I originally posted this in three parts for easier blog-post-style consumption. If you’d prefer it that way, you can find them here: Part I, Part II, and Part III. For your convenience, I’m also making available PDF, Kindle, and ePUB versions—just click below and it will download the selected version.
What is the will of God for my life? How can I know it?
No other question so thoroughly vexes most of the Christians I know. We are persuaded that God has a plan for our lives that we can ascertain, and as such we are responsible to follow it, for two (very good) reasons. First, we want to honor him and we want very much to avoid disobeying the God we love. Second, should we fail to follow God’s revealed will for our lives, we will miss out on the best things he has for us. These two, in combination, make the yearning to know God’s plan profound and urgent, especially when making large decisions. Should I buy this house or stay in my current home? Should I marry this person or should we break up? Should I go to this university or that one, or none at all?
But the will of God in such areas, we soon find, is mysterious. How is it determined—perhaps by a sense of “peace” about the right decision? or by a strong feeling that we ought to follow a particular course of action? or by the idea that springs into our mind, unbidden, as we ponder the circumstances in front of us? or by some other means entirely?
There is, it turns out, an answer. But you’re probably not going to like it. The question, however, is not whether we like something but whether it is what God has said. We must remember, though, that however disorienting it can be to let Scripture upend our ways of thinking, it is always best in the end.
What Scripture doesn’t say
The idea that the Spirit leads us by inner senses of his will has become a shibboleth among evangelical Christians, especially those influenced by the charismatic movement. This is unfortunate, because the idea is completely without foundation in Scripture and is deeply unhelpful to the many Christians who live their lives as though it were true. I’ll repeat that for emphasis: nowhere does Scripture teach that the Holy Spirit gives us wisdom on personal decision-making by means of our inner state—our thoughts or feelings.
Now, let it be clear: This has nothing to do with the question of the Spirit’s indwelling presence, for He indwells and empowers all believers. It has nothing to do with the question of whether charismatic gifts continue or ceased after the death of the apostles, for the charismatic gifts were (and if they continue, are) not inner subjective senses but clear external signs. One can believe the miraculous gifts had all ceased by A.D. 100 and also that the Spirit leads us by subjective nudges, or that the gifts continue today but that the Spirit does not lead us in that way.1
So back to my thesis: God does not lead us by “giving us a peace” about things, or by “giving us a sense of what we ought to do,” or by thoughts or urges randomly popping into our heads. I imagine I have ruffled a few feathers, rocked a few boats, and possibly even stepped on a few toes by saying this. (I have certainly overdone it with the metaphors.) Those of you who disagree with me are thinking of all the times in Scripture that the Holy Spirit led people—and so am I! The question of the hour is not whether God communicates to his people, but how he communicates to his people. The most helpful thing for us to do, then, is to survey the Scriptures and see how God spoke to his people in the past, because Scripture is the baseline for how we expect him to speak to his people in the present.
When he spoke to Adam and Eve, he is physically present and speaks audibly. In his interactions with Cain, the two have a conversation. Every time he interacts with Abraham, the text tells us what God said to Abraham (whether or not Yahweh was visible to him in any given encounter). He speaks to Isaac and Jacob. He appears in dreams and gives interpretations thereof to Joseph. He appears in a flame and speaks audibly to (and indeed converses with) Moses over and over again, culminating in the beginning of the revelation of Scripture itself, which Exodus tells us he wrote with his own finger. He speaks audibly to many of the judges, telling them exactly what he would have them do, and Gideon carries on a discussion with him. The signs that God performs for Gideon with a fleece are the result of a conversation. Samuel was confused because he heard an audible voice and thought it must be the other person in the house, until that person explained that God was speaking to him. Various prophets were filled with the Spirit and preached the word of God to the people (even Saul, the king of Israel, at one point). Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah all experience dreams and visions and both Daniel and Ezekiel interact with angels, but there, too, their experiences were explained to them.
What about the ambiguous and mysterious bits? Throughout 1 and 2 Samuel, David is seen making decisions with the Urim and the Thummim. We do not know what these were, but the results seem to have been clear and unambiguous at the least. In the New Testament, we see the apostles making a decision by drawing lots, trusting God’s providence to orchestrate the right decision. Neither of these seems to be open options among evangelicals: we do not have the Urim and Thummim, and no one I know suggests we make decisions with dice, which would be the modern equivalent of drawing lots. Perhaps most mysterious is God’s means of revelation to the prophets, but as with the other means here, it seems to have been quite clear. None of the prophets ever wondered what their message was (though Jeremiah seems to have been rather unhappy about its contents, and for good reason). Certainly the audiences of the messages knew exactly what God’s will was: he spelled it out for them, often in great detail.
