“I just want to know what God’s will is for me… I want to know what to do… What if I make the wrong decision… I just need a sign or some guidance…”
People make about 35,000 decisions a day. They are often small, like deciding what color of socks to wear, but with this daily practice of making decisions, one would think that making a larger decision would be easier, but we always find that they are not easy. Within someone’s lifetime, there are anywhere from 5 to 10 major turning points that greatly affect a person’s life (getting married, picking/changing a career, settling in a location, etc.) and each involve a single decision. Everyone around us may seem like they are able to find their direction and course in life, all the while we either have too many options before us and cannot decide which one to pick, or it seems that we have no good options at all. So, the kinds of yearnings and questions that are expressed above may be all too familiar for some of us, especially as we come up upon new crossroads in life.
Out of exasperation or desperation, we may be tempted to sit on our hands and wait or hope for some beam of divine light to show the way that we are to go, making the decision for us, and clearly illuminating our future. Or we might try to split hairs of the certain circumstances that are going on right now as to what sorts of “themes” might be occurring in our lives– as if we are trying to read in between the lines, searching for the divine sign that God has placed for us to find, and we could find it if only we were observant enough and had a great enough mind to discover it, or a third eye to see it… Amidst these thoughts, there is solid advice and true, Biblical guidance out there on how to discern God’s will.
Listen to this story, from a book by Bruce Waltke, about a woman who was discerning God’s will:
“Margaret is a successful career woman with a desire to please God. She worked her way up to a supervisor’s position in the accounting division at First National Bank and married rather late in life. Now in her late 30’s, she is struggling with the importance of her job. She would like to do something significant for Christ but feels that her job prevents her from making any changes. Margaret’s church recently held a missionary conference in which the speaker challenged Christians to become involved in world evangelism and encouraged everyone to justify why they are not ‘serving the Lord overseas’. Those words stay with Margaret as she ponders spending the next 25 years at her desk doing the same old accounting tasks.
“The next day she reads in the paper about a hurricane devastating the Marshall Islands. The accompanying photograph of two children crying over the death of their parents vividly captures the destruction and deprivation, and Margaret prays for those poor souls left to fend for themselves. That very afternoon a co-worker, making plans for his vacation, leaves a brochure on the Marshall Islands and Margaret decides to pray that the Lord would make His will clear to her. That night her husband comes home complaining that the best lawyer in his office, a young man named Marshall, has just been transferred to their East Coast office. ‘Honey,’ Margaret says to her husband, ‘I’ve been thinking about what the speaker said in church yesterday and the funniest set of circumstances occurred. Do you think God could be calling us to be missionaries in the Marshall Islands?’”
Dr. Voddie Baucham commented on this story in a sermon: “Now here’s what would happen if Margaret and her husband went to the Marshall Islands as missionaries. They would come back from time to time and they would go to churches and they would stand up before churches and tell that exact story, and it would be the evidence that God called them to be where they are. And people, with tear-stained eyes, would applaud the way God used those circumstances to reveal His will.”
Is Margaret a great example of how to discern God’s will? How many of us have heard a story like this or are a part of a story like this?
This story is an example of paganism, not Biblical Christianity.
Dr. Baucham goes on: “That is not Biblical Christianity, but it is absolutely the most common approach to finding, discerning and following God’s will among Christians… And some of you are incredibly uncomfortable right now because that story is absolutely fine with you theologically. And if someone told you that story, you’d just shake your head and marvel at the goodness of God in being so clear and so specific with His people.”
You may be wondering- how is this paganism? This is paganism because it is a superstitious, mystical way of analyzing the moments of life and is in no way guided by Biblical thinking. Baucham says that this is like reading the tea leaves and reading the horoscopes. It is like following imaginary breadcrumbs, laying out a fleece, casting lots, flipping a coin, or searching for a sign. Margaret mystically read into a Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon and she interpreted it as being “in touch” with or listening to the divine by reading in between the lines for something that is not there.
This is why we need guidance in discerning God’s will for our lives, not because we can’t discern the circumstances, stars, tea leaves, or the signs of the times well enough. It is because we are searching it all wrong.
For a good portion of the sermon, Voddie Baucham contrasts the pagan way of finding God’s will with the Biblical way of discerning God’s will.
