Sense and Nonsense About God’s Will
October 18, 2007
“What Happened, Lord?”
It’s a common question, isn’t it? You set out to get a new job, you work hard for it, you go through the interview process, you do your very best, and in your heart you believe this is the job God wants you to have. Then someone else gets the job. And you say, “Lord, I thought I was doing Your will.” Or perhaps you get the job, and you say, “Thank You, Lord.” But six months later you’re fired and you say, “What happened, Lord?” Or you think, “If only we could move to Florida, we would be happy.” So you move to Florida, believing it to be the will of God. When you get there, you still are not happy. And you say, “Lord, did we make a mistake?” Deep in our hearts we know God has a plan for us. We don’t debate that; it’s not a theological issue with us. We know that we weren’t put on the earth to grope blindly through the darkness. Nevertheless, that’s the way life feels sometimes.
Not long ago I listened as my college-age youngest son and one of his friends sat on the couch in our living room talking about this and that. The conversation eventually turned to girls, more particularly to one girl who is dating a mutual friend. I listened long enough to discover that they seem to think that he should be dating someone else, though the reasons involved seemed obscure to me. After some more discussion, the boys concluded that the relationship would probably end soon anyway. At that point, my wife chimed in with the helpful insight that the boy might end it by telling the girl, “I think it’s God’s will that we break up.” She smiled when she said it, and I knew what she was thinking because that’s exactly what I said to her when we broke up at the start of our senior year in college. At that time we had been dating for over a year. She worked at Christian camp that summer while I took courses at a university several hundred miles away. I hadn’t seen her since May, but over the summer months had decided we needed to break up. I knew we were falling in love and that marriage was a real possibility if we continued to date, and like most men, that thought terrified me. I was only 20 years old and fairly well convinced that I would probably get married someday, but to me that “someday” was a few years away. When I returned to the Christian college we both attended, I decided to do the manly thing and tell her with as much kindness as I could muster that we needed to break up. The scene is etched in my mind. We took a walk one night and ended up in the music building on campus. After a few minutes of awkward conversation (she had no idea what was coming), I told her that I had prayed about it and that I thought it was God’s will that we should break up. Though shocked, she took the news gracefully and we parted on friendly terms. I walked back to my dorm feeling like I had handled a difficult situation pretty well, even though I had some nagging doubts about whether it was really the right thing to do.
“Wake Up, Ray!”
Here’s the rest of the story. We did not stay broken up very long. After a week or so, I had one of those “light-bulb” moments where everything suddenly became clear to me. While driving down a country road, I heard a voice say (well, it seemed like I heard a voice. Maybe it was just my mind talking to me, trying to get my attention), “Wake up, Ray. You’re in love with Marlene.” It happened just like that—and it was true. So a few days later I asked to see her again, we got back together, that spring we were engaged, the next August we got married, and we will soon celebrate our 30th anniversary.
Looking back I’m not sure how much I meditated on the theological implications of saying it was God’s will that we should break up. Since we were both attending a Christian college, it wasn’t unusual for a guy (or a girl) to give that reason for ending a relationship. In a sense, it’s the “ultimate” excuse. It’s almost like saying, “I’d like to keep dating you, but God won’t let me.” Who can argue with that? As I think back, I wonder, “Did I really believe it was God’s will for us to break up?” But that’s putting too much pressure on a nervous college kid who didn’t know what to do. Perhaps it truly was God’s will for us to break up so that I could realize that I had fallen in love with Marlene. Maybe that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t broken up. So maybe I had to say, “It’s God will for us to break up” because it was really God’s will for us to get back together, get married, and still be together (and happy!) after all these years. As I write those words, it hits me that they express what I truly believe. God’s will was done in the end.
That little drama, though hardly earthshaking, illustrates a key truth we often overlook. Knowing God’s will is a journey, not a destination, and along the way we will sometimes be quite confused. And sometimes we will be flat wrong about what God really wants for us. The bottom line is not being “right” or “wrong” about God’s will, but truly seeking what God’s will in the first place.
