Hitting the Bull’s Eye
Bill Thompson surveyed the church auditorium from his seat on the platform. He would have preferred the more intimate setting of a classroom, but the number of registrants precluded that. As anticipated, the seminar on “How to Know God’s Will For Your Life” had generated the greatest interest among the young people. And the front half of the auditorium was filled with an almost even mix of high school upperclassmen and college students.
As he looked out over his audience, Bill also noted, with some amusement but little surprise, the presence of several pastors and youth leaders. “I guess this is where I would be too,” he mused to himself, “if I wasn’t the speaker.”
The conference director, having already led in prayer, was completing his introduction of Bill. Everything was in readiness. To the right of the pulpit stood the overhead projector. On the left side was a small table on which Bill had carefully stacked his collection of books on the will of God. “It’s nice to be an authority on something,” he kidded himself.
“So now, without any further delays, we’ll turn the rest of this session over to our speaker, Pastor Bill Thompson. ” There was a smattering of polite applause as the director nodded to Bill, then left the platform to find a seat among the young people. Bill stepped to the pulpit, placed his notes before him, and began.
“God wants to reveal His will to you more than you want to know it. God’s ability to communicate His will is perfect. He never stutters. On the basis of God’s desire to communicate and His ability to communicate, I can say to you that you can know God’s will for your life with complete certainty. ”
Bill Thompson felt his introduction had gone well. It reflected a genuine confidence that could only be reassuring to the young people in the audience.
“That’s good to know, isn’t it?” he continued. “For in every life, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of decisions to be made–some major, some minor. The non-Christian individual must make those decisions alone, asking each time, `What is my best course of action? What will bring me greatest happiness?’ But the Christian, knowing that he has a wise and loving Heavenly Father who has a special plan for his life, asks a different question: ‘What is God’s will for me in this situation?’ Few experiences can compare with the peace that comes with knowing that a decision has been made in accordance with the perfect will of God. Whether one is selecting a vocation or choosing a mate, the key to spiritual success in decisions lies not in our own feeble insights, but in knowing God’s will and doing it. As it says in Proverbs 3:5-6: ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.’ Or as the King James Version says it, ‘He shall direct thy paths.’ ”
Bill was impressed by the attentiveness of the young people as they listened to him. Noticeably absent were the telltale signs of restlessness that so often characterized these sessions. Many were taking notes. Among them was a college student sitting by himself on the front row. Ted Bradford had kept his promise.
“Knowing God’s will is hardly an academic subject. Today there are many husbands and wives who are frustrated in their marriages because they did not choose the one person God wanted them to marry. There are students who are discouraged because they went to the wrong school. Some Christian men experience dissatisfaction in their jobs because they did not seek and follow God’s vocational calling for them. Christian women are unhappy in their office positions because they ran ahead of God in accepting an offer that was less than His best. The shortage of workers on the mission field and in local churches gives further evidence that many people have missed or ignored God’s call. And those who have missed that call are missing the unparalleled joy of living in the center of God’s will.
“Perhaps you are attending this seminar this morning because you are uncertain as to what the Lord’s will is for you in a particular decision. Maybe you feel like the airline pilot who announced to his passengers: `Folks, I have some good news and some bad news. First the bad news – our flight instruments are broken and we are completely lost. Now the good news – we are making excellent time!’ Our problems in finding God’s will do not lie with God; they lie with us and our failure to read God’s ‘instruments’ and obey them.
“As we consider this subject this morning, I think it will be helpful for us to ask and answer four basic questions. I have put them on this overhead transparency so you can see where we are going [Figure 1]. First, we want to know: What do we mean by the term `God’s will’? Then we will ask: How do we know that God has a specific plan for each individual? Third, we will consider: What is the correct process for discovering God’s will? And finally: How can a believer be 100 percent certain of God’s will in a particular matter?
“Before we consider the first question, I want to explain something about the material I will be presenting in this session. In my research on this subject, I found that a great deal has been written on God’s will by a host of respected Christian teachers and leaders. For the most part these writers are in basic agreement on the correct understanding of God’s will. I have drawn heavily from these excellent resources in the preparation of this seminar. My goal this morning is to give you an easy-to-follow presentation that summarizes the basic content of these books. On those issues where Christian teachers differ, I will mention the varying viewpoints before explaining the one I consider to be most in harmony with the teaching of Scripture.
