Letting the Umpire Rule
Bill Thompson paused in his presentation long enough to take another sip from the glass of water. The clock on the back wall and the attentiveness of the audience encouraged him to press on; so he continued.
“The age old question, `How do you know when you are in love?’ has through the ages been given the same answer: `When you are in love, you won’t have to ask.’ That exchange is called to mind whenever I hear the fourth of our questions on God’s will, for there is a similarity both in the question and its answer.
Confirming God’s Individual Will
“The fourth and final question is: How can I know God’s individual will with 100 percent certainty as it relates to a particular decision? Such certainty is confirmed through essentially four means.
“The first means of finding 100 percent certainty concerning God’s will is through agreement of the road signs. God has given us more than one road sign for a simple reason: He knows that one sign all by itself could be inadequate or misleading. But several of them together can give precise direction. In particular, when the three main signs of the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and circumstances all agree, you may rest assured that you have found God’s will. [“Questions About God’s Will” chart]
“An old familiar story illustrates this graphically. On an overcast night, a ship was fighting rough seas as it approached the narrow entrance to a harbor. To the inexperienced passenger, the chances of finding and navigating the path to safety seemed remote at best. The slightest miscalculation could spell disaster. Yet the captain appeared calm and relaxed. A nervous passenger, perhaps seeking reassurance to settle his own fears, asked the captain, ‘Sir, how do you know when to guide the ship into the harbor entrance?’ The captain pointed to the dark shore punctuated with random dots of light. `Do you see those three brightest lights there on the land?’ The passenger searched for a moment, then nodded. `I have learned,’ continued the captain, `to steer my ship parallel to the shore until those three lights all line up as one. When the three lights agree, then I know that I can guide my ship safely into the narrow entrance of the harbor.’
“So it is with god’s will. When you have agreement among the three lights of God’s Word, circumstances, and the inward witness of the Holy Spirit, you can proceed with confidence. The other road sings may add support, but those three are essential. If one of those signs does not agree with the others, you should assume that something is wrong. If, for instance, you feel that the Spirit is prompting you, and that circumstances are positive, but your course of action violates God’s Word, you can be certain that it is not God’s will. Obeying this principle will save you great heartache and bring confidence into your decision making. It is exciting to watch God’s Word, circumstances, and the inward witness slowly move into perfect alignment. With such agreement there is certainty that you have found the narrow entrance into God’s perfect individual will.
“The second means of finding 100 percent certainty in God’s will is through results. Finding God’s will brings peace and blessing to the Christian. So the right results in a decision can give you certainty by confirming that your choice was correct. You may have felt confident that you were on the right road all along, but when you arrive at your destination there is additional certainty with this obvious confirmation. Results are like the sign at the park which says, `Reunion Picnic-You Made It!’ You were pretty sure you had accurately followed the arrows painted on the paper plates tacked to the telephone poles, but that final sign clinched it. In the matter of seeking God’s will, you may find that the results of your correct decision are blessed beyond your expectation – though this is not necessarily so. The thing to note, however, is that your faith will always be tested. So do not be discouraged or intimidated by difficulties you may initially encounter. They do not necessarily mean that you have missed God’s plan.
“Sometimes God, in His grace, uses results to give us an undeserved second chance. At times we run ahead of God in a decision and bypass the will of God in our haste. Results have a way of bringing us up short, informing us abruptly that we have lost our way. They are like the rude awakening experienced by the driver who suddenly discovers that the unfinished expressway has ended. Immediately he realizes how foolish he has been to drive around that warning sign encountered earlier. This can be a manifestation of God’s grace, for in many cases, we can return to the point where the wrong decision was made and begin again. We still lose time, but God mercifully allows us to return to the right road of His will.
“God may also show His grace by closing a door in our face which otherwise would have led to disaster. On such occasions, though we are frustrated, we should give thanks. However, it would be presumptuous to expect God to continually run around slamming doors to protect us from our own foolishness or disobedience. God knows that often a burn on the hand or a good spanking teaches a mischievous child far more effectively than a thousand artificial roadblocks. Of course, such roadblocks will not be needed if we are sincere and obedient before God.
“The third means of finding 100 percent certainty in God’s individual will is through prayer. Let me ask you a question at this point. How many hours did you spend in prayer during this past week? Would you be embarrassed to say it out loud?
