Knowing the Will of God
June 17, 2021
by Steven Willing, MD
How do you ascertain God’s will for your life?
This is one of the greatest existential questions asked by followers of Christ, the young in particular. It is also one of the most profoundly misunderstood.
We may be taught that there is a divine roadmap for our lives, known to God yet unknown to us. We desire to know it for two reasons. First, we seek to please God and be good stewards. Second, we believe following his divine plan will maximize our earthly joy and blessing, but He offers no objective way of knowing it. What then, does that say about God? He created a divine master plan for us to follow, but we have to pry it out of Him? What sort of God would do that, and why? What if we make the wrong decision?
Many years ago, I was considering a job transition. A few months of interviewing bore three excellent offers within a short period of time. My wife and I prayed over the decision for many weeks. We sought outside advice, meeting with three separate pastor-counselors. We discussed it with parents and family. After weeks of contemplation, we decided our course of action and relocated to another state. The position I accepted had agreed to all of my requests. We saw this as a sign. We sincerely believed we were “in the will of God.”
Things quickly fell to pieces. The house we purchased proved a disaster, demanding vast expenditures of money and labor. For a while, the job went swimmingly, but then things turned south in a hurry. Within three years of my arrival, five out of six section members had departed. The dean who hired me retired; my department chair—an honorable man—was fired by the incoming dean; and my division chief left for private practice. The entire chain of command transmogrified into a noose. We were chronically short-staffed, I was regularly forced into double duty and the incoming department chair felt no obligation to honor the terms of my recruitment. (Even though I had everything in writing, a contract is only as good as the integrity of the participants).
Had I any inkling of what lay ahead, I would never have accepted the position. Instead, the sacrifices I made by moving to a distant city and staying loyal to the department through its travails were rewarded with abuse and betrayal. Not that there weren’t things I should have done differently, but at the very top of the list was not going in the first place. So, was I out of the will of God? I am persuaded I was not.
The Wills of God
Theologians inform us that the “will of God” refers to three specific concepts, and our failure to understand that leads to much confusion. The sovereign or decretive (from “decree”) will of God refers to His ultimate control over all things. According to the Westminster Confession:
“God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (III.I)
Whatever conforms to God’s sovereign will inevitably happens. Everything that has happened or is happening is in accordance with His sovereign will. But with regard to the future, God’s will is unknowable to us on a detailed, individual level. A proper view of God’s sovereignty is inconsistent with the notion that our future consists of multiple possible trajectories, contingent upon our decisions.
The preceptive will of God refers to His precepts, or commands, as understood through revealed or natural law. Thus, it is His preceptive will that we not sin, but His sovereign will allows it to happen. His preceptive will sets boundaries on life choices but does not determine them. We can certainly step out of His will by marrying an unbeliever or choosing a job out of greed or selfishness. The precepts of God we not only can know, but ought to know and follow. A third category is His dispositional will, or God’s desire. God desires that we obey and that none should be lost, but His sovereign will permits such things.
So what does this have to do with our major life decisions?
If we reflect upon it, the assumption that God has “a wonderful plan” for our life is prosperity theology repackaged. It wasn’t so wonderful for countless Christian martyrs. While His plan is good, it is good in the ultimate sense of all things working together. No matter how unfortunate or privileged you are, no matter how obedient or reprobate, all of life will be some combination of blessing and heartbreak. Usually (though not always) obedience results in greater blessings, but Jesus promised that we all would face trials.
My traumatic employment experience offers a perfect example. First, whatever happens is in accordance with God’s sovereign will, so He decreed it in advance. Second, there were no moral failures in the choice we made. Our decision was motivated from the outset by a sincere desire to go wherever He led. It is tempting to assume that because things turned out badly that we made the wrong choice, but underlying that is a false belief that trials never befall the obedient. (It also would be hindsight bias.)
In fact, my experience might illustrate why God chooses not to reveal His plan. Despite my illusions of spirituality, had I known what lay ahead I probably would have chosen something other than God’s will! Plan B or Plan C would have been much more appealing.
What is His true will?
While we might think the most important questions concerning God’s will involve our marriage and career choices, I suspect we have it exactly upside-down and backwards. Not that these aren’t important; simply that we cannot know for certain.
The revealed will of God is actually quite explicit, and well summarized by Micah 6:8:
“He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?” (NKJV).
Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly.
How would these look in practice? In such matters, opportunities abound. Consider just one salient example.
The prevailing secular sexual narrative breeds perpetrators and produces victims. Secular culture increasingly recapitulates the situation of 2,000 years ago, when ancient Greece and Rome were dominated by male sexual predators and women and children were mere commodities. Here, we might consider the application of Micah 6:8. But how can we be simultaneously just and merciful? Aren’t justice and mercy mutually exclusive?
- To victims of sexual abuse, we show mercy by extending our compassion and protection. We show justice by holding aggressors and their enablers to account.
- To sexual perpetrators, we show justice through ensuring due process. False accusations are rare, but egregious public examples have been well documented. We show mercy by offering forgiveness in the presence of genuine repentance.
The sheltering and enabling of sexual predators has been a dark stain on the institutional church. The early church grew in part because of its compassion and courage in defense of women and children. If our churches cannot be “safe” spaces for the defenseless, then all the energy directed toward political and cultural wars is for naught.
While I reject the notion that there is but one “perfect” job, location or mate for each of us, I do believe that the principle of humility is a reliable guidepost. Pride seeks wealth, fame, pleasure, power and personal advancement. Humility seeks to serve, as Christ came to serve and die.
In this regard, I was much inspired by the story of Bill Rhodes. Years ago, he shared his story at the Prescription for Renewal conference. As a young adult, Bill felt called to become a missionary physician. This necessitated going back to college for pre-med and then gaining admission to medical school. Over many years Bill struggled but persevered, eventually completing his surgical training and going to serve as the only surgeon at Kapsowar Mission Hospital. In academia, individuals are valued according to their achievements. Superior academic performance, research, publication and savvy political skills render one “worthy” to become a department chair of dean. In the eyes of many academicians, Dr. Rhodes might be seen as an underachiever. But who was more important? If a dean were to drop dead, 10 other candidates would be queued up for the honor. Not so with Dr. Rhodes. He was irreplaceable.
Trust in His Sovereign Will
My unfortunate job experience ultimately proved an unexpected blessing. My subsequent work was far less stressful. I was able to permanently transition to part-time, opening up other avenues of opportunity. One of these opportunities was short-term missions work, where I was able to serve month-long terms in Kenya at Tenwek Hospital every year and have now done so for more than 10 years. The contrast between a mission community—where everyone is united in a common purpose—and the academic world, where almost everyone was out for themselves, was both stark and refreshing.
A proper understanding of God’s will and a spirit of humility allow us to rest peacefully in the knowledge that while obedience is our responsibility, results are in the hands of God. We can seldom determine the outcome, whether in regard to our careers, our marriages, our children, our congregations or our nation. Control is merely an illusion, an illusion strengthened by pride.
“Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27, NKJV).
Trust and obey
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus
But to trust and obey
— John H. Sammis, 1887, “Trust and Obey”
Great topic and discussion. Would appreciate your comments on a book I just published: “Pleasing God, by Knowing and Doing His Will.” The premise is that the only objective statements of God’s will for us personally are found in the imperative statements of Scripture. They are collected and restated in 135 single-page topics. Nearly every sentence is footnoted to its Biblical source (over 5,500 references). Discussion questions for each topic are included. Doing this project clarified and changed my understanding of God’s will and reinforced my need to first know and then do it.