(In this series, in the form of a personal email exchange, E. Stephen Burnett and Isaac M. are discussing the topic of God’s will — what it is, which parts of His will we’re expected to know, how to find out and more. The series began last week with part 1, Christian assumptions.)
Before I begin this series, let me first start by saying two things.
First, I approach this very cautiously. I think approaching the subject of God’s will requires an attitude of humility (also a difficult subject, because as Jerry Bridges puts it, “No one wants to write a book called ‘Humility and How I Achieved It’”). Yet it’s a very important subject, and I think that we need to discuss it, perhaps just to learn for ourselves.
I think the attitude of humility is essential not just because we don’t want to make overly strong claims about God’s will but also because I think our pride blinds and distorts our view of God’s workings in our lives.
Second, throughout this piece, I may knock around some Christian phrases we use. As one of my favorite profs says, “Sloppy language makes sloppy thought possible.” When we use non-Biblical terms to discuss spiritual concepts, we must proceed with caution. Examples could range from phrases like “God has a wonderful plan for your life”, “God called me to go…”, “God gave me a peace”, or they could be terms like “substitutionary atonement” and “trinity.” Just because a phrase isn’t in the scriptures doesn’t mean we can’t say it, but we must be sure that first, it’s an accurate representation of the Biblical concept, and second, that it doesn’t handicap and limit our thinking.
I would start by distinguishing between two “senses” of God’s will.
Like you mentioned, one is his revealed will. Mark Cahill wrote a brilliant piece on this once called “Don’t pray; just obey!” Far from diminishing the power of prayer, his point was that on issues such as sexual immorality, thievery and murder, we don’t have to pray to God for him to tell us what to do when the scriptures are very clear.
Then there is God’s sovereign will. This sort of will comes in with stories like Esther (a book where God is hardly mentioned), yet we can see how his sovereignty had it that he would preserve the Jews from annihilation. Another example is Joseph situation where he tells his brothers that what they meant for evil “God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). Paul also writes in 1 Peter 3:17 that for some they may suffer evil “if that should be God’s will,” so clearly this isn’t a command for everyone to deliberately suffer but states that some believers will suffer in God’s plan more than others.
Like you alluded, people often listen for some sort of “burning in the bosom” or pray for a clear answer to a decision. I think praying for an answer on discernment and knowledge is different, but for know I’m concentrating on people praying for a clear mandate on a decision.
We’ve created a sort of Bible code, and we didn’t need Dan Brown after all. We look at God’s sovereign will as something we have to figure out, as something we need to know or else we’re in trouble (or perhaps we worry that God will be in trouble because we didn’t figure out his sovereign plan).
I’m thinking right now of an example in my own life. During senior year in high school, I was wrestling between two very different college choices. One was my state university which was more local, less expensive but could still provide me with a good education if I worked hard. The other was a private Christian college in New York City that I’d heard nothing but great things about to which I’d been accepted.
God wasn’t closing doors on either side (another fallacy I believed in at the time and will address later), and everything looked good both ways.
So I prayed for him to tell me what to do. I prayed for months for an answer (literally into June before the start of the semester). I listened and listened and eventually realized that I wasn’t going to get a voice. I never kidded myself that a little tug one way or another was God’s clear voice for me, as I couldn’t find examples like that in scriptures (more on that later). I realized I wasn’t going to get a clear “Yes” or “No” from God and that I had to make a decision.
So I prayed for wisdom, looked at the pros and cons of each choice, asked for thoughts from my parents and made a decision to stay with my state university.
I think that was the beginning of when I started to explore more examples in scripture and particularly which examples applied to me.
I think a great deal of what we desire when we ask for God’s will is really God’s forecast. We don’t want to trust in him; we’d rather know if this job will work out long term, if this person will say yes to going out with us, and if living in this state or that state will be worse off for us in the long run. But in addition to not trusting in him, we also limit God in this way. We act as if he will punish us for not figuring out his cosmic plan or that not figuring it out will prevent him from accomplishing his purpose. I can find examples of neither in scripture. Yet despite our foulups in trying to discern God’s will, he’s not limited by that either.
In the end, much of it comes down to trusting God and realizing his sovereignty.
(Coming next Saturday: “God’s Will Hunting, part 3: Living His-story.” And now that Christmas and New Year’s Day breaks are over, new YeHaveHeard blog items will resume this week on the formerly usual Wednesday-and-Saturday schedule.)