(December 2005 – Volume 11, Issue 12)
In our discussion of God’s will, the issue is not whether God has a specific plan for our lives. Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” This verse adds a lot of insight into how God wants us to live. The “things revealed,” the Scriptures, have been given to us in order that we might live according to God’s revealed (sometimes called moral) will. But what about the secret things – the things hidden, the things not made known in the Word? Those things belong to God—they are God’s plan, concealed from us. The point is, rather than attempting to penetrate the heavens to search out the hidden mysteries of God, we should concentrate on what God has disclosed to us. It is the revealed things that enable us to live in conformity to the ways of God.
But what about the hidden things? There are things not found on the pages of Scripture, things we often want to know. The Bible doesn’t tell me whether I should be married and it certainly does not tell me whom to marry. Don’t we need additional information from God apart from Scripture? And if so, don’t we need some methodology, some technique, for discovering this information? In reply, we might explore a couple of matters:
- Has God instructed us to search for His specific will? I believe the answer is “no.” There exist no teachings, commands or examples to, or for, Holy-Spirit-indwelt, New Testament Christians to seek God’s individual will about anything. Not where to live or whom to marry, not even whether someone should be in “full-time” Christian ministry. In the New Testament, we find believers busy serving and living for the Lord whatever their circumstances. We do not find them running about seeking a directive from God before they made decisions. On the other hand, if God chose to redirect someone, He did so and there was never any ambivalence about what He was saying. For example, as Paul begins his second missionary journey, we do not find him and Barnabas seeking the Lord’s will. Instead Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brethren…” (Acts 15:36). In the midst of the journey, God chose to intervene and sent Paul to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10). The important thing to note is that this change in plans was initiated by God. Paul was not seeking God’s will in the matter; he was busy ministering. It was God who chose to intervene and, of course, Paul was immediately obedient. I believe this is the same type of thing that we encounter in James 4:13-17. James was not condemning these Christian businessmen for making plans or desiring to make a profit. He warned them of their presumptuous attitude which left God out of the equation. In verse fifteen James instructs, “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.’” What a perfect place for James to write, “Before you make business plans you must first seek the Lord’s will.” But he does not. He wants them only to be aware and open to the sovereign hand of God that may alter their adventure. I believe this is the biblical pattern for church age Christians.
- If my thesis is correct, we should expect to find in the New Testament numerous examples and admonishments for believers to make decisions that are in accordance with the revealed will of God. And that is exactly what we find. To proof-text this fact would be to proof text the entire New Testament Scriptures, but we will take the opportunity to turn our attention to some passages.
Freedom to Choose
Let’s narrow our search to those decisions in life for which Christians commonly seek an extrabiblical word from the Lord.
Just as today, the early Christians had trouble accepting the concept that other Christians might see things differently. We are most comfortable when everyone agrees with us – after all, our preferences are hopefully based on principles drawn from Scripture. So what happens when others don’t accept our logic and choose to reject our preferences? In a word, conflict. Paul writes Romans 14 to deal with this very scenario. The apostle’s inspired counsel is neither to seek the peace of God nor to recommend a method to discern who is right, but to accept one another (v. 2) and let God be the judge (v. 4). Let’s frame this with a modern day example. First Church needs a new building – about this all are agreed, but there the unanimity ends. Brother Joe wants to move to Third Street, but Brother Bill believes God would have them move to the countryside. Sister Suzy, treasurer and professional financial planner, believes the church can easily handle a $500,000 mortgage, but Sister Jane has no peace about debt. How is all of this to be settled? Pastor Jim is praying for a word from the Lord to bring back to his people, but about the time he thinks God has spoken to him, head-deacon George claims a contradictory word from God. The fight is on. Has the Lord left us to such subjective means to determine the best thing to do in such a situation? I think not. Romans 14 lays down timeless principles for handling differences of opinion. The passage is not going to tell First Church whether they should build, where, with or without debt, but it will tell the congregation how the body of Christ is to handle disagreement and varied preferences.
