Rev. denHartog is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.
Three things made me interested in writing an article on this subject. Recently I preached a sermon on the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer, in which our Lord teaches us to pray that the will of God be done. This is one of the great petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. It has profound meaning and significance for our daily lives. In preparation for this sermon I read, among other things, a book with the same title as the one I have chosen for this article. The book is by Gary Friesen and Robin Maxon and was published by Multnomah Press. I do not find myself in agreement with everything in this book. It suffers generally from superficiality. But reading the book did stimulate thinking on the subject. Thirdly, as a pastor I sometimes have Christians come to the study to ask for guidance regarding some major decision in their lives. I appreciate the concern that such Christians have for wanting to make decisions that are in harmony with the will of God. This ought to be the great concern for every child of God when he or she faces the great decisions of life such as the choice of a life’s career, marriage, and moving to another part of the country. All of us will, if we are honest, admit that often we make momentous decisions without prayerfully considering the will of God.
I could add another reason for the consideration of this subject. There is current among Christians in general many wrong ideas about how to come to know what God’s will is for our lives. One hears glib statements such as “God told me that He wanted me to do this or that,” or “I feel this is God’s will for my life.” This sounds rather pious, but I have found quite a few times that these statements are made based on totally wrong ideas about how God reveals His will to us in our lives. Of even greater concern is that sometimes in our own churches we hear members claiming that they are following the will of God in certain decisions, and they must be told very strongly that their concept of the will of God is just plain wrong.
It is a very common position that God reveals His will to individuals concerning personal decisions in life in ways other than through His Word in the Bible. There are perhaps well meaning Christians who will earnestly pray to God concerning very serious decision in life. Then they will look for all sorts of ways which they imagine God will use to reveal His will to them. Some claim to receive a private revelation from God through a vision or dream. They cite passages of Scripture to support the idea of such private revelations. The supposed biblical basis for these, however, is false. Nowhere does the Bible teach that God today gives us private revelations. It is true that in the days of special revelation, before the canon of Scripture was complete, God sometimes gave wonderful visions to prophets and others. We must maintain, however, in the first place, that such special revelations have ceased, since we now have the complete revelation of God in the Bible. Furthermore, the biblical examples of such revelations never have to do with mere personal and private matters such as revealing God’s will concerning whom you and I should marry, what occupation we should enter upon, or what part of the country we should live in. The special revelations of God had to do with far more mighty and significant things. They had to do with central aspects of the revelation of the covenant of God and the realization of the kingdom of God.
It might be objected that at least in the case of Eliezer, the chief servant of Abraham who was commissioned to find a wife for Isaac, there is a biblical example of personal direction that God gave concerning finding a wife. There are some important lessons that our young people can learn from Genesis 24 concerning finding a life partner. However, in considering this passage one also has to keep in mind that far greater matters were involved than the personal question of finding a godly wife for Isaac. Also in this incident the continuation of God’s covenant was at stake. God gave special revelation to Eliezer for that purpose in ways that He nowhere promises in His Word to give to us for mere private decisions of our life.
It is also rather common among Christians to imagine that God will reveal His will to us through certain subjective feelings and impressions. So they become convinced that it is the will of God for them to follow a certain course of actions. Again, nowhere in the Bible is there any proof that God reveals His will through mere subjective feelings and impressions. Such feelings and impressions could come from all kinds of other sources rather than from God, such as our sinful nature, the prompting of the devil, the temptations of the world, hormones in our bodies, temporary mood swings, etc. Even when we as ministers of the Word of God are faced with a call to go to another charge we must be careful in how we seek to know the will of God. We must evaluate carefully such statements as “the Lord laid it upon my heart” to accept or reject a call. Let’s hope we do not imagine that God reveals His will for ministerial calls in some mystical way.
