Can I Know God’s Will for My Life?

Paul Helm
Tuesday, May 15th 2007
Jan/Feb 2004

In John Buchan’s novel The Gap in the Curtain, five men, under the influence of the brilliant German physicist and mathematician Professor August Moe, glimpse pieces of information in the pages of a future issue of The London Times. Mayot has a vision of the front page of the paper and sees the name of the next prime minister. Tavanger views an item from the City page reporting an important merger. Reggie Daker sees an account on the Court page of the departure of an archaeological expedition with himself as a member. Sir Robert Goodeve and Charles Ottery read the announcement of their own deaths.

Do these men learn thereby a part of God’s will for their lives? Is this the sort of thing that Christians are after when they ask, “Can I know (or how can I know) God’s will for my life?” What kind of an answer are Christians looking for? Are you seeking to find a gap in the curtain that otherwise veils the future from us? Presumably you want not simply to be assured that God wills a certain sort of life for you but to know what his will for your life actually is. And the idea is that if in this way you know what God’s will is for your life, then this will not only reduce your level of stress but you shall also be liberated and energized. Maybe the thought is: Knowledge is power; so if you have knowledge of the future, then this will empower you.

What Would It Mean to Know God’s Will?

Let’s think a bit more about this will of God. What sort of a will is it? Is it a vision of your future, such that Goodeve and Ottery have? Or is it a wish list, a list of things that God wants for you but that might not come about? What use would it be to know that wish list? It would tell you something about God, but since God’s wish list may not be granted, knowing what it is may not have much usefulness.

When you ask what God’s will is for your life, you may want a peek through a gap into the future, the future that has been mapped out by God, perhaps in every detail. Or maybe you seek a peek of a future whose broad contours (you think) are fixed, God leaving it to you and to others to fill in the details. The gap is to be opened up by some direct intimation from God himself. Suppose, in some Buchanesque way, you were granted a glimpse into such a future. Suppose you are granted a glimpse of a future that is one of unalloyed success, happiness, and personal fulfillment. Suppose that in this way God makes known his will for your life. What then? Perhaps the idea is that if the God-given picture of the future is one with which you concur, then fine. But if it is one that you don’t like, then you have the time, now, in the present, to do something about it. Yet this idea is, of course, false. If what Buchan’s characters saw was the actual future, then they are powerless to change it.

Yet this idea of God’s will for your life may amount to something rather different. It may be that you are convinced not only that God has a plan for your life but that God has a perfect plan. And the object of knowing what that perfect plan for your life is (if only God will somehow disclose it) is to align yourself with it and so enter into the enjoyment of this sublime future. God’s will for you has the character not only of a blueprint, but of an optimally good blueprint. (Perhaps of the sort of life that, if you were God, you would wish for yourself!) What is troubling here is the idea that if you are not granted present knowledge of what God’s perfect plan is, then you’ll miss out on it and have to make do with second best. And who wants a second-best life?

But perhaps your idea of achieving knowledge of God’s will for your life is not the blueprint idea but the wisdom idea. You may be convinced that the way to know God’s will for your life is for you to acquire the gift of discernment so that, among the many competing paths that it seems you may travel, you can discern the one that most closely corresponds to God’s will for your life.

Or, finally, it may be that you believe that knowing God’s will for your life involves hearkening to his voice. It may be that you are convinced that the way to know God’s will for your life is to be so attuned to his Spirit that he will help you to understand what he intends for you—to understand God’s perfect plan—and then strengthen your resolve unfailingly to follow it.

Christians and Christian teachers argue about these ways of knowing God’s will. Which is true or which is better? Is it the “blueprint” way or the “wisdom” way or the “spiritual discernment” way? Yet each, as they are often popularly presented, has the same basic flaw: They overreach themselves. They flatter only to deceive. They make claims—claims about the depth and reach of our knowledge of the future of our own lives—that Scripture does not support.

Guidance and Divination

What is not wrong with all of these approaches is their idea that God has a plan for your life. Scripture clearly and emphatically teaches that God does have a plan. Indeed, the word “plan” is perhaps the wrong word to convey the biblical teaching at this point simply because it is not strong enough. A plan may not be implemented. The best of plans may remain on the planning board or gather dust on the top shelf. But God’s will for his children will be implemented, down to the last detail. “And we know that in all things God works together for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, niv). There is not only a “perfect plan” but it is a plan that is even now being carried out.

