Updated: Feb 1, 2019
Christians tend to be paralyzed by a fear of being outside of God's will. “I just don’t know if this is God’s will for my life,” we may say. Now, without a doubt, it is an admirable desire to be inside of God's will. When thinking through this practical topic, a couple of basic questions arise: First, how do we come to know God's will? Second, what are the limits to knowing his will? I will attempt to address these questions in some detail below.
As creatures, we are unable to know the future besides what God has revealed in Scripture. All that God tells us of the future (the return of Christ, the resurrection of the body etc.) excludes any particulars about our individual lives (which job to take, what man/woman to marry, what shirt to wear etc.). Everyone, generally, agrees on this last point. As a result, some have asked whether or not the Bible has enough information to keep us in God’s will. Should we rely on dreams, intense desires and feelings to reveal God’s will for the specific details of our lives? These are good and weighty questions, and thankfully the Bible has substantive answers to them.
The Bible itself teaches us (2 Tim. 3:16-17) that everything we need to know about God’s will is found within its pages. Theologians call this God's “revealed will.” We know, for instance, that God prohibits adultery, murder, and theft according to Scripture. Consequently, Christians can know with certainty that our actions stand outside of God’s revealed will when we violate His commands. Sin, in its basic definition, is failing to obey God’s revealed will for our lives. Theologians speak not only of God’s “revealed will” but also of his “secret will.”
The secret will of God includes all that will occur in creation, including our acts of disobedience to his revealed will (acts of murder, adultery and theft, etc.). God is not passive in regard to these events. On the contrary, he determined “all things” (Eph. 1:11). The secret will of God is just that, a secret. It is for God's knowledge alone. No one, besides God, is aware of his secret will (Deut. 29:29).
Nowhere in Scripture does God promise to reveal aspects of his secret will to individuals through the cryptic means of goose bumps, dreams, internal nudges, or the like. So, God doesn’t hold us accountable for abiding in his secret will. Just imagine if he did. What if sin included a breach, not only of God’s revealed will but also of God’s secret will? How would you avoid sinning if the standard of sin had not been revealed to you? Of course, there are some who claim that God’s secret will is revealed to individual people in selective parts.
I have met people who believe that they are married to the wrong person, or that they moved to a new place when they shouldn’t have. How do they know? They claim to be informed by a strong feeling or desire, which they labeled as “a word from God.” But, what if they mistook that strong feeling or misinterpreted that strange coincidence? And, by what standard could you even discover your failure to interpret God’s sign? How do you decide between your own interpretations of what is God’s secret will and someone else’s opposing interpretations? “God told me to break up with you,” one person may say. Well, what if the other person responds, “But…God told me to marry you.” How does this couple follow God’s will if God appears to be speaking from both sides of his mouth? This is the confusion that results when one believes that Scripture is insufficient for teaching us to live the Christian life.
Sometimes Christians have strong desires and feelings that move them toward certain behaviors. These behaviors may often line up with God’s revealed will as well as end up being wise decisions. However, this success does not justify labeling our intense desires and feelings as being “words from God.” Only the Bible is “breathed out” from God (2 Tim 3:16-17). Our feelings and nudges should not add to the amount of words we have from the Lord. How then should we understand the wise decisions that often result from these so-called messages from God? In these situations, I think there is a more biblically responsible category to which we should appeal.
Why do we need to label the nudges of our consciences as being directly from God anyway? Don’t we think that the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of Christians could better explain our increasingly accurate consciences? I’m of the opinion that it could. I’m saying that human desires come from human hearts, but the hearts of Christians are being renewed by God. My claim is that our Spiritually and biblically renewed desires, emotions, intellects, and feelings are responsible for us making godly choices. This is an alternative, then, to “God said” or “God told me.” I believe that this alternative will prevent two dangers and promote two goods in the Christian’s life.
First, this alternative prevents us from attributing potentially false desires and thoughts to God. “God told me to abandon my spouse,” for example. Secondly, it prevents manipulative elitism within the church. Those who claim to have received special, private information from God may consider themselves superior to those who have not. They may use that supposedly divine information as a power play against others. For instance, “God told me that you should really go on a diet.”
My proposed explanation promotes the exaltation of the Spirit of God, rather than exalting our thoughts and desires. This is how my alternative might sound: “Because the Holy Spirit has been diligently working on my stubborn heart, conforming me to Christ’s image, through learning Scripture in the worship and fellowship of Christians, I was able to make a godly decision.” It may be wordier that “God said,” but the payoff is worth it. Notice that the credit goes to God’s Spirit and God’s Word, both of which are accessible to all Christians. Lastly, when Christians give or receive advice, this approach promotes grounding one’s perspective in Scripture rather than in an appeal to personal authority.
Here is the simplest way I know for Christians to remain in God’s will: Make decisions in the fellowship of the church, informed by the sufficient Word of God in Scripture by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God our Father. And when we stumble and sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, to whom we flee.
For further reading on this topic, I recommend Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung and The Doctrine of the Word of God by John M. Frame (especially the chapter on the sufficiency of Scripture).
Written by Scott Moreland
Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Vincennes, IN.
To read more blogs by Pastor Scott, go to http://westminstervincennes.org/blog/
© 5 Solas Publishing & Scott Moreland
© Photo by Cameron Lukens