If you are willing to follow him, he will lead you exactly where he wants you to go. There is nothing controversial about that statement. All Christians would agree with it. The problem comes at the next level–the level of practical application. We know God guides His children, but how does that divine guidance work out in the nitty-gritty details? At precisely this point we need to be very clear in our thinking. There is so much misinformation, so much bad teaching, so much faulty theology when we come to the “how-to” of God’s guidance. As a result many Christians continually make wrong turns, go down dead-end streets, and end up in spiritual cul-de-sacs because they don’t understand what God has said about the way he guides His children.
In order to help us understand the biblical perspective, I’m going to share four wrong ideas about God’s guidance and a biblical answer for each one. Each of these myths, though popular, can be devastating to believers.
Myth #1: God wants you to know the future
This myth is listed first because it is the biggest mistake that Christians make with regard to the will of God. It is the mistake of assuming the end from the beginning. Because God has led us one step in a particular direction, we assume that the end result must be guaranteed. We start down a road, and because we are going a certain direction we think the destination is certain. Let’s be clear on this one point. It is rarely God’s will for you to know your personal future. Psalm 119:105 paints a clear picture of how we discover the will of God: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” The picture here is not of a blazing light that illuminates an entire room. It is a picture of a man in total darkness walking along a dangerous trail. There is no moon in the sky. Darkness clings to him. His only light comes from the lantern in his hand. As he holds the lantern, it illuminates the step right in front of him. When he takes that step, what happens to the light? It goes forward one more step. The light is not bright enough to illuminate even ten yards ahead.
Let’s face the truth–we want to know the future. At least we think we do. We want to know what is going to happen next year, so we can be ready in advance. But God won’t play that game with us.
The Bible says, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29). Does he know what will happen tomorrow? Yes, he does; but he’s not telling anyone else about it. Or to put it in familiar terms, does God have a blueprint for your life? Yes, he does; but I don’t know any way you can get a copy.
Suppose God were to offer you a folder with the details of your life (and for your loved ones also) for the next 10 years. Would you take it? You first impulse might be to say yes. But suppose I add this provision. You can’t change anything you find in that folder. Would you still take it? I can tell you that I would run the other way. Life is much better lived one day at a time. Is there a heavenly blueprint that shows what you are supposed to do on May 23, 2018? The answer to that question is yes. But the only part of it you can see arrives each morning in the form of twenty-four brand-new hours, freshly delivered by United Angel Service Overnight Express. Please don’t miss this point: God wants to teach us to trust him step by step. He reveals His will one step at a time, so we will trust him moment by moment.
Myth #2: God wants you to have 100 percent certainty before you make a decision
Many people believe they must be 100 percent certain of God’s will before they make a decision. 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. There are two problems with this point of view. First, sometimes we think we know God’s will with 100 percent certainty only to find out later that we were mistaken. The other problem–which is more common for most believers–is that in our search for certainty about God’s will, we end up 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.
We see this principle vividly illustrated in Acts 16. When the Apostle Paul and his team left Troas, they sailed across the Aegean Sea in response to a vision of a man saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (v. 9). When they got there, they found a woman named Lydia. But what about “the man”? He was nowhere to be found. Later on Paul and Silas were arrested, stripped, flogged, and thrown in jail. That night during an earthquake, they led their jailer to Christ, then baptized him and his whole family. The next morning Paul and Silas were released and escorted out of the city by the town leaders, who were glad to see them go. It’s a strange story. In many ways it appears that Paul failed in Philippi. After all, he was in trouble almost from the moment he arrived. Where is the great church he came to establish? But from God’s point of view Paul did exactly what he should have done. He followed God’s leading–God gave more light–Paul took another step and waited for further developments. Step by step, through twists and turns and unexpected means, Paul did what God wanted him to do, even though it wasn’t what he expected to do when he arrived in town.
