December 04, 2005 Q & A

Discerning the Will of God


I would appreciate reading comments on the position of something I do not understand. All my non-Reformed Christian friends on both sides of the Atlantic ocean say exactly the same thing concerning decision making and getting verification from God to "turn left or right" so to speak.

As I understand the Scripture one must examine one's self to see if there be any deceitful motivation or desire and clearly indicated in the Bible to not be the will of God. Then, when it's time to make that decision, we continue to do what we were doing before, trusting in our Lord. The attitude that, "I will ask the Lord if we should do this or that"—to me indicates an area of confusing mystery. Seeking the will of God is our whole purpose as Christians. To marvel and adore him, to thankfully appreciate that he has appropriated everything for us, especially in our weakness, is exactly the arena where his glorious strength shines brightly!

I depend on Jesus and there is nothing at all that must be deciphered in order to comprehend. He is my all and everything. Amen?

I think I just felt like blowing some steam. Thanks. God bless you.


What a tremendously important question! (I guess there is a question here, in your "steam".) I would amend your statement that "Seeking the will of God is our whole purpose as Christians" in this way: to glorify God is our whole purpose (Romans 11:36-12:1, 1 Corinthians 10:31, 1 Peter 2:9, etc.), but in order to glorify God as He would be glorified we must know and do His will.

The question, then, becomes, how can we know God's will? In seeking to know and obey God's will, we certainly should go to him humbly in prayer asking for guidance and strength from his Spirit (Romans 8:14). God himself puts it in our hearts to follow the path of obedience (Philippians 2:13), but where is that path? On this question true Christian believers (as opposed to professing Christians who trust in ceremonies or their good works or who have followed the path of liberal unbelief) seem to be divided into two basic approaches: the mystical approach and the Scriptural approach.

The people you have been talking to seem to follow the mystical approach that I have heard countless times expressed something like this: "I will pray about the decision until God gives me peace one way or the other," or "I will ask God to give me a sign, like Gideon's fleece." The problem with this is that—as you observe—it leads to confusion, and often to sin.

Maybe an unhappy wife prays and prays and prays until she feels an "inner peace" about leaving and divorcing her husband. Is that from God? Or is she simply so relieved to have made a decision that removes her from a source of pain that she "feels good" about it, and then—the deceitfulness of sin—believes that feeling of "peace" is from God. (I'm not making this up; twice at least in my ministry wives in a congregation I have served have said this to justify divorcing their husbands when there were no biblical grounds.)

Using this same mystical approach, some think that God may "lead" a man to abandon his family to go to the mission field; several men have done this, convinced it was the Lord's calling—"confirmed" (or verified, to use your word) by his "opening the doors" to make it possible, in spite of the teaching of 1 Timothy 5:8 and Ephesians 5:25-29.

In Romans 12:1,2, where God sums up the whole Christian life as one great living sacrifice of thanksgiving to him (our New Covenant thank offering), he goes on to say, "prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God." Similarly, Paul in Ephesians 5:17 says, "do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is." The first (Rom.12:2) is not instructing us to discover what God's will is by some process of "proof," maybe by speculating and trying things out to see what God (by providential signs) okays. No. God has revealed his will for our lives to us in his Word, and our "proving" of his will simply means obeying him, doing what he says, and discovering in the process that God does not lead us astray or abandon us. We put his revealed will to the test and "prove it" by our believing obedience.

The key here is that God's will for our lives, the will of God which we must seek to follow, is that which he has revealed in his Word. "Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Psalm 119:105); "How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word. With my whole heart I have sought You; Oh, let me not wander from Your commandments! Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You" (Psalm 119:9-11, see also Psalm 1:1-3, Psalm 19:7-11).

If New Testament proof is demanded, nothing can be clearer than 2 Timothy 3:16,17: "All Scripture, because it is God-breathed, is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instructing in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work." Whatever we need to know and understand in order to be and become the people Christ redeemed us to be and to follow his path of righteousness is given to us in his revealed and inscripturated Word, the Bible. We start on that path of obedience to his will when, believing and submitting to the oracles of God, we receive from the Scriptures the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (verse 15).

So far, I think I am just providing arguments in support of your own view of these things (if I read you right). Let's get to your central concern. Here's how I understand what you are saying: "When I have properly discerned (i.e., from the study of Scripture) where the path of duty should take me in a decision, it is wrong then to ask God for a confirming sign." If I have misunderstood you, let me know. But if this is what you mean, I agree.

