Knowing God’s will

During my years as a campus minister two seminars I gave always drew large attendances at statewide conferences. They were on the interrelated topics of finding God’s will and choosing a marriage partner.

Issues

Concern to know God’s will and to find the right partner are healthy Christian instincts. Christians, however inconstant the strength of the desire and inconsistent the follow through, want to please God. They know by Scripture and the Spirit that they should submit themselves to God, and they know by experience that there is misery in rebellion.

girl with decisionsHowever, it is just here that there is a great deal of confusion, frustration, and unhappiness. The reason is that usually the concern is how to know the will of God vocationally (that is, what God calls us to do) with regard to college, major, job, location, marriage, and similar areas of our lives. Some have heard teaching about “being in the center of God’s will” or of “finding the perfect will of God” or of “asking God for guidance.” With regard to a marriage partner it can be about finding “the special one God has chosen for you.”

The question is, “How can you know the will of God?” The problem is that you cannot find a text that says, “Go to A College, major in B, take job C, live in city D, marry E.” It’s just not there.

God is sovereign. We are not. Believe in God’s goodness. Trust his wisdom. Listen to his Word. Do his will. Live your life. Make the best of your marriage.

Of course, some think it is and practice “Bible dipping.” The old evangelical joke tells of the guy who tries this method of finding God’s will for him. He prays for guidance. He closes his eyes, lets his Bible fall open, points his finger to a text on the page, opens his eyes, and reads, “Judas went out and hanged himself.” He thinks, “There must be more to what God is saying to me,” so he goes through the same procedure. When he reads the text God has lead him to this time, he finds, “What thou doest do thou quickly.” The sum of the guidance is, “Hang yourself like Judas and do it quickly.”

The other approach it to “put out a fleece” or seek a sign to know what God wants you to do. Another old joke goes that a young man who was a farmer was seeking to know whether to keep farming or enter the ministry, so he asked God to give him a sign. One day as he was plowing he looked up into the sky and saw a cloud formation that he thought formed the letters “PC.” As he continued to plow, it struck him, “That’s my sign! It means, “Preach Christ.’” But why not, “Plant crops,” or “Pick cotton”?

Distinctions

There are two distinctions that can help us navigate our way through life as we seek to sort out this business of knowing the will of God:

(1) One is the distinction between God’s will of decree and God’s will of precept.

God’s decretive will takes in absolutely everything, even sin. It is worked out in the big and little things of God’s providential dealings with us. But it is unknowable to us except in retrospect. You know it only after it happens. Knowledge of God’s will in this sense cannot guide us through life just because it is inaccessible to us. God willed for you to marry Mary, but you did not marry Mary because you knew that.

God’s preceptive will is what he has revealed in Scripture. There he gives us commands and prohibitions. What he tells us to do and what he tell us not to do is his will for us. This we can know, though never perfectly.

We know that God’s will generally is our sanctification and specifically is that we should abstain from sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3). We know it is God’s will for us to marry “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39). These and other biblical teachings are God’s will as we court and decide on a marriage partner.

Now it could be in God’s decretive will that you engage in premarital sex or marry an unbeliever, but, if you do either, you are outside the will God (his precepts and prohibitions) for you. The only way to seek and choose a marriage partner is to stay within those and other relevant apostolic instructions.

(2) Another distinction is between revelation then and revelation now.

We believe God gave his revelation (special not general, supernatural not natural) to prophets and apostles. That revelation came to its climax with Jesus Christ in and by whom God has spoken to us in these last days (Hebrews 1:1, 2). The age of revelation came to its conclusion with the death of the last apostle. The revelation was complete when the last word of Holy Scripture was written.

During the prophetic and apostolic age God sometimes gave specific, concrete revelation. Samuel knew Saul’s father’s donkeys had been found so that Saul could cease his search and remain with Samuel (1 Samuel 9:3–20). When Paul and his associates were planning to go to Bythinia, the Spirit prevented them, so they went to Troas where God revealed to Paul in a dream that they should go to Macedonia (Acts 16:7–11). However, this kind of revelation seems to have been rare even in biblical times. Believers could not rely on a revelation to know what to do now or next.

Where do we look for revelation today? The only revelation we have now is in the Scriptures. They alone are our infallible rule of faith and practice. Such revelation as God wanted preserved for us in this age is found in the Bible. The will of God we can know and by which we can be guided is the will of God we find in the Holy Writings. These are profitable for “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). By the Scriptures the minister as man of God is made “competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17) of his calling and by his right use of them the people of God are also equipped in the good works God calls them to do. This is one of the things we mean when we speak of the sufficiency of Scripture.

Decisions

Where does this leave us? When it comes to living our lives, we are to live within the negative and positive commands of God. It’s always right to do right and always wrong to do wrong.

What then? We have to make decisions. The best decisions we can make. Then we live with them, rejoicing in the decisions that work out well, correcting the decisions that seem not to have worked out if we can, living with and making the best of the decisions we can’t fix, confident that God’s will is to be accomplished in the good and the bad ones. He will cause all things to work together for our good. He will see to it that the good work he has begun in us will be completed.