“I often ask that very question of individuals who tell me they cannot find God’s will. The answers I regularly hear have convinced me that 90 percent of those who cannot find God’s will are not spending enough time in prayer. If you do not ask God, you will not receive (James 4:2). By the way, how many hours did you pray this past week? If believers spent as much time praying for God’s will as they did frantically looking for it, most of our problems would be eliminated. Next time you are tempted to take an hour to go purchase another book on God’s will, stay home instead and spend the time on your knees.
“Prayer is like a clean windshield when you are seeking God’s will. It allows you to see the road and the signs clearly without distortion or distraction. Prayer is like a rush of cool air from a rolled down window. It brings the drowsy `driver’ back to full alertness.
Godly saints will always tell you that the inward witness of the Spirit is most clearly heard when you are quiet before Him in prayer. It is then that His still, small voice can be most clearly heard. It is not then drowned out by the noisiness and busyness of our lives.
“Many Christians, if they are honest, will admit that it is hard for them to get started in prayer. And even once they have begun, the slightest distraction seems to cut it short. It may be hard to continue and wait in prayer, but it is even harder to live life after missing God’s individual will from lack of prayer. If the answer does not come immediately, wait before God until it does. It may be that He is using this decision to get your undivided attention. If you will wait before Him in prayer, the answer will come, and it will not be too late.
“Let me say again that I am convinced that 90 percent of those who cannot find God’s will are not spending enough time in prayer. Let prayer stimulate your alertness to the signs, cultivate your ability to hear the still, small voice, and develop your attentiveness to God. You may discover that prayer was the missing step in your search for certainty in knowing God’s will.
“The fourth means of finding 100 percent certainty in God’s individual will is through personal communionwith God. It is frustrating to attempt to read a sign that is just a bit too far away, or to try to understand the words of someone who is slightly out of hearing range. The problem is distance. Distance complicates communication.
“In personal relationships distance also affects communion. When we say a husband and wife are distant from each other, we mean they are not enjoying marriage communion with each other. If this is the case, the lack of marriage communion will inevitably lead to a lack of marriage communication. On the other hand, it is a delight to watch a husband and wife who have grown in their love and communion through the years. They communicate on a level unknown by couples who merely live at the same address. Often one spouse can sense how his partner feels about a matter without even having to ask. Such people are able to communicate with each other with the slightest squeeze of the hand, the smallest facial expression, or even a certain glance of the eye.
“Such is the level of communion desired by the Lord, our personal Guide. He desires that our communion be so close that even the slightest glance of His eye will communicate His will to us. In Psalm 32:8 God 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 guidance demands close communion that has no need of the bit and bridle required of horses and mules (Psalm 32:9). Such guidance is possible only when we are close to the Lord. When our fellowship is intimate so that we are walking by His side, then we will be aware of the slightest communication from the Holy Spirit.
“Nothing replaces closeness to the Lord: not formulas, not books on God’s will, not seminars like this one, not college or Bible school degrees, not even perfect church attendance. The closer you are to Him, the closer you will be to finding certainty in the knowledge of His will. If you cannot quite hear God’s leading, draw a little closer to Him. And be assured, that as you make that move, He will draw closer to you as well (James 4:8).
“What we have seen, then, is that there are four means by which a believer can find certainty of knowledge of God’s in- dividual will in a specific situation: agreement of the signs, results from a decision, prayer, and communion with the Lord [Figure 9].
“Now I think it might prove helpful to look briefly at what we’ve covered this morning to this point before moving on to the question and answer period. So let’s look to the overhead projector again to assist us in visualizing our review.
“At the beginning, we agreed that we would concentrate on answering four questions. [“Questions About God’s Will” chart]
“As we considered the first question, we found that most references to God’s will in daily conversation have to do with God’s individual plan for a person’s life. To give a more complete biblical perspective, we compared and contrasted God’s individual will with His sovereign will on the one hand, and His moral will on the other. We used these brief definitions to clarify the distinctiveness of each of these aspects of God’s will. [“Three Meanings of `God’s Will'” chart]
“In seeking to answer the second question, we argued that the reality of God’s individual will is clearly established by four lines of proof. [“Proving God’s Individual Will” chart]
“We began our consideration of the question of process by clearing up some common misconceptions that many Christians have about discovering God’s will. [“Common Misconceptions About God’s Individual Will” chart]
“How, then, may we learn what God’s will is? We likened God’s plan for our lives to a road that we must follow. There are many possible roads to take, but only one correct one for each of us. To keep us from getting lost along the way, we learned that God has provided seven different kinds of road signs to point the way. [Road Signs Pointing to God’s Individual Will” chart]
“Then, finally, we saw that there are four means by which the believer can find certainty of knowledge of God’s individual will in a specific situation. [“Certainty of God’s Individual Will” chart]
“I see by the clock on the back wall that even with the review I have not quite succeeded in using up all of the allotted time, so I’m afraid I will actually have to attempt to answer some of your questions.” Bill’s injection of levity into the proceedings was appreciated by the young people, some of whom actually laughed at the comment. A number began thumbing back through their notes to locate the memos they had made to themselves. Bill added, “Just bear in mind that I don’t understand everything I know, and we’ll get along just fine. ” More laughter.
