FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About The Christian Life - Chapter 5

Chapter 5 How can I discover God’s will for my life?   Have you ever wished you could sit down with Jesus and talk with him about your own life? Wouldn’t you like to ask him, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” All of us have moments when we want to hear God’s voice or receive some definite sign regarding a relationship, a business decision, a career choice, or a major expendi­ture. Before we decide, we would like to know that what we are doing is what God wants us to do. Our decisions really do matter. We make our decisions, and our decisions turn around and make us. We face so many questions:   • Should I get married? If the answer is yes, should I marry Joe or Jake or Susan or Sally? • Should I go to college? If the answer is yes, should I go to Penn State or Georgia Tech or UCLA? • I’ve been offered a new job. It’s a good job. But I’ve got a good job. Should I take the new job? Or should I stay where I am? • We have two children. We’re thinking about having a third. Should we have another one? Or should we think about adopting? • Is God calling me to the mission field? How can I be sure? Three mission boards are interested in me. How do I know which one to choose?   Every spring, high school seniors wrestle with the big question, “What do I do when I graduate?” And every year I write recommen­dations for students applying to various Christian colleges and state universities. I enjoy talking with students about their career choices and helping them take that all-important next step. Once the appli­cations are turned in, the waiting game begins. And so does the inner turmoil. “Which colleges will accept me? Which ones will say no? What if three say yes, but my personal favorite says no? What if my favorite says yes, but I can’t afford it?” What do you do then? Is there any way to be 100 percent certain about God’s will when you are choosing a college? I think it would be a lot easier if you could simply open the door one evening and be greeted by a chorus of angels chanting, “Georgia Tech! Georgia Tech! Georgia Tech!” Or if you got a special delivery letter from heaven that said, “Dear Beth, go to Wheaton. Love, God.” That would make it easy. But it doesn’t often happen that way. Most of the time we research, study, narrow the options, talk it over with trusted friends, pray about it, wait on the Lord, turn in our applications, and then in the end, we make our choice and hope for the best.   It’s God’s Responsibility, Not Ours That raises the central issue for most people regarding God’s will. We would like someone else to make the decision for us. If God would only tell us what he wanted in a given situation, we would do it. But most of the time we’re left with something less than 100 per­cent certainty. I’m going to tell you up front that I don’t believe there is any way for you to get 100 percent certainty before you sign on the dotted line. I think you can get 95 percent probability sometimes, but that’s about as good as most of us will ever do in the decisions of life. Rarely will we be absolutely certain, sometimes we will be mostly certain, and occasionally we will be downright confused as we come to the moment when we have to decide. That seems to be the case, -no matter how much we have prayed and waited on the Lord. Certainty in decision making is hard to come by in a fallen world. It helps to remember that even if we are confused, God is not. Confusion is not a sin, especially if it causes you to trust in the Lord with all your heart. Everything else in this chapter is based on the fol­lowing statement: Since God wants you to know his will more than you want to know it, he takes personal responsibility to see that you discover it. Knowing God’s will is ultimately God’s responsibility, not yours. Let that last thought sink into your mind for a moment. You may never have heard it put that way before. Let me suggest what this really means:   • He can put you exactly where he wants you to be. • He can arrange all the details years in advance. • He can open doors that seem shut tight. • He can remove any obstacle that stands in your way. • He can take your choices and fit them into his plan so that you end up in the right place at just the right time. • He can even take your mistakes and bring good out of them. • He can take tragedy and use it for your good and his glory.   All he needs—in fact the only thing he requires—is a willing heart. He just needs you to cooperate with him. This doesn’t mean that you won’t have to make decisions. But it does take the pressure off, because it means that you can trust God to take your decisions and use them to accomplish his will in your life.   Four Verses from Proverbs While reading through the Book of Proverbs, I was repeatedly struck with the strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God over our personal decisions. Let’s take a quick look at four verses that help us see how God works in, with, through, and sometimes in spite of our decisions to accomplish his will in us. “In his heart a man plans his course, but the lord determines his steps” (Prov. 16:9). Consider the word determines. This verse doesn’t say that God “directs” our steps (although that is true—see Prov. 3:6 KJV), but rather that God determines our steps. This is a very strong word that speaks of God’s control of every detail in the universe. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that “man proposes, but God disposes.” You can make all your plans; in fact, you can have your life mapped out step by step, but in the end God determines every step you take. After we have made our plans, we don’t know if they will succeed, if they should succeed, or even if we would be happier if they succeeded or failed. Our plans change because we change, our circumstances change, and the people around us change. How comforting to know that in the midst of our confusion, God determines the steps we take. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the lord “ (Prov. 16:33). Most of us don’t understand the concept of “casting lots.” In the Old Testament, the Jews often used this method to determine God’s will. It sometimes involved using different colored balls or rocks, mixing them together, and then seeing which one fell out of the bag first. In that sense casting lots is like rolling dice. It appears to be a random act of chance. But God is behind those col­ored stones. He determines which one falls out of the bag first. This means that there are no “accidents” in life, no “random” events, and there is no such thing as “luck.” Even seemingly meaningless things fit into his plan. We might paraphrase the verse like this: “Life is like a roll of the dice, but God is in charge of how the numbers come up.” “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Prov. 19:21). Here’s another street-level paraphrase: “You can make all the plans you like, but God gets the last word.” His purpose always prevails. Some translations say that God’s purpose will stand. Most of our plans don’t stand. They are like the leaves that blow away in the autumn wind. But when God determines to do something, you can write it down and take it to the bank. You can make all the speeches you want and announce your long-range plans, your ten-year goals, and your personal objectives, but just remember this: When you are finished, God always gets the last word. One of the greatest examples of this truth comes from the life of Joseph in the Old Testament. His brothers sold him to the Midianites who took him to Egypt, where through an amazing chain of events he rose to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man. From that lofty posi­tion he was able to rescue his whole family during a famine in Canaan. Looking back on all that had transpired, Joseph saw the hand of God in everything that happened: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20). He understood that God can take the foolish choices we make and he can bring some­thing good out of them. “A man’s steps are directed by the lord. How then can anyone under­stand his own way?” (Prov. 20:24). There is something hidden in the Hebrew text that you wouldn’t know simply from reading the English translation. The word translated “man’s” in the first phrase comes from a Hebrew word that refers to a mighty warrior, a ruler, or a potentate. Solomon means to say that even the steps of a mighty man are ordained by God. The word anyone in the second phrase comes from the generic word for humanity. The meaning is, “If God directs the steps of the mighty, how then can an ordinary man understand his own way?” The answer is, he can’t! That’s the whole point of the verse. We’re like a man stumbling around in the darkness, bumping into things, tripping over ourselves, trying to find our way forward. We can’t say for sure where we’ve come from, where we are right now, or where we’re going to be tomorrow. Or we’re like passengers on an overnight flight to Europe. You have to place your life in the hands of the flight crew while the plane hurtles through the night seven miles above the water. You can’t be sure where you are, where you’ve been, or where you’re going. If you look outside the plane, you can’t see a thing. And since you can’t do anything about it, you might as well get some sleep. Only God sees the big picture of life. When we get up in the morning, we don’t know what the day will bring. And often we don’t even know what to pray for. Our uncer­tainty is meant to teach us daily dependence on God. He can handle the details. Our job is to trust him. If we take these four verses together, they paint a high view of God’s involvement in the details of life. His plans cannot be thwarted, but he easily frustrates the plans we make. It is right and good that we should plan for the future, but God is the one who ordains the steps we take. Our vision of the future is so limited that we can barely see the next step in front of us, and sometimes we’re wrong about that. These verses remind us that we can fight against God’s plan and fail, or we can cooperate with him and succeed. Several years ago, while I was teaching through Ecclesiastes, the Lord impressed a very simple principle on my heart. It is so basic that I call it the First Rule of the Spiritual Life. Understand this rule and you will have peace in the midst of confusing circumstances. If you forget it, nothing in life will make sense to you. This is where all true understanding must begin.   The First Rule of the Spiritual Life: He’s God and We’re Not! When we forget that rule, we think that we’re in control of our own life and that everything depends on us. So we obsess, we hyperventilate, we try to control everything and everyone around us, we worry over all our decisions, and we spend hours fussing over the minutiae of life. What a relief to realize that God is God and you’re not. Now you can rip that big “G” off your sweatshirt. You don’t have to play God any­more, and you don’t have to try to control everything around you. One night Corrie ten Boom was having trouble going to sleep because she was so worried about the affairs of her life. She tried praying, but it didn’t help. Finally the Lord said to her, “Go to sleep, Corrie. I’m going to be up all night anyway.” We ought to sleep well when we realize that God is God and he can be trusted to run the universe (including our little portion) properly.   Four Principles for Seeking God’s Will With that as background, we still need to think about the deci­sions of life. If God is God (and we’re not!), what do we do when we are standing at the crossroads and wondering which way we should go? Here are four simple principles that can help you as you seek to do God’s will.   