Have you heard the story about a man trapped on the top of his house during a flood? The water is swiftly rising. As this man sits on his roof, fearful of being swept away by the current, he cries out to God, “Please deliver me”.
A few moments later, a farmer friend arrives with his boat. “Hey, want a ride to safety?” he asks. “No”, replies the man on top of his house. “God is going to deliver me.”
An hour later, the water is up to the gutters. A voluntary rescue person comes by on his yellow raft. “Hey, I’m here to help get you off there and on to safety,” he yells. But the man on top of his house refuses to go. “God is going to deliver me.”
Another hour passes and now the water is halfway up the roof. The man is now on top of his chimney, nervously looking down at certain death and destruction. Fortunately, a Red Cross volunteer comes along in a canoe and offers him a ride to safety. But the man refuses. “No, God is going to deliver me.”
A couple of hours pass by and the water sweeps over the top of his house and he is carried away by the current and drowns. When he gets to heaven, he meets Jesus and says, “I thought you were going to deliver me”. Jesus replies, “I sent a boat, an inflatable raft, and a canoe; but you refused each one”. Don’t be like this man!
In the previous post we saw why it is important to know God’s will. Now we will look at how we can find God’s will for us. How does God guide us? We will see that God has given us several ways to find his plan, purpose and will for us.
First, we need to be aware of the conditions for finding God’s will.
Conditions for finding God’s will
Jesus said, “Anyone who wants to do the will of God will know whether my teaching is from God or is merely my own” (Jn. 7:17NLT). If we want to find God’s will, we must be willing to do it even before we know what it is. So, there must be a desire and a willingness to follow God’s guidance. If we are walking closely with the Lord and truly desiring His will for our lives, God will place His desires in our hearts. The key is wanting God’s will, not our own. A godly person’s desires are in line with what God wants them to do (Ps. 37:4, 23, 31).
Solomon answered the question, “How can I know God’s will in my life?” with a proverb, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and He will make your paths straight” (Prov. 3:5-6NIV). This means to trust in the Lord and not in ourselves. So we are to believe that God will reveal His will to us. And be willing to submit to Him in every area of life.
James says, “when you ask (for wisdom), you must believe and not doubt” (Jas. 1:6). We must believe that God cares for us and not doubt His goodness and power.
Daily fellowship with the Lord
Romans 12:1-2 has three keys for knowing God’s will. And they all rely on daily fellowship with the Lord. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform 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).
The first key is commitment.
a) Commitment. Like the life of a sacrificial animal was offered to God, God wants us to be totally committed to Him. We are to place our lives before God as an offering. It’s to be an exclusive relationship, like marriage. Our goal is to please God (2 Cor. 5:14-15). And give up our will so we can follow God’s plan for us.
The second key is a renewed mind.
b) A renewed mind. Our thinking is to be according to a biblical worldview. Godly thinking. Paul had the mind of Christ and didn’t think about people from a worldly point of view (1 Cor. 2:16; 2 Cor. 5:16). It’s like marriage. Because they spend so much time together, a husband and wife get to know each other’s mind and ways. Daily prayer and mediation on Scripture can help us to learn God’s mind and ways.
Are spiritual factors included in our decision making? Do we have the glory of God and the extension of His Kingdom in mind? Do we desire what He desires?
The third key is a godly lifestyle.
c) A godly lifestyle. Not following the pattern of the sinful world. This comes from a godly mind directing obedience to Scripture. What controls our lives? Outside influences or inner convictions? Do we live as if this world is all that there is? Have we lost the eternal point of view on our lives? Are we always thinking about ourselves and disregarding the things of God? These come from the world system, which hates God (Jn. 15:9-19).
The final condition for finding God’s will is confession and repentance of sin.
Confession and repentance of sin
Unconfessed sin keeps us from closeness to God. We are to deal with sin by confessing it and repenting (turning back to follow God). “If we confess our sins, He (God) is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).