Trouble in Paradise
After sharing these insights in a sermon, I received a letter from a close friend who lived down the street from us. After much planning and prayer and after many frustrating delays, she and her husband moved into an older house only to discover that it was in much worse shape than they had expected, costing them many thousands of dollars to restore. They also had a long series of unpleasant encounters with a cantankerous neighbor. Looking back on all the difficulties, my friend penned these words:
Seeking God’s will has never caused me much difficulty in the past (partly because I didn’t always!), but when we were in the throes of trying to decide about buying this house, we both prayed long and hard that we would have a clear sense of direction and guidance from the Lord or at least a sense of peace about a decision if it were the right one. Because of the many troubles we’ve had while living here, I had convinced myself that we made the wrong decision and were paying for it in a big way.
Resentment started to taint my relationship with God. Why would He allow us to make such a terrible mistake (expensive one too!) when we spent so much time asking Him for his guidance? Only in the last few weeks have I felt that God does indeed want us here. Our difficulties in getting in here were not God slamming the door shut, but rather him holding it open just wide enough for us to squeeze through. Our difficulties in buying the house now seem like good training for the battles while we’re in it. Your example from Acts reinforced in my mind this idea and the wrong thinking that was giving me the resentment: that the outcome does not retroactively affect whether it was God’s will!
That final sentence is crucial. “The outcome does not retroactively affect whether it was God’s will.” That’s exactly right. Doing God’s will means taking the next step–whatever it is–without a definite promise about the end result. Many times you won’t have 100 percent certainty; but when the moment comes to decide, you must make the best decision you can, trusting God for the results. Sometimes you’ll know more, sometimes less; but living by faith means taking the next step anyway.
Myth #3: God’s highest goal is my personal happiness
Millions of people buy into this false idea. They believe that their happiness is God’s supreme goal for them. That sounds good, doesn’t it? “God wants me to be happy.” “God wants me to be fulfilled.” “God wants me to be successful.” That thinking has been used to justify all kinds of bizarre and even evil behavior. Some Christian men have said, “It is God’s will that I should divorce my wife and marry another woman because we are in love, and God wants us to be happy.” The correct theological term for that is, “Baloney.”
If your personal happiness is not God’s highest goal for you, then what is God’s will for your life? It is God’s will for you to be holy. It is God’s will for you to be like Jesus Christ. It is God’s will for you to be in a place of maximum usefulness for the kingdom of God. First Thessalonians 4:3 states this plainly: “It is God’s will that you should be holy” [some translations say, “sanctified”]. To be “sanctified” means to be made holy. It refers to the life-long process whereby God shapes you, through a myriad of experiences both positive and negative, into the image of Jesus Christ. Here’s the clincher: He uses the very worst things that happen to us in order to accomplish his divine purposes in us.
Romans 8:29 says, “Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.” That is the will of God for your life. He wants you to become like Jesus Christ. Whatever makes you like Jesus is good. Whatever doesn’t make you like Jesus is bad. And God is fully committed to shaping your life day by day into the image of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Do you recognize the name Corrie Ten Boom? During World War II she was taken from her home in Holland to a prison camp and later to the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in Germany. There she and her sister, Betsie, were held, and Betsie eventually died. Corrie Ten Boom was released—by a Nazi clerical mistake—just before the end of the war. In her book Tramp for the Lord—written near the end of her life—she reflects on God’s leading:
Looking back across the years of my life, I can see the working of a divine pattern which is the way of God with His children. When I was in a prison camp in Holland during the war, I often prayed, “Lord, never let the enemy put me in a German concentration camp.” God answered no to that prayer. Yet in the German camp, with all its horror, I found many prisoners who had never heard of Jesus Christ. If God had not used my sister Betsie and me to bring them to Him, they would never have heard of Him. Many died, or were killed, but many died with the name of Jesus on their lips. They were well worth all our suffering. Faith is like the radar which sees through the fog—the reality of things at a distance that the human eye cannot see.
