Monday, October 09, 2006

Finding God's Will For Your Life

This topical survey of the Bible was done and preached at HOPE EFC, Wangsa Maju on 8 October 2006. Many thanks to Hope EFC for the opportunity and challenge to search the Scriptures on this critical topic.


I spotted a book recently that suggests the world is made of two kinds of people: people who think like cats and people who think like dogs. Those who are like cats, when fed and cared for think, ‘You are nice to me, I must be God.’ Others, like dogs, however will think, ‘Since you are nice to me, you must be God.’ These two mindsets capture the two ways in which we could possibly approach guidance. When we ask, ‘What is God’s will for my life?’ are we asking to serve God, or are we making God servant to our needs? Is ‘finding God’s will’ much ado about us or much ado about God? There is a world of difference between trying to squeeze some divine sanction for our plans (and call it ‘finding God’s will’) and giving our unconditional obedience to His will.

When we pray, ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt 6:10), we declare it is His plans that we surrender our lives to and not the other way round. How we find God’s will (the authority) for our lives (which we subject to God’s will) then is the question I shall try to address.

Should I marry him/her? How do I know she’ll make a good wife/husband? Should I marry at all? What course should I study? Which job should I take? Is God calling me to full-time ministry? Which church should I go to? Is it right for me to watch this movie? Should I drive or take the bus? If I make the wrong choice, am I still in God’s will? Life is full of choices; some have more serious consequences than others and provoke great anxiety. If we’re honest, we’ve all secretly thought: Wouldn’t it be easier if God just told us what to do? After all He knows everything and how things turn out in the end. ‘What is God’s will for me?’ seems to be one of the most confusing and frustrating questions in a Christian’s life.


The Bible sympathizes with us. The psalmist in Psalm 73 was ‘grieved’ and ‘embittered’ until he realized ‘you hold me by my right hand, you guide me with your counsel’(Ps 73:22-23). The prophet Jeremiah humbly prays: ‘I know, O LORD, that a man's life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps’ (Jer 10:23).

Scripture promises God does guide and we should seek His guidance: ‘In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed.’(Ex 15:13), ‘he will be our guide even to the end’ (Ps 48:14), ‘whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it,"’ (Isa 30:21). But how does He guide us and where is He guiding us to?

Perhaps you’ve been taught, as I was, that knowing God’s will is akin to a pilot getting lights on a runway to line up. These ‘lights’, we are told, are permissive circumstances, peaceful conviction, and wise counsel and when they come together, we can proceed safely to our destination. That may be useful but only if we’re on the right plane headed to the right place! Imagine the shock if on your vacation to Sinagore, the pilot crackles the radio and announces, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying with us. The lights on the runway are lined up and we will be making our descent to Timbuktoo International Airport.’ To get both destination and path right, I believe the story of the Bible has something to teach us. The storyline of God’s history reveals how we actually got lost in the first place and how God is guiding us back to where we belong.

(Friesen in his book, ‘Decision Making and the Will of God’ describes three ‘wills’ of God – the sovereign will, moral will and individual will . The sovereign will of God is the detailed plan for all events in the universe. It is hidden and the believer cannot know and is not expected to find it. However, we cannot miss it because it always comes to pass. Though it includes both good and evil, it will ultimately lead to God’s glory. We only discover God’s sovereign will after it happens. The second, God’s moral will, is a body of commands and principles for life which believer are expected to find and obey. It was revealed to the prophets and apostles by the Spirit and is found in Scriptures. Its directives are general for all believers. Thirdly, we may speak of an ‘individual will’ that is a detailed plan for all decisions in a believer’s life which we expect to find, obey, and have failed if we miss it. It cannot be found in the Bible, and can only be revealed by impressions by the Holy Spirit. It has specific directives for specific believers. Let’s see if we can see these ‘wills’ of God featuring throughout the Bible story.)