Defining God’s Will
“Now our first question is, what does the term ‘God’s will’ mean? Most people are not aware that in normal conversation we use the term `God’s will’ in three different, yet correct, ways. For instance, in talking to a grieving friend who has lost a close relative in a tragic accident, you might say, `The Bible says that everything that happens is part of God’s will, and though we may not understand why these things occur, we can receive comfort from the knowledge that a wise and loving God is in control.’ In another situation you could be speaking to a Christian friend who is considering marriage to an unbeliever, and you would warn, `If you marry her you will be violating God’s will.’ Finally, you might be in conversation with a friend who is contemplating a college education, and you ask, `Have you discovered God’s will about which school He wants you to attend?’ In each of these statements, the term `God’s will’ is used in a different sense. For the sake of clarity in this presentation I will refer to these three different aspects as God’s sovereign will, God’s moral will, and God’s individual will.
“The first of these, God’s sovereign will, can be defined as God’s predetermined plan for everything that happens in the universe.
“When we say that God is sovereign, we are saying that He is the Almighty Ruler of the universe. In eternity past, God formulated a perfect plan for all of history. [Figure].
He determines how nations will act and how their kings will rule. The world was created by His will and our salvation is the result of God working all things after the counsel of His sovereign will. He even determines each toss of the dice in a Monopoly game. No one or no thing can resist or frustrate His sovereign will. It will inevitably come to pass.
“And yet, though God determines all things, He does so without being the author of sin, without violating the will of man, and without destroying the reality of decision making. Each one of us is held responsible for every decision we make. This is a great mystery, but it is true. If we are not able to grasp it, we may rest assured that it all fits together perfectly in the mind of God.
“This explanation of God’s sovereign will has been brief of necessity. Let me encourage you to write down and look up the references included on the chart. These are just a few of the passages in Scripture which tell us about God’s sovereign will.
“Next we have God’s moral will. This may be defined as God’s moral commands that are revealed in the Bible teaching men how they ought to believe and live. [Figure].
“The Bible reveals 100 percent of God’s moral will. For this reason, the apostle Paul stated in Romans 2 that even the unbelieving Jews knew God’s will because they had the Scriptures. That is, they knew how they ought to live. They knew right from wrong because they knew God’s moral will.
“In some instances, a specific command is said to be `God’s will.’ For example, giving thanks in everything and living a sanctified life are both said to be part of God’s moral will.
“You see, the Bible gives general instructions which affect all of life, but do not determine each decision we make. For instance, a Christian is prohibited from marrying an unbeliever by the moral will of God; but Scripture cannot specify which particular person to marry, or even if a specific believer ought to get married at all. That is why God’s moral will is sometimes referred to as His `general’ will.
“When it comes to making decisions, the important thing to note about this moral will is that all of our decisions must be in harmony with what God has said in the Bible. If you are considering cheating just a little bit on your income tax so that you can give money to missionaries, you don’t need to ask for the Lord’s direction-He’s already given it. God will never lead you to do something that He has forbidden by His moral will in the Bible.
“The fact remains, however, that there are many things that the moral will of God does not declare-specific situations in which you must make choices. You will eventually have to decide where you will live, what school to attend, which church to join, which person to marry, and a host of smaller decisions every day. These specific decisions are not determined by God’s moral will, but are to be guided by God’s individual will.
“God’s individual will is that ideal, detailed life-plan which God has uniquely designed for each believer [Figure 2]. This life-plan encompasses every decision we make and is the basis of God’s daily guidance. This guidance is given through the indwelling Holy Spirit who progressively reveals God’s life-plan to the heart of the individual believer. The Spirit uses many means to reveal this life-plan as we shall see, but He always gives confirmation at the point of each decision.
“This individualized aspect of God’s will is given different titles by different writers. It is called God’s `perfect’ will because it is not only in harmony with the Bible, but it is the perfect life-plan to bring happiness and spiritual success to the individual. It is called God’s `specific’ will because it reveals each specific decision that should be made. It is called God’s `ideal’ will because, of all the possible alternatives, it shows the ideal life-plan for each situation. I have called it God’s `individual’ will because it represents the life-plan for each particular individual. Perhaps the most descriptive phrase is `the very center of God’s will. ‘ If you visualize an archer’s target, the outer circle would represent the moral will of God, and the bull’s-eye would be the very center of His will-or His individual will [Figure 3]. It is important to live and make one’s decisions within the larger circle of God’s moral will. But finding the ‘dot’ in the center, God’s specific individual will, is essential in making correct decisions in daily life. [Figure 3].
