God’s Will, Lost or Found – Part 1

(October 2005 – Volume 11, Issue 10) 

A prestigious evangelical graduate school asked Professor X to accept a position as dean. In attempting to determine God’s will on the matter, Professor X writes, “While reading Acts 10 in Peterson’s The Message, I read the words, ‘If God said it is okay, it is okay.’ I felt the Lord applying this Scripture to my situation; I knew then that I had permission to go.” A well respected Christian author writes, “When we feel the Master’s hand and hear His voice in our inner chambers, we should follow Him” (emphasis mine). A writer of devotional classics in one of his books, heaped story upon story of the Lord leading through inner impressions and audible voices. He writes, “It is positively exhilarating, and at the same time very humbling, to be in the company of men so intimately acquainted with God that they expect Him to even direct them in which house to visit, what tide to take, or what stranger to speak to on the trail.”

This concept of how the Lord leads is so commonplace today that the above examples probably shocked none of my readers. And this is not just a modern phenomenon – such views can be traced throughout church history. For example take the Puritan pastor Cotton Mather (1663-1728), one of the most influential religious figures in American history. While doctrinally sound in most ways, Mather had a strange belief in what he termed “particular faiths.” He meant by the term, “A little degree of the Spirit of Prophecy granted by God to the devotional elite for abounding in secret prayer” (emphasis his).[1] Mather believed that angels administered this “particular faiths” which would guarantee answers to prayer and provide infallible divine leading. For many years he had absolute faith in “divine leadings,” until a large number of the messages supposedly from God proved to be false. This included the death of his wife and the spiritual condition of his son. Because of disillusionment with “particular faiths” Mather’s own faith almost unraveled. He speculated for a time that the problem may actually lie with the angels (who he believed transmitted these messages from God). Perhaps, he mused, they may actually be ignorant of the future themselves. Of course, this did not solve the problem. If God was leading him through angels and yet that leading was fallible, of what good was the leading? Finally he came to realize that he had misinterpreted these impressions, became cautious and abandoned them as if of no value.[2]

We are faced with the same dilemma. Does God lead His children through extrabiblical means or not? To what extent would such leading be reliable? Could extrabiblical leadings (if they existed) be trusted completely, partially or not at all? How would we know? Our only hope for a comprehensive answer, as always, is not in the testimonies and experiences of people but in examination of the sufficient Word of God.

The Will of God for My Life

We constantly overhear in Christian circles that someone is looking for the will of God for his life. He is most likely speaking of the major decisions – who to marry, where to attend school, what vocation to follow, etc. Others are seeking God’s will for slightly lesser concerns: what car or house to buy, church to attend, vacation to take. We have been taught that the will of God can be ascertained through divine prompted feelings, hunches, impressions or dreams. If these fail we can turn to fleeces, fasting, flipping coins or opening the Bible randomly and following the first verse that makes sense. To be sure, these methods are usually coupled with analysis of circumstances, wise counsel, and the peace of God. But here a serious question arises — does the Bible prescribe such methods? Is this how God says we are to discern His will?

The first step in answering these questions is to discover what the Scriptures have to say about God’s will. Most Christians use the term “the will of God” in three distinct ways. First, there is the sovereign will of God in which it is recognized that our Lord is in control of all things in the universe. Ephesians 1:11 reads, “…having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” While certain aspects of God’s sovereign will are revealed to us in Scripture, other parts are not for us to know at this time (Deuteronomy 29:29). Nevertheless, the Word is clear that God rules over all things and His plans can never be thwarted. Resting in this truth brings lasting peace to the hearts of God’s children regardless of circumstances.

Secondly, Scripture speaks of the revealed will of God which makes known to us how God expects us to live. Paul writes, “Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you may excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification, that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:1-3). This is just one example of the revealed will of God for lives. It is God’s revealed will that we be sanctified or, in this context, live in purity. It is His revealed will that we love Him and that we love our neighbor. It is God’s revealed will that we worship and obey Him, and so forth. The Bible clearly teaches both the sovereign and revealed wills of God.

