As we seek to understand what Scripture reveals about God’s will, it’s important to keep in mind the big picture that Scripture reveals about our purpose as human beings. Scripture reveals that God created us, in the first place, to be in relationship with him, and with each other. Jesus said that the greatest commandment of all is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourself (Mark 12:28–31). As we consider texts that speak more specifically of God’s will, it’s important to remember the overarching purpose of our lives: loving God and loving people.
Second, Scripture reveals that we’ll need wisdom as we seek to discern God’s will, because there will be times we just won’t know why some things have happened (see Hebrews 11:39–40). It’s equally important to acknowledge that, although God is always sovereignly at work, not everything that happens in this world or in our lives is the direct will of God. God’s will includes provision for human freedom, for example. Living in a broken world, we struggle against spiritual enemies and real evil. Thankfully, God is always at work to bring redemption out of our brokenness (Romans 8:28). So, as we seek to make wise choices, there are some helpful principles we can rely on, as well as practical questions we can ask, but we also need to remember that there will always be some things we simply won’t know this side of heaven.
Finally, as I mentioned before, this study will have a New Testament focus. Not because the Old Testament is not relevant, but because our study space is limited. Think of what we’re exploring here as a foundation for building a solid biblical understanding of the topic of God’s will. For this reason, I’m zeroing in on the issue from the point of view of a Christian living in our place in God’s great story. We live after the coming of Jesus Christ, after the pouring out of His Spirit, and the formation of the church.
God’s Revealed Will
What does the New Testament say about God’s will? When you look carefully at the phrases that relate to God’s will in the New Testament, they can be grouped into two basic categories. The first category of passages refer to what is often called “God’s revealed will.” God’s revealed will is something God has already made known to his people. It includes what God has revealed of his moral will—what is right and true, and the kind of life followers of God should strive for. We don’t have to “discover” God’s revealed will since we already know it as revealed in the Scriptures, although the application of these principles will require wisdom.
Here are a few examples of Scripture passages referring to God’s revealed will. In Matthew 7:21 Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Here, “will of God” clearly refers to obedience to God’s revealed will for how we should live, since we would need to know the Father’s will in order to do it. Or, take Paul’s statement to the Ephesian elders: “For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27). Paul had to understand the “whole will of God” before he proclaimed it to them. Obviously, Paul didn’t have comprehensive knowledge of all that God would sovereignly do, but he did have a sound understanding of God’s will and intentions for his people. Similarly, there’s Paul’s words to the Thessalonians: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality” (4:3) or “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (5:18). We don’t have to pray or debate about whether God wants us to live with gratitude and avoid sexual immorality; he’s already told us plainly. Peter’s statement in 1 Peter 2:15 also illustrates this category: “For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.” Because of God’s revealed will, already made known by God through the Scriptures, we already know a great deal about what it means to love God and love others.
Most of my ministry has been among college students. I occasionally find myself in conversations where God’s revealed will is not understood or even misunderstood. For instance, let’s say I’m talking to a guy who has come to me for advice about whether to pursue a serious relationship with a particular girl. The guy is a college senior and likes everything about this girl except one thing: she’s not a follower of Jesus Christ. His question to me is whether I think it’s God will for him to pursue this relationship in a serious way. I tell him that being friends with the girl and hanging out together is one thing, but pursuing this as a relationship that might lead to marriage is completely different, because God as Paul has already made it clear that believers should only marry other believers (1 Corinthians 7:39). According to God’s revealed will, God doesn’t want this guy to pursue this as a possible marriage relationship. Things could change over time if the girl becomes a believer, but since a Christian and a non-Christian very often have two different outlooks on the most important issues in life, this could become a huge problem if they get married.
To sum up, God’s revealed will is the kind of God-honoring lifestyle God desires for his people as revealed in Scripture, which boils down to, as Jesus said, loving God and loving others. But it will take wisdom and help to discern how best to live out his will in particular circumstances. For this, God has given us wise counsel from the people of God and the guiding presence of the Spirit.
God’s Mysterious Will
The second category of how Scripture refers to God’s will is known as “God’s mysterious or hidden will.” This aspect of God’s will refers to his sovereign control over the universe, the way in which God is always working in all things towards his promised future, and how that affects our lives. We can never fully understand at the time what God is up to since his plan and purposes are mysterious or hidden to us. We don’t know the future and we don’t see the whole picture. God is sovereign but we are not. Sometimes, thankfully, we can get a good idea of what God has been up to when, years later, we look back. I’ve had that experience myself.
