How do I know God’s will for my life?
Many Christians struggle to find answers to the question, “How do I know God’s will for my life?” Often this question arises from the widespread assumption that, besides God’s moral will summarized in the ten commandments and even more briefly in the “great commandment” (i.e., love God, love your neighbor), God has a tailor-made personal plan for each of our lives which we are duty-bound to discover through earnest prayer and discerning of God’s personal leading. According to popular teaching out there in the evangelical world on “discovering God’s will” the believer who does not give due diligence to find God’s personal will for his or her life might end up missing “the center of God’s will” (what we might call “Plan A” of God’s personal will) and thus be forced to settle for God’s “second best” (“Plan B”).
In this popular understanding of God’s will there seem to be three “wills” of God (or, three aspects of God’s will): (1) God’s sovereign will, which governs the “big picture” and overall history of the world; (2) God’s moral will which defines ethical goodness and governs moral decisions; and (3) God’s tailor-made personal will, which a believer might miss out on if he or she is not properly in-tune with the leading of God.
The first aspect of God’s will (His sovereign will) can only be discovered in retrospect, by looking back on what has actually happened in the world in the unfolding of God’s plan. The second aspect of God’s will (His moral will) is known through the study of Holy Scripture. But the third aspect of God’s will (His tailor-made personal will) is usually believed to be discovered through more mystical, subjective means, such as hunches, impressions, interpreting what are believed to be providential signs (“putting out a fleece”), a sense of personal peace (for example, “The Lord gave me a personal sense of peace about that job, so I knew it was His will that I take the job”), and even new divine revelations (“The Lord told me to marry Sally”). Again, the common view seems to be that only the believer who is sufficiently “spiritual” and in-tune with the mystical leading of God can properly discern God’s personal will, and therefore only such a believer can be assured of living “in the center of God’s will.”
Let me state in no uncertain terms to the reader that this popular teaching on God’s personal will is false teaching, plain and simple. It is unbiblical. It is oppressive to struggling believers who recognize their own spiritual poverty (those who, ironically, are the very ones whom Jesus called “blessed” – Matthew 5:3). It promotes a narcissistic mysticism which focuses believers’ attention in on their own subjectivity and inner emotional state rather than focusing their attention outward on the objective, outside-of-them Word of God which is true no matter how they might “feel” at any given moment. And it has potential to promote a spiritual elitism in the church, as it drives a wedge between believers who are supposedly “spiritual” enough to have discovered God’s personal will for their lives and who thus are living “in the center of God’s will”, and more ordinary, lower-level believers who are supposedly less in-tune with the leading of God and thus are forced to settle for God’s second-best.
God’s Word makes it clear that there are only two aspects to God’s will, not three. Those two aspects are: (1) God’s sovereign will, whereby He works out all things (not merely the “big picture” macro things, but everything down to the smallest detail) according to His sovereign plan and purpose (Ephesians 1:11); and (2) God’s moral will, which teaches us our ethical duty to God and neighbor.
As Scripture teaches in Deuteronomy 29:29 – “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (ESV) In that clear passage there is no third category of a perfect, tailor-made personal will of God that the believer may miss out on by being insufficiently in-tune with the mystical leading of God. God’s sovereign will cannot be known except in hindsight, and the believer has no business trying to pry into God’s sovereign will for the future. (To do so is to engage in a form of occultism, a blasphemous seeking after hidden knowledge, which Scripture strictly forbids. See Deuteronomy 18:9-14.)
This biblical teaching on the will of God is tremendously liberating. We don’t have to spend our days anxiously wondering whether or not we are truly living “in the center of God’s will.” God’s will for our lives is not elusive or difficult to find. As we are told in the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, ESV, emphasis added) God does not keep His children in the dark about His will for their lives! He has given us a full, complete revelation of His will for our lives in the objective, inscripturated Word of God, the Holy Scriptures! What that means is that you don’t need to “put out a fleece,” read the tea leaves, look for signs or search your heart for impressions or a subjective sense of peace in order to discover God’s will. Study the Scriptures with a humble, believing, teachable spirit, in the fellowship of other believers in the community of Christ’s church, and you can know what God requires of you. After all, as Micah reminds us, God has told you His will in the Scriptures.
In summary, how do you find God’s will for your life? You find God’s will revealed in His Word. As we are told in Ecclesiastes 12:13 – “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (ESV; emphasis added)
Of course, as sinners none of us does this perfectly. It is only as we believe the gospel and repent of sin that we are equipped by the Holy Spirit to walk after a new obedience out of gratitude for God’s gift of salvation in Jesus. And, of course, life confronts us with difficult circumstances and ethical dillemmas where it takes great wisdom and discernment to know how to apply and obey God’s commandments in the particularities of such circumstances. That is why it is important to read and study God’s Word not only as an individual believer and with your family, but also within the community of Christ’s church. After all, “there is wisdom in many counselors”. But if you believe the gospel, strive to obey God’s commandments out of gratitude for that gospel, and seek to faithfully fulfill you vocation (calling), then you need not worry that you might miss “the center of God’s will.”
Confessional Lutheran pastor Matt Richard addresses the subject of trying to discern God’s will in the following video clip, which I recommend: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7NaabHdXbFg&feature=youtu.be