It is the third understanding of the will of God, the specific or individual, which demands our attention. This is defined by Garry Friesen as “God’s ideal, detailed life-plan uniquely designed for each believer.”[3] He further frames the issue by writing, “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.”[4] Most espousing this view are content to suppose that God reveals His will only for major decisions, but others take this to the extreme of believing that God has a will, which we must find, for even the most minute thing, from which shoes to wear to what route to take to work.

The question on the table is whether the “individual-will-of-God” theory can be supported by Scripture. That God is at work behind the scenes, leading and directing our lives, is not the question. The question is whether the Bible teaches that God has specific wills for each of us – specific choices He wants us to make on all sorts of things – and whether these will(s) must be discerned through various extrabiblical means. I believe, contrary to the majority of Christians, that the answer to this question is a clear “No.”

The Biblical Evidence

I believe the support for my position can be found first from the silence of Scripture. The Bible nowhere teaches that God has a specific will for every believer’s life that is to be found through extrabiblical means. Yes, we have numerous examples in the Word in which God specifically directed His people to take a course of action. But I would raise a number of objections at this point:

  • The fact that a few individuals received direct guidance from God does not mean that such guidance was then, or is now, normative. If certain things happened in the Holy Writ does that mean they will happen all the time or that they will necessarily happen to us? Balaam’s donkey spoke to him but I don’t expect my dog to speak to me. Peter walked on water for a while but I wouldn’t try it. Elijah called fire out of heaven, but I can’t even light my gas grill half the time. Even if it can be proven that it was customary for God to reveal His specific will to people in biblical times, it does not necessarily prove that such is God’s plan today. Proof by example is weak evidence at best.
  • Secondly, these examples are far fewer than most people think. Yes, God spoke and directed Moses on a regular basis, David and Peter on occasion, Solomon two or three times and a host of others in a singular instance. But there is no evidence, in either Testament, that the vast number of believers ever received such guidance. With rare exception, only the major players in biblical history enjoyed the direct supervision of God – the masses, even of the godly, lived their entire lives without a personal word from the Lord.
  • Even guidance given to the key characters of Scripture was rare and reserved for a handful of decisions. God spoke most often in biblical times through the prophets, yet even major prophets could go years without a word from God. Many who walked powerfully with God and accomplished much for His glory never once heard from God, to our knowledge. I think of Nehemiah, Ezra, Esther, Ruth, David’s mighty men and thousands of others – the list is almost endless. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of the godly found in Scripture never personally heard from God concerning their individual lives and decisions. The ones who we are aware of were the exceptions, not the rule.
  • Even the exceptions received guidance only for the most important matters – almost exclusively matters pertaining to the big scheme of God’s plan. Except as object lessons and/or messages intended for a wider audience, we hear of no instances in which a biblical character was told specifically what choices to make concerning normal matters of life such as household purchases, investments, or even who to marry except for the case of Isaac (and that was indirect) and Hosea as an object lesson to Israel. It was just not the norm in the Bible for God’s people to be given specific instruction on a regular basis from the Lord. Most never received such instruction even once – and apparently never expected it.
  • While God chose to occasionally give special leading to a few of the important New Testament leaders, we never find those individuals seeking such guidance (or being commanded to do so). Peter was sleeping on a roof, Paul was headed to a different country, Philip was involved in a preaching campaign. All of them were busy serving the Lord when the Lord chose to redirect them. As a matter of fact, the last time we find an example of God’s people seeking His specific will is in Acts 1:24-26 with the choosing of Matthias to be an apostle. And here they do not hear the voice of God, or even feel a prompting but rely on a game of chance. It is altogether questionable to me that the right decision was made through this methodology. Later Christ would handpick Paul as Judas’ replacement, leaving little room for Matthias to be part of the Twelve.[5]