He says that the pagan way comes in various forms: fortune telling, pharmaceuticals (for Indians it was peyote, but for today it is LSD), or reading the signs/breadcrumbs like Margaret did. Another popular way is transcendental meditation/emptying your mind to let the divine fill it. This is so that one can bypass and transcend the limitations of the human mind; or circumvent, distrust, alter, turn off, or surrender the mind to allow for the greater divine force to overtake it. He likens the Christian version of paganism by finding a “peace” about it. A reducing of using one’s God-given brain to think through something to a simple, fleeting feeling and surrendering to it. This “peace” starts with one’s callous conscience, not guided by the principles of Scripture– because if it were, their conscience would not be guided by the fickle weather vane of “inner peace,” but by its words– but their conscience is rather guided by whether or not they have a negative feeling about something they want to do. If they don’t have a negative feeling about it, then it is the divine go-ahead to move forward with it, even if it may in some way blatantly contradict God’s moral precepts found in Scripture.
This is wholly an unbiblical principle of discerning whether or not something is of the will of God. It is as if some have completely forgotten about the book of Proverbs, a book that is filled entirely with practical wisdom, or the forward imperatives that are morally binding and good, and replaced it with whether one feels a “peace” about it or not. Baucham notes that it is as if one pretends that God would never lead them into anything about which they did not feel peace: “Has God ever led you to confront somebody about sin? Trust me, you don’t feel a peace about that. Has God ever called you to witness to a hostile person? Trust me, you don’t feel a peace about that. But, that is the way we ‘Christianize’ our pagan understanding of finding the will of God.” It is Biblical thoughtlessness.
He continues to say that the Biblical way of discerning the will of God flies in the face of the pagan way. According to Romans 12:2, the Christian method does not bypass or circumvent the mind, but it goes through the mind. The mind is a God given tool with which people are able to read, think, pray and meditate, and communicate with others. Modern Christianity thinks that we cannot be both spiritual and intellectual, you are either one or the other. Baucham says that instead of the motto, “The mind is a terrible thing to waste,” modern Christianity has changed it to, “The mind is a terrible thing.” But, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. So, he gives the advice that we are to search the Scriptures, we are to think Biblically, pray with Biblical understanding, seek wise counsel from those who read their Bible and pray- and if we are still in doubt, repeat these things.
He warns that this will take work and getting used to because we all have been pressed into the mould of and conformed to the spirit of the age. The fact of the matter is that since we have lived in this world, we have been influenced by its thought patterns and systems. We cannot “follow our hearts” and their inclinations because our hearts are “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) and “the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead,” (Ecclesiastes 9:3) We have sat under the prophets of the spirit of the age through our public education, through media, through our non-Christian friends, through non-Christian mentors, and through cultural sentiments. We have walked in their counsel and been taught through them as to what they believe is good, right, pleasing, wise, true. etc. Their counsel has not been guided by God’s counsel, but by their own imaginations which are are not founded in right conceptions of truth, wisdom, and what is good.
Most of us have spent countless hours watching TV and movies; Baucham says that we have been so influenced by this that “a filmmaker can introduce you in two hours to a person who is an adulterer and a thief and a murderer, and, by the end of the film, have you cheering when he gets away!” We have had at least 14,000 hours where we have listened to the teachers/prophets of worldly wisdom in the school buildings and universities, who say that “your greatest problems are on the outside of you and the solution is on the inside of you, but the Bible says your greatest problem is on the inside of you and your solution is on the outside of you.”
The years have added up of unwittingly imbibing such things, “and you think you can just close your eyes and find the will of God that feels right?” We have to be redeemed out of its thinking first, and it takes work.
This is why we need Psalm 1:1-2, “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.” We need Psalm 119:105, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” We need 2 Corinthians 10:5, “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” We need Colossians 2:8, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” We need Psalm 119; Hosea 4:6; 1 Corinthians 10:12; 1 Timothy 6:20; Proverbs 3:4-5; etc. We need the whole thing.
To discern the will of God and to shed our pagan conceptions of “finding” God’s will, we have to understand what God’s will is and what is appropriate for us to understand. So, we search the Scriptures, think Biblically, pray Biblically, seek wise counsel from those who read their Bible and pray. Finally, if in doubt, repeat.
The following information is largely taken from my “Guidance” notes from my “Issues in Counseling” course taught by Dr. David Murray in the Spring semester of 2017 at PRTS.