A high school boy wearing glasses stood up in the third row. “Pastor Thompson,” he signaled. Bill nodded to him. “Before coming to this seminar, I thought it might be a good idea to read this book my mother gave me on the will of God. The author only mentioned two ways of understanding the expression `God’s will.’ Do most writers agree with him or you? ”
“What you have to remember,” began Bill, “is that writers on this subject are all working with essentially the same material. The differences are going to mostly be matters of organization, style, illustrations and varying viewpoints on minor points. I would like to think that if all such authors could hear the presentation I made this morning, they would agree that there are three aspects to God’s will. They might not present it that way themselves, but I believe they would find my analysis to be acceptable.
“Those writers who develop only two categories either do not discuss God’s sovereign will at all, or they present the moral and individual aspects together under the same heading. This is not surprising since, as we noted earlier, God’s moral and individual wills have some important elements in common. Let me put these similarities on the overhead for you” [Figure 10].
“None of those characteristics are true of God’s sovereign will, but all are true of both His moral will and His individual will. So, it is convenient to group the two under a single heading – such as, ‘What God Wants Us to Do,’ or `God’s Wishes,’ or `God’s Desires.’ But if this approach is taken, it is still important that the distinctions between the two aspects be clarified in some way. For they are different in some key respects, as you can readily see on this chart [Figure 11].
“I think that our designations of `sovereign,’ `moral,’ and `individual’ really help to prevent confusion in discussion of God’s will. That’s why I use them.”
A dark haired girl stood up near the middle of the room. “Pastor Thompson, I’m a freshman in college, and when semester break is over, I’ll be registering for my second-semester classes. My problem is that I don’t know what vocation the Lord would have me follow. If I don’t know that, how can I know His will for the courses I should take?”
“That’s a good question, young lady,” replied Bill. “There is much truth in the statement that anything you learn now will be of value to you in the future. So in a way, it’s hard to go wrong. On the other hand, God does know what He wants you to do in the future, so it follows that He knows which courses would best prepare you for that future. Obviously, if He had revealed His vocational choice to you by now, that knowledge would be helpful in course selection. But the fact that He hasn’t simply means that you must follow whatever other road signs He may choose to use. I would advise you to consider each course on its own merit, and make your choices on the basis of God’s individual will as He makes it known to you-just like any other decision. Since He knows where He wants you to go and what He wants you to do in the future, the courses that He leads you to take will prepare you for that.”
One of the youth sponsors from another church, a young woman in her late twenties, caught Bill’s attention. “Pastor, I really appreciated what you said about the place of personal desires in finding God’s will. The note I made to myself during that part of your presentation was this: How can I accurately distinguish between my own inward desires and those coming from the Holy Spirit?”
“In some cases it is obvious,” replied Bill. “If I desire to do something that I know is contrary to the Word of God, then that desire cannot be from the Holy Spirit. The source of such a desire could only be my flesh. At other times, what I want and what the Spirit wants will be identical. On such occasions, it is not necessary to make a technical distinction since both are leading me in the same direction. What I have found is that much of the time, those desires that are prompted by the Holy Spirit have His distinctive stamp upon them. His desires are often holy beyond our own holiness, creative beyond our own creativity, wise beyond our natural wisdom, and discerning beyond our present level of maturity. That divine stamp will be evident, sooner or later, making it possible to clearly tell the difference. ”
“Well, what about hunches? ” blurted a redheaded high school girl near the front. Embarrassed that in her eagerness she had neglected to raise her hand or stand, she blushed at the titters in the audience. Bill was grinning, too.
“What do you mean?” he returned.
The girl was slowly regaining her composure as she explained. Sometimes I get these hunches that I should do something. Maybe I have a highly developed sense of women’s intuition, I don’t know. Anyway, could those feelings I seem to get for no reason at all be messages from the Holy Spirit?”