Principle #1: Use All Your Resources to Make Wise Decisions Sometimes people talk as if you shouldn’t use your brain at all, but should wait for some mystical sign from God. The Bible does say, “Lean not on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5), but that doesn’t mean to throw your brain away. It simply means that after doing all your research on a given decision, submit it to God and ask for his help. Acts 16:6-10 offers a clear example in this regard. It tells of Paul’s attempts to preach the gospel in various parts of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). As doors kept closing, Paul and his team ended up in Troas, near the coast of the Aegean Sea. There Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia asking for his help. Verse 10 says that after the vision, the team discussed all the circumstances and concluded that God had called them to take the gospel to Greece. It was a combination of circumstances, plus a vision, plus a discussion of the facts that led them to a united conclusion. This is how God usually works. We must consider open doors, closed doors, advice from others, wisdom gathered from the Scriptures, our own past experiences, plus the “still, small voice” of the Lord speaking to us. And then we must weigh everything prayer­fully and carefully before deciding what we will do. If you need to make a major decision, don’t wait for the angels to knock on your door. Use your head, study the situation, gather the facts, talk to your friends, seek godly counsel, and then submit it all to the Lord.   Principle #2: Since You Can’t Know the Future, You’ll Rarely Have 100 Percent Certainty about Most Decisions I’ve already mentioned that this may be the greatest stumbling block for some people because we would all like to be 100 percent cer­tain before we sign on the dotted line. And some Christians believe it is wrong to be less than 100 percent certain. I can understand their thinking. After all, if you are facing a life-changing decision—a poten­tial marriage, a cross-country move, a new career, which college to attend, whether or not to begin chemotherapy—you’d like to know in advance beyond any doubt that you are doing what God wants you to do. All too often that leaves us paralyzed by an inability to make up our minds. Some decisions are so important they can’t be left to chance. As the popular saying goes, “When in doubt, don’t.” If you aren’t sure about the new job, don’t take it, don’t make the move, don’t say yes, don’t make any decision with less than total certainty. But is that good advice? Is it realistic? Is that the way God nor­mally works?   • Did Noah know all about the flood? No, but he built the ark anyway. • Did Abraham have a road map? No, but he left Ur of the Chaldees anyway. • Did Moses know he was going to have to part the Red Sea in order to escape Egypt? No, but he led the people to the edge of the water anyway. • Did Joshua know how the walls were going to come tumbling down? No, but he marched around Jericho anyway. • Did Gideon fully grasp God’s plan to defeat the Midianites? No, he doubted it from the beginning, but God delivered his people anyway. • Did young David know for certain that he could defeat Goliath? No, but he picked up the five smooth stones anyway. • Did Jehoshaphat know how God was going to defeat the Ammonites? No, but he put the singers at the front of the army and sent them out to battle anyway.   We could add dozens of other examples from the Bible. Did Esther know what would happen when she went in to see King Xerxes? Did the three Hebrew children know how they would be delivered? Was Daniel totally sure the lions would be happy to see him? Did Peter know he could walk on water? Did Paul know what would happen when he finally got to Rome? The answer is always no. The life of faith means living with uncertainty even in the midst of doing God’s will. That’s the whole point of Hebrews 11. Those great men and women didn’t know the future, but they trusted God anyway, sometimes in the face of great personal suffering. And because they kept on believing when cir­cumstances turned against them, they received a great reward. Too many people want what God has never promised—100 per­cent certainty before they will act. So they wait and wait and they dilly and they dally and they stop and they hesitate and they rumi­nate. They refuse to go forward because they are waiting for a level of confidence that almost removes the need for faith altogether. After all, if you were truly 100 percent certain, why would you need faith at all?   Principle #3: God Wants Guidable People Who Will Trust Him with the Details of Life Guidable people look to God and not to themselves. That is, they understand that after they have done all they can, it is the Lord’s pur­pose that prevails. Like young Samuel, they say, “Speak, for your ser­vant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:10). Like Isaiah they cry out, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isa. 6:8).” Like the Lord Jesus they pray, “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Let me share a secret with you. Guidable people always receive guidance from God. Always. Why? Because God always speaks loud enough for a willing ear to hear. Sometimes I talk with Christians who admit they want what they want and it doesn’t matter to them what God wants. In those cases I have no advice to give. Why bother seeking God’s will if what you really want is a rubber stamp on your own desires? But if you find yourself not willing to do God’s will, are you willing to be made willing? That’s a useful prayer if you can say it from your heart: “Lord, right now I’m not sure I want to do your will. But I am willing to be made willing. Do whatever is necessary to change my heart. Amen.” God honors that kind of honesty and responds to anyone whose heart is open to him. Are you a guidable Christian? Or do you feel like you have to be in the driver’s seat of life? Are you willing to say, “Lord, let your will be done even if it means that my will is not done"?   