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I grew up in a church community where God’s will was a tangible thing. God’s hand rested heavy on the world in our view of things, and we had our part to play in God’s mission.
So, discovering God’s will for our lives was crucial. What a waste it would be, we worried, to live one’s life and find out when all was said and done, that we had been outside of God’s will! A reasonable fear.
Of course, certain aspects of God’s will were crystal clear. Murder, and lying, even disobeying parents were outside of God’s will.
Our particular tribe had a few addendums: It wasn’t God’s will to drink alcohol, or go to movies, or for boys and girls to be alone together until they got married!
As I grew up, conversations about God’s will expanded to include significant life decisions. Who to date, then who to marry. What college to go to. What major to take. Where to move. If you wanted to please God with your life, it could become quite stressful trying to sort through all the possibilities.
For some of the more sensitive among us, it could be guilt-inducing too! There were always folks in the community who talked about their iron-clad sense of God’s will for their lives. But what if you didn’t feel that way? What then? Was it because you weren’t listening? Maybe you weren’t praying in the right way? Were you sinning, and now God was leaving you to your own devices?
Yikes. Looking back, I’m sad at how much stress we piled on top of good people who just wanted to please God. Have you felt any of this?
Today, I’m in a different place. A different community. A different theological frame. A much different level of emotional health. While so much has changed, I still believe God’s will is a real thing. It’s just not so stressful for me as it once was.
After having had a few conversations about God’s will recently that echoed with some of that old fear and stress, it seemed good to try and put some of what I’ve learned down. So, what follows is a primer for discovering God’s will for your life, but in a stress-reduced way.
1) Don’t Sweat the Obvious Stuff.
Let’s admit up front that certain things are not foggy when it comes to knowing God’s will. If you find a passage of scripture that encourages a particular behavior or discourages it, start there.
Be mindful that you’re not taking that verse out of context. Be aware that God gave specific instructions in specific times and places that weren’t meant to be universal. Above all, make sure you’re reading those verses with Jesus as the final interpreter.
For example, the Levitical laws were given to the Hebrew tribes as the foundation of their new culture following generations of slavery. While some of the principles behind those laws may persist, unless you’re a wandering Hebrew on your way into Canaan, they weren’t written directly for you.
So, with that interpretive frame in mind, it’s never God’s ideal will for you to intentionally kill someone, or steal their stuff, or undermine someone’s marriage. And it’s always God’s will for you to love your neighbor as yourself, to walk humbly and love mercy, and care for “the least of these.”
So, that covers the easy stuff, but what about our big life-altering questions? Scripture doesn’t address your college plans or who you should marry, or even if you should marry at all! No verse says moving to Kentucky will further God’s plan more than living in Oregon. Does God care about these kinds of decisions? Can we know God’s direction when we make choices like these?
I think we can get some direction, and in some cases even have pretty clear guidance, but it takes some humility and wisdom. And that leads to the next set of principles.
2) More (spiritual) heads are better than one.
One of the best ways to get clear on God’s will is to seek it in community with others on the same path. Proverbs 11:14 suggests that deliverance comes with many counselors.
I don’t mean to say that your pastor or your small group should automatically get the final say about your important life decisions. Too often that kind of pressure can turn into spiritual abuse.
But, if you have a community of trusted spiritual friends who know you, who know your heart, and who have their own growing relationship with God, you would do well to consider their input.
People outside our heads can often see our choices with better clarity than we can ourselves. It is incredibly affirming to hearing a group of trusted counselors say, “You know, this path seems to be in line with our sense of who God made you to be.”
3) Consider trajectory rather than circumstances.
When we’re making a major life decision, we’re of necessity thinking about specific outcomes. Moving to take this job, or to take that one. Spending money in this way or in that way. Taking an opportunity or passing it by. There’s always at least a couple of tangible outcomes on the table.
But focusing on the outcomes alone can cause us to miss one of the significant points of input about God’s work in our lives: our past.
The Holy Spirit has been at work in your life all along. Sometimes you may have noticed this through past experiences of guidance. Or maybe you didn’t see, and it just seemed like the trajectory of your life has led in a certain direction.
In either case, it can be constructive to think about your next life decision in light of the trajectory of your life to this point. How did you get here? In what ways has God worked in your life until now? What unexpected turning points have shaped you? Very often, the decision you need to make will make much more sense when you consider it in light of the trajectory of your life.