Bill appeared thoughtful as he spoke. “You really have to be careful about that sort of thing. Hunches and premonitions are experienced by Christians and non-Christians alike. We tend to remember the one that proved to be right, but as often as not, they don’t pan out. I think that the thing to do when you get a hunch like that is to prayerfully evaluate it and test it by other road signs. If it is only a hunch, it will fade away under such scrutiny. My experience is that the impressions of the Spirit are much clearer than mere hunches, and they grow stronger, not weaker, with the passing of time.”
Pastor Williams from a sister church in the next town stood to his feet. “Bill, have you thought about whether God has an individual will for churches as well as specific people?”
“I’ve thought about that some, Tom,” Bill replied, “and I’ve come to the conclusion that He does. One biblical indication of that concept is the incident in Acts 13 where the Lord directed the church at Antioch to send out Barnabas and Paul as missionaries. That was, I believe, His individual will for that church as a whole.
“The idea of an individual will for each church not only fits with the doctrine of the church as one body, but actually fosters the unity demanded by it. If each individual member within a church sought God’s will for that church on a specific decision, the resulting harmony ought to be much greater than that produced by the wisdom of men. Since God has an individual will for the church as a church, the practical conclusion is that, on important decisions, the church is not merely looking for a majority vote of its members, but unanimous recognition of God’s will. Such an approach would, I believe, go a long way toward bringing the unity that our churches so desperately need today. ”
A young man that Bill recognized as a senior in his own high school group asked the next question. “Pastor Bill, my question concerns the road signs of circumstances and counsel. You said that at times, especially with very important decisions, it would be a good idea to set out a fleece. I was wondering whether I could use spiritual counsel as a fleece. Do you understand what I mean?”
“Yes, I do,” replied Bill, “and no, I don’t think that is a proper approach. If I do understand you correctly, you are talking about agreeing with God beforehand that you will consider whatever advice you are given by a counselor as indicating God’s will. Is that right?”
The boy nodded.
“We have already established that spiritual counsel is one of the valid road signs which God has given us. But for it to have value, it must be used as it was intended. To turn it into a fleece is to require God to reveal His will through just one of the signs. Such an approach is not only presumptuous, it ignores one of the known areas of weakness characteristic of that sign – namely, that human counselors are fallible. Furthermore, the practice is unfair to the counselor. For, in reality, you are asking him for more than advice. You are asking him for leading. Such an approach ends up being a misuse of a counselor rather than a proper use of a fleece.”
The girl sitting next to that boy raised her hand. “We learned the story of George Mueller in our Sunday school class. Our teacher said that before seeking God’s will in a matter, he would try to completely empty himself of his own will and desires. Is that something I should do?”
“George Mueller was greatly used of God because of his childlike faith and zeal to serve the Lord,” agreed Bill. “I think he took that approach because it helped him to better read the road signs that we have talked about. But I don’t think that such `self-emptying’ is necessary for others. For, as we have already observed, often our own desires correspond perfectly with God’s desires. We should take them into account and evaluate them so that God can use them to reveal His will to us. What we can appreciate about George Mueller is his concern that his own desires not block him from clearly seeing God’s will.”
A co-ed about a third of the way back was the next to take the floor. “Pastor Thompson, this past semester we studied spiritual gifts in our doctrine class in Bible school. How does my spiritual gift relate to God’s guidance?”
“An excellent question,” replied Bill. “We know from 1 Peter 4:10 that it is God’s moral will for you to exercise your spiritual gift. Now in the specific matter of determining God’s individual will for your vocation, knowledge of your spiritual gift will help to narrow your options. Not every occupation or profession will require your gift. For instance, to use a negative example, if you do not have the gift of teaching, you will not need to pursue a career as a seminary professor. If you have the gift of helps, a whole range of possibilities opens up while other fields are probably eliminated. Of course, the decision of how and where to use your spiritual gift is determined by God’s individual will for you. Such specific choices should be made like every other decision governed by God’s plan. ”
“Along that line, pastor, ” began a voice from the opposite end of the same row. It turned out to be another college-age fellow. “What if God calls you to do something that you don’t know how to do?”
“Perhaps some of you have seen that plaque that reads, `the will of God will not lead you where the power of God cannot enable you and the grace of God cannot keep you.’ I think that says it well, Usually, God places His soldiers at that point in the spiritual warfare for which He has prepared them – in terms of gifts, abilities, experience, personality, and so on. But there are times when He calls on someone, not because of his ability, but because of his availability.
