Teach me to do your will, for you are my God! Let your good Spirit lead me on level ground! Psalm 143:10 (ESV)
- A Modern Problem
The precise nature of the agonizing decision making and the will of God seems to be a relatively recent problem. Questions about whether I take job A or B simply did not arise for most people in the history of world. One’s choices were often limited or non-existent.
Attached hereto is a chart which shows the use of the phrases “Decision Making” and “Will of God”. You will note that prior to the mid-1940’s the phrase “Decision Making” was quite rare. When the phrase “will of God” is used prior to that date, it is typically used without reference to the “Decision Making”. For example, the book by William Knox, 1801, The Revealed Will of God, The Sufficient Rule for Men.
However another strain becomes more obvious in the late 19th Cenutry
God has a life-plan for every human life. In the eternal counsels of His will, when He arranged the destiny of every star, and every sand-grain and grassblade, and each of those tiny insects which live but for an hour, the Creator had a thought for you and me. Our life was to be the slow unfolding of this thought, as the corn-stalk from the grain of corn, or the flower from the gradually opening bud. It was a thought of what we were to be, of what we might become, of what He would have us do with our days and years, our influence and our lives. But we all had the terrible power to evade this thought, and shape our lives from another thought, from another will, if we chose. The bud could only become a flower, and the star revolve in the orbit God had fixed. But it was man’s prerogative to choose his path, his duty to choose it in God. But the Divine right to choose at all has always seemed more to him than his duty to choose in God, so, for the most part, he has taken his life from God, and cut his career for himself.
It comes to pass, therefore, that there are two great classes of people in the world of Christians to-day. (1) Those who have God’s will in their character; (2) Those who have God’s will likewise in their career. The first are in the world to live. They have a life. The second are in the world to minister. They have a mission.
Now those who belong to the first class, those who are simply living in the world and growing character, however finely they may be developing their character, cannot understand too plainly that they are not fulfilling God’s will. They are really outside a great part of God’s will altogether. They understand the universal part, they are moulded by it, and their lives as lives are in some sense noble and true. But they miss the private part, the secret whispering of God in the ear, the constant message from earth to heaven. “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” They never have the secret joy of asking a question like this, the wonderful sense in asking it, of being in the counsels of God, the overpowering thought that God has taken notice of you, and your question—that He will let you do something, something peculiar, personal, private, which no one else has been given to do—this thought which gives life for God its true sublimity, and makes a perpetual sacrament of all its common things. Life to them is at the best a bare and selfish thing, for the truest springs of action are never moved at all; and the strangest thing in human history, the bounding of the career from step to step, from circumstance to circumstance, from tragedy to tragedy, is unexplained and unrelated, and hangs, a perpetual mystery, over life.
Henry Drummond, The Ideal Life and Other Unpublished Addresses, 1897, 299- 301. Henry B. Wright’s The Will of God and Man’s Life Work, 1909, discusses the issue from multiple perspectives and includes a couple of chapters which lay out the “means” set forth by various Christian writers. Wright concludes with a four- fold touchstone, purity, honesty, unselfishness & love.
Wright’s book includes the proposition: “The Particular Will of God for Each Individual Man. ‘God’s Will for the Individual—for Career” (p. 141). He then cites to Psalm 32:8, John 10:3, Acts 22:14, Acts 13:22, 1 Corinthians 4:19, James 4:13 & 15, Luke 3:22, Matthew 4:11, Matthew 17:5, John 11:41. However, none of the verses cited stand for the proposition that God will reveal a secret will which should guide my life.
Somewhere in the 20th Century—interestingly at the same time that counseling from the Scriptures fell into disuse—the idea became common that God would guide me by some non-rational, non-propositional means. Discerning God’s Will became something akin almost to fortune-telling. This created great anxiety among poor Christians who wanted to be obedient but had no idea how to do so. It drove Christians from the study of Scripture and the resulting exercise of wisdom to a sort of “mysticism” which ultimately had very little to do with Christianity.
The sad part of this, is the sub-Biblical attempts at learning God’s will came about because those in position of teaching failed in their role to show how the Bible does help with the wisdom necessarily to make good decisions. It is strange how non-Scriptural practices become embedded in the practice of the Church and become so normal that pointing out the impropriety of such practices sounds un-Christian!
- The Will of God
The concept of the will of God causes a great deal of confusion. The difficulty in part comes from the fact that God is a personal being, yet we tend to think of God’s will as if it were an impersonal force. We speak of God’s Will as if it had only one dimension. Yet, when we think of ourselves we understand that often a discussion of our “will” may entail complexity. As John Frame explains, “Although God’s will has many dimensions, as we shall see, a simple but accurate definition would be God’s will is anything he wants to happen” (DG, 528).
You can understand the complexity of this problem if you just consider the combination of thoughts and desires you may have just going to the grocery store: You have an intention to eat well, but you’re hungry for candy. What would one say constitutes your “will” at that time?
The phrase “the will of God” refers to at least two different actions. First, there are the settled determinations of God: God’s decrees. The decrees of God “are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 7). Thus, God’s will refers to what actually takes place.
Second, the “will of God” also refers to God’s intentions or precepts.
Lutheran, Arminian and Roman Catholic theologians refer to God’s antecedent and consequent will. Antecedent will is what God wants to take place; consequent will is what actually takes place. Reformed theologians refer to God’s decretive will (what he decrees) and God’s preceptive will (what God values). All agree that the word “will” refers to both what takes place and what God values/desires/requires.
Usually when we speak of wanting to know “the will of God” with respect to a decision, we mean that we want to know God’s decrees rather than his precepts:
It is the will of God that we not sin. It is the will of God that we have no other gods before Him; that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves; that we refrain from stealing, coveting, and committing adultery. Yet the world is filled with idolatry, hatred, thievery, covetousness, and adultery. The will of God is violated whenever His law is broken.
One of the great tragedies of contemporary Christendom is the preoccupation of so many Christians with the secret decretive will of God to the exclusion and neglect of the preceptive will. We want to peek behind the veil, to catch a glimpse of our personal future. We seem more concerned with our horoscope than with our obedience, more concerned with what the stars in their courses are doing than with what we are doing.
With respect to God’s sovereign will, we assume we are passive. With respect to His preceptive will, we know that we are active and therefore responsible and accountable. It is easier to engage in ungodly prying into the secret counsel of God than to apply ourselves to the practice of godliness. We can flee to the safety of the sovereign will and try to pass off our sin to God, laying the burden and responsibility of it on His unchanging will.
- C. Sproul. Can I Know God’s Will?: 4 (Crucial Questions Series) (Kindle Locations 89-97). Kindle Edition.
III. God’s Will and My Decision
How does God’s will play into the question of decision making? It is true that God knows what we will do as matter of decree, but we do not know. Thus, at one level it will be impossible for us to not do “God’s will.”
- We Must First Know God
Before we can “know” anything of God’s will or make any decision, we must begin with the basic tenets of God’s perceptive will for our lives: First, if you want to know God’s will, you must be saved. Second, you must be Spirit-filled. That is the teaching of the Word of God. MacArthur Jr., John (2012-07-01). Found: God’s Will (John MacArthur Study) (Kindle Location 131). David C Cook. Kindle Edition. Only after we have come to know God in Jesus Christ can we even begin to ask the question of knowing God’s Will.
- We Must not be Presumptuous
When we come to the matter of wisdom and decision making, we cannot fall into the opposite error and think that we certainly know God’s secret decrees and determinations for the future. For example, let us say that you have determined it would be most wise to move and take a job in a new city:
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. James 4:13–17 (ESV)
Not even the Apostle Paul would presume to know what God had planned for the future:
20 When they asked him to stay for a longer period, he declined. 21 But on taking leave of them he said, “I will return to you if God wills,” and he set sail from Ephesus. Acts 18:20–21 (ESV)
7 For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. 1 Corinthians 16:7 (ESV)
We must realize that God’s will supersedes even our “godly” desires:
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. Hebrews 6:1–3 (ESV)
We must be willing to submit to whatever God does determine to do:
13 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” Acts 21:13–14 (ESV)
- We Should Not Look for a Secret Map.