“Sometimes this is easier to see in concrete situations, so let’s take marriage as an example. As we have noted repeatedly, it would be wrong for a Christian to marry an unbeliever. Such a decision would fall outside of the larger circle, for God’s Word declares: `Do not be bound together with unbelievers’ (2 Corinthians 6:14). If the Christian married a believer who was nevertheless not the one God had selected, he would be acting within the larger sphere of God’s moral will, but not precisely `on target.’ Some teachers call this God’s second best.’ Others refer to it as God’s `permissive’ will. He permits it since it is not outside of the larger circle of His moral will, but it still falls short of God’s best. He does allow the decision, but it will result in leanness of soul. The center dot represents God’s individual will. In marriage, it is the one right mate, among all the believers permitted, that should be chosen. Our choice should mirror God’s choice.
“Of course it is the choice of a marriage partner where finding or missing the `dot’-God’s individual will-is especially serious. For the choice one makes is permanent. Divorce, for the committed Christian , is not a live option. So the believer who has married the wrong person must live on within God’s permissive will, settling for God’s second best. You can change cars, houses, schools, or churches if you discover you have missed God’s will, but the choice you make concerning your spouse is irreversible.
“What we have seen, then, is that there are three aspects to the will of God. We call them God’s sovereign will, God’s moral will, and God’s individual will. As you can readily see, most questions about guidance concern God’s individual will. Whenever someone asks, `How can I know God’s will for my life?’, he is usually seeking God’s guidance in some specific decision of his life.
“Since this is so, it is very important to avoid confusion between God’s individual will and the other two aspects. Since these distinctions may be new to some of you, I’ve prepared a couple of additional charts that I think will clarify the similarities and differences between the individual will on the one hand and the sovereign and moral senses on the other.
“The first overhead chart compares and contrasts some of the defining characteristics of the individual will of God and the sovereign will of God [Figure 4].
“Now, while most Bible teachers recognize these distinctions between the individual will and sovereign will of God, many treat the moral will and the individual will under the same heading. I believe that this can cause confusion. There are, to be sure, some points of similarity. But there are also some definite differences. I think you will clearly recognize both the differences and the similarities on this next chart [Figure 5].
“Again, to sharpen these comparisons with a specific example, when someone asks you, `Have you discovered God’s will concerning which school he wants you to attend?’, the question is about God’s individual will. God’s sovereign will cannot be known in advance. And God’s moral will is not specific enough to direct you to any particular school. It is only God’s individual will that can guide you to the right school.”
Bill paused in his presentation for a few moments to give the note-takers a chance to finish copying down the last chart. He found the glass of water a thoughtful organizer had placed beside the lectern and took a couple of swallows.
Proving God’s Individual Will
“Now let’s move on to our second question: How do we know that God has an individual will for each believer?
Questions About God’s Will
- Definition: What does “God’s will” mean?
- Proof: Does God have a plan for my life?
“Up to this point, we have assumed God’s individual will for the sake of definition. It would not surprise me if many of you are wondering why further comment is necessary. The reasons for believing in an individual will are so compelling that the question is seldom raised and many books on God’s will just assume that the reader knows and believes this truth. Still, it is important to be fully convinced in our minds so that we may help others and assure ourselves before God.
“The proof for the existence of God’s individual will comes from four sources: reason, experience, biblical example, and biblical teaching [Figure 6].
“The concept of an individual will is proved not only by reason, but by the experience of dedicated believers. History abounds with men like Martin Luther, John Wesley, William Carey, David Livingstone, Hudson Taylor, and Adoniram Judson. In these lives God has demonstrated that He has a specific job for each believer to do, These men could say that they knew God’s individual will and accomplished it. Their success in spiritual achievement strongly suggests that God has an individual plan for us as well.
“You can probably add your own testimony to theirs. Have you ever sensed in a particular situation that God was telling you to do a specific thing? In your heart it was as clear as if God was speaking to you audibly. You found no peace of heart until you were willing to do that particular thing. And when you followed through on it, you were filled with the peace and blessing of the Lord. Such is the common experience of all saints, but especially those who walk very close to their Lord. The unbeliever might try to write off such experiences as merely coincidental or Psychological , but saints in every age testify that the Holy Spirit is our personal, indwelling Guide. Experience confirms that God has an individual plan for each believer.
“The evidences from reason and experience are impressive. But the most important and decisive proof comes from the Bible itself, The evidence from Scripture takes two forms: first, we have examples of men who show that God had an individual will for them; second, we have direct teaching about God’s will.
