I have never forgotten the pain in her voice. Asking a simple question, she inadvertently opened her heart to the real issue. Carried by wires and sounds waves, a woman asked the radio show host, "How do I know God's will for my life? I just want to know what he wants me to do." The host responded by asking her, "Do you mind sharing, specifically, what you're wanting to know?" Her response was honest without being exhibitionist, "My life just hasn't been really meaningful and I feel like I haven't done very much for him and I just want my life to count for something."
Don't we all, sister.
The fear behind her question and her courage to reveal it on the radio has never left me. I imagine that some of the staying power has to do with the fact that I have felt this myself. We want to know what God wants us to do in any given situation, but especially during difficult seasons. Behind that, it is also important for us to recognize the false assumptions we make. When we find that life/work/relationships/etc are easy and experiencing success, we assume that we have God's favor. The opposite is also true. When we find that life/work/relationships/etc are difficult and we are experiencing failure, we assume that something we have done is preventing God's favor.
When it comes to discerning God’s leading, Evangelicals have a way of creating more confusion than clarity. The prevailing paradigm, particularly among Reformed Christians, is known as “The Way of Wisdom.” One more recent example is Kevin DeYoung’s book, Just Do Something, in which DeYoung attempts to demystify the concept of finding God’s will.
He says that the phrase, “God’s Will,” can mean one of three different things: first, there is God’s will of decree—this is God’s providential, superintending of all things towards the fulfillment of his own purposes; second, God’s will of desire is God’s command expressed in language of prohibition and permission. The third way DeYoung calls the “will of direction” This is where far too many Christians get stuck; where the caller from the radio felt she had gotten everything wrong. God may order and superintend all things in every corner of creation, but it can feel as though he fails to make his will known to us with any clarity or confidence.
Despite the confusion we may feel about God's will, don't miss the fact that these three different expressions of God's will share something in common: God's will cannot be thwarted. Despite anything we may attempt to do to the contrary, the sun still rises in the East and sets in the West. Though we may insist that we can live however we like and face no consequences, the reality is that the universe was set in motion with a certain rhythm to it. Anything that goes against that rhythm is going to kill us and those around us to varying degrees. We may choose to do the opposite, but even God's moral will is inescapable. That means his personal will for each of our lives is just as unavoidable as the others.
There is also something to recognize about each of these three expressions of God's will. Each step moving from God's will in creation to his moral will and then to his personal will is an exponential increase in intimacy. God does not ask us to participate with him in "holding all things together" (Col 1). He invites all people to respond to the convicting work of the Spirit to turn from their false self and towards their true self in Jesus -- whether we do or not is part of his personal engagement with us. The last step, God's personal will, is intensely personal. In John 10, Jesus speaks of men and women who belong to him, they follow him as their Shepherd and he leads them where they need to go.
God has a will for your life and mine. But he is not asking us to guess what it might be; he is not trying to keep it hidden from us. He wants us to walk in intimate, personal communion with him as he shows us who we are in him and what he has made us to do. In the next post, we will wrestle with the next question every one of us has at this point: Can I know God's personal will?