I remember the day my counseling professor stood before our seminary class, ticking off some of the main issues we should expect to encounter, and recommending resources to prepare for them. One topic he mentioned surprised me: discerning God’s will. “You will be amazed at how often you will be called upon to help a sincere Christian who is agonizing over God’s will for his or her life.”
Seven years into pastoral ministry, I think he was onto something. Many of our people are wrestling with God’s will for their lives right now, probably because they’re facing a major decision: what college to attend, who to marry, whether or not to accept a new job opportunity. Sadly, most of them are working through these issues with a faulty model.
Many Christians view God’s will like a game show where the contestant must choose to open one of three doors. Behind one door is the all-expenses-paid vacation of their dreams; behind the other two are a blender and a night in the county jail, respectively (or something like that). When facing a major decision, many Christians think that God has hidden his “perfect will” for them behind one of the choices before them, and that he is watching from Heaven like the amused game show host to see if they will make the right selection. "If I pick the right door, I will be deliriously happy and fulfilled, because I’m in 'the center of God’s will;' if I pick the wrong door, I’m doomed to a miserable life of regretting that I somehow “missed God” back there in the past,” so the reasoning goes.
The serious problems with this model should be obvious. In addition to impugning the character of the Heavenly Father, this approach to God’s will leaves Christians anxious about the future, paralyzed by indecision, and frantically seeking divine hints at God’s will (asking for signs, flipping open the Bible at random, laying out a fleece, waiting for a subjective feeling of “peace,” etc.). This is a bad place to be.
The good news is that God doesn’t want his children to live like this!
Of course, the God who knows the end from the beginning does have a “secret plan” for your life, and we will spend eternity admiring the wisdom and grace of our Good Shepherd. But this side of Heaven, God neither expects nor wants us to figure out that hidden plan! God instead calls us to focus on his revealed will, believing and obeying what he has plainly told us in the pages of Scripture, and then trusting him with the details of our futures.“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of the law (Deut 29:29).”
So if we’re counseling a Christian friend who is desperately searching for God’s will, we might start by sharing 1 Thessalonians 4:3: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” Forget about choosing the right door. Give yourself to a life of committed discipleship to Jesus Christ: read the Bible, commune with God in prayer, worship the Lord with God’s people, fight sin, serve others, and share the gospel. This is God’s will! If we will do this, God will do the work of shaping us into the kinds of people who make decisions that honor him. And he will take care of the future.
[Two small books that have helped me think through this issue are Sinclair Ferguson, Discovering God’s Will (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2013), and Kevin Deyoung, Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will (Chicago: Moody, 2009).]
Eric Smith is the pastor of Sharon Baptist Church in Savannah, Tennessee. He and his wife, Candace, have three children: Coleman, Crockett, and Clarabelle. Eric is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.