How much should we give to the Lord’s work? Should we just tithe and be done with it? If so, do we tithe off the net or the gross (if you come from my background you know what I am talking about)? Does our tithe all go to our home church (“storehouse tithing” some call it) or can we spread it around? If we don’t buy the tithing system, where do we turn? What pastor hasn’t said, “We want you to give as the Lord lays it on your heart?” Is this the biblical principle? Are we to expect the Lord to lay a certain amount on our hearts and, while He is at it, to tell us who to give it to as well? To find answers to all of these questions we would do well to turn to 2 Corinthians 8-9, the most comprehensive section in Scripture on giving. There we find none of the above suggestions but a whole different set of directions. Many instructions and motivations are given but the bottom line is, “Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart” (9:7). No prayer is made for God to lay a burden on our hearts. No demand to tithe is given – just “as he has purposed in his heart.” Of course God loves a cheerful giver (9:7), giving is a great privilege (8:2-6), giving is to be liberal (8:2), giving is to be motivated by Christ’s indescribable gift (8:9; 9:15) and giving is to be proportionate to our financial blessedness (I Corinthians 16:2). Still we are giving as we purpose in our heart.
Few decisions in life can compare to the decision we make concerning a spouse. If ever we could use a word from the Lord, it would be in regard to whom to marry. I remember, during my freshman year at Bible college, when one of the seniors, a spiritual “giant” in the student body, took an attractive young freshman out on a date and promptly informed her that God had told him that she would be his wife. She was in shock but this young man, after all, was a spiritual giant, well respected by students and faculty alike; who was she to stand in the way of the Lord? If it was the Lord’s will then she must accept it. But presumably the Lord changed His mind somewhere down the line, for the spiritual giant married someone else, much to the relief, I might add, of the young freshman.
If the Lord has an ideal mate picked out for us how are we to know? If there is one area in which we don’t want to miss God’s perfect will this has to be it. Yet nowhere in the New Testament are we taught anything about finding God’s handpicked “one and only.” In 1 Corinthians chapter seven, in which the Lord discusses numerous marriage-related problems and concerns, we are actually given different instructions. Paul writes in verse thirty-nine, “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (emphasis mine). Again if there ever was a place to lay out the steps for finding the perfect mate it was right here. But Paul says that she is free to marry whomever she wishes, as long as he is a believer. That does not mean there are no other biblical criteria for choosing a mate, but the point is the choice is left to the believer. There is no mention in Scripture that God has the “one” picked out for you and, that if you marry someone else, you will miss out on God’s perfect plan for your life.
Decision Making in General
This pattern is normative in the New Testament. Paul told Titus, “I have decided to spend the winter [at Nicopolis]” (Titus 3:12), not “the Lord has led me to do so.” Paul stayed in Athens by himself while sending Timothy to Thessalonica because “we thought it best” (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2), not because the Lord had given him peace about it. When Paul sent Epaphroditus back to the Philippians he did so because he “thought it necessary” (Philippians 2:25), not because the Lord had laid it on his heart. The Corinthians were to pick “whomever you may approve” to accompany Paul with their financial gift for he saw it as “fitting for me to go also” (1 Corinthians 16:3-4). No mention is made about seeking the Lord’s will in this. And how about Christian ministry? Surely if one is to go into the ministry he must first receive a call from the Lord. But not only is the word “called” never used in this fashion in the New Testament but, in I Timothy, when the Lord is telling us what kind of man should be an elder, He has Paul write, “If any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (1 Timothy 3:1) (emphasis mine). Elders should be men who desire the office (as well as meet other qualifications). No mention of being called is anywhere to be found.
When we come to the New Testament searching for how God would have us make decisions, what categories do we find? Rather than directions on how to discern the individual will of God we are given principles of decision making. Rather than pointing us to hunches, inner voices and promptings, we are pointed to scriptural guidelines that enable us to make wise choices to the glory of God. The New Testament paints a picture of a believer who knows and obeys Scripture, indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit, and who has been given a mind whereby he is able to think, reason, discern and choose. He is an individual who is quite capable (due to regeneration, the Scriptures and the renewing of his mind) of making wise decisions which please God. It is for these reasons that God does not call for Christians to make subjective choices based upon what they “feel” God might be telling them. Rather we are to be students of the Word, knowing how God wants us to reason and choose based upon principles He has given us. It would be far easier, and to some it would appear more spiritual, to have God tell us our every move. Why do Bible study to discern the most prudent pathway when we can just close the Book, shut our eyes and listen to God’s inner voice? Of course, if the New Testament informed us that this is how God leads us today, then we go with it. But you will search in vain for such teaching.
So, what does the New Testament say about decision making?
