This is the second blog in a series of four that seeks to discover what the Bible really says about the will of God. If you want to read the other posts click here.
Roast Beef on Baguette or Chicken Club on Whole Wheat?
The other day I was at one of the fine eating establishments in town staring at a menu, pondering what I was going to order. