Finding God's Will, Part 1: How Christians Usually Make Decisions
Do you ever struggle to figure out what God wants for your life? Do you feel confused about God’s will for you? Do you worry that you may have made some mistakes along the way, and now you’ve missed God’s best for your life? Are you facing a big decision, and not sure which choice is God’s will for you?
When we have to make decisions, we are (rightly) concerned about making a choice that aligns with God’s will—so when we have to make a decision, many of us lose a lot of sleep over these kinds of questions. Many Christians feel that God’s will is something that we have to discover, and it’s often quite specific and detailed; in this view, we each have to figure out which job we are supposed to take, what city God wills that we live in, which church God wants us to attend, and many other things. God has a plan for us, and we have to determine the specifics of that plan.
When I read the scriptures, that’s not the picture I see; I’d like to offer you a different method of making decisions and “finding God’s will,” because it has been helpful in my own life.
First, let's start with some common ways that Christians make decisions—let’s think about some of the ways that we try to find God’s will, and why these methods sometimes come up short.
1. We study the Bible to find God’s will. Many Christians study the Bible to find God’s will for their lives. I'm obviously in favor of people studying the Bible, and the Bible does tell us about the “big picture” things that God wants for us. However, the Bible doesn't address each of us specifically and individually; by studying the Bible you're not going to learn which of two job offers you should take.
2. We pray for an inner sense of direction to find God’s will. Praying is always a great idea, and at first glance praying for God’s will to be revealed sounds like a good idea. But interestingly, the New Testament rarely speaks about this idea—we aren't told to pray for a revelation about which person to marry or which college to attend (more on what the Bible does say in the next post). Praying for direction sounds prudent, but just keep in mind that it's not the main thing that the New Testament teaches us about God's will.
3. Asking God for a “sign” that will reveal God’s will. This happens in the Bible; the story of Gideon in Judges 6 comes immediately to mind. However, this method is very subjective; one person's "sign" is another person's normal, everyday event. How do you know when a "sign" is a "sign"? Also, this method is liable to abuse—even if only on a subconscious level. If I want something to be God's will, I can ask for a sign that is likely to happen. If I don't want something to be God's will, I can ask for an impossible sign...like "God, if you really want me to share my faith with my neighbor then turn the sun purple."
4. Watching for open and closed doors as indicators of God’s will. This is a very popular method for finding God’s will, and it assumes that coincidences in our life are not really coincidences but are evidence of God at work. So if a situation in our life works out, it's "a God thing" and a sign of God's will. If something doesn't work out, it's a closed door and so is not the will of God. This idea is very popular, but it has only limited biblical basis. One of the few times we find this sort of idea is in 1 Corinthians 16:9, where Paul does talk about an open door—but even there, the “open door” is connected to the presence of many adversaries rather than to the situation being easy. In fact, if the life of Paul is any guide, you're more likely to be doing God's will when you're being stoned, driven out of town, or things are otherwise going terribly. With Paul as a model, you should actually be looking for closed doors as evidence of God at work.
5. We use feeling at peace as an indication of God’s will. Again, this idea is not particularly biblical; the scriptures do not really connect feeling at peace to God's will, and Paul specifically says that he feels restless and anxious about his ministry to the churches every day (2 Cor 11:28). Jesus was in anguish about following the will of God (Luke 22:42-44). To me, it sounds like a good idea to feel confident about your decisions…but just keep in mind that “feeling at peace” is not a foolproof way to find God’s will.
6. Waiting on God. This is the most complicated of the methods that Christians often use. The idea here is to wait until God does something that makes God's will clear. There are some instances in the Bible when people are told to wait before taking action; and the Psalms are filled with the idea of "waiting" in our souls, though I'm not sure that the waiting in the Psalms is related to finding God's will or making decisions. On the other hand, there are other passages which encourage us not to wait or delay. Ecclesiastes uses the metaphor of farming: if you watch the weather forever, waiting for that perfect time to plant your crops, you're never going to get anything done (11:4). And when someone offers to follow Jesus at a later, more convenient time, Jesus says that no one who tarries is fit for the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:61-62). Waiting on God may be appropriate in some circumstances, but at others it may be inappropriate.
7. Conferring with other Christians. This also sounds like a great idea to me; if you have a tricky decision, advice from others is always helpful. People do this in the Bible, but again the New Testament never commands Christians to consult with one another in order to find God's will.
If those ways of finding God’s will aren’t always satisfactory, what should we be doing? How are we supposed to make major life choices? Check back later for part 2, in which we’ll see what the New Testament does say about God’s will. In part 3, we’ll turn those scriptures into a practical method for following God. Let me know what you think so far in the comments; if you see the scriptures differently, I'd love to hear about it!