The Biblical Conception of The Wills of God
Biblically speaking, we can find three different forms of God’s will, or three different ways of understanding what we mean by “God’s will:”
The first will of God is His decretive/sovereign will. This is His grand plan for the world, and His will of eternal decree, the fate of us all having been determined from eternity and the ultimate outcome of every single thing (Daniel 4:35; Isaiah 46:8-11; Proverbs 16:33; 21:1; Revelation 4:11; Ephesians 1:11; Romans 9:19; 11:33-36; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28- and many more).
Under this would fall His second will: the will and detailed plan that He has for each person (Genesis 24; Psalm 32:8; 73; Proverbs 16:9), like a microscope upon the decretive will to look at individuals. This is the will that people want to know- should I work here, should I marry this person. And in order to find this will of God, people employ all manners of pagan superstitions and traditions in order to tap into this divine knowledge. They will all be vain attempts because God does not give us access to this. Plain and simple. We do not have this, we cannot have this, there is no way for us to know more of this than what is already revealed and we must wait for it all to unfold– so stop trying to find this will out.
The will that He does give us is His preceptive or revealed will, or His will of desire, which are God’s commands (Proverbs 3:5-6; Romans 12:2; Ephesians 5:17; 6:6; Colossians 1:9; 4:12; and many more). All of these are the universal, moral, and binding imperatives of godly living that God desires for all His image bearers to walk in. These are the things that we know please Him. It is like knowing that your father desires or wills for you to mow the yard when it gets too long. This is the will of God that you are to diligently read and focus upon. This will is what you are to have written upon your hearts. Have it become second nature, cause its seat to be so deep within you that it becomes a part of you. God has revealed His will to mankind and we are to be filled with the knowledge of this will- dwell upon the things that are already revealed. These things are found in Scripture and unite your heart with Psalmist when he was inspired to write Psalm 119. Making this the core and totality of your person puts all of your daily and major life decisions in its proper perspective.
Views of Guidance
There are 3 manners or theories that I am familiar with regarding the of the application of God’s will and guidance to our lives.
The first view is called the traditional or majority view. This essentially states that “God has an ideal, detailed, and specific plan for each Christian’s life” where every small decision may have an utmost moral significance, “and guidance involves discerning this plan.” This is like making sure that you hit a bullseye with every decision you make. It must be dead center in order for it to be within God’s will. It is a tight-rope walk and can be absolutely paralyzing. “Should I have peas with steak tonight, or carrots… peas or carrots… oh please show me…” This is an extreme and overburdensome perspective to employ into everyday living that is unhelpful, especially when trying to make a decision. This view is also taken into major life decisions, the kinds of situations where we want to know God’s decretive will for our individual lives. Again, we cannot know this, we cannot empty our minds to enter into the divine realm and tap into this knowledge of God.
The second view is called the charismatic view. “This view seeks the knowledge of God’s individual plan by God’s direct, verbal communication.” This can undermine personal responsibility for any decision made or not made. As a cessationist, I do not believe that this is a means by which God communicates with His people anymore since we have the complete Word of God and have no need of further, special revelation. So, this manner is toeing the line of pagan transcendentalism, diverting around the means God has given and tapping into some “higher” mode of communication.
The third view, the one that I would lean toward, is called the wisdom view. This view states that “although God has an individual and specific plan for every Christian, this plan is strictly secret. Guidance comes by God giving us wisdom and making us wise.” This is the application of verses like Colossians 1:9, “…be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding,” 3:16a, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom,” Ephesians 5:15-17, “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is,” Romans 12:2, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God,” and Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths,” and the opposite of Hosea 4:6a, “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge.”
This method stresses the need for Bible study because it seeks wisdom from above and bases its decisions based upon what is prescribed or prohibited in Scripture, but it also leaves open a lot of legitimate options that are wholly permissible and okay for whichever is chosen.
When making a decision in this view, think of a bullseye made of three circles:
The first circle is the area of things that are prohibited. No matter the situation, this area requires obedience and we are to refrain from these actions all the time. If you are faced with a decision on which girl to date, but you’re married already, then the answer to this question ought to be obvious- none, no other girls should be dated because you’re married and are to be faithful to your wife always. It is not God’s will for your life to go after another girl even if you feel strongly about it because His will for your life is to remain faithful to your spouse (1 Thess. 4:3).