Guidance in Eden - Perfect but Rejected

God created us in His image . The description in Genesis of man as the ‘image of God’ blessed to ‘fill the earth, subdue it, and rule.. every living creature’ (Gen 1:26-28) spells out man’s purpose as God’s representative authority on earth. Also, God commanded man to work the garden and to eat from any tree in the garden except one. Being equipped with instructions (revelation) and unbroken fellowship (relationship) with God suggests they knew God’s purpose and character so intimately as to be perfectly guided in serving Him. Still we should note two things: One, God did not dictate to them what to do but left it to them to exercise discretion as illustrated by Adam naming the animals. Two, God gave them free will to submit to or reject His rule. Sadly, ‘in eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve sought… to be morally independent of God’ . Grasping for the knowledge of good and evil meant that they were grasping for equality with God to decide right and wrong for themselves. Rejecting God’s rule, man went the way of their choice, losing God’s fellowship and His guidance with it.

Guidance in Israel - Partially Restored

God however is Sovereign – in full control of events to accomplish His purpose perfectly. (That man had access to the tree of life showed that God's will for them was, in fact, life . In spite of man’s rebellion He will accomplish it through Christ in the new heaven and earth - [compare Rev 2:7, 22:2]) Mankind plummeted down a vicious spiral of evil culminating in the Flood and the scattering at Babel. Unknown to man, God moved to restore a people of His own. He starts His plan with Abraham & Sarah and gives them descendants in spite of their barrenness. Through Joseph, He saves them from starvation in spite of scheming siblings selling him into slavery. He redeemed Israel from slavery with mighty acts, through and in spite of Pharaoh’s stubbornness. He brings them into Canaan, the new Eden flowing with milk and honey in spite of their disobedience. En route, in Sinai, God offered to them a covenant where He would be their God-King and they submitted to His rule (relationship). A nation was born and they received the Law for governance and the Tabernacle for worship. The Law revealed God’s purpose for Israel to be a representative authority in the form of a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exo 19:6) in the world. Guided by the Law (revelation) and through the prophet Moses , Israel was to ‘be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy’ (Lev 19:2) serving Him as a witness to the nations. In God’s sovereign will, God guided Israel to accomplish His purpose for them through the Law and the prophets (revelation of moral will).

(Prophets throughout the history of Israel would continue Moses’ legacy of calling for obedience, warning against judgment, leading to repentance and encouraging hope in times of distress.)
‘In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.’ Heb 1:1-2

Guidance in Christ - Complete and Final

Israel foreshadowed a greater kingdom in Christ. And where Israel failed, the Church succeeds under Christ. Christ himself preached that the ‘kingdom of heaven is near’ and he ushered it in. Through and in spite of suffering a cruel death under the hand of Pontius Pilate, Jesus triumphed to give us life, offering a new covenant in his blood (cf. Mt 26:28, Mk 14:24, Lk 22:20) - with him as Messiah (King). The Old Testament Scriptures explain the significance of Christ and foreshadowed him, while Christ fulfills and completes the Scriptures. Jesus says he did not come to ‘abolish the Law or the Prophets… but to fulfill them’(Mt 5:17, compare Lk 24:44, Jn 1:45) and he himself ‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets,… explained.. what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’(Lk 24:27). More than that, Christ is God’s final and perfect revelation. God ‘made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.’(2 Cor 4:6). In this new order we are no longer led by the Law but by the Spirit (cf. Rom 8:14, Gal 5:18) . So in Christ, Scripture is perfected and He is the perfect revelation of God. God guides His church now to accomplish His purpose through the revelation of Christ-perfected-Scripture and the inner witness of the Truth-teaching-Spirit.


