How to know God's will

In 1870 the Methodists in Indiana were holding their Annual Conference.  At one point in the proceedings, the president of the college where they were meeting said, "I think we are living in a very exciting age."  The presiding bishop asked him, "What do you see for the future?"  The college president responded, "I believe we are coming into a time of great inventions.  I believe, for example, that men will fly through the air like birds."  The bishop said, "That's heresy!  The Bible says that flight is reserved for the angels.  We'll have no more such talk here."

When the Annual Conference was over, Bishop Wright went home to his two small sons.  Their names were Orville and Wilbur.

God's will is bigger and more exciting than any we can imagine for ourselves (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:9).  Living in his will is the key to living the abundant life Jesus came to give (John 10:10).  The most common question I've been asked as a pastor is appropriate and urgent: how can I know the will of God for my life?

Does God have a plan for us?

First we must believe that God does in fact have a plan for our lives.  Some evolutionists say that life began as a chance coincidence, with no particular plan or purpose at all.  Existentialists say that this life is all there is, and life is chaos.  Martin Heidegger, for instance, wrote that we are actors on a stage, with no script, director, or audience, and courage is to face life as it is.  Postmodernists say that truth is relative, that there is no overriding purpose to life.  So, does God have a plan for us, or is life a random coincidence?  In the words of Shakespeare, are we "sound and fury, signifying nothing"?

God's word is clear: "I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" (Jeremiah 29:11).  This will is "good, pleasing and perfect" (Ro 12:2).

God had a plan for Adam and Eve--where and what to live.  A plan for Noah--how to build his ark, right down to the exact specifications and building materials he should use.  A plan for Abraham, including where he should live, how old he would be when he had his son, and even that son's name.  A plan for Joseph, using his slavery and imprisonment to save the entire nation.  A plan for Moses, encompassing the very words he should say to Pharoah.  A plan for Joshua, showing him where and how to take the land.  A plan for David and Solomon, for their kingdom and the temple they would build for him.  A plan for Daniel, even in the lion's den.

Jesus had plans for his first disciples--plans they could not have begun to understand.  He had a plan for Saul of Tarsus as he left to persecute the Christians in Damascus.  He had a plan for John on Patmos.

He is a God of order, direction, and purpose.  He has a plan for each of our lives.

How can you know his plan?

There are three basic ways we know everything we know--the intuitive, pragmatic, and rational.  You know mathematics rationally.  Unless you are an automotive engineer, you know that turning a key starts a car from practical experience.  Your close relationships are primarily intuitive.  We all use all three "channels of knowing," but one tends to dominate our personalities.

I am primarily a rationalist.  If an idea makes sense to me, I'm usually ready to act on it.  If I find a truth in Scripture to speak to my decision, I've learned all I need to know.  I need pragmatic people to ask hard questions such as: is this the right time to do this?  Is everyone on board?  Do we have the energy and means to carry this out?  I also need intuitive people to ask: do you have a peace about this?  Is the Spirit speaking to your spirit?

As you are seeking God's will in a matter, use all three channels.  Search the Scriptures and use your God-given reason to analyze the situation.  Give attention to circumstances and the beliefs of others.  Ask the Spirit to guide your spirit.  And look for the "peace which passes understanding" to guard your life and steps (Philippians 4:6-7).

Now let's be more specific.  Our Father wants us to know his will even more than we want to know it.  Here's how he discloses it to us: "I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.  Do not conform any longer 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" (Ro 12:1-2).

First, make Christ your Savior.  Paul's words are addressed to his "brothers," those who share his faith in Jesus.  God's first will for you is that you accept his saving grace by trusting his Son as your Lord.

Second, put God on the throne of your life.  Paul tells us to "offer your bodies as living sacrifices."  "Offer" is the technical term for presenting a sacrifice.  "Bodies" means the entire life.  Not just Sunday, but Monday; not just a tenth of our money, but all of it obedient to his will; not just our ethics at church, but at work and school also.  Do this as a "living sacrifice"—a daily, regular commitment.

In other words, put God on the throne of your life.  There's room for only one person there.  Write a blank check to God—promise that you will do whatever he wills you to do.  God will not reveal his will until we are willing to obey it.  Enthrone him now.

Third, refuse the world's influence (v. 2a): "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world."  Stop being molded by our culture and its values.  Ask yourself what the culture says about the issue before you, then reject it where it contradicts biblical truth.

Last, seek the mind of God (v. 2b).  Be "transformed," remade in your inmost nature.  "By the renewing of your mind"—spend time with God, so that he makes new your mind by Scripture and prayer.  Seek his mind, his biblical guidance, his Spirit's leadership through prayer and worship.

When you put God in charge, refuse the world's standards, and seek his mind, you will experience his "good, pleasing and perfect will" (v. 2c).  "Good" means that which works well in practical experience.  "Pleasing" means that which brings delight and joy in emotional experience.  "Perfect" means that which brings complete fulfillment of your purpose in personal experience.

Now you are in position to seek God's specific will for your specific problem or decision.  He will guide you through biblical truth, open and closed doors and circumstances, the counsel of godly friends, and the urging of his Spirit in your heart.  You will know what to do, when you need to know.  And his will is always for your good and his glory.

Jesus was the only person in human history to claim: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matthew 28:18).  If he has all authority, we have none.  The most important issue in the Christian faith is therefore our obedience to his will.  God can only bless and use those who are in position to be blessed and used.  Each hour and each day, we should be seeking and then serving the purpose of God for our lives.

Let's conclude with a prayer worth repeating often.  Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuits, and made this petition their daily prayer:

            Teach us, Lord, to serve you as you deserve,

            To give and not to count the cost,

            To fight and not to heed the wounds,

            To toil and not to seek for rest,

            To labor and not to ask any reward,

            Save that of knowing that we do your will.