God does not promise a perfect match between you and your school, or career, or church, or spouse. He does not guarantee compatibility and harmony. What he promises is that the guidance of Scripture is all we need and that his grace will be sufficient.

We may wish we could know the will of God about the big decisions in life in a more precise and concrete way. We so much want certainty. We so much want to avoid mistakes and the responsibility for and consequences of the bad ones. But it is not God’s will for us to give such certainty.

We live in the age of the maturity of God’s people. When children are young we give them many detailed instructions. Get up at 6. Wear the yellow shirt, blue shorts, and tennis shoes. Have Cheerios. Go outside and play. Take your nap from 2 till 3. Eat your peas. Go take your bath. Get in bed at 8. But, as they grow older, we do not want them turning to us for every decision, so we give them more and more room for making decisions for themselves. We are preparing them for adulthood, when we hope that, having absorbed the principles we have taught them, they will make responsible and wise decisions.

God has given us the Bible, which teaches us everything we need to know about his will. That’s all we need. Equipped by his Word, we live our lives making decisions. We do not live in fear that God will slap our hands if take path A rather than path B. God has decreed which path you will take, but you cannot know what he has decreed, so make a decision and go down one or the other. If you don’t have much ability in math he probably has not called you to be a rocket scientist, but there are any numbers of careers and jobs you could choose.

He has told you not to marry John because he is not a believer, but he has not told you to marry Bob or Jim or Richard. As Paul instructed the church at Corinth about the widows, “But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whomever she wishes, only in the Lord” though Paul believes she will be happier if she does not remarry at all (1 Corinthians 7:39, 40).

There is one person for you (at a time) in terms of God’s decree. Don’t try to figure it out. There is not one person for you in the romantic or relational sense. Make the best and wisest decision you can. There are any number of people with whom you could make a stable and fulfilling marriage. There is no such thing as “just one.”

One other thing. God does not promise a perfect match between you and your school, or career, or church, or spouse. He does not guarantee compatibility and harmony. What he promises is that the guidance of Scripture is all we need and that his grace will be sufficient.

Sometimes he demonstrates those realities by putting us in situations we would not choose if we had it to do over again. Sometimes our unhappiness is the context for both sanctification and joy. Sometimes we experience such great happiness that we know God’s fatherly generosity that has nothing to do with our being deserving children. God is not stingy but delights to give his children good things.

Case Study

Near the beginning and the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans he addresses his unaccomplished plans to visit Rome. (Perhaps they were wondering why he had told them he was coming but never had.) He wanted to go to impart to them some spiritual gift, to encourage and be encouraged, and to reap a spiritual harvest there as he had other places. He had often intended to visit Rome but each time he had been prevented. He did not take this as a sign that he was pushing ahead against God’s will. Rather he is making plans again and asks the Roman church join him in prayer that he might somehow by God’s will at last make that visit (Romans 1:9–13).

The reason Paul had not made it to Rome was that opportunities kept opening for him in other places. But now it seems those have come to an end so that Paul now thinks he can plan the trip again. He plans eventually to go to Spain. He thinks he will stop by Rome on the way and stay awhile. But first he has another thing to do. He needs to go to Jerusalem and deliver to the saints there the offering that has been collected for their relief among the Gentiles. Then he will be on his way to Rome. However, he knows that there are dangers in Jerusalem. So he asks the Romans to pray that he might be delivered from unbelievers, that his service will be acceptable to the believers in Jerusalem, and that by God’s will he will come to Rome with joy and be refreshed by their fellowship. Paul is confident that when he arrives in Rome it will be in the fullness of Christ’s blessing (Romans 15:22–32).

Did Paul get to Rome? Yes. Was it according to his plan? No. Did he ever get to Spain? We don’t know but probably not. He was delivered from danger in Jerusalem but by being taken into custody, which led to detainment and trials till he appealed to have his case heard in Rome. On the way to Rome, he experienced the near loss of his life in a shipwreck. When at last he arrived in Rome, he was a prisoner facing the threat of death if convicted.

Was Paul outside the will of God? Did Paul know God’s plan? Did Paul press on despite clear indications that it was not God’s will for him to go to Rome? Did Paul forfeit the blessings of Christ? No.

God is sovereign. We are not. Believe in God’s goodness. Trust his wisdom. Listen to his Word. Do his will. Live your life. Make the best of your marriage.

Did I make the right decision about a wife? Well, in the sense that I married the only woman I’ve met who wouldn’t have killed me, yes. Did she make the right decision about a husband? Who knows? She says two things about her decision: (1) She was too young to know any better. (2) I wouldn’t go away. However, if you ask her why she is still here, she will tell you it is because she promised. Good or bad decision, she’s lived with it.

William H. Smith is a presbyter in the Reformed Episcopal Church. He was a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America for 40 years. This article is reprinted with permission from his blog, The Christian Curmudgeon. 

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