IF GOD has a wonderful plan for my life, as the evangelistic tract tells us, then why doesn’t he tell me what it is?
After all, our lives down here are a confusing mess of fits and starts, dead ends and open doors, possibilities and competing ideals. There are so many decisions to make, and none of the answers seems clear. What should I do this summer? What should my major be? What kind of career do I want? Do I want a career? Should I get married? Whom should I marry? Do I want kids? How many kids? Should I play sports or sing in the choir? Where should I go to college? Should I even go to college? Should I go to grad school? What job should I take? Should I stay in my current job? Should I be a missionary? Should I be a pastor? Should I volunteer here or there? Should I leave home and test the waters elsewhere? Is now the time to buy a house?
For some, there are serious money, relationship, and even retirement questions. How should I spend my money? Where should I give my money? Where should I go to church? How should I serve my church? What should I be doing with the rest of my life, and where and with whom should I be doing it? When should I retire? What should I do in retirement?
With so many questions to face in the next years — or sometimes in the next several weeks — it’s no surprise that so many of us are desperate to know the will of God for our lives. Which brings me back to a rephrasing of the question: If God has a wonderful plan for my life, how can I discover what it is?
Many books have been written trying to answer this basic question, and my answer may not be what you expect from a will-of-God book. My answer is not original to me, but it is quite simple, and, I hope, quite biblical. I’d like us to consider that maybe we have difficulty discovering God’s wonderful plan for our lives because, if the truth be told, he doesn’t really intend to tell us what it is. And maybe we’re wrong to expect him to.
“The will of God” is one of the most confusing phrases in the Christian vocabulary. Sometimes, we speak of all things happening according to God’s will. Other times, we talk about being obedient and doing the will of God. And still other times, we talk about finding the will of God. The confusion is due to our using the phrase “the will of God” in at least three different ways, typified in the previous three sentences. Two of these ways are clearly demonstrated in scripture; the third is a little more complicated. So we’ll start with the first two.
God always gets his way
IF WE examine the Bible, we see that God’s will has two sides to it. On the first side is God’s will of decree. This refers to what God has ordained. Everything that comes to pass is according to God’s sovereign decree. And all that he decrees will ultimately come to pass. God’s will of decree cannot be thwarted. It is immutable and fixed. God is sovereign over all things — nature and nations, animals and angels, spirits and Satan, wonderful people and wicked people, even disease and death. To steal a line from Augustine, “The will of God is the necessity of all things.”
In other words, what God wills, will happen, and what happens is according to God’s will. That’s what I mean by God’s will of decree.
God’s will of decree is taught in numerous passages of scripture: “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” (Ephesians 1.11)
God works out everything — the big picture, the little details, and everything in between — according to his own good and sovereign purposes.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matthew 10.29-30)
God micromanages our lives. He doesn’t just plan out a few of the big ticket items. Praise the Lord, he knows the smallest sparrow and the greyest hair. And neither falls to the ground unless our heavenly father wills it.
“For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4.27-28)
Every human lamentation and woe must look to the cross. For there we see the problem of evil “answered” — not in some theoretical sense — but by pointing us to an all-powerful God who works all things for good. Shocking as it sounds, the most heinous act of evil and injustice ever perpetrated on the earth — the murder of the Son of God — took place according to God’s gracious and predetermined will.
“Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.” (Psalm 139.16)
Our lives unfold, open and close, according to God’s providence. As the crafters of the Heidelberg Catechism put it so eloquently, back in the 16th century: “Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty — all things, in fact, come to us not by chance, but from his fatherly hand.”
“I am God, and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” (Isaiah 46.9-10)
God knows all things and sovereignly superintends all things. God’s will of decree is absolute. It is from before the creation of the world. It is the ultimate determination over all things, and it cannot be overturned.
God points out the way
The other side of the coin is God’s will of desire. This refers to what God has commanded — what he desires from his creatures. If the will of decree is how things are, the will of desire is how things ought to be. I realise that I am not dealing with the massive question of how God can decree all that comes to pass while also holding us responsible for our actions. That’s the old divine sovereignty and human responsibility question.
The Bible clearly affirms both. For example, God sent Babylon to punish Judah, but God also punished Babylon for acting wickedly against God’s people (Jeremiah 25). Likewise, God planned the death of his Son, and yet those who killed the Christ were called lawless men (Acts 2.23). . . I am simply noting that God is sovereign, but he is not the author of sin. We are under his sovereignty, but we are not free from responsibility for our actions.
Both sides of God’s will are in scripture. God’s will of decree — what he has predetermined from eternity past — cannot be thwarted. God’s will of desire — the way he wants us to live — can be disregarded.