We have seen that the Bible story frames guidance as man’s choices (individual will), worked out from revelation and relationship (moral will), but all within the sphere of God’s purpose for mankind (sovereign will). The New Testament, as we would expect, enlarges these elements in the new order and kingdom under Christ.
'And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.’ (Rom 8:28-30)

Fulfilling God's Purposes

God will achieve His purposes. ‘For the LORD Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?’ (Isa 14:27) ‘God is mighty,.. and firm in His purpose’ (Job 36:5) Because God is in control, and will accomplish his purposes for us come what may - the good and bad, joys and pains, successes and failures we experience, are all raw materials in for God’s work in our lives. In God’s sovereign will, we can happily affirm ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ How events and experiences fit in God’s perfect plan is unknowable though we may get glimpses in retrospect. Will divorce, financial failure, and calamities achieve God’s purposes? Can the Tsunami and war in Iraq bring glory to God? They will in the final accounting, but only God knows how.

What then is God’s purpose(s) for us?

The first ‘great’ purpose it seems, is to know God. Jesus prayed before his betrayal, ‘Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’(Jn 17:1-3) To know Him is the greatest gift of the gospel. John Piper says in his latest book, ‘God is the Gospel’, ‘Until.. the gospel promises of justification and eternal life lead you to behold and embrace God himself as your highest joy, you have not embraced the gospel of God.’ King David in severe duress under the onslaught of his enemies cried, ‘One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.’(Ps 27:4). God was Abraham’s ‘shield’ and ‘very great reward.’ (Gen 15:1)

Incidentally it is only in knowing God that we truly know ourselves. Israel knew their belovedness (eg. Dt. 7:8) under God’s protective parenting (eg. Exo 19:4) and gentle shepherding . Today, we relate to God as sons and not slaves (Rom 8:14-16, Gal 4:6-7), we are (undeservedly) his treasured possession, precious and honored in His sight (Isa 43:4, Ex 19:5, Dt 14:2). As we see in His eyes our belovedness, much of the self-doubt and insecurity which often drives our search for ‘God’s perfect will’ quickly dissolves. The apostle John assures us: ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear,...’ (1 John 4:18)

The second great purpose for believers is to be like Christ. He predestined that ‘those God foreknew,… to be conformed to the likeness of his Son,’ (Rom 8:28-30). And so He has called us, justified us and will glorify us in order that we may be like Him. ‘He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.’(Eph 1:4). Adam & Eve bore God’s image, Israel was to be holy like their God was holy, and we are to be conformed to the likeness of Christ. We are to be ‘clothed with Christ’ taking on His character, His love, His humility.

The third is to serve Him. Adam and Eve worked the garden, Israel was to be a ‘kingdom of priests’ serving and worshipping God, and Christ ‘did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’(Mt 20:28). Paul exhorts us ‘in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.’(Rom 12:1-2) Paul asserts that it is the renewed mind that carries out God’s will, and that we only grasp the perfection of God’s will when we do it!

(But what about God’s individual will? Doesn’t God want me to be in His perfect will – marrying the right woman, having the right job, being in the right place at the right time doing the right thing? Friesen asserts that Scripture shows us that God guiding his people supernaturally giving specific instructions were exceptions to the rule. Direct guidance was given to people who had a crucial role at critical moments in history to establish His Kingdom and Word. I might add, beyond that, ‘the secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.’[Deut 29:29] What is revealed to us is what we need to make sound choices.)

Through Scriptures and the Spirit

God’s people are guided by His revelation. It is sufficient: ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’(2 Tim 3:16-17). It enlightens, ‘making wise the simple’, giving ‘joy to the heart,.. light to the eyes,..’ and keeps us from ‘willful sins.’ (Ps 19:7-11). It is relevant: Peter asserts that until Christ comes again, ‘you will do well to pay attention to it [Scriptures], as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.’(2 Pet 1:19). Scriptural wisdom guides God’s image-bearers (representative authority) in exercising their God-given responsibility. We are not to be ‘like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle’ (Ps 32:9). Very often we ask for God’s will because a decision seems too difficult for us to make. We’d rather someone else made the decision for us or worse, it may be that we are trying to shirk responsibility. If things go wrong, God is to blame! (If my marriage fails, it’s because – God, you gave me this woman! Sound familiar? Blaming others is in our genes!) Instead God ‘works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.’ (Phil 2:13). Not bypassing our minds or exempting us from making decisions, we are required to understand and apply Scriptures in our choices.

