Knowing God’s will for my life
As life progresses, we continue making choices: What college or university will I attend, and what degree will I pursue? After earning my degree, where will I work–will I be self-employed or work in a company? Where will I live? How will I spend the money I earn? If I marry, will we have children or not? If so, how many?
Through the centuries, people have used varied methods to make choices. Many consult with experienced friends or trusted counselors. Others check their horoscope, consult palmists, mediums, or others with connections to the occult.
As Christians, we want to obey God when faced with a significant decision. In fact, believers around the world lift their thoughts to God, repeating the words of the Lord's Prayer, which includes an important petition: “‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven'” (Matthew 6:10).1 What do we mean when we thus pray? Let's review what the Bible teaches us about the key subject of God's will.
The meaning of will
The word will has three basic meanings, which apply to both God and humans.
Will: the ability and power to choose. God has this ability and has always exercised it. At a certain point in time, He decided to create the universe and populate it with intelligent beings. He also chose to fashion this planet and create Adam and Eve to live on it. Later, He chose Abraham and his descendants to be His special people. He also decided to come to this world as a human being to rescue us from sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Creator has given humans the capacity to make choices. This is an important part of being created in God's image. We can obey or disobey God with predictable consequences. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 30: 15, 19, 20; Revelation 3:20.) God respects and protects our individual freedom to choose. In fact, he wants us to exercise this ability by making good choices and thus develop our character.
Will: the desire to do something or to achieve an objective. This is why our last testament is called a will. We put in writing what we want to happen to us and our possessions when we die.
God, whose character is a perfect blend of mercy and justice, always wants the best for His creatures (Jeremiah 29:11) and is never inclined to do evil (James 1:13). He also wants all human beings to be saved (1Timothy 2:3, 4) and to grow spiritually (Colossians 1:9, 10).
We humans also have the desire to do things and achieve something. At times, what we want to do is contrary to what we know is right. Because sin has affected our will, we often make selfish and destructive decisions. The apostle Paul was painfully aware of this tendency. He wrote, “What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15, 18-20).
Will: purpose, determination, or plan. Paul speaks about God's plan to work out “everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). His plan of salvation, for example, was drawn up even before the creation of the world (1 Peter 1:18-20). Christ came to this planet at a precise moment laid out in the great plan of salvation (Galatians 4:4, 5). God knows the day and the hour in which Christ will return to this world in glory (Matthew 24:26, 27). He has designated a day in which He will judge all human beings who have ever lived (Acts 17:31). In some cases, God has revealed parts of His great plan through prophecy. Daniel chapter 2, for example, outlines the world powers controlling human history from the Babylonian empire to the end of time. Revelation 2 and 3 lays out the various stages of Christianity's history.
Human beings also have purposes and plans. However, unlike God, we can't always carry them out because we either lack the necessary resources or because circumstances change in ways we cannot control.
One of the most intriguing topics for Bible-believing Christians to reflect on is how God will achieve His plan according to His sovereign will, while preserving and respecting the free choice of His creatures. All this led Paul to exclaim: “Oh, the depth of riches and the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11:33).
So, why is it important to know God's will for our lives?
We need to admit that in our natural condition, we are completely uninterested in knowing God's will. Even when we know what God desires for us, we tend to reject it or to act contrary to it. In other words, we rebel against God.
However, God yearns to change our attitude toward Him–to become our Savior and Friend. He wants us to know, love, and obey Him. That's why God the Holy Spirit constantly speaks to our conscience. He pleads, “My son, give me your heart and let your eyes keep to my ways” (Proverbs 23:26). He wants to show us the way back to Him and to guide us in our decisions (Psalm 32: 8, 9). Paul encourages us to become specialists in understanding God's will (Ephesians 5:16, 17). If we choose to obey it, He assures us an eternity in His company (Matthew 7:21; 1 John 2:17).
However, Satan wants to keep us separated from God and in rebellion against Him. Even when we say “Yes” to God, our enemy, Satan, tries to entice us away from Him. This constant testing is called temptation. Each day, a drama is played out in our conscience. Through the Holy Spirit, God invites us to align our will with His, while Satan seeks to convince us that God doesn't love us and is instead preventing us from really enjoying “the good life.” The longer we persist in obeying God, the weaker the temptations become, because God Himself strengthens our will.