“Biblical illustrations abound. Amos, in the Old Testament, was not a prophet by profession. He was a farmer who raised sheep and goats, and tended fig trees. But God called him to leave his farm and go north to declare God’s message to Israel. As he obeyed, God enabled. Then there was that little boy with the five loaves and two fish in Galilee. A great miracle took place that day, not because of that boy’s great talent, but because he gave what he had. If God clearly calls you to a difficult task, count on Him for the ability to do it. Remember what the Lord said to the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9: `My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Turn your weakness over to the Lord, and have at it.”
“Pastor Bill.” It was the familiar voice of Ted Bradford coming from the front row.
“Yes, Ted,” acknowledged Bill.
“What should a person do when he is not certain of God’s will, and yet he faces a deadline where a decision must be made?”
Bill nodded. “That’s an all too common experience, isn’t it?” Others in the audience indicated their agreement. The first thing we must do in such a situation is admit that our lack of direction is due to some failure on our part, not God’s. The Lord always does His part in revealing His individual will, but unfortunately we sometimes fail in our responsibility. Such an experience should be a warning to us that we need to be more sincere in seeking His will and meeting His requirements for leading. Failure to recognize this will only lead to repetition of the same problem further on down the road.
“Still, when a deadline comes, we must do something. In such a case, this is what I have done: I have humbly admitted my failure to God, prayed for last minute guidance, and then made the choice that seemed best to me at the time. If you ever have to do that, you should carefully watch .the results to determine as quickly as possible whether the wrong decision was made. If you goofed, and it is possible to do so, you should backtrack to the point of decision and follow the other alternative. There have been times in my life when God has `covered for me,’ so to speak. But we must not presume upon His grace and count on Him to bail us out all the time. For there have also been times when, in His love, He has chosen to allow me to learn from my mistakes the hard way-lessons that were painful, but effective.
“Without a doubt, it’s far better to follow God’s direction and the road signs He has given from the very beginning. The words of the hymn are to the point: `0 what needless pain we bear.’ Hopefully, we can learn from past mistakes, and apply what we know all the way.”
Bill looked at the clock again and exclaimed, “We should wrap it up pretty soon-at least before I run out of answers.”
“One more question, please, Pastor Thompson.” It was the high school senior again.
“All right,” allowed Bill, “one last question.”
“Thank you, sir. It is important. What should you do when you face a decision and two options seem to be equal?”
“Are you sure you won’t take my answer as a fleece?” chided Bill, grinning. Everyone laughed.
“No sir, or rather, yes sir,” he stammered, to the great delight of the other kids. “What I mean is, it’s not a fleece.” A couple of people clapped and the laughter crescendoed. When the noise died down, the flustered boy explained. “The reason I asked the question in the first place is that I am in the process of applying for entrance to college. And frankly, from what I’ve been able to gather so far, I can’t see any great differences between two or three of the schools I’m considering. I’m not sure I can get into any of them, but on the other hand, if they all accept me, I’m going to have a real problem.”
“I can sympathize with that,” replied Bill, “and it is an important question you are asking in spite of the hard time we’ve been giving you. From our human standpoint, two or more alternatives often do seem equal. This is because we are not able to see how each alternative will turn out in the future. God, however, in His omniscience, does know what would happen with each of the potential choices. That knowledge is part of His basis for selecting only one of those alternatives as part of His individual will for you. So, while the options may all be positive in terms of God’s Word and circumstances, they are not equal in the mind of God. In such decisions, the inward witness of the Spirit is especially important and determinative.
“In your case, if you’re accepted by two schools that seem equal to you, I would suggest that you do a more thorough study of them. Take their catalogs and compare them at every possible point. Make lists on paper showing the respective strengths and weaknesses of each school. Do this research prayerfully, and in all Probability, God will make His choice clear in the process.
“If such further investigation does not lead to a definite conclusion, then submit the entire matter to the `umpire’ of God’s peace. Go some place where you can be alone with God. Then close your eyes and, in your imagination, go to one of the schools. Visualize yourself packing your clothes, getting on the plane, arriving on campus. Go through this process with each of the schools under consideration. With one of them, you will experience the settled assurance of God’s peace. This is the school you should attend.
“I really appreciate your attention and your thoughtful questions. I think it would be good for us to close this seminar with a word of prayer.
“Dear Lord, thank You for being our Guide. Help us to comprehend the meaning of `God’s will.’ Direct our hearts in such a way that we will recognize Your individual plan for our lives. Give us the spiritual awareness to see and understand the road signs You give us to point the way to the center of Your will. Grant to these young people that blessed assurance of knowing for certain what Your will is in each decision that they make. And may they have the grace and courage to obey Your will as You reveal it. But most of all, teach us to pray and draw close to You. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
“You’re dismissed. ”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.