This is the crux of the trouble. Many people believe that a secret map of God’s will exists. This map lays out a “Best Plan” for my life. I want to find and follow that secret map. If I fail to find the clues which lead to this secret map, I will be on some “wrong road”, “Plan B” et cetera.
There is no such secret map. It’s found nowhere in the Scripture. It causes all sorts of complications. For example, if you follow Plan A but someone with whom must interact is on Plan C, you can’t get to Plan A, because it was already ruined by the other person. When you think of the billions of human interactions which take place every day, there is no Plan A available for anyone. (Gray Friessen refers to this as the “dot”. He discusses this issue at length. You can find this material on his website http://gfriesen.net/sections/will_of_god.php)
- We Should not Point to Signs Which Aren’t
Jonathan Edwards wrote a book called Religious Affections to discuss those impressions, senses, proddings, circumstances, et cetera which people think may be evidence of the Spirit’s work in their lives. These are the sorts of “signs” which those who promote knowing the “secret” will of God for your life often espouse. While we can’t work this material in any sort of detail, you should be aware of the ideas. The following is merely a portion of the table of contents from Edwards’ book:
Part II. Showing what are no certain signs that religious affections are gracious, or that they are Not.
- It is no sign one way or the other, that religious affections are very great, or raised very high.
- It is no sign that affections have the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they have great effects on the body.
III. It is no sign that affections are truly gracious affections, or that they are not, that they cause those who have them to be fluent, fervent, and abundant, in talking of the things of religion.
- It is no sign that affections are gracious, or that they are otherwise, that persons did not make them themselves, or excite them of their own contrivance and by their own strength.
- It is no sign that religious affections are truly holy and spiritual, or that they are not, that they come with texts of Scripture, remarkably brought to the mind.
- It is no evidence that religious affections are saving, or that they are otherwise, that there is an appearance of love in them.
VII. Persons having religious affections of many kinds, accompanying one another, is not sufficient to determine whether they have any gracious affections or no.
VIII. Nothing can certainly be determined concerning the nature of the affections, by this, that comforts and joys seem to follow awakenings and convictions of conscience, in a certain order.
- It is no certain sign that the religious affections which persons have are such as have in them the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they dispose persons to spend much time in religion, and to be zealously engaged in the external duties of worship.
- Nothing can be certainly known of the nature of religious affections by this, that they much dispose persons with their mouths to praise and glorify God.
- It is no sign that affections are right, or that they are wrong, that they make persons that have them exceeding confident that what they experience is divine, and that they are in a good estate.
XII. Nothing can be certainly concluded concerning the nature of religious affections, that any are the subjects of, from this, that the outward manifestations of them, and the relation persons give of them, are very affecting and pleasing to the truly godly, and such as greatly gain their charity, and win their hearts.
- We Should Exercise Wisdom
What God wills for you is that you use wisdom to make decisions:
It would be wrong, however, to tell an inquirer that God does not guide his people in making specific decisions in life…A godly person seeks, through wisdom given by the Spirit, to apply the precepts of the Lord to the circumstances of life….
So I would suggest the following teaching for inquirers: God guides us through his decrees, his written Word, and Spirit-given wisdom. By his decrees he opens door and closes them, giving us some opportunities and withholding others [you can’t take a job for which you cannot apply], but those circumstances of our lives do not in themselves tell us how to behave. By Scripture, he tell us what he wants us to do, showing us how to respond to those circumstances. By Spirit-given wisdom, God enables us to apply Scripture to circumstances.
Scriptures speaks of “God’s will” to describe the outcome of using wisdom to apply Scripture to our lives …. (John Frame, DG, 539 & 541).
The Scripture is filled with examples and commendations of planning and wisdom. The Lord planned for the place of the Last Supper (Mark 14:12- 16). God speaks of making plans (2 Kings 19:25). Planning with counsel is commended as wisdom (Proverbs 15:22).
How then does such planning contrast with not being presumptuous? First, we must realize that God’s determination overrules all things:
- 1 The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.
- 2 All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit.
- 3 Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established.
- 4 The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.
- 5 Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the LORD; be assured, he will not go unpunished.
- 6 By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the LORD one turns away from evil.