Principle #4: When the Time Comes, Make the Best Decision You Can and Leave the Results with God This follows from everything else I’ve shared in this chapter. When the time to decide comes, when you’ve thought about it, prayed about it, talked it over, sought godly counsel, researched your options, looked at the circumstances, searched the Scriptures, and waited on the Lord—when you’ve done everything you know how to do and the moment of truth comes—take a deep breath, close your eyes if you need to, and then go ahead and make the best decision you can make. I’ve purposely written that as a long sentence because it describes how most of our decisions are made. We wait and wait and wait and then we finally decide. And even then, we still have to trust the Lord with the results. He’s God and we’re not. His purposes will stand. Make your plans. Submit them to God. Be bold when you need to be bold. Don’t be afraid to decide. Leave room for God to change your plans at any time. Then trust God with the results. I’ve already said that he wants you to know his will more than you want to know it. Knowing God’s will is his responsibility, not yours. That means it is God’s responsibility to show you his will, to guide you in the right path, to give you everything you need, and to then enable you to do his will. All you have to do is trust him with the details of your life. A friend shared this thought with me: “God has enough trouble getting us to do his will, without making it hard to find.” I believe that’s true. If you are willing to be guided by God, you will discover that he will lead you step by step by step. In the end you will be what he wants you to be, you will go where he wants you to go, and you will do what he wants you to do. This is God’s promise to guidable Christians who are willing to do his will.   The Twenty-One-Day Challenge Recently my wife and I had lunch with some friends who were visiting from a distant city. As we began our meal, the thought passed through my mind that the husband looked more relaxed than I had seen him in a long time. I soon discovered the reason for his calm demeanor. He told me about a simple prayer he had been praying at the beginning of each new day. He heard a noted Christian leader suggest using this prayer for twenty-one days. My friend said that he had tried it and that the prayer had made a profound difference in his life. At that point his wife chimed in to say that she had noticed a drastic difference in him as well. Before he started praying the prayer, he often came home tense over things that had happened to him dur­ing the day. But now he comes home relaxed and in a good mood. As I listened, I wondered to myself what kind of magic prayer could make that kind of difference. My friend said that for him the key is to pray the prayer the moment he wakes up—even before he gets out of bed. He even said that he had awakened that morning at 4:30 A.M., so he prayed the prayer and then went back to sleep. The prayer itself is the essence of simplicity. It goes like this: “Heavenly Father, you are in charge of everything that will happen to me today—whether it be good or bad, positive or negative. Please make me thankful for everything that happens to me today. Amen. “ This prayer is powerful because it doesn’t change anything outside of me, but it does change everything inside of me. My circumstances don’t change, but my attitude does. And that’s why my friend looked so relaxed when we ate lunch. Perhaps you need to take the twenty-one-day challenge. Pray that simple prayer first thing in the morning for the next twenty-one days and see what happens in your heart. Life is a mysterious journey, full of unexpected twists and turns. The path ahead is a mystery to us all. No one can say for sure what is around the next bend. It may be a smooth road through a lovely val­ley, or we may discover that the bridge is washed out and we have to find a way to cross a deep river. Often the road will seem to disappear, or it may suddenly seem to go in three different directions and we won’t know which way to go. But there is One who knows the way because the past, present, and future are all the same to him and the darkness is as the light of day. He knows the way we should go. He promised to direct your path, and he will do it. You can count on it.   A Truth to Remember: If you are truly willing to do God’s will, you will do it.   Going Deeper 1. Sometimes tiny decisions turn out to have huge consequences. Can you think of a time when a spur-of-the-moment decision ended up changing your life? 2. “Knowing God’s will for your life is God’s responsibility, not yours.” What does that statement mean? Do you agree or disagree? 3. “It is rarely God’s will to give you 100 percent certainty before you make an important decision.” Have you ever come to a major decision and taken a step of faith in spite of your per­sonal doubts? What happened? 4. Read the four verses from Proverbs mentioned in this chapter. Which one seems to apply most directly to your life right now? 5. Name a time in your life when God took a mistake you made and brought something good out of it. What did you learn about God and about yourself from that experience? 6. Why is it important that we pray “Lord, let your will be done even if it means that my will is not done"? What happens inside us when we refuse to pray that prayer? In what area of your life do you need to pray that prayer right now?   Taking Action This chapter mentions a prayer that someone prayed as part of a twenty-one-day challenge: “Heavenly Father, you are in charge of everything that will happen to me today—whether it be good or bad, pos­itive or negative. Please make me thankful for everything that happens to me today. Amen. “Try praying this prayer first thing in the morning for the next three weeks and see what difference it makes in your life. Want instant access to all of the questions and answers? FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About the Christian Life is available in ebook format for the Kindle, Nook, or Ipad. Purchase your copy here!    

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