The second circle is the area of the application of God’s positive commands. This may be the area where the most guidance questions arise, so keen wisdom and discernment are needed. Questions like, “Where can I serve the Lord best with my talents?” can be found here. The issue is that no one can keep all of the positive commands of God at once, so each situation and choice must be taken individually to determine which decision ought to take priority. In situations like this, you are to count the cost of your decisions and options before you. So, manners of money, time, and skills are to be brought into consideration. A person could be faced with several job opportunities- one will force him to work on Sundays and is not flexible, so that violates the first circle- another fits his skill set perfectly, but is too far away and pays very little, so that might hinder the positive command of being able to support a family- but two jobs are nearby, fit pretty close to the necessary skillset, nearly the same and adequate pay, and are flexible for his sabbath observance, so that leads us to:
The third circle, which is the area of Christian liberty. Provided the other two circles are in the clear, the Christian has the freedom to make certain decisions based upon personal preference and need not overburden himself with making exactly the right, specific decision. Within this circle of Christian liberty may include small matters of personal preference: like the (moderate) consumption alcohol or being a vegetarian, or choices between equally good alternatives. So long as these choices are good and are out of a motive to glorify God, He has no preference and has given us the freedom to work out our lives here. But wisdom is still needed in order to discern the difference between a choice that appears to be good and Biblical from one that actually is.
With this in mind, here’s how Margaret’s situation of sifting through life’s tea leaves could have been more sound: “‘We had a desire to serve the Lord and so we just started looking around at places and options and opportunities that we had to serve the Lord and as a result of that, we began to pray, read the Scriptures, we had some people around us who love us, knew us, prayed and read the Scriptures with us. They helped us think through this thing biblically. We counted the cost. We made a decision and now here we are serving in this place. Praise God!’ But nobody wants that or likes it that way because it doesn’t sound spiritual enough.” (Baucham).
Dr. David Murray’s 7 steps of Biblical Decision Making
The first step is consecration. We are to first lay everything on the altar, wholly dedicated and submissive to Christ’s lordship in joy, humility, and fear, and taken up in the study of God’s Word. This means that it is the Christian’s lifestyle where one’s core of life is fed by a diet of prayer and scripture reading. Psalm 25:9
The second step is information. We are to identify and determine the problems that a situation may place before us, build alternatives and analyze problems that might come up with them, analyze the pros and cons, and count the cost. Proverbs 15:22
Third, supplication. Bring this specific matter to the Lord in prayer. John Flavel says, “Pray for illumination and direction in the way that you should go. Beg the Lord to guide you in straits and that he would not permit you to fall into sin”
Fourth, consultation. It would be good to find a person who has gone through something similar to what you are going through. This is also a part of godly, Christian living- living within a community of Christian accountability with other sound believers. Proverbs 11:14; 12:15; 15:22
Fifth, meditation. This is the time to take some time. Weigh in the advice that people have given. Weigh it in with the scriptures you have read. Weigh in the circumstances of providence. Be patient and think.
Sixth, decision. You have to make a decision at some point. Even not making a decision is making a decision. It is deciding not to decide, and this most certainly has its own consequences that could be worse than if something was decided more forwardly.
Seventh, expectation. Certainly expect God’s blessing upon this godly, humble, dependent, and Biblical process. But also expect guardrails of God’s providence if and when decisions go wrong. Murray says: “When we have chosen what is moral and wise, we must trust the sovereign God to work all the details together for good. When we’ve made a mistake, repent, do what you can to change it, look to God to overrule for good, and learn from it.”
In closing, Matthew Henry noted on Proverbs 3:5-6 (mentioned above): “We must have a continual regard to God’s providence, must depend upon it in all our affairs, both by faith and prayer. We must therefore trust in the Lord with all our hearts; we must believe that he is able to do what he will, wise to do what is best, and good, according to his promise, to do what is best for us, if we love him, and serve him. By prayer: In all thy ways acknowledge God. We must ask his leave, and not design anything but what we are sure is lawful. We must ask his advice and beg direction from him [and where do we find direction from Him?]. We must ask success of him, as those who know the race is not to the swift. For our encouragement to do this, it is promised, ‘He shall direct thy paths, so that they way shall be safe and good and the issue happy at last.” (emphasis and brackets mine).
So, what is God’s will for your life? Read Psalm 40:8; 86:11; 119:25-27, 105, 133; 143:10; Micah 6:8; Matthew 6:10, 33; John 6:40; Romans 12:2; Ephesians 5:15-20; Colossians 3; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; 5:18; Hebrews 10:36; James 4:7; 1Peter 2:15; 2 Peter 3:9.
It is to be sanctified. It is to be conformed to His image by the renewing of your mind so that you can think Biblically through life’s options in faith and know what sorts of things are pleasing to Him.