What is the will of God for your life? An air of mystery surrounds the question. God’s will can seem elusive, ambiguous, difficult to discern — a land without maps.
Is this the right job for me? Would God have us get married? Should our family move to the city or the suburbs? Is God leading me to full-time ministry?
Such questions send us searching for clarity — praying, thinking, pro-con listing, often second-guessing. What is your will, O God? And how do I find it? Depending on your charismatic convictions, you may do more: wait for impressions, read signs in your circumstances, lay out a fleece. I once flipped a coin.
We understandably agonize over such decisions. What job we take, whom we marry, where we live — these choices change the course of our lives. Yet because of their very importance, they also can distract us from the primary ways Scripture speaks of God’s will. Like hikers who pay more attention to each new fork in the path than to their compass, we can easily lose our basic sense of direction by fixating on one decision after the next.
Thank God, then, that in all our most difficult decisions, we have a compass:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9–10)
This familiar prayer may not offer the direction we long for — an unmistakable nudge, a whisper from heaven — but it does offer the direction we most need.
‘Your Will Be Done’
“Your will be done” is a prayer with levels and layers of meaning, a multiple-story petition.
On one level, we ask, “Your will be done on earth.” In the broadest sense, the prayer settles for nothing less than a transformed, transfigured earth — an earth where God’s revealed will is no longer ignored, neglected, or despised, but done with the same angelic zeal, the same seraphic joy, as his will is done “in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
On another level, we ask, “Your will be done — not mine.” Here we follow the example of our Lord Jesus, who not only taught us to pray these words, but prayed them himself: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). We who follow Christ will never come close to the agony of this moment; like Peter, James, and John, we ever remain on Gethsemane’s edge. But in our own anguished hours, “Your will be done” is likewise for us an opening of the hands, a bending of the knees, a bowing of the head to God’s painful yet perfect plans.
And then, on a third level, we ask, “Your will be done in me.” As wide as earth and as high as heaven, the prayer nevertheless turns back to us, bidding us to ask not only that God’s will would be done everywhere out there, but also everywhere in here — right now, today, in every part of my life.
Which returns us to our beginning question: What is God’s will for my life, and how do I walk in it? Beginning from the Sermon on the Mount and broadening from there, we might answer with two simple sentences: Do the will you know. Discern the will you don’t.
Do the will you know.
We’ll see in a moment that Scripture gives direction for discerning God’s will in unclear situations. But as we’ll also see, Scripture gives a fundamental prerequisite for such discernment: attentive obedience to what God has already revealed. Doing the will you know is necessary for discerning the will you don’t.
“Doing the will you know is necessary for discerning the will you don’t.”
And not only necessary, but far more important. Consider the words of Jesus in the chapter after the Lord’s Prayer: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Heaven hangs on doing the will of God. And the will of God here is no hidden key, no secret whisper. As Jesus says three verses later, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man . . .” (Matthew 7:24). In the most basic and crucial sense, the will of God is found in the words of God.
Imagine a man who, after hearing Jesus’s sermon, says to his friend, “That’s all well and good, but I still wish I knew God’s will for my life.” His friend would be right to respond, “Weren’t you listening? God just told you his will for your life! Embrace poverty of spirit, meekness, and peace. Let your light shine. Kill anger, lust, lying, and vengeance. Pray and give and fast in secret. Don’t worry; seek the kingdom. Enter the narrow door. Build your house on the rock. That’s God’s will for your life.”
How many of us, like this will-of-God seeker, wonder what job we should have while neglecting godly diligence in our present job? How many seek his will for whom to marry while not pursuing a biblical vision of singleness in the meantime? How many ask God where they should live while overlooking neighbor love and the local obedience Scripture so clearly prescribes?
Far better to know and obey this will, always available and ever clear, than to have the greatest situational insight and neglect this will. Or as the apostle Paul might say, if we discern the right decisions to make, and if we receive all impressions and leadings, and if we gain all guidance, so as to choose the right paths, but do not obey the plain words we already know, we are nothing (Matthew 7:21).
Discern the will you don’t.