If we have disobeyed God in some matter, let’s turn to Him in repentance now, before it is too late. Like Jonah, we may be able to come back into the mainstream of God’s plan for our lives.
Times of uncertainty are used by God to sift our motives too. When unsure of God’s will, we should examine ourselves to see whether we have fulfilled the prerequisites for His guidance.
Before you get a driving licence in Australia there are some pre-requisites. You need to pass:
– The driver knowledge test.
– The Hazard Perception Test.
– 120 hours of driving, including 20 hours of night driving.
– The driving practical test.
Likewise, we have seen that there are some pre-requisites for finding God’s will.
Inner guidance via the Holy Spirit is the chief means by which God guides His people today.
The Holy Spirit
God guided Israel in the wilderness by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire, but that method ceased when they entered Canaan. In Acts there are a few examples of God using angels and visions to guide people, but these are rare. In this post we will look at the normal means of guidance.
Finding God’s will was easier in Old Testament (OT) times because God used external ways to indicate it. The Holy Spirit now lives in a believer as a Guide, and He replaces all the external means of guidance that existed in the OT. Jesus told the disciples, “He (the Holy Spirit) will guide you into all the truth” (Jn. 16:13). They wrote this down and we now have it in the New Testament (NT).
Early in His ministry, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Lk. 4:1). Jesus and the Apostles were led by the Spirit because they were said to be full of the Holy Spirit. And Christians are commanded to be full of the Spirit (Eph. 5:17).
The Holy Spirit urges us inwardly either to take or not to take a certain course of action. Normally, this is the result of much time spent in prayer, and weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed course of action. We can work through decisions with the wisdom God gives us through the Spirit. We can distinguish the voice of the Holy Spirit by the growing peace He gives to our minds, as we pray over the matter (Rom. 8:6; Col. 3:15). And the Holy Spirit will never lead us contrary to the teaching of the Bible.
Athletes and sporting teams have coaches to prepare them to perform at their peak. Mal Meninga coaches the Australian Rugby League team, Bert Van Marwijk has just started to coach the Australian Soccer team and Darren Lehmann has just resigned from coaching the Australian Cricket team. Fortunately, we have a coach who doesn’t retire, the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit also guides us through the following external means. The chief external means by which God guides His people today is the Bible.
Paul says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The authors of the Bible were given the words to use by the Holy Spirit. Through it believers can be equipped for life, including leaning about God’s plan, purpose and will.
John Piper says there are three stages of finding God’s will.
– Using our renewed minds to understand and apply what God commands in the Scripture.
– The application of the Scriptures to new situations in life that are not addressed in the Bible.
– The development of godly character. Most of our thoughts, attitudes, and actions are spontaneous.
They are just spill-over from what’s inside.
When we look at the commands in the Bible we need to realize who they were written for. This is summarized in a schematic diagram where time increases from left to right. Christianity started on the day of Pentecost after Jesus, died, rose back to life and ascended back to heaven. So the commands in Acts to Revelation (after the day of Pentecost) were written to Christians. This means that they usually can be applied directly to us. The OT was written to Jews who lived under the laws of Moses (the Old Covenant). So these commands don’t apply directly to us. For example, they were required to offer animal sacrifices. Instead these laws need to be interpreted though the NT. Some are repeated in the NT, like 9 of the 10 commandments. And others are not repeated in the NT, like the command to keep the Sabbath day and the commands to offer animal sacrifices. So be careful when applying the OT to today. It has many good principles and provides the background to Christianity, but it wasn’t written to us. Jesus lived under the laws of Moses and the gospels include the teachings of His to Jews. But much of His teaching carries over into Christianity (where it relates to the new covenant). The gospels were written to give Christians an account of the life of Jesus.
When interpreting a passage of the Bible we need to take the text and the context into account. Questions about the text include:
– Who was it written to?
– What did it mean to them?
– What’s changed since then? Are we living under a different covenant?
And questions about the context include:
– What happened before and afterwards?
– What is the situation?
Context is king because it reduces the possible meanings of a text to its most probable meaning.
For example, “By his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5;1 Pt. 2:24) could refer to either physical or spiritual healing. The context in Isaiah is “our transgressions”, “our iniquities”, “each of us has turned to our own way”, and “the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:5-6). And the context in 1 Peter is “our sins”, and “die to sins and live for righteousness”. There is no mention in either passage of illness or injury. So, in these verses “healed” means forgiveness of their sins (spiritual healing), not physical healing.
The contents of the Bible can be divided into commands, models to follow and reports of events. A command is mandatory (not optional) and prescriptive (not descriptive). A model to follow is a practice that is described that is worth following today. Whereas, a report is a description of events (like in the news media) that is not worth following today.
Biblical commands to Christians are clear to follow. They are God’s revealed will for us. Are we faithfully seeking Him on a daily basis through Bible study and prayer? Are we active in ministry at a Bible-believing church? Are we sharing our faith? Are we doing our best to live apart from sin? Are we faithful to our spouse? Are we seeking satisfaction in Christ instead of the world?
Biblical models are examples to follow. Paul said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Models are also clear to follow.
But what about topics not mentioned in the Bible? First, we can ask does it contradict the Bible? Nothing can be the will of God that is contrary to the Word of God. Although the Bible doesn’t give specific answers to many problems we face, it does give us general principles. We can apply these principles to the issues we face day by day. Spiritual wisdom is the practical application of the Bible to everyday situations.
Paul urged the Ephesians to “understand what the Lord’s will is” (Eph. 5:17). We understand the will of the Lord by reflective thinking on how principles of Scripture apply to our circumstances. We find the general will of God in the Bible; we find the specific will for an individual believer through the application of principles of the Bible. We do not find this will through experiences, visions, or coincidences. We find His will through the correct use of our understanding.
For example, what about a debatable matter like tattoos? This is a secondary matter that is not essential to the Christian faith. And Christians may have different opinions and convictions about it. Some biblical principles we can consider are: God’s honor, the welfare of others (like acting in love, acceptance, harmony, don’t quarrel, don’t judge, don’t stumble a weaker believer, and don’t hinder spiritual growth), and order in the church. Also, what is the motive behind the tattoo?
On rare occasions, God may confirm His guidance to us through some specific passage in our daily Bible reading. But care is needed for we are often likely to read into a passage what is not there. God may lead us through a verse taken out of context, but this is the exception rather than the rule. God may confirm His guidance through a passage in our daily Bible-reading. But this should never be made the sole basis for guidance in any matter.
Have you ever bought some furniture from Ikea? It comes as a flat-pack and the components need to be assembled before they can be used. It’s best to follow the instructions. Otherwise, you might have to go back to the beginning in order to assemble the components in the correct order. The Bible is like God’s instruction manual for living our lives.
Prayer is another external means of guidance.
Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7). Prayer is the way to alleviate worry and experience God’s peace. God wants to know about our requests. There is peace in knowing that God is sovereign and loving.
James 1:5 says we don’t have wisdom because we don’t ask for it—so prayer is critical in seeking and living the will of God. He can use answered prayer to guide us through life.
Did you know that there is an Ikea flat-pack furniture assembly service for difficult projects? And what if we could phone up and get help with difficult Ikea projects? Prayer is like that – we get to speak with the author of the instructions.
Circumstances and opportunities are other external means of guidance.
Circumstances and opportunities
God is sovereign. He is in charge of this world. And the events that He allows are all part of His sovereign will. Nothing happens by chance. What happens to us is part of God’s sovereign will. He can control our circumstances and thereby indicate His will. God may use events in our life to point us in a certain direction. God can use circumstances either to confirm the guidance we have received or to prevent our taking a wrong step.