- 7 When a man’s ways please the LORD, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.
- 8 Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice.
- 9 The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps. Proverbs 16:1–9 (ESV)
The trouble is not in planning but in pride.
- How Then Do We Make Wise Decisions?
God’s “plan” for our decision making is that we exercise obedience and wisdom. The exercise of wisdom, which requires a searching of our own hearts and the Scripture is a necessary feature of God’s design. True wisdom in decision making will require sanctification: the process of both working through the Scripture and testing our own hearts is a means to grow in Godliness.
When you realize God’s purpose in wisdom and decision making, you can see how seeking to “know God’s will” in some mystical manner is an attempt to get around the hard work of growing in godliness.
- Richard Baxter
In his massive A Christian Directory, Richard Baxter sets out considerations for many practical situations in the Christian life. For example, he sets out a process for determining what vocation a man should pursue. First, Baxter emphasizes the importance of work – and that not even wealth can excuse laziness.
Having established the necessity of labor, Baxter then sets out considerations for choosing a vocation:
- Choose work which both serves God and the public good. This does not mean that one must be vocational ministry. A man who makes shoes serves the good, because people need shoes. A farmer’s wok is as godly and important as a preacher’s.
- Choose that which is best for your soul. If you can choose between two jobs and one will give you more money and the other will better serve your soul. Choose your soul over money.
- Choose work which permits you to care for both your body and mind. To the extent possible, choose work which protects your health.
- Go ahead and make money, but remember what it is for. There is no sin in making money; the sin only comes in what you do with the money.
- Choose work which is fit for you. “For that calling may be one’sman’s blessing,whichwouldbeanother’smiseryand undoing.”
- Never choose an occupation without first getting good advice.
- Never consider any work “beneath” you. “If thou be called to the poorest laborious calling, do not carnally murmur at it, because it is wearisome to the flesh, nor imagine that God accepteth the less of they work and thee: but cheerfully follow it, and make it the matter of thy pleasure and joy that thou art still in thy heavenly Master’s service, though it be about the lowest things: and that he who knoweth what is best for thee, hath chosen this for thy good, and trieth and valueth thy obedience to him the more by how much the meaner work [the less important work] thou stoopest to at his command.”
Sinclair Ferguson asks a series of questions to test a decision: Is it lawful?
Is it beneficial to me (1 Cor. 6:12). Is it enslaving? (1 Cor. 6:12). Is it helpful to others? Is it consistent with biblical examples?
On the matter of work, Ferguson sets out the following functions: Mark out the possibilities
Consider your gifts
Consider the needs. On this point, Ferguson quotes Dabney as follows:
Go where we may, we more merchants than can find customers, more physicians than have patients, more lawyers than clients. Society has enough of them— too many. But … to carry the gospel to every one of the 800 millions of pagans o the globe, the hcurhc needs a hundred times as many ministers. Now, what young Christian, qualified to preach, who asks in the
spirit of the true convert, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” can say in view of these facts that God and his fellow men have more need of him at the bar, behind the counter, or in the physician’s calling than in the pulpit? If he cannot, beware how he neglects the prayerful examination of the duty of preaching at the peril of the wrath of his Savior. (Discovering God’s Will, 84-85.)
Consider your personal desire.
Gary Friesen sets out the following principles for decision making:
- Where God commands, we must obey.
- Where there is no command, God gives us freedom and wisdom to choose.
- Where there is no command, God gives us wisdom to choose
- When we have chosen what is moral and wise, we must trust the sovereign God to work all the details together for good.
- Do not Fear
Do not mistake me, I do not say that of their own nature the worst things are good, for they are a fruit of the curse; but though they are naturally evil, yet the wise overruling hand of God disposing and sanctifying them, they are morally good. As the elements, though of contrary qualities, yet God has so tempered them, that they all work in a harmonious manner for the good of the universe. Or as in a watch, the wheels seem to move contrary one to another, but all carry on the motions of the watch: so things that seem to move cross to the godly, yet by the wonderful providence of God work for their good.
Thomas Watson, All Things for Good.