“First, then, let’s look at some examples from the Bible. Of course the greatest example is Jesus Christ. For He knew God’s will perfectly and fulfilled it completely (Hebrews 10:7-9; John 4:34; 6:38; Luke 22:42). Christ did not come to earth on His own initiative, but was sent by the Father (John 8 :42). As Jesus Himself was careful to point out, His teaching was from God (John 7: 17; 8:26), and the works that He did were assigned to Him by the Father (John 5:36). If the Son of God placed such stress upon accomplishing God’s specific will for Him, surely we can do no less.
The apostle Paul is an outstanding example of someone who knew and obeyed God’s individual will for his life. He continually reminded his readers that God had called him to be an apostle (1 Corinthians 1:1). His apostolic vocation was not `from men, nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father’ (Galatians 1:1). He was obligated to preach (Romans 1:14).
Not only was his vocation selected for him, but God guided him specifically. He was directed to leave on his first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-2). Furthermore, he was directed to specific fields, as in the Macedonian vision (Acts 16:10), and away from other potential fields (Acts 16:6-7).
“Philip was directed to a specific road to speak to a particular needy man (Acts 8:26-29). If we would allow God to direct us that way today, our witnessing would surely show greater results. In other instances, the Lord led Ananias to Paul (Acts 9:10-11) and Peter to Cornelius (Acts 10:20). The Holy Spirit showed the Jerusalem Council what they should decide on a doctrinal issue (Acts 15:28).
“In the Old Testament, God had an individual plan for Joseph’s life. Though hated and betrayed by his brothers, God exalted him to be a ruler over Egypt, thereby enabling him to rescue his family from the effects of a severe famine (Genesis 50:20).
“These individuals are not unique, for God’s individual will is evident in the lives of Moses, Joshua, David, Elijah, Josiah, Ruth, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Each of these godly believers knew enough to ask God, `What do You want me to do?’ just as Paul did (Acts 22: 10), If we fail to ask the same question, the joy of following God’s life-plan will be missed. God does not play favorites. He has an individual life-plan for us just as He did for the saints in the Bible.
“In addition to proof from scriptural examples, the Bible teaches directly that God has an individual will for each believer. In many passages, believers are instructed to know and do God’s will. For example, Colossians 1 :9-10 records this prayer: `We have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects.’ The only way to please God in all respects is to know and obey His individual will.
“In Romans 12:1-2, Paul urges believers to give themselves as a living sacrifice to God, to be transformed, and to resist conformity to the world so that they might be able to prove exactly what God’s will is for them. As we noted in Proverbs 3:5-6, God promises that He will make His specific will known if we trust in Him rather than our own understanding. That is a promise of specific guidance into the exact paths of life that God wants us to take-a promise that still holds true.
“A parallel promise is found in Isaiah 30:21 which portrays the Holy Spirit working in us and directing us into the right path each time we begin to turn away from it. It says: `And your ears will hear a word behind you, “This is the way, walk in it, ” whenever you turn to the right or to the left.’ Again, God gives detailed guidance at each decision to keep us on that path which is God’s individual will for us.
“Psalm 32:8 says, `I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you.’ This promise corresponds with the other promises for direction down the right path.
“We know that if a believer lives a righteous life, he will do good works. In Ephesians 2:10, however, Paul goes beyond that to say that God has specific good works which He wants us to do. These good works are mapped out by His individual will. It says: ‘For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’ This is God’s way.
“The story of Genesis 24 provides further evidence that God has an individual plan for each person and will reveal it to the obedient believer. Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac. The servant prayed for God’s specific guidance and was led to the exact woman that God had selected to be Isaac’s wife (Genesis 24:14). In this case, God used a providential sign to confirm His individual will.
“It is no wonder, then, that saints throughout the ages have had a firm belief in God’s individual will. To my mind the evidence from reason, experience, and Scripture is conclusive.
“Before we go on to the third question, I think it would be good if we took about a ten-minute break. I realize that you are probably most interested in the answers to the last two questions. Hopefully, this brief recess will help us to remain mentally alert as we tackle these most important issues related to God’s will.”
Excerpted from Decision Making and the Will of God (c) 1980, 2004 by Garry Friesen. Used by permission of Multnomah Publishers, Inc. Excerpt may not be reproduced without prior written consent of Multnomah Publishers, Inc. Please contact email@example.com.