At the same time, the very Scriptures that give us God’s clear will also tell us to seek his unclear will. “Try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord,” Paul tells the Ephesians (Ephesians 5:10). And then he writes in Romans,
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
And now we see why hearing and doing the will of God we know is the prerequisite to discerning the will of God we don’t. Right discernment depends not merely on a clear mind or an intelligent mind, but on a transformed mind — a mind, John Piper writes, “that is so shaped and so governed by the revealed will of God in the Bible, that we see and assess all relevant factors with the mind of Christ.”
We can see this discernment process at work even in the life of Jesus. In Luke 4, for example, Jesus decides to leave Capernaum to “preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well” (Luke 4:43). The decision was by no means a simple one: the people of Capernaum didn’t want Jesus to leave (Luke 4:42); neither did his disciples (Mark 1:36–37). But Jesus knew his Father willed for him to preach the gospel broadly (Luke 4:43). And so, after spending time in a desolate place (Luke 4:42), he applied the clear will of his Father to an unclear situation through patient, prayerful discernment.
Let the emphasis land on patient and prayerful. Discernment often will not come easily or quickly. Gathering the appropriate words God has spoken, understanding how they relate to our present situation, rightly weighing all relevant factors and friendly counsel, praying for wisdom all along the way, and obeying what you know in the meantime — this is no small task. But it is God’s normal method of guiding us through the hundreds of moments when we stand before two (or more) paths, none of which has a sign that reads, “Go this way.”
“In a world without maps, our best compass is an increasingly Christlike will, informed by an increasingly renewed mind.”
In a world without maps, our best compass is an increasingly Christlike will, informed by an increasingly renewed mind.
Led by the Spirit?
Some, at this point, will wish to say more — and understandably so. “What about the leading of the Spirit?” they might ask. “What about dreams and visions and impressions?” Three responses are in order.
First, at times, the Spirit does indeed lead his people in a more manifestly supernatural manner. In the life of Jesus, we might remember when “the Spirit . . . drove him out into the wilderness” after his baptism (Mark 1:12). Even more clearly, we might recall how God led Peter to Cornelius, and then led Paul and his team to Philippi, through visions (Acts 10:9–16; 16:9–10). And so he may sometimes lead us.
Nevertheless, these instances of striking guidance take place within the larger framework of doing and discerning. The Spirit came to Jesus in baptism (Mark 1:9–11), to Peter in prayer (Acts 10:9), to Paul on mission (Acts 16:6–8) — in other words, he met them in the midst of their present, intelligent obedience. Unless we too are willing to follow the Spirit’s more typical paths, we cannot expect him to lead us down unusual paths — nor can we assume we would recognize those paths or rightly walk them.
Second, such manifestations of the Spirit may prove dangerous if we rely on them too much. Those who say, “Lord, Lord,” in Matthew 7 did not lack powerful spiritual experiences; they did lack obedience to God’s clear will (Matthew 7:21–23). Ironically, some who are most eager for a spectacular method of finding God’s will can be most prone to neglecting the ordinary opportunities for pleasing God right in front of them.
And third, the renewed mind’s rigorous application of the Scriptures to unclear situations need not sidestep the Spirit’s ministry — not when done humbly, prayerfully, and God-dependently. In fact, as J.I. Packer writes, “The true way to honor the Holy Spirit as our guide is to honor the holy Scriptures through which he guides us” (Knowing God, 236). The Bible is no dead letter, but the living breath of the living Spirit. Those who listen well to Scripture listen to him.
Decisions from Our Knees
Lest we forget the obvious, “Your will be done” is a prayer, a request that God would do in us what we cannot do in ourselves. Apart from him, we cannot know the will he reveals, we cannot obey the will we know, and we certainly cannot discern the will we don’t know. And so, we bow our heads, lift our hands, and say, “Our Father in heaven, . . . your will be done” (Matthew 6:9–10). The best decision-making happens from a kneeling soul.
In all your decisions, then, don’t neglect to do the will you already know. Then, with that will clear in your mind and alive in your life, do the hard work of discerning, as best you can, what might please God most in your work, your relationships, your home. Weigh the factors; seek counsel; view the matter from several angles. And through it all, ask him again and again for his good, pleasing, and perfect will to be done in you.