- What is Most Important
It is more important how you work than which job you take. It is more important how you live with your spouse than which spouse you choose. It is not that choosing a spouse or job is of no importance. Yet, even the “best” choice will mean little if you do not pursue your work or marriage in a godly manner.
If we busied ourselves primarily with our duty of growing in godliness, we would consider our circumstances quite differently. George Swinnock explains the many things which a Christian must do in common life to pursue this duty:
Who can count the variety of works that every Christian must be engaged in? how many dangers he must wade through? how many snares must he avoid ? how many taunts and mocks must he abide ? how many temptations must he conquer ? how many graces must he exercise ? how many lusts must he mortify ? how many duties must he perform ? Every relation, every condition calls for answerable duty and diligence ; every ordinance must be improved by him, every providence must be sanctified to him. Mercies must, like a ladder, mount him nearer to heaven ; misery must, like the famine to the prodigal, force him to hasten to his father’s house. His wife, his children, his servants, his neighbours, his friends, his enemies, his shop, his closets, his visits, his journeys, do all require suitable service; and who can perform it that is not diligent and sedulous?
Consider him in reference to God’s immediate worship ; he must pray, hear, read, meditate, watch, fast, sanctify sabbaths, sing psalms, receive the sacrament, and in all walk humbly, reverently, and uprightly with his God. Consider him in reference to poor men ; he must love mercy, and supply their necessities according to his ability, and not, like a muck-heap, good for nothing till carried forth ; whatever men he deals with, he must do justly, love his neighbour as himself, and as God gives him opportunity, provoke them to mind grace and sanctity ; as musk, perfume, if possible, all that he comes near. Consider him in reference to himself ; he must live soberly, vigilantly ; his heart is like a subtle, sturdy thief, ever seeking to break the jail, and therefore must have a strong guard ; his corrupt nature is like fire, and his whole man like thatch, and therefore he must keep a narrow watch ; his senses are the outworks, which Satan is ever assaulting, by them to gain the royal fort of the soul, that he must defend them with care and courage day and night. What is said of the husbandman, is true of every Christian. His work is never at an end ; the end of one work is but the beginning of another ; he must always be employed, either in dunging, dressing, ploughing, sowing, harrowing, weeding, or reaping his ground ; he hath no leisure to be idle and lazy, who hath so much work lying upon his hand. Seneca thought philosophy cut him out so much work, that he was necessitated to spend every day, and part of the nights, in making it up. Christianity, a nobler mistress, as she gives better wages, so she commands greater work; that her servants may say well with the emperor, Let no day pass without a line ; and with Solomon’s housewife, not let their candle go out by night, Prov. xxx.
The Christian Man’s Calling, Swinnock, vol. 1, pp. 64-65
- But Can’t God?
Yes, of course, God could send an angel and tell you to march out of prison (Acts 5:19-20). God can speak from a burning bush (Exodus 3). But such events are extraordinary. There is no command or indication that we should expect such events. Moreover, when such events take place there is no question but that God has spoken. Moses didn’t spend a few days trying to figure out if the Burning Bush was “an open door”. Peter left prison.
If you were to receive such a command you should understand that “the recipient’s freedom is reduced and God’s moral will is enlarged for that individual” (Friesen, 237).
Which again leaves us with wisdom. For example, the angel didn’t follow Peter around after it sent him on his way.
 To what extent this started earlier, I can’t seem to know. There has always been a strain of “fortune- telling” among human beings, and Christians have unfortunately not been exceptions. There has been the ancient trick of opening the Bible at random and searching for an answer. Some such things have been justified under the guise of the form of casting lots in the OT. The last example of lots is by the Apostles in Acts 1 just prior to the coming the Spirit. Lots are not again mentioned or approved in Scripture.
 For example, Finney’s “anxious seat”: the manipulation of human emotion to obtain a behavior which is then called “conversion”.
 Armenian (and some Lutheran) theologians would say that knows what we will do but does not “decree” that action. If a matter is foreknown by God it is true and thus must take place.
 He writes, “Suppose that a lawyer were as profitable to the public good as a divine [pastor], and that it is the way to far more wealth and honor; yet the sacred calling is more desirable for the benefit of your souls”.