When we understand the fierce and critical battle in which each one of us is engaged, we also understand why God is so interested in our physical and mental health. He doesn't want anything to affect our ability to choose freely and intelligently between obedience and disobedience. That's why He asks us to keep our bodies free from chemical substances that cloud our thinking, and our minds clean of negative influences that reach us through what we read, watch, and listen to. Nothing should prevent us from clearly hearing His gentle voice in our conscience.
Are there conditions?
God has established three basic conditions to know His will for our lives:
Trust: Do I believe that God is loving and just? If we do not trust that God exists and wants the best for us, it is impossible to understand His will (Hebrews 11:6).
Obedience: Have I decided to obey God in everything in which He has already revealed His will? This requires that we uproot from our lives every sin or rebellion of which we are aware. “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). But “if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14). Mark Twain once wrote ironically, “What worries me are not the parts of the Bible I don't understand, but those that I understand too well!”
Submission: Am I ready to obey what God may reveal of His will for me? This requires a special attitude, because our natural tendency is to tell Him: “Show me your will for my life, Lord, and then I'll decide whether I'm going to obey it or not!” It's like the prayer a young man is said to have offered: “Lord, I want to serve you as a missionary. I'm ready to go anywhere in the world, as long as the pay is good and the weather's nice!” This attitude is based on the mistaken notions that we know better than God what's best for us, and that He isn't interested in our happiness or eternal salvation.
How do we proceed?
There are five factors that can help us to know God's will–both His desire and His plan–for our life. Let's review them.
1. The Bible: In the Scriptures, God has revealed His general will (desire and purpose) for all human beings of all times. The Bible contains more specific instruction about God's will than most of us think. We should study it regularly, both individually and in groups. In the Word of God we find instruction and examples relating to our salvation, our attitude toward God and fellow human beings, family, work, finances, lifestyle, habits, and so on.
Paul says that in the Scriptures we can find all the instruction we need to live a good life and to obtain eternal life (2 Timothy 3:15-17). Christians look to the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17) to find the great moral principles that define our relationship to God and to our fellow human beings (Luke 10:27). Once we accept Christ as our Savior and Friend, we orient our lives by those principles as an expression of our love for Him. Jesus not only provided us with a perfect model of how these commandments are lived in the real world, but also stressed their importance and elaborated on their implications (Matthew chapters 5 to 7).
The Scriptures also reveal the will of God through the lives of men and women, and show the results of living according to His principles or in rebellion against them.
2. The Holy Spirit: God reveals His will to us through the Holy Spirit speaking to our individual conscience. The Holy Spirit is God Himself speaking to our will through our conscience (Isaiah 30:21). Of course, our conscience is not always or necessarily God's voice–it is the means through which God can speak to our will. Although the Holy Spirit has always acted in human affairs since Creation, after Jesus completed His ministry on this Earth, He assigned a special ministry to the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8).
There are special times when we can hear the voice of the Spirit speaking to us more clearly and when we are more sensitive to His influence. This occurs when we pray and remain silent awaiting God's response. It can also happen when we study a Bible passage, reflect on it, and ask the Holy Spirit to teach us. In addition, we may hear God's voice when we join fellow Christians in worship, singing, praying, praising, sharing experiences, and listen to the preaching of God's Word.
The Holy Spirit helps us understand spiritual truths (John 16:13) and empowers us to do God's will (see Philippians 2:13; Hebrews13:20, 21). The Spirit also stimulates our imaginations and helps us conceive of the fulfillment we will experience when we do what God wants us to do. He will also grant us joy as we obey His will (see Psalm 37:3-6).
3. The providences of life: God helps us to discern His will when we interpret wisely the circumstances and events of our life. When we take the initiative and move forward in a certain course of action, God frequently opens or closes doors of opportunity for us. But, as someone said, “God can't steer a parked car.” Some examples of these open and closed doors: You apply for admission to three universities and only one grants you admission and a scholarship. You apply for a job in two companies and only one allows you to honor the Sabbath. You meet someone in what appears to be a chance encounter, and the conversation you have helps you to make a decision.
