Some time ago, the relief organization Oxfam ran a number of ads that used a familiar proverb:
Give a man a fish and he’ll feed himself for just a day, but give him the means to catch his own fish and he’ll be able to feed himself and his family for a whole lifetime.
The principle is clear and, on the surface at least, compelling. It is often used as the difference between aid and development. One gives what is needed in the moment; the other seeks to provide the means for being self-sustained. There is an important parallel to this in the Christian life.
The Will of God for You
The book of Hebrews reminds us that in the Old Testament era God spoke “at many times and in many ways” (Hebrews 1:1). We think not just of prophets being given direct words from God, but also of angels appearing with divine guidance, of visions, dreams, and even personal messages appearing on a wall to declare what was to take place (Daniel 5:5).
Looking back on such times, we can easily feel a little envious. Which of us wouldn’t want our own private angel to tell us how best to navigate life? Or a vision to let us know what God’s will is? Without such direct revelations, it can be hard to discern what God would have us do.
But when we think that way, we may actually be asking for less, rather than for more.
The New Testament is not short on teaching about God’s will. It is there. It is clear. But it is often not as specific as we would like. On one occasion Paul writes, “This is the will of God, your sanctification, that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). That’s all well and good, but what job should I take? Should I move next year? Should I be pursuing marriage? And what about all the smaller decisions we face each day?
How We Find His Will
God hasn’t given us a Magic 8 Ball. That might seem frustrating. But he has given us something better:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing 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)
This is our relationship to God’s will: not that he emails a daily briefing of what we’re to do each day, but that he gradually renews our minds, changing the way they work, giving us the capacity to discern his will without moment-by-moment direct updates.
This is hugely dignifying. God is not telling us what to think at every moment, but how to think. He’s rarely telling us what decision to make, but teaching us how to make decisions.
What God Is After
There are a couple of examples of this in the New Testament. We’ve already seen what Paul said to the Thessalonians. God’s will is that we be sanctified; that by ever-increasing measure we become more and more like he is: holy (1 Peter 1:15). A significant component of that is therefore resisting all sexual immorality. Any move toward sexual sin (mental or physical sin) is a direct contradiction of God’s will. As we take in God’s word, we gain a better understanding of what he’s like, and what he likes.
Or take Romans 8:29: “Those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn of many brothers.” What’s God’s will for you? That you become more like Jesus, and that many others become more like him too. Anything that leads us toward that end is God’s will.
A couple I know retired a few years ago and finally fulfilled their dream of a house by the sea. But they gave no thought to whether there were any healthy local churches. Their decision took them far from the main means God has for conforming his people to the image of Christ and for drawing others to him. Their church didn’t send them out with that purpose. They weren’t ultimately thinking of God’s will for their lives.
Or let me turn this on myself: What if I didn’t take time to be with the Lord and in his word this morning? The Bible doesn’t say I have to sit at my desk at seven o’clock with an open Bible. It does say I’m to become more like Christ. And this won’t happen without time on my knees and in his word.
Transformed, Not Just Informed
So, God doesn’t give us a spiritual GPS — “turn left here; then right.” He gives us an atlas — “this is your destination; get here, by all good means available.”
This may not be as easy as simply being told what to do or where to go, but surely it’s far more rewarding. God is training us to not need angels delivering instructions. He’s giving us far more: the increasing capability, by his Spirit who lives in us, to think like he does — to have our minds rebooted with his new operating system. God is not merely handing us a fish when we need to eat, but teaching us how to feed ourselves.
During the process of learning how to “feed ourselves,” however, God’s will often seems frustratingly vague and non-specific. The difficulty is part of the design. In those moments, we must look again at the destination we’re headed, pray much, and think carefully about how to get there. God wants so much more than to prescribe our every step. He wants to help us change. He does not simply want to inform us, but to transform us.