Perhaps most famous of all in this discussion—and the proof text for the view against which I am arguing—is God’s interaction with Elijah at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 19:9–18). Yahweh, the passage tells us, was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. After all of them was a “the sound of a low whisper” or “a sound, a thin silence” (19:12). First, notice that the “still, small voice” was not in Elijah’s mind: it was a sound. Second, read the next part of the passage:
And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (19:13)
Then they have a conversation, in which Yahweh comforts Elijah and tells him what he ought to do next. He spoke aloud to Elijah, just as he did to so many others.
In short, the consistent record of the Old Testament is that when God led his people—whether individuals or the whole nation—he did so clearly. The majority of the time, these interactions were audible, though occasionally he used dreams or visions, but always making clear the meaning through someone explaining.
The Will of God in the New Testament
The same patterns established in the Old Testament appear again in the New Testament, though much more broadly applied as of the coming of the Spirit in Acts. Zachariah, Mary, and Joseph all experience angelic visitations with clear messages from God in plain language. John the Baptizer2 preached a God-given message of the coming Messiah in a way that seems to be analogous to the prophecy of the Old Testament prophets. Paul experienced a vision of the risen Lord, who spoke to him directly, and other visions which were explained to him or otherwise had clear meanings. John experienced a revelation which was also explained to him. Many believers in the New Testament were given words from the Lord, and these, too, seem to have been unambiguous and followed the pattern of the prophets of old. The one New Testament prophecy we have directly recorded, in Acts 21, marks someone giving a clear and unambiguous warning to Paul. Above all, Jesus himself came and declared to his followers all the wisdom of God, fulfilling the role of prophet perfectly.
Again, what about the ambiguous or mysterious aspects of New Testament prophetic revelation? In terms of mystery, the Bible does not explain to us the mechanics of the New Testament prophetic gift any more than it does that in the Old Testament. Dreams and visions, when they appear, are explained or understood automatically. Perhaps most ambiguous are two passages in Acts. In Acts 16, Paul and his company were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” What this means is unclear, for this is all the text says.
The other passage worth further consideration occurs in Acts 15, when the Jerusalem council wrote to the Gentile churches about the relationship between Gentiles and Jewish law. In verse 28, their letter includes the phrase, “It has seemed good to the Spirit and to us…” As we read this in the larger context, its meaning becomes clear. The letter has already stated simply “it seemed good to us” (15:25). Luke’s records that “it seemed good to the apostles and elders, with the whole church…” to send out messengers with this letter. He records that James’ position carried the day, a position James explained by saying, “Therefore, my judgment is…” This passage is arguably the strongest justification for the evangelical view today, but I actually think it argues the other way. There is no reference to any “sense” or “feeling” in sight. Rather, they simply listened to what was going on, considered the scriptures, and made a decision that seemed best to them as a group. In other words, the church simply trusted that the Holy Spirit was leading them together into wisdom.
At no time, then, does the New Testament suggest that these interactions between God and man manifested in the form of subjective “senses,” especially a sense of “peace” or strong inner urgings. At best one could argue that this might have been the case in some of the ambiguous instances outlined above. Without any other proof, though, that is a very shaky position, especially given the clear evidence of how God did speak in the New Testament.
Through all of this, one common thread should have become apparent. When God speaks, it is always—without exception!—clear that he has spoken. His leading is always unmistakable and unambiguous (save for the dreams, but someone always has a clear interpretation). Given that we do not endorse several means that were practiced in the Scriptures, I am at a loss as to why we make decisions by means that are never mentioned in the Bible. If we are going to allow Scripture to set the norms by which we relate to God, we must admit that we have no reason to believe that our internal “sense” about things is in any way a message from God. (That does not, by the way, make emotions useless or meaningless; they are in actuality a very useful part of decision-making. They simply are not the voice of God!)
Aside: “I just have a peace about it”
I find it fascinating that two of the most misused Scriptures in the New Testament come almost side by side, both from the book of Philippians. Along with the much-abused “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (4:13) we have Paul’s note that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). This is not, however it has been applied, a promise that he will give you a “peace” about the right decision, but a promise that supernatural peace will comfort the believer who prays instead of embracing anxieties and fears. Moreover, this peace is the right of all believers who are walking with Christ—not just those who are making the correct decisions at any given moment. Paul prays this peace for all his churches!