There are a number of cases of circumstantial guidance in the book of Acts. God used persecution to scatter the church from Jerusalem to spread the gospel (Acts 8:1). During Paul’s first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas moved from one place to another when they had to flee from persecution. And after Paul was arrested, he was given opportunities to preach in Jerusalem to the crowd and to the Sanhedrin. At his trial, he preached to the governor and the king. And when he was taken as a prisoner to Rome, he preached to the sailors, to people at Malta and to people at Rome (Acts 21-28).
God may prevent us from going into paths He has not chosen for us by putting us on a sick bed or by making us miss a train, an appointment or an interview. Disappointments can be His appointments for us, if we live under His Lordship. When we do not obtain something we greatly longed for and prayed for, we can be sure that God has something better in store for us.
God may also lead us contrary to circumstances. So circumstances are not always an indication of God’s will. They must be considered only in conjunction with the inner witness of the Holy Spirit and His witness through the Bible.
Is it right to ask God to indicate His will by a sign? After the advent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there is not a single recorded case in the NT of believers seeking to find God’s will through a sign. This seems to indicate that it is no longer God’s normal method of guidance. It served a purpose in OT times, when the Holy Spirit did not indwell people – but not now. Don’t ask God for a miracle as a sign, and don’t ask God for something so common that it is not really a sign at all. And don’t ask God for a verse as a sign. It’s probably best to not ask God to indicate His will by a sign at all.
God also works through open doors and opportunities. To steer a ship or vehicle, it needs to be moving. If we are active in responding to the opportunities before us, God will direct us.
The advice of godly believers is another external means of guidance.
The advice of godly believers
Christians are urged to encourage each other in the local church (Heb. 10:24-25). Wisdom is available from others with more experience in the Christian life. It’s good to have a mentor or a spiritual counselor or a small group who can provide guidance and support.
However, there are two extremes to avoid. One is to be completely independent of the advice of godly people. The other is to be so completely dependent on their advice as to accept it without question as God’s will for us.
There are some occasions when we should pay attention to the advice of godly people, and some occasions when we may have to go against the advice of those same people, and yet other occasions when we do not have to consult anyone at all. In any case whether we accept or reject or do not seek the advice of others, the ultimate decision must always be our own, for we are personally answerable to God for our decisions.
How do you build a house? One brick at a time. Or one part at a time. How do we build a life? One decision at a time. There is an old saying, “Sow a thought and you reap an act; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny”. The decisions we make about God’s plan purpose and will for us shape our lives.
God may sometimes show us His will only just before we have to make a decision, and may keep us waiting a long time prior to that. In any case, He will show us only the next step at each stage. He leads us step by step because He wants us to depend on Him day by day, and to walk by faith and not by sight. For example, the Bereans “examined the Scriptures every day” (Acts 17:11). When He shows us only one step at a time, we are compelled to depend on Him. Moreover, if God showed us the whole future, it is quite likely that we would not want to obey Him fully. And so, He shows us just one step at a time and gradually makes us willing to fulfil all His will. To find God’s will for our life, therefore, all we need to do at any time is to take the next step that God shows us. As we do so, we will find God’s plan unfolding gradually. He does not expect us to find out the details of His plan before we get there.
In the smaller details of daily life, guidance is not necessarily a question of making a conscious decision. It is a matter of walking in the Spirit. A right relationship with the Lord will lead to right action.
God’s will is not static. It is dynamic! It is not always an issue of choosing A or B. In fact, many times you can choose from A to Z, and any of them will be OK. It’s our choice. Why would God give us a brain and not expect us to use it? He lets us make choices, and he gives us second chances.
We have seen that there are seven conditions for finding God’s will, plan or purpose for us. These are desire, faith, daily fellowship with the Lord, commitment, a renewed mind, a godly lifestyle, and confession and repentance of sin.
Inner guidance via the Holy Spirit is the chief means by which God guides His people today. The Holy Spirit also uses Scripture, prayer, circumstances and the advice of godly believers. So God has given us several ways to find his plan, purpose and will for us. Let’s use these so that we will know, understand and follow His will for our lives.
Written, April 2018
Also see: Why is it important to know God’s will
Understanding the Bible