How can going to a prison camp be the will of God? It can’t be if God’s will is that you should always be happy and comfortable. Yet going to a prison camp can be the will of God for you if it makes you more like Jesus Christ and gives you opportunities to share the love of Christ to people that would never hear it otherwise. That’s the biblical perspective.
Will God’s plan for you and me always bring immediate worldly wealth and success? No, but God’s plan will always bring peace and joy and fulfillment. Our duty is to follow the Lord wherever he leads us. And when we do that, we find a deep joy in him. The path of duty leads to a joy the world cannot match.
With that, we come to the final myth.
Myth #4: God makes his will hard to find
Many people struggle unnecessarily in this area. Perhaps they are seeking 100 percent certainty, or maybe they are seeking some kind of message from God–a postcard that reads, “Dear Jack, Buy the red Pontiac. Signed, God.” Or they fear that one night, while they are watching Monday Night Football, God will reveal his will, and they will somehow miss it. Or they worry that they have sinned too much and have blown their only chance to do God’s will.
To all these things God says, “Trust Me.” God wants you to know his will more than you want to know it. God is more committed to showing you his will than you are to discovering it. He takes full responsibility for getting you from here to there step by step. He has said, “Never will I leave you” (Hebrews 13:5). And he won’t. He also said, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go” (Psalm 32:8). And he will. He also promised, “Surely I will be with you always” (Matthew 28:20). And he is.
We think that God’s will is hard to find. The biblical perspective is quite different. God will reveal his will to anyone who is willing to do it. That leads me to one final thought: God ordinarily will not show you his will in order for you to consider it. He won’t show you his will so you can say, “Maybe I will … maybe I won’t. How about Plan B, Lord?” He will show you his will when he knows you are willing to do it.
Not long ago a young man asked, “If you had one piece of advice to give to someone entering the ministry, what would it be?” Questions like that can be difficult because you don’t know what the person wants to hear. My policy is to say whatever pops into my head first. And so I did.
“Get to know the character of God.”
I mentioned an old hymn that I’ve never actually sung called Workman of God, Do Not Lose Heart The opening line goes like this: “Workman of God! O lose not heart, but learn what God is like.” Nothing will sustain the servants of the Lord in hard times like knowing God’s character. And as the hymn (and life itself) makes clear, you don’t “learn what God is like” by going to seminary and memorizing the attributes of God. You learn what God is like in the darkness of the night, when you feel overwhelmed and burdened and full of fear and uncertainty. Ironically you learn that when you feel most alone, God is nearest to you. So study the character of God.
Learn his holiness.
Exult in his mercy.
Ponder his patience.
Consider his ways.
Meditate on his goodness.
Remind yourself of his justice.
Rest on his faithfulness.
Linger at the foot of the cross.
Memorize his promises.
Pray the psalms back to him.
Testify to his kindness.
Declare his glory.
Defend his honor.
Be silent before his judgments.
Get to know the Lord. Nothing matters more than this. You might even say that the whole purpose of our earthly journey is for us to get to know what God is like.
As I ponder our own personal future, I see some things clearly while other things are a mystery to me. Then I remember what Job said. “He knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold” (Job 23:10).
He knows the way that I take even when I don’t.
He knows the way that I take even when I can’t see clearly.
He knows the way that I take even when I get lost.
Looking back, we find it easy to count our blessings and to see the hand of the Lord moving on our behalf. So much has happened that we did not expect, but as they say on the street, “It’s all good.”
Walking with Jesus is a journey whose destination lies somewhere beyond the horizon. Even when we think we’ve arrived, we haven’t. Even when we think, “Aha! I’ve made it at last,” life suddenly changes and we take a sharp bend in the road.
But the journey itself ought to be enjoyed.
And we should use it to learn what God is like.
The 21-Day Challenge
My wife and I had lunch 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 21 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 AM 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 21-day challenge. Take that simple prayer and pray it first thing in the morning for the next 21 days and see what happens in your heart.