biblical reason why we are doing something, that should immediately raise a red flag as to whether that is a legitimate activity for a Christian. Everything that we as Christians do must be done to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). We should be thoroughly biblical in our living and decision making, acting out of a “Bible-soaked” mind (Col 3:16).

This biblical basis for life should saturate every area of our life and certainly should not be jettisoned when we begin to discuss contemporary issues in the world around us or personal situations in our lives. We should not decide for or against a practice or idea based simply on logic or, worse yet, sentiment. Rather, we should seek to have the “mind of Christ” on every issue (cf. 1 Cor 2:16; 7:40).

Our church, the local assembly of believers, plays an important role in helping us know God’s will for our life.
In our individualistic American society, we tend to downplay the role the community of believers plays in helping us know what we ought to do. The local assembly provides a forum for service and loving leadership to confirm one’s calling. Both can be seen in God’s calling of the first two missionaries from the church at Antioch in Acts 13:1–4.

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.

Notice that the location of this “call” to ministry was a local church. Second, notice that these men were serving the Lord in their church when the “call” came. Third, notice that the church, upon accepting and confirming these men as called by God, released and sent them out from their assembly. Notice however, that the One who sent them out was the Holy Spirit.

A second representative passage shows how God’s will can be made known through the local body of believers. 2 Corinthians 8:18–19 describes how the churches chose one of their own to deliver a financial gift to other churches. The Corinthian church’s decision determined the “will of God” for this man.

With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel. And not only that, but he has been appointed by the churches to travel with us as we carry out this act of grace that is being ministered by us, for the glory of the Lord himself and to show our good will.

In summary, two things should be noted: first, every believer ought to be involved in the service of his or her local church. Second, a believer ought to submit to the leadership of his church, because God has placed those men over him (1 Thess 5:12–13; Heb 13:7, 17). They can recognize and confirm a person’s gifts and calling.

God gives unique gifts to each believer equipping us to serve.
1 Corinthians 12 makes it quite clear that God has given unique gifts (vv. 4–6, 8–10, 28–30) to each believer (vv. 7, 11) to benefit the entire body of believers (vv. 7, 25–26). Each believer has a unique set of gifts and abilities that enable him to fit perfectly into the role God has prepared for him. But how do we know where and when we can use these gifts and abilities? The church leadership can be of invaluable help in pointing out areas of ministry where we can use our gifts and abilities.

God places desires and aspirations in the heart of each believer.
This is the most subjective part of all, but God gives a desire or “burden” to believers concerning how they will serve him. These desires should not be taken lightly. We know that God places the aspiration to serve as an elder into the hearts of certain men (1 Tim 3:1). 2 Corinthians 8:16 speaks of God laying a burden for ministry to the Corinthians on Titus’ heart. “But thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same earnest care I have for you.” While these things can be difficult to discern, it seems that God will give an unshakeable desire to those whom he wants to serve.

In Conclusion: Questions to Ask Ourselves

The Revealed Will of God (Clear Commands of the Bible)
Does the Bible prohibit this behavior?
If yes, obey God’s Word. If no, go to the next question.

Bible Principles
Do principles from God’s Word give specific guidance to this situation?
If yes, apply the principles. If no, go to the next question.

The Local Assembly (Church)
Does the leadership or will of my local assembly instruct or guide me here?
If yes, follow the God-given authority. If no, go to the next question.

Spiritual Giftedness
Has God given me an opportunity to use my gifts and serve his Body?
If yes, then serve (Rom 12:6). If no, go to the next question.

Individual Burden and Desire
Has God given me an unshakeable desire to serve him in this way?
If yes, then serve diligently. If no, perhaps the timing or details are not right.

March 2010

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