- Always begin with Scripture.A plethora of problems, mistakes, errors and false living could be avoided if we would just begin with Scripture. This is a simple principle that is far too often ignored. The habit of many, even many Christian leaders, is to begin with an idea, philosophy, personal preference, pet peeve or observation, and then go back to Scripture to find a few verses to support their theory. If we do that, we might be able to convince ourselves of almost anything. But if all we do and believe emerges from the Word itself, we will be able to discern the value, or lack thereof, of all other ideas. If I could sum up my philosophy of ministry in one phrase it would be, “Begin with Scripture.”
When you begin with Scripture, in the realm of decision making, you will be able to make your decisions on the basis of solid biblical precepts, commands and principles. The Bible will not tell you what house you are to buy, but it will frame that decision with financial, ministerial and family guidelines. It may not tell you to move to 334 South Grant Street, but it will present issues such as: Are your financial priorities biblical or are you thinking only of your comfort; how much can you truly afford; are you buying for prestige or in order to meet the needs of your family and better minister for the Lord; will this move be the best thing for your spouse, etc.? It is biblical concepts such as these that enable us to make decisions that honor Christ.
- Pray for wisdom (James 1:5-8). This passage in James is principally in the context of trials; many of the decisions we make are during just such times. James tells us that God will answer our prayer for wisdom, when asked in faith, but he does not say how. If wisdom is defined as the application of the knowledge of the Word of God, then perhaps the Lord opens our minds to the understanding of His truth in a unique way when we pray. We can’t be certain of the methodology but we can be certain that God will answer. Again, we are not told that the Lord will specifically make the decision for us through some form of prompting, only that He will provide wisdom for making a wise decision.
- Wise counsel. The Scriptures are replete with encouragement for us to seek the counsel of wise and godly people (Proverbs 12:15; 13:10; 15:22; 20:18). Additionally, Paul tells the believers that they should be involved in counseling one another (Romans 15:14). The counsel of wise, godly and scripturally knowledgeable people is an important source for making wise decisions, but we must keep in mind that such counsel is not infallible. It is a piece but it does not solve the puzzle.
- Circumstances and opportunity. The same can be said concerning these two. Circumstances and opportunities offer us options – options that should be carefully examined. But these options are not obligatory mandates from God. Because we are offered a job in Indiana does not mean that we must take it. Because God has “opened the door” for us to teach junior high boys does not mean we have to do so.
- Desire.God often works through our desires. What is it that we want to do? is a good question to ponder. In 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul writes that those who desire to be elders desire a good thing. But carefully note, Paul did not tell Timothy to grab all who desire the office of elder and install them. Rather, he lays out for Timothy the requirements that an elder must meet (3:2-7; see also Titus 1:5-9).
This would be a good time to say a little more about the “call” to ministry. Only three times in the New Testament is someone called to ministry: Paul is called to be an apostle (Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1); Barnabas and Saul to go on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:2) and Paul to take the gospel to Macedonia (Acts 16:9-10). These three unique callings do not establish a norm. What about all the other ministers in the New Testament who did not receive such a call – how did they know they were to be elders (pastors) or missionaries or where they were to go? We do not find any definite teaching on a call to ministry in the New Testament. So how does a person make a choice as to whether he should be in ministry or not? I think John Newton (author of “Amazing Grace”) was on the mark when he offered these three tests: 1) Desire – do you have “a warm and earnest desire to be employed in this service?” 2) Gifts – “There must in due season appear some competent sufficiency, gifts, knowledge and utterance. Surely, if the Lord sends a man to teach others, He will furnish him with the means.” 3) Opportunity — I have heard it said that if you feel “called” to preach but nobody seems “called” to listen you’ve got a problem. To Newton’s remarks, I would add the necessary spiritual requirements as listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Those lists contain mostly spiritual characteristics but also include the ability to “exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). In other words, they must be able to teach the Word as well as stand against and correct those who do not.
Freedom. Surrounded by these principles, and others found within the New Testament, we are given freedom to make choices that we believe will glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Many Christians are uncomfortable with such freedom, having been taught that the perfect will of God could be found through some extrabiblical means. But the good news is that God, within biblical parameters, has given us the freedom and ability to make wise choices that honor Him.
 Leadership Vol. VI #3, “How Do I Know I Am Called”; pp. 55-56.