Nor is the problem that God cannot know the future or disclose future things to you. In the Old Testament God revealed his will for the future to seers, sometimes in dreams, as the histories of Joseph and of Saul, for instance, show. Concern over whether you are warranted in searching for God’s perfect plan for your life should not lead to the idea that God folds his arms and never guides us. Far from it, as we shall see.

So what’s wrong with wanting to know that plan in its full detail? Several things. First, it is a striking fact that (as far as I can see) the New Testament never suggests that the apostles believed they ought to know God’s perfect will for their lives. There are no incidents recorded, no conversations, and no prayers that could be reasonably interpreted as an attempt to gain insight into God’s plan for someone’s life. There are many things that the apostles pray to know, but knowing God’s plan for their lives is not one of them.

Further, nowhere (as far as I can see) do Christ or any of the apostles teach that individual Christians or the church collectively should attempt, by whatever means, to know God’s plan for them as individuals or for the church. There are many apostolic commands, but these are not among them.

Moreover, the attempt to know in detail God’s perfect plan reverses the whole temper and spirit of the Christian life as the New Testament represents it. For the basic idea of Christian faith is that it is not sight. Take the paradigm believer, Abraham. Did God have a perfect plan for Abraham’s life? Yes, he did. Did Abraham know what God’s perfect plan for his life was? No, he did not. Was Abraham in total darkness as to what that plan was? No, he was not. For example, he had the Lord’s promise that he would be the father of many nations. And, by God’s grace, he had faith in that promise. Trusting God and believing that God had a perfect plan for his life, he nevertheless went from Haran not knowing where he was going (see Heb. 11:8).

Abraham is the father of the faithful. And so Christians, like Abraham, are called to live by faith, not by sight. Not in total ignorance of God’s plan for them but in considerable ignorance of the details. This has always been the Christian church’s default position:

Leader of faithful souls, and guide
Of all that travel to the sky,
Come and with us, even us, abide,
Who would on thee alone rely,
On thee alone our spirits stay,
While held in life’s uneven way.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will.

Scripture’s general teaching is that we do not know what a day will bring forth (see Prov. 27:1), that we ought to acknowledge that the plans we make are subject to God’s will (see James 4:13-17), and that, no matter how good our plans are, they won’t prevail if they are not a part of God’s perfect plan for our lives. We now know only in part (see 1 Cor. 13:12). The Christian’s life is a mixture of certainty about the “big picture” together with uncertainty about many of its details.

In his book on guidance, Bruce Waltke claims that it is a form of divination—and consequently a pagan and not a Christian notion—for us to seek to know in advance what God’s plan for our lives is, no matter whether we do so by obviously foolish ways such as opening the Bible at random or by reading tea leaves or in some more sophisticated way. Although Waltke’s claim may at first appear to be extreme, it is plausible on reflection, for divination attempts to get inside the inner workings of the divine mind or the inner workings of the universe. When Christians attempt to divine God’s perfect plan, we attempt to usurp the place of our Creator-Redeemer by inquiring into those “secret things” that belong to God and, correspondingly, we tend to neglect “the things that are revealed” that do belong to us (see Deut. 29:29).

This has another side. What happens to us when, having tried to discern God’s perfect plan for us in any of the ways we have sketched, we fail to discern it, as fail we must? We will undoubtedly feel let down. We may also feel guilty because we may believe that this failure is our fault. We may blame ourselves because of our sin or for a failure of skill or technique to carry out what we believe to be the correct procedures satisfactorily. Or we may blame God for misleading us. Unfortunately, we may come to believe that our failure is a matter of God punishing us for failing to be “in his will.”

So Where Do We Begin?

If we are not called to divine God’s blueprint for our lives, then what are we called upon to know? And what are we called upon to do? The New Testament answers these questions.

Here we should first note that the phrase “the will of God” can be understood in various ways. As we have seen, it can refer to God’s plan—what he purposes for me or for you or for the universe in general. Much of God’s will, understood in this sense, is hidden from us. Even when people have had future things about their lives supernaturally disclosed to them, these have been fragmentary, and perhaps what is revealed—as with Joseph’s dreams—is somewhat short of detail. By a divinely-delivered dream, Joseph learned that his brothers would bow down to him, but exactly when and where and under what circumstances was not disclosed.

But the phrase “the will of God” understood in another way is much more central to the New Testament’s teaching about guidance. When Paul told the church members at Thessalonica not to be vindictive, always to rejoice, to pray continually, and to give thanks to God in all circumstances, he added “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (see 1 Thess. 5:15-18). He makes similar connections between God’s will and the avoidance of immorality (see 1 Thess. 4:3) and drunkenness (see Eph. 5:15-18). This sense of God’s will does not refer to God’s detailed plan for a Christian’s life but rather to the proper manner or style of Christian living. What is God’s will for me? Part of God’s will is that I should not be vindictive or prayerless or joyless or debauched.

But that is only the beginning. Christ and the apostles teach us about our manner of life and what should motivate it, as well as about what we should do and what we should avoid doing in order that we may live not after the flesh but after the Spirit (see Rom. 8:4). And by doing so they are announcing God’s will for the Christian church. This will embrace our continued commitment to Christ and his kingdom, the inculcation of love, patience, discernment, watchfulness, zeal for the truth, respect for the powers that be, love for wives and husbands, love for children, how to deal with suffering and setback, developing the mind of Christ, and so on. It includes the development of a habit of prayer for strength and discernment about all these things. Our cultivating such dispositions and activities constitutes our coming to “know the will of God.” And so “knowing the will of God” is not something that happens in a flash; it is the lifelong process of coming to know the revealed will of God for the church and for me as part of the church. Discerning God’s will for our own lives is the (fallible) process of thinking and deciding about our own personal circumstances in the light of our developing a Christian character.

Other ways of knowing God’s will are extensions of these. Ought we to trust our own judgment, or our own feelings, and to follow the desires of our hearts? When these judgments, feelings, and desires are conditioned by the virtue-producing effects of the Word and Spirit of God, then of course. But not if the feelings are like those of a spoiled child who does not want its will to be crossed and whose single aim in life is to have a frictionless, pampered existence. Ought a person who needs guidance ask the opinion of his friends? Of course he may, but in most cases he would be wise to do so only when his friends are themselves experienced Christians.

Can a Christian Be Outside God’s Will?

This question perplexes many Christians because we may see God’s will for us as a sort of tightrope on which we must learn to balance. If we fall off it, then we may think that dismay, failure, and loss of direction must inevitably result. But if we can—by keeping our eyes and ears open to God’s intimation of his will—retain our footing on the rope, then our lives as Christians will be faithful to God and so will be successful and personally rewarding. Thus, we need to be able to peer through the gap in the curtain, if we are to keep in God’s will.

Is it by now becoming clear that this sort of response to the question is not only wrong but harmful? God does have a will and a plan for our lives. But, paradoxically, the means of doing God’s will is not to know the path before we begin to tread it but, by God’s own help, to know what sorts of thing God requires of us as his people and then do those things. We know God’s revealed will for us only fitfully and fallibly. Our capacity to deceive ourselves and falter in our resolve is very great. Is this then a counsel of despair? No, for it is through our imperfect attempts to follow the pattern of Christian living that we are given in God’s Word that we shall grow in grace and knowledge (see 2 Pet. 3:18) and that our character as Christians will develop. Even our miserable failures—failures that are to be acknowledged and confessed—are nevertheless mysteriously ordained by matchless divine wisdom and find their place among the “all things” that work together for good to those who love God. This is why Paul says that God’s will for Christians is not that we should know in advance God’s perfect plan for our lives, but “that [we] should be sanctified” (1 Thess. 4:3, NIV).

Can Christians be outside God’s will? If this means, can Christians fail to be faithful according to the standards and teaching of the New Testament, the answer must be that—alas!—we can and frequently will be outside God’s will. On such occasions, we live not after the Spirit but after the flesh (see Rom. 8:4). But if this question means, can Christians so act that God will abandon them and no longer have any time for them and no longer have plans for them, then the answer is almost too obvious to need stating. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isa. 49:15-16). God himself says: “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Heb. 13:5, quoting Josh. 1:5).

Paul Helm (M.Phil., Oxford University) is emeritus professor at University of London and professor and J. I. Packer Chair in Theology and Philosophy at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.

For more on these topics, see Paul Helm, The Providence of God (InterVarsity, 1993), especially Chap. 5, "Providence and Guidance"; J. I. Packer, Knowing God (InterVarsity, 1973), especially Chap. 20, "Thou Our Guide"; and Bruce Waltke, Finding the Will of God (Vision House, 1995, reprinted by Eerdmans, 2002).

Tuesday, May 15th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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