How do we decide, then?
There is one, and only one, passage in the New Testament that explicitly tells us how we will learn to discern the will of God:
I exhort you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God: present your bodies as a sacrifice—living, holy, acceptable to God—as your reasonable worship and do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of the mind, so that you may be able to discern what is will of God: what is good, acceptable, and perfect. (Romans 12:1–2, my translation)
As I have argued in my exegesis of this text, Paul tells us here that the way we grow to know the will of God is by pursuing the transformation of our mind as we grow in holiness. This is harder work than learning to lean on our subjective senses of things, certainly, and it really does not offer us the kind of assurance about day-to-day decisions that so many of us are looking for. It fits with the rest of Scripture’s witness, though, and (as I will argue in a moment) is ultimately a liberating reality.
There are a number of other passages which confirm that the Christian way of making decisions is simpler than we have made it. On the one hand, we have the many examples outlined above. Most notably, the Jerusalem council simply reasoned from the Scriptures and made a decision—and this about an incredibly important decision for the health of the whole church. In his epistle, James rebuked his audience for presuming that their days were theirs to plan, but his counsel was not to look for a sense from God about their course of action. Instead, he enjoined them to simply make their plans humbly: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15). Similarly, Paul would write of his own plans that he would visit the church at Rome if it was God’s will (Romans 1:15, 15:32).
From this completed picture, we learn a basic pattern for discerning the will of God. First, bow to what he reveals unambiguously. For us, this is both first and finally the Scriptures, where God has declared clearly what he wants us all to know, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We thus know that God’s will for us is above all to know him and Jesus Christ, whom he sent into the world. This is what the Holy Spirit is doing above all: sanctifying us and bringing us into the knowledge of God. All his gifts to the body are given so that people will know and worship Jesus Christ the Risen Lord.
Second, if God should speak clearly and unambiguously to us, we should listen! I know one person who has claimed to hear God speaking directly to her about circumstances in her life—and as long as the things this person hears accord with Scripture, I would be far more inclined to grant that validity than any subjective sense, because it does accord with how God acted in the Bible! Any such revelation—whether an audible voice, a prophecy given in the church, or a dream or vision which has meaning clearly understood—must be judged against the final authority of Scripture. I would also suggest that, from my survey of Scripture, God usually speaks in that way not simply for the ordinary circumstances of our lives, but when he is accomplishing something specific to salvation history. To bring that down to earth: I think it far more likely that God would speak in that way for direction to the church than for direction to individuals (though I do not rule it out for the latter).
Third as we pursue holiness and live in close community with other believers, we will be able to come to wise decisions about the courses of action we ought to take. If the church at Jerusalem could come to a decision about a complex issue with massive implications for the future of the church in this way, we can make decisions in our own lives this way!
All of this highlights a reality that I find increasingly liberating. God does not mean for us to discover his plan for our lives and then live it out, but rather to discover it by living it out. It is not that he does not care about our jobs, or our families, or our homes, or any of a myriad other decisions we make day to day. Rather, it is first of all that he cares far more that we know and delight in him, and secondly that he is providentially orchestrating all those things to bring us closer to him.
As a result, I do not have to worry day by day whether I am doing the “right” thing. Most of the decisions in my life are morally neutral, and nearly all of the rest are obviously spelled out in Scripture. (For the remaining few, we have ethics classes at the seminary to think through incredibly complex and difficult issues for a reason.) For all those morally neutral decisions, Jaimie and I ask together, “What seems good to us? What will allow us to glorify God most effectively?” We pray for wisdom. We seek counsel from our friends and family, especially those who are believers. We invite input from our pastors and others with whom we are in fellowship at our church. If God spoke to us audibly, or clearly in a dream, we would listen! Above all, we continually seek to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” as Paul enjoins us in Romans, pursuing holiness.
In the end, we make the decision that seems best to us. The bigger the decision, the more time we will spend on all of those steps—but at no point do we worry about “having a peace” about the decision or look for a subjective sense of what to do. We trust that God is good, and in his providence works all things to good, and recognize that he has not revealed his will for our lives to us, but allows us the chance to grow in wisdom and make good decisions. This is incredibly freeing. More importantly, it is in accord with Scripture.
To quote my favorite book on this subject… just do something. Prayerfully, thoughtfully, in community, while pursuing holiness, yes—but just go do something.