In the Bible we find several cases of circumstantial events that God used to reveal His will. When Joseph's brothers were about to kill him because of their intense envy, a caravan of merchants happened to come by just at the right time and bought him as a slave (Genesis 37:12-28). Years later, when Joseph was prime minister in Egypt, he told his brothers that it was God who, in His providence, had sent Him to that foreign land to preserve his life and the lives of his entire family (Genesis 45:7, 8).
Rebecca brought her flock to drink at the well just as Eliezer, a servant to Abraham, came to the same well after having asked God in prayer to help him find a good spouse for Isaac (Genesis 24:12-46).
Two events in Paul's life show providence in action. On one of his missionary trips it was Paul's intention to preach the gospel in regions of what is today Turkey, but the Holy Spirit prevented him from traveling in that direction twice and instead led him to bring the good news of salvation to Europe (Acts 16:6-10). Later the apostle sensed the need to travel to Rome to bring the gospel to the capital of the vast Roman empire (Acts 19:21). Eventually he did go to Rome to preach the Gospel, not as a free man, but as a prisoner (Acts 23:11; Philippians1:12, 13).
In each case, we must interpret circumstantial events by making sure that they align with and do not contradict the general instruction of the Bible and the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit.
4. Christian counselors: Wise and experienced people can help us to apply the general principles of the Bible to our particular case. We can greatly benefit from frank conversation with people that know us well (Proverbs 11:14). Obviously, Christian parents may provide this important function (Proverbs 23:22). We can also benefit from the guidance from Christian teachers or mentors whom we know and trust. At times experienced pastors, chaplains, and church leaders may play that important role.2 (The apostle Paul listened to wise counselors in Ephesus during the riot and did not go out to the theater, as he planned to do, and this probably saved his life. See Acts 19:30, 31.)
Interaction with these individuals is useful because they can look at our situation with a degree of objectivity. They can ask questions that help us clarify our own thinking, and suggest options we have not considered. Of course, if we are married, we should discuss our plans in depth with our spouse and even with our children, weighing the pros and cons, because in most cases, they will also be affected by the decision we make.
5. Personal reflection: We evaluate the previous four factors and make the final decision. At this point, we synthesize what we have learned in the process, possibly preparing a list of options with their positive and negative aspects. We take into consideration the principles found in the Scriptures, the thoughts that the Holy Spirit brings to our mind, the sense of direction we perceive in the events, and the counsel received from people we trust. The accompanying checklist, “Before Making an Important Decision” can help you in the process.
This is essential, because we shouldn't place too much confidence in our own opinion, which frequently is partial and limited. The Bible's advice is clear: “Lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 16:25). Yet, ultimately, the decision should be ours. We must own our choice, be as comfortable as we can with it, and then proceed.
In spite of having taken these steps, it is possible that we may still make mistakes and wrong choices. But God is patient with us (Psalm 103:13, 14). We should ask for forgiveness, retrace our steps, and start anew.
During His ministry, Jesus repeated a basic story with variations. It's the parable of a man who owned a farm. Before an extended absence, the man asks his trusted servant to take care of business while he is away. When he returns, the owner asks for a report of how his servant has handled his responsibility. In a similar vein, He told the story of a rich man who entrusts parts of his fortune to several employees and after some time asks them for a report.
The essential message is the same: God has entrusted us with life, talents, opportunities, and options. He encourages us to act with faithfulness and prudence. He provides us with guidance and then allows us to make choices. He rejoices whenever we make wise decisions and is eager to help us regain our footing whenever we make a bad choice.
God wants us to make good decisions. His promise is certain: “For this God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end” (Psalm 48:14). Whenever we face an important decision, we may pray with David: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23, 24).
Humberto M. Rasi (Ph.D., Stanford University) is the founder and editor-in-chief of Dialogue.
- All Bible references in this article are from the New International Version.
- Seventh-day Adventists believe that Ellen G. White has provided inspired and compelling guidance in many aspects of the Christian life, based on the principles of Scripture. Through the years, Adventists have consulted her writings and found trustworthy counsel for making wise decisions.
- Adapted from Dwight L. Carlson, Living God's Will, pp.153-156.