God’s Leading

Assuming for the moment that God, in this New Testament era, has changed plans and has made extrabiblical leading by means of the Holy Spirit the norm, exactly how should we expect this to take place? Most evangelicals outside of charismatic circles do not expect God to communicate with them through prophets, audible voices, visions, the casting of lots, angelic visitations or the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28:30), yet these were the instruments used in biblical times when God chose to lead apart from the written Word. Today the majority of evangelicals believe that God leads through other means, usually highly subjective ones such as hunches, promptings, open doors or peace (or lack thereof). In Scripture, when God chose to communicate, the transmission was objective. While there were times when the interpretation of these messages was complex, there was never any doubt that God had spoken (through some understandable vehicle). We don’t hear of Isaiah, for instance, saying, “God spoke to me last night, I think, and I believe He wants you Israelites to do such-and-such, but then again, I am not absolutely sure of this. After all, it is often difficult to tell when the voice of God leaves off and my own thoughts takeover. And, of course, there is always that pesky problem of interpretation. I know what I heard, but I may possibly confuse the message. My prophecy may then be 50% from God and 50% from my own imagination, but I will lay it out before you and let you discern whether and how much the Holy Spirit has actually said through me.”[6]

We never hear of God speaking in this manner in the Bible but we are told that it is common place today, especially in charismatic and mystical circles. And the problem becomes even more complex in noncharismatic settings, since noncharismatics are often expecting God to lead and speak to them in ways never mentioned in Scripture. We will search in vain for instances in which God led His people through hunches and promptings. And, equally, we will search in vain for occurrences of New Testament believers asking God for His individual will or, for that matter, explaining their decisions as springing from God’s individual will communicated to them through feelings. Take the example of the folks in James 4:13-17 who arrogantly announce their business plans without regard to the will of God. James does not admonish these believers for neglecting to first seek the will of God in the matter; he simply is saying that our plans must always be subject to the sovereign will of God. The Lord is at liberty to adjust or cancel any of our plans and the believer must live in recognition of this fact. The implication is that, since none of us can know God’s will in advance, we must humbly accept His will when it becomes evident. This is the pattern found in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul is dealing with one of the most important decisions in life – marriage. What a perfect opportunity to lay out the steps for discernment of the will of God. Instead the Holy Spirit-inspired apostle, after some advice pertinent to the current situation, leaves the decision as to whether one should marry to the individual believer (vv. 8-9, 20-21). Then to top things off, he even leaves the decision as to whom he is to marry to the individual, as long as he marries another believer (v. 39). Why didn’t the apostle take this golden opportunity to lay out the principles for finding the individual will of God? I mean, outside of our relationship with the Lord, what could be more important than whom (if anyone) we should marry? Yet we find this decision being left up to the believer within biblical parameters.

Conclusion:

Seeking the individual will of the Lord is so out of alignment with New Testament teaching that Professor Bruce K. Waltke wrote a book suggesting that it was basically a pagan notion rather than a biblical one.[7] He writes,

When we seek to “find” God’s will, we are attempting to discover hidden knowledge by supernatural activity. If we are going to find His will on one specific choice, we will have to penetrate the divine mind to get His decision. “Finding” in this sense is really a form of divination. The idea was common in pagan religions. As a matter of fact, it was the preoccupation of pagan kings…. But that sort of pagan behavior is what Christ saved us out of.[8]

Is Waltke correct or has he overstated his case? That can be determined only by the examination of Scripture. Next time!


[1]Kenneth Silverman, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (New York: Harper & Row, 1984) p. 173.

[2] Ibid., pp. 173-190.

[3] Garry Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God (Portland, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1983), p. 35.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Revelation 21:14 which strongly implies that the inner circle of the apostles of the Lamb is limited to twelve. The other individuals mentioned in the New Testament as apostles (e.g. Barnabas), I believe were apostles (or sent ones) of the church and were not on the same level as the Twelve.

[6] See the previous Think on These Things paper “The Lord Told Me, I Think,” dealing with this form of modern day prophecy.

[7] While Waltke’s book Finding the Will of God, a Pagan Notion? has a number of insightful comments I nevertheless found it overall disappointing with Waltke often supporting the very things that he set out to disprove.

[8] Bruce K. Waltke, Finding the Will of God, a Pagan Notion? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1995), p. 11.