While we are very often focused on God’s guidance for a particular moment in time, I suspect that God is much more concerned with the long view of our lives than we are. How does this new opportunity align with the course of God’s work in your life to this point? If God’s been at work all along, then that trajectory has meaning for you.
4) Look for settledness rather than certainty.
When we pray for God’s guidance in our lives, the thing we’d most like is certainty. When we talk about certainty, we often mean coming to an internal sense of peace about the decision. We imagine that once we know for sure which way God is guiding us, our hearts will stop feeling agitated, and we can be at peace.
But what if the path ahead is a difficult one? What if the right choice is going to be painful? What if we never get a clear sense of certainty?
I suspect that instead of looking for peace, we would do better to look for a sense of settledness.
What’s the difference? Settledness is not certainty. Not in the sense that we’re sure our choice is right or best. Settledness is not peace that comes from knowing nothing difficult or painful is coming our way. Settledness is the sense that, whatever happens, this is the path I’ve chosen. My heart is settled that this path—even if it’s difficult, is the path I need to take.
Here’s a personal example. I hate conflict. Part of my baggage is an unhealthy need for people to be happy with me. If I’m not conscious of these factors in my life, I might miss the right path. I could pray for God’s guidance, and then when I feel all kinds of inner turbulence, decide that God’s probably leading me to avoid that difficult conversation. But I might be interpreting my own unhealthy emotional reaction for the movement of the Holy Spirit.
In this sort of situation, I rarely feel peace about going into a difficult conversation. I feel twisted up inside and anxious. But that’s because of my baggage. I have come to be pretty clear, though, that I can feel that discomfort and still feel a settledness in my heart that this path—though it is painful—is the right path if I want to live out the kind of love I believe God is calling me to.
I’m not certain that the outcome will be good. After all, I’m not in control of how other people respond. I’m not at peace, because the whole thing makes me a little antsy. But I am settled that it’s the path of courageous love.
5) Your desire to run away is not usually God’s will.
That leads right to the next principle. You and I are wired up to avoid discomfort. The limbic system is designed to keep us alive. Our emotional responses give us valuable cues that can help us avoid danger. But this same desire to avoid discomfort can also become a roadblock in the way of my growth and spiritual maturity.
When praying about God’s will, especially in challenging circumstances, I suspect we need to be just a bit cynical about our desire to escape any future pain. If your heart’s most evident urgent is to run away from the situation, take a moment to check out why. Maybe even get some counsel from outside your head.
Certainly, if you are literally in harm’s way, or a toxic or abusive relationship or you’re about to invest your home equity in a too-good-to-be-true opportunity that a friend of a friend presented to you, your intuition to run is probably in keeping with God’s will for you.
But if you are being asked to stretch and grow, or face your issues, if the choice ahead might call you to rely on faith and trust more than ever before, than your intuition to run may, in fact, be self-centered fear. You might just run away from something God wants to give you for your growth.
I’ve been slowly learning that in my life, especially in matters of relationship conflict, when my motivation is avoidance, I’m usually getting off track with God’s will for me.
6) Consider that what you’re praying for might not matter that much to God in the long run.
I know. That sounds harsh. And I don’t mean to say that God doesn’t love you, and doesn’t care about how the circumstances of your life impact you. I think that all matters to God because God is better than the very best parent.
But a long time reading scripture and living this life, has led me to suspect that God is often just not as concerned as I am about my circumstances.
If you’re a parent, you’ve seen this. You’ve seen your kid get completely end-over-end about something in their life going wrong, just losing their minds about it. And you feel for them because you don’t want them to be sad or angry.
But at the very same time, you know things they don’t know. You know that the broken toy is easily fixed. You know that the reason you said no to ice-cream for dessert is that Grandma is coming over with a fresh-baked cake later. You know that the whole thing your child is grieving is just a misunderstanding, quickly cleared up. None of that makes their grief or anger any less real. And it doesn’t mean you don’t care about their circumstances. It just means that you know there are bigger stakes.
When we pray to know God’s will, we often focus on an outcome or a circumstance, when most of the time I think God’s primary concern is our relationship. We often want assurance or comfort, but I suspect God is more concerned with what will grow us up.
We want certainty. God wants relationship. We want intervention. God wants growth.
So, as you pray for God’s will, it might be worthwhile to consider if God cares all that much about this specific choice, or whether perhaps God is more invested in which path will lead to a stronger relationship, a deeper trust, and growing more into the image of Christ.
Maybe the clearest lens for discovering God’s will is simply Jesus’ words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your Soul, and all your strength, and all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.”