Some time ago, I was presented an advancement opportunity that would have included a greater sphere of influence, a larger salary, and other perks. I was naturally drawn to this chance to make the most of my gifts and abilities and agreed to serve in this role. Then, through a bizarre series of events, I was called upon to serve the organization in another way, which meant the role was no longer available. There was nothing I did to lose the opportunity, and nothing I could do to get it back. It was simply gone, as if God had changed the direction of my life at the last minute. It took me a couple of years to get over the disappointment of not getting that job. Along with disappointment, I struggled with anger and frustration at how hard it was to see God’s role in everything that had happened. At the time, I didn’t get any answers. Nothing made sense. But as life moved on and time past, I was able to see a few things much more clearly. I would have hated the more prestigious job and probably wouldn’t have been very good at it. I’ve come to believe that God was protecting me (and probably the organization also) by redirecting my steps. That job just wasn’t a good fit for me, and the Lord knew it. I discovered his mysterious will as I looked back on the situation a couple of years later.
Perhaps you’ve heard it said that sometimes we know the will of God by looking in the rear-view mirror of our lives. Many times that’s true. This reminds me of something God told Moses in Exodus 3:12: “God said, ‘I will be with you. And this will be a sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.’” I’ve always found it interesting that the sign that God was with him to deliver the people from slavery would only be witnessed by Moses after he led the people out of Egypt. Surely Moses would have preferred the sign of God’s presence before the adventure. But very often we can only understand God’s mysterious will as we look back on the whole experience.
Here are some other examples of how God’s mysterious will is described in Scripture. In Acts 2:23 Simon Peter says that “this man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan [word for “will”] and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” It was only in hindsight (and with the help of the Holy Spirit) that Peter could say this. When it was happening, Peter certainly didn’t see the cross as part of God’s plan for Jesus (e.g., Mark 8:32–33), but over time he came to acknowledge the wisdom of Christ crucified.
Here’s another example. In Acts 21, some fellow believers tried to persuade Paul not to go up to Jerusalem because they feared he would suffer at the hands of the Romans. Paul insisted on going to Jerusalem, and this is their response: “When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, ‘The Lord’s will be done’” (Acts 21:14; cf. Jesus’s similar prayer in Luke 22:42). Paul often referred to himself as an apostle called “by the will of God” (1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 2 Timothy 1:1), but you’ll probably recall that Paul’s former life featured persecuting Christians. He could only say his call was the will of God for his life as he looked back on the experience. In Romans 8:27, Paul says that “the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” The context of Romans 8:26 tells us that the Spirit prays God’s will for us when we don’t know what we ought to pray for. The Spirit prays God’s will for us even when we don’t know God’s will. How amazing is that!
One final example. Peter says in 1 Peter 3:17 that “it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” We won’t always know if it is God’s will for us to suffer, but should we suffer, we’re called to do so for the right reasons. Suffering for doing evil is quite clearly not God’s will, even if it is just. But certainly not all suffering (such as abuse, disease, car wrecks, etc.) is ultimately God’s will. God’s will is for creation’s wholeness (shalom). And God’s will is to one day remove all evil from his creation.
Traveling the Path: A Better Image
What else does the New Testament reveal about God’s will? We have so far considered two broad groupings in Scripture: God’s revealed will, and God’s mysterious will—the way in which God is at work in all things to bring about good and work toward his final promise of a fully healed and restored creation. This aspect of God’s will is hidden from us at the present time, although occasionally we can get a sense of what God has been up to as we look back on our lives.
Remember our balance-beam analogy from earlier? The idea that God has a very thin line for us to walk and we dare not stray one inch to the right or to the left if we want his blessing?
I think it’s time for a better analogy for what God actually says about his will in the New Testament. Rather than the balance-beam approach, where we cautiously attempt to negotiate the very thin path of God’s perfect will, what if we thought of God’s will as us taking a journey with him along a road? The road is certainly wider than the very narrow beam, but it’s not enormously wide. It’s still the “narrow road” (see Matthew 7:13–14) compared to the wide-open, “anything goes” ways of this world. There are some things that are most definitely outside the will of God for our lives (for example, murder, lying, unrighteous anger, adultery, or lust). But on this road of God’s will there is still great freedom to make our own choices. There will likely be many times when you sense that God is leaving the choice between two good options up to you. Healthy parenting involves giving kids choices between good options. It helps them grow up. Likewise, our heavenly Father desires us to grow and mature in our use of our freedom.