But that’s not the last word. Christ has also sent us the Spirit! The Spirit helps us in understanding and applying the Scriptures. Jesus, promised that his disciples will not be orphaned but that God would ‘give you another Counselor to be with you forever - the Spirit of truth.. he lives with you and will be in you.’(Jn 14:15-17) and that he would ‘guide you into all truth… taking from what is mine and making it known to you’(Jn 16:13-14). This is the great privilege of the new order we often forget to our loss. We are not just given Scriptures to read, but the perfect revelation of Christ dwells IN US by His Spirit. We no longer encounter God second-hand through human priests but ‘by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.’(Heb 10:20-22). The Spirit lives within us to guide us in the truth of Christ and the Scriptures, and we need to cultivate practices of quiet and attentiveness to listen.

The Bible also teaches us to listen to the counsel of godly leaders, elders and our parents, but such counsel must ultimately come under the authority of Scripture.

God’s will for our lives is that we know Him, become like Him, and serve Him. Finding God’s will involves making decisions guided by Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. It seems that the first thing we need to do then is to adjust our circle of importance (what we place in the center and what we place in periphery) to better reflect God’s circle of importance and to align our plans to God’s purpose and values.

In Trust and Obedience

We do not want to be over-scrupulous, wondering if we’re in God’s will all the time. That will only lead to an obsessive compulsive disorder. God never meant for the matter of finding His will to cause us hand-wringing angst and sleepless nights. Rather obedience in what we know leads us to a quiet peace and confidence. God says: ‘"I am the LORD your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea.’(Isa 48:17-18) Similarly Jesus warns against obsessing about the minors: ‘So do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?' or `What shall we drink?' or `What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’(Matt 6:29-33) First things first!

We also do not need to know the specifics about everything at every turn! Trials help us discover who God is in our lives and define our calling. It is only in darkness that we look for the light, only when we’re lost do we find a way. Times of uncertainty and darkness are part of a believer’s journey, to refine our hope and strengthen our faith. We rejoice in suffering because suffering produces endurance, endurance character, and character, hope . The entire Hall of Fame of Hebrews 11 is about faith, the most classic description being: ‘By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.’ (Heb 11:17) We are also called to a journey with God through many unknowns, trusting Him completely who has ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you.’(Jer 29:11) Allow for some mystery!


In the final analysis, I think the hardest choices are not about what to do and where to go. Choices are hard because I am fundamentally a rebel, rejecting God’s rule from the very beginning. The tug-of-war between my desires and God’s purpose will continue make us miserable until we crucify self-will at the Cross. Jesus died that we may be free from our sinful selves. When we take the cup and the bread, we reaffirm that we died with Christ (Rom 6:8-11). Realising this, Merton wrote: ‘To belong to Him is to be free, free of all the anxieties and worries and sorrows that belong to this earth, and the love of the things that are in it…. The only thing that mattered was the fact of the sacrifice, the essential dedication of one's self, one's will. The rest was only accidental’

Life should be as exciting as a mystery novel or thriller movie – you know it’s going to have a great ending but you’re kept guessing how it gets there. And God isn't about to spoil it for us with horoscope-like answers. Every bit of life is precious – the ups and the downs, the good and the bad, the day and the night – let’s not trade them for quick answers.

God is more interested in us knowing Him, becoming like Him and loving Him than in getting every detail of life ‘perfectly right’. And until we get to heaven, let us live each day and face each struggle as Christ did at Gethsemane, in the worst of struggles, saying: ‘Not my will, but Yours be done.’(Lk 22:42)

G.Friesen and J.R. Maxson, Decision Making and the Will of God, 1980. Lancer
J.Piper, God is the Gospel, 2005. IVP
T.Merton, Magnetic North. In McDonnell TP, ed. A Thomas Merton Reader. New York:Doubleday, 1989, pg 132


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