To illustrate: many years ago a young woman in a congregation I was serving asked me to pray that God would guide her in knowing whether or not to marry a guy she was "in love" with. I said "no, I won't pray for that." The boy in question was not a Christian. God, in the Bible, had already given her the guidance she needed. I would pray for her that she would trust and obey God. To pray that God would "guide" her in addition to what He has already said in the Bible would be asking him to maybe make an exception for her to his rule that Christians may marry only Christians.

To be sure, there is not a Bible verse specifically addressing every decision we face. Should I go to tech school or to university or enlist in the military? Should I take the job in Seattle or the job in Atlanta? Should I ask Anne to marry me or not (assuming she is a Christian)? But Scripture lays down the principles of righteous conduct that should govern us; and, praying for the Spirit's help in understanding and applying God's Word to the situation at hand, I endeavor to make that decision that will most nearly follow the path of obedience to the Word.

You are so right about the crucial role of motivation—but I may disagree with how you see it. The truth is that, still being sinful, our motives will often if not always be mixed. I get up on Sunday morning and go to church, despite a longing to stay in bed a while longer. Why? Well, in all honesty, sometimes only because I know it is my duty or even that I would not want people to notice my absence. But most of the time, in addition and above all (and this is from the Lord's work in my heart), because I do love to thank and worship him in fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ. So my motives are mixed. But I confess my sin to the Lord and he forgives and accepts my worship for Jesus' sake (1 Peter 2:5).

Despite our sinful hearts and mixed motives, the Lord our faithful Shepherd does lead us in his paths of righteousness. All praise to him! And in that process he more and more cleanses our motives.

On the other hand, in most decisions, what matters most is our motivation. Whether to eat cereal or eggs for breakfast, to take the interstate or drive cross-town to work, to jog after work or swim at the YMCA before work—such are decisions that the Lord leaves to us and we can't "go wrong" in them unless we are doing what we do for out of sinful motives instead of for God's glory (1 Cor.10:31).

It is interesting to look at Romans 8:14 and Galatians 5:18, the two places in which Paul speaks of the Spirit's leading of God's children. In both passages the surrounding contexts make clear that the Spirit leads us to turn away from sin (Rom.8:13, see Colossians 3:5) and produce the fruit of the Spirit, which is godly character manifest in "love, joy, peace . . . and self-control," that is to make us more like Christ (Romans 8:29). Neither passage is about deciding between alternate courses of action, except to the extent that in all such decisions we should seek to be obedient to God's revealed will.

We keep coming back to God's "revealed" will. This is crucial. So many who seek God's guidance are—in their thinking—trying to discover what God has planned for their lives. "I want to do God's will," for them means, "I want to know what God has planned and get on board with that."

This is wrong thinking for two reasons. First, God's plan is revealed to us only in its unfolding, not predictively and not personally (except for his plan of salvation revealed in Scripture, including events surrounding the second coming of Christ). Deuteronomy 29:29: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law."

The second reason such thinking is wrong is that it supposes that God has plans for us that we can mess up! Poor God, what will he do then? Oh, he has a second best plan. So God has contingency plans and waits to find out what we will do before he implements Plan A or Plan B. Such a view is demeaning to the Almighty sovereign God "who works all things after the counsel of his will" (Ephesians 1:11), "who declares the end from the beginning" (Isaiah 46:10). It reverses the truth of Proverbs 16:9, "The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps." The same chapter, last verse, tells us that God even controls the outcome of rolling the dice. God's eternal plan, which includes even the number of the hairs on our heads and the fall of sparrows, will always be carried out in his providence.

You cannot make a decision that is contrary to the decree of God; His will will be done! (Psalm 33:10,11, Daniel 4:34.35). But we frequently make decisions that violate his revealed will, his commandments. And that is what we should be concerned about when we pray for his guidance: "Lord, enable me to understand, believe, and obey your Word as it applies to the decision before me." We don't get that guidance from feelings and signs but from Scripture as the Spirit helps us understand and believe it. And having arrived at a decision based on the Word of God (and the counsel of wise brethren who can help us know both the accurate meaning of Scripture and the possibly biased or sinful motives of our heart), we should not seek for signs (as if God might revoke his Word in our case).

And God has given us a conscience, which may prompt us to doubt the rightness of a course of action. The "feeling" of a guilty or uneasy conscience should provoke us to examine our actions and motives. But in itself the conscience does not give direction, and saying "Let your conscience be your guide" is bad advice. The conscience can be misinformed by bad training and even be made dead and dormant by repeated sinning and abuse.

I'm starting to repeat myself. This has gone quite long enough. I hope you find a helpful response to the "steam" you let off. Let me know if I missed your point, and do feel free to come back with follow up or further questions (or comments, even disagreement).

May God guide you in His truth and righteousness.



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