Let me highlight a few passages that speak of God’s will as his will of desire: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions — is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2.15-17)
The will of God in this passage does not refer to the way God ordains things, but to the way God commands us to live. Walking in the will of God for the apostle John is the opposite of worldliness. Doing the will of God means we say no to the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and our pride in possessions.
“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Hebrews 13.20-21)
The will of God, as his will of desire, means that we do what is pleasing in his sight.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7.21)
Again, we see the will of God is shorthand for obedience to God’s commands and walking in his ways — this time from the lips of Christ himself.
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29.29)
This is the closest we come to finding the will of decree and will of desire side by side in the same verse. God has secret things known only to him (his inscrutable purposes and sovereign will), but he also has revealed things that we are meant to know and obey (his commands and his Word).
Does God have a specific plan for your life?
There is a third way in which we sometimes speak of God’s will. Most of the time, what we really are looking for is God’s will of direction.
We hear it in those questions: What does God want me to do with my life? What job should I take? Where should I live? Those are the questions we ask when we seek God’s will of direction. We want to know his individual, specific plan for the who, what, where, when, and how of our lives. We want to know his direction.
So, here’s the real heart of the matter: Does God have a secret will of direction that he expects us to figure out before we do anything? And the answer is no. Yes, God has a specific plan for our lives. And, yes, we can be assured that he works things for our good in Christ Jesus. And, yes, looking back we will often be able to trace God’s hand in bringing us to where we are. But, while we are free to ask God for wisdom, he does not burden us with the task of divining his will of direction for our lives ahead of time.
The second half of that last sentence is crucial. God does have a specific plan for our lives, but it is not one that he expects us to figure out before we make a decision. I’m not saying that God won’t help you to make decisions (it’s called wisdom). I’m not saying God doesn’t care about your future. I’m not saying God isn’t directing your path and in control amid the chaos of your life. I believe in providence with all my heart. What I am saying is that we should stop thinking of God’s will like a corn maze, or a tightrope, or a bull’s-eye, or a choose-your-own-adventure novel.
When I was a kid, I loved to read choose-your-own-adventure stories. You’d get to a turning point in the story, and if you wanted to flee the country, you’d turn to page 23; and if you wanted to hide out in the cave, you’d turn to page 36. And, oops, the cave turns out to be the side of a volcano, and you die. You made the wrong choice.
Fun books for little boys, but not so much fun if that’s how God’s will works. Many of us fear we’ll take the wrong job, or buy the wrong house, or declare the wrong major, or marry the wrong person, and suddenly our lives will blow up. We’ll be out of God’s will, doomed to spiritual, relational, and physical failure. Or, to put it in Christianese, we’ll find ourselves out of “the centre of God’s will.” We’ll miss God’s best and have to settle for an alternate ending to our lives.
Several years ago, I read The Will of God as a Way of Life, by Gerald Sittser. His book helped me to crystallise my understanding of what I felt was wrong with the traditional understanding of God’s will. Here is Sittser’s explanation of the usual, and misguided, way of looking at God’s will: “Conventional understanding of God’s will defines it as a specific pathway we should follow into the future. God knows what this pathway is, and he has laid it out for us to follow. Our responsibility is to discover this pathway — God’s plan for our lives.
“We must discover which of the many pathways we could follow is the one we should follow, the one God has planned for us. If and when we make the right choice, we will receive his favour, fulfil our divine destiny and succeed in life. . .
“If we choose rightly, we will experience his blessing and achieve success and happiness. If we choose wrongly, we may lose our way, miss God’s will for our lives, and remain lost forever in an incomprehensible maze.”
This conventional understanding is the wrong way to think of God’s will. In fact, expecting God to reveal some hidden will of direction is an invitation to disappointment and indecision. Trusting in God’s will of decree is good. Following his will of desire is obedient. Waiting for God’s will of direction is a mess. It is bad for your life, harmful to your sanctification, and allows too many Christians to be passive tinkerers who strangely feel more spiritual the less they actually do.
God is not a Magic 8-Ball we shake up and peer into whenever we have a decision to make. He is a good God who gives us brains, shows us the way of obedience, and invites us to take risks for him. We know God has a plan for our lives. That’s wonderful. The problem is we think he’s going to tell us the wonderful plan before it unfolds. We feel like we can know — and need to know — what God wants every step of the way. But such preoccupation with finding God’s will, as well-intentioned as the desire may be, is more folly than freedom.
The better way is the biblical way: Seek first the Kingdom of God, and then trust that He will take care of our needs, even before we know what they are, and where we’re going.
This is an edited extract from Just Do Something: A liberating approach to finding God’s will by Kevin DeYoung (© 2014), published by Moody Publishers at £10.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9.89); 978-0-80241-159-4. Used by permission.