When considering a future course of action the terms “open doors” and “closed doors” are used rather frequently. Perhaps these terms can be used in a legitimate way. The biblical use of these terms is always in connection with opportunities to preach the gospel and not with personal decisions for careers, or changing our place of residence, etc. We believe indeed that God’s providence determines all things in our life from the smallest to the greatest. We ought to consider the providence of God in the light of His Word when we are ready to make an important decision in life. On the other hand, even in this we must be careful. We must not imagine that God always gives absolutely clear providential signs for every major decision in our life. There are a lot of subjective elements in reading so-called providential signs. Sometimes, for example, God sends us very difficult providence in our life. He does not always by this tell us to turn from a certain course of action to an easier one. It is the will of God that we endure hardships. He sends us great hardships to try our faith and to sanctify us. What we might interpret as a “closed door” might in some cases instead be a “crook in our lot” that God in His providence sends us to try us. If this were not the case, Israel might have decided that it could not possibly be the will of God that they pass through the wilderness to the promised land.
None of this means that we ought not to be deeply concerned about doing God’s will in our lives. We ought to spend much time in prayer to learn God’s will. We should never make any major decision in our lives without praying that God might reveal His will to us.
It is common, and we believe biblical, to speak of a twofold distinction in the will of God. We speak of the will of God’s decree and the will of God’s command. The will of God’s decree is absolutely sovereign. It is always realized. It is all-comprehensive. It includes things as small as the germs that invade our body when we fall sick, to things as great as the movements of the galaxies in the heavens. It includes the course of the history of the nations of the world. God’s sovereign decree determined the fall of man. It was by His sovereign determination that our Lord was crucified. God is sovereign over all the evil of this world. Even the heart of man is in God’s hands to turn it whithersoever He wills.
Sometimes it is said that the will of God’s decree is entirely hidden. There are those who claim that God’s purpose of predestination belongs to His hidden will. By no means must this truth of God be preached in the churches, it is said by some. But God clearly reveals in Scripture the truth of His decree of predestination. The sovereign of heaven and earth has declared His will concerning the realization of His covenant, the salvation of His people, and the triumph of the kingdom of His Son Jesus Christ. “Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things not yet done, saying my counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (Is. 46:10).
On the other hand, there are many things about our personal lives that God has kept secret in His counsel. This does not mean that they are not fixed in His counsel. Whom I marry, what occupation I have in life, where I live, whether I am rich or poor, famous or lowly in the world, all these thing have been determined beforehand in the counsel of God. But God does not give us private revelations concerning these things ahead of time.
The second aspect of the will of God is His moral will. This is the righteous and holy will of God concerning how we must live in every sphere of our life. God has clearly and absolutely revealed His moral will in the Bible. The absolutely perfect will of God is revealed in His law of the Ten Commandments. For the redeemed Christian this moral will of God is the absolute standard of life. It is the rule for his life of gratitude to God for the salvation He has given. There is no area of our life in which we are exempt from the holy law of God.
Many if not most of the passages of Scripture which speak of the will of God for our lives have to do essentially with God’s moral and perfect will for us. Often Christians have tried to find passages of Scripture to support the idea that God will reveal some personal and private will to us and have ignored the fact that the passages which they allege to support this idea are actually admonitions to follow the moral law of God in our lives. If we had the space in this article we would take the time to give numerous examples.
How does God reveal His will to us for the great decisions of our life? First of all, He has given us His law. Whatever we do in life, this is the sum of all things: “Fear God and keep His commandments.” Therefore it is entirely impossible that a certain course of action in life can be the will of God if it goes contrary to one of the expressed commandments of God. Let no one, for example, say that he or she is doing the will of God by marrying an ungodly person simply because “God has brought that person into my life.” This is a false appeal to the will of God. Let no one say that God wants him to move to a city far away to take a lucrative job offer or company promotion when such a move will involve moving away from the true church of Jesus Christ where the Word of God is faithfully preached. Let no young person say that he must go to this or that university or college because it has such a good program of study to offer for his course of study and then claim it is God’s will. “After all, God gave me this talent and this interest in life and He wants me to pursue it as far as I can by going to a prestigious university. Never mind that going there will involve several years of absence from the church I belong to.” Young people who reason this way cannot claim to be following the will of God.
I once heard the claim made by one who belonged to our churches that since God had given certain talents to one of his children, and because these talents could not be used in the worship services in our churches, therefore it was God’s will for him to switch to another church. It is a rather common argument in our day that since God has also given talents for the ministry to women, we ought to allow them to be “equal partners in the ministry with men.” Never mind that Scripture clearly indicates that men are to rule and be in the special offices in church and not women.
Let no one say that God wants him to take this or that occupation in life when it involves things such as Sabbath working or membership in an ungodly union.
We could give many more examples of such faulty reasoning. Let this be the absolute rule of our life: if anything is contrary to the law of God which He has clearly revealed in His Word, it cannot possibly be the will of God.
When we pray for God’s will in our lives (and we ought to pray for this very earnestly and sincerely), we must pray for spiritual knowledge and understanding of the revealed truth of God’s Word and for wisdom to understand His law as it applies to a given area of our life. All the major decisions in our lives involve great moral questions. We need to pray both for knowledge and submission to the perfect will of God in our lives. God does not care so much about whether we are engineers, doctors, or lawyers, or perhaps only a daily laborer in a factory. He cares a lot more whether we are living according to His law and for His glory in whatever our daily occupation might be.
God has made us moral, rational creatures. We have great responsibility to make wise decisions in life. Because we are fallen sinners our minds have been darkened and our wills made hard and rebellious. Our sinful natures are filled with the lusts of the flesh. We must be constantly warned that we must not follow the dictates of our sinful nature, our pride and lust and covetousness when we make the great decisions of our life. This is easy to do. We are prone to do this according to our sinful nature. By the grace and Spirit of God our hearts and minds have been renewed.
The Christian who has such a renewed mind and heart must be constantly praying the prayer of Paul in Ephesians 1:18: “The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what is the glory of his inheritance in the saints.” A similar prayer is found in Colossians 1: 10 and 11: “That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God.”
We need the wisdom of God to make the great decisions of our life. God promises to give us this wisdom when we ask in faith and prayer. “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and abraideth not: and it shall be given him” (James 1:5). Spiritual, godly wisdom is necessary for all the great decisions of our life.
So, for example, when we wonder what the will of God is for our life’s occupation, we pray for wisdom to choose that occupation where we can best serve God and glorify Him. This is the highest wisdom of life. We have greater concerns than that our earthly occupation promises a high salary and earthly prestige. It is better to be a lowly servant than a king or a wealthy and powerful businessman if being the latter leads us to boast in ourselves and in our own riches. We must pray daily that our occupation in life does not cause us to become materialistic, vain, and ungodly like the world. We need to pray for wisdom to use our resources properly that we are not led to poverty or bankruptcy. We need to pray for an occupation in which we can earn by honest labors money to support our Christian family, and, to pay for Christian schooling for them if available. We need to pray that God will give us the resources to support the causes of Christ’s church and kingdom in the world. This is the will of God.
When we seek a life partner, we need to pray that God will lead us to a truly godly young man or young woman. We need to pray that God will keep us from too much preoccupation with externals, such as how handsome the young man is, what career he is headed for, or how beautiful and sexually attractive the young girl is. This is following the will of God. We need to pray for a wife that will be a good helpmeet, to raise a godly family if this be the will of God. This is one of God’s great purposes for marriage. This is far more important than looking for a young girl that will be able to supplement our income with a glamorous career of her own, so that we can live the upper middle-class American life-style with all of its luxuries and pleasures and glory. God does not reveal by some private and secret revelation or inner subjective impression the name of the person we should marry. He does clearly tell the young man to look for the virtuous woman described in Proverbs 31, whose glory and beauty is far above any physical beauty of worldly women. He tells the young woman to look for a husband who will be a spiritual leader in marriage and in the family.
Let me close with one other observation. This is one given to us in the book of James. “Go to now, ye that say to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year and buy and sell, and get gain: whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live and do this or that” (James 4:13-15).
It is sinful pride and worldly carnality when man does not pray daily for the will of God to guide him in the plans and purposes of life. The Christian must be profoundly conscious every day how all his plans and purposes and even his very life’s breath depend on the will of God. We honor God when we live in this consciousness.
The Lord will prosper and bless us each day only when we pray “Thy will be done.” This prosperity will not always, however, be in terms of physical and material well-being. Sometimes the Lord sends trials, hardships, and disappointments. He does this according to His own sovereign, wise, and perfect will. We must submit to this perfect will and confess His name and live for His glory.