What Is God’s Will and How Can We Know It?

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The Bible talks a lot about God’s will. So it’s no wonder that people find themselves a little confused about what God wants from them. Does He have unique expectations for each of us? If we make a mistake, can we mess everything up? Or do we ultimately find ourselves stumbling into God’s will whether we want to or not?

These are fundamental questions. And as one would expect, there are a variety of views on the topic throughout Christendom. For many, the idea of God’s will becomes a puzzle the believer needs to figure out.

Whitworth College professor of religion, Jerry Sittser, describes it this way in his book, Discovering God’s Will:

“I am not sure how or where I first learned of the conventional approach to the will of God. I think I simply accepted it from the very beginning as the gospel truth without much scrutiny, much as I accept the way letters are arranged in the alphabet.

Conventional understanding of God’s will defines it as a specific pathway we should follow into the future. God knows what the pathway is, and He has laid it out for us to follow. Our responsibility is to discover this pathway-God’s plan for our lives. We must discover which of the many pathways we could follow is the one we should follow, the one God planned for us. If and when we make the right choice, we will receive His favor, fulfill our divine destiny, and succeed in life.

In this model, then, when a decision has to be made, life suddenly becomes like a maze. There is only one way out. All the other ways are dead ends, every one of them a bad choice. God, of course, knows the right way. He has, after all, willed it for us, and we must discover that will. The consequences of our choices are therefore weighty. If we choose rightly, we will experience His blessing and achieve success and happiness. If we choose wrongly, we may lose our way, miss God’s will for our lives, and remain lost forever in an incomprehensible maze.”

If this is the understanding of God’s will you’ve accepted, it can feel overwhelming to make decisions. Every single choice has the potential to be a calamity.

So what are some helpful ways to think about God’s will and to walk in it?

What is God’s sovereign will

Often, when we talk about God’s will, we’re talking about God’s sovereign will. The word sovereign comes from the Old French. The word soverain meant lord or ruler and stood for the highest authority in the land. In the 14th century, sovereign started being used as an adjective to describe the choices made by the highest authority.

When we talk about God’s sovereign will, we’re talking about the decrees that God makes as the highest possible ruler over the planet. There are things that God has decreed which will always come to pass. These are things that God will absolutely not change His mind about.

God’s sovereign will and Israel

Throughout Scripture, we see God’s sovereign will being worked out through the Israelites and eventually through Jesus. God came to Abram and made him this promise:

“Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1b-3).

God’s promises to Abram represent His plan to create a people who would worship Him and be His ambassadors to the world around them. And despite Israel’s constant disobedience, God stayed faithful to His covenant to Abram.

As Paul points out in Romans, God’s sovereign will for Israel hasn’t changed. In chapters 9-11, Paul deals with this very question. God’s promises to Abraham and Moses are still being worked out.

God’s sovereign will and Jesus

Jesus completely understood God’s sovereignty and regularly communicated that God’s will was His driving motivator:

  • Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19).
  • “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (John 5:30).
  • “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38).
  • “I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say” (John 12:50).

Does this commitment to doing the will of God mean that Jesus never made a decision of His own? No. Of course, not. What it means is that Jesus was committed to following out the sovereign will of God.

In the garden, when Jesus looked forward to the cross and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39), He was praying about God’s ultimate decree. Even though He knew how excruciating and awful it would be, He was willing to follow through with it.

But this was God’s plan all along. Peter tells us:

“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:18-21).

Peter tells us that Jesus’ ministry was decreed from the very beginning. Once God’s plan was revealed, it was completely obvious. Old Testament Prophecies had spelled out exactly what Jesus’ ministry would look like. Israel didn’t recognize it because the nation was expecting something entirely different from the Messiah.

The good news about God’s sovereign will

There are certain things the Lord has decided will happen no matter what. No mistake or misstep can thwart these plans. God’s not relying on our ability to figure out what the next steps are supposed to be. This is such good news because you can rest secure in the fact that you can’t thwart God’s ultimate plans.

What is God’s prescriptive will?

There’s another aspect of God’s will that’s incredibly important. These are the things that He asks of all His children. These commandments throughout Scripture should inform our everyday practices.

For instance, the Ten Commandments represented God’s prescriptive will to Israel because they “prescribed” specific behaviors and prohibitions. Other examples of God’s prescriptive will include commands like:

  • In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).
  • Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24).
  • But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that (Matthew 5:44-46)?
  • Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).

These kinds of expectations demonstrate the Lord’s will for us, and you don’t have to worry about trying to figure them out. The Lord has told us what behaviors He looks for from us. This is why Jesus finishes His Sermon on the Mount with these words:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash (Matthew 7:24-27).

Jesus wants His listeners to understand that His teachings aren’t just noble ideas. They’re given so we can put them into practice. To hear them and ignore them ends up in disaster. This is one reason that regular Bible reading and study is so crucial. This is how we familiarize and remind ourselves of God’s prescriptive will.

The good news about God’s prescriptive will

Understanding God’s prescriptive will takes a lot of the pressure off of us. It means that God’s will for us isn’t some secret puzzle box we have to unlock. Instead of driving ourselves crazy trying to figure out what God wants from each of us, we can focus on the things we know God expects of us.

We tend to think that God has this unique calling on our life, and we just need to work out what it is. The truth is that’s not really the case. When he was talking to the Thessalonians, Paul encouraged them to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).

When we live out God’s prescriptive will, our ordinary, everyday lives become efficient ministries that reveal God’s goodness to the people around us. So whether you work in retail, finance, marketing, or the foodservice, you’re doing dramatic and powerful work as a minister of the gospel and a fulfiller of the Great Commission.

It removes from us the pressure of figuring out which job God has pre-chosen for us or which person God expects us to marry. When we live in harmony with God’s revealed will, it helps to weed out some of the choices that wouldn’t be beneficial to us in the long run.

What about discerning God’s calling?

The rub in all of this is that sometimes God does have a specific calling for you. Like maybe you think God might be calling you into missions work or pastoral ministry. Here are a few helpful things to remember when you think this might be the case.

  1. God’s number one call is for us to know Him:
    Sometimes we can get it in our heads that we’re being called to ministry when we should be more focused on our devotion and alignment to Jesus. Many people in ministry crash and burn because they mistook God drawing them to Himself as a call to ministry.All ministry should come out of the overflow of lives lived in submission to God’s prescribed will. So if you think you might be called to ministry, make sure you’re already pressing into God.
  2. Follow your passions:
    One of the big signs God is calling you in a specific direction is that you’re interested in it. If you feel passionate about an opportunity or course, it’s OK to seek to discern whether it’s right for you.
  3. Pray about it:
    Consistently ask God for clarification, but then pay attention to changes in your feelings about the issue, input you receive from others, or maybe even obstacles that demonstrate that this might not be the best time.
  4. Seek input from others:
    Look for people around you who know and love the Lord, and also know and love you. They’re going to offer the best feedback as you try and discern God’s calling.

Knowing God’s will doesn’t have to be a struggle

Remember, there are things God is doing that you can’t change. You don’t have to worry about making a mistake that puts God’s sovereign will in jeopardy. There are, however, things God has asked explicitly from each of us, and we need to be working to align ourselves to those things.

The more we’re aligned to God’s prescriptive will, the more we’ll find ourselves in the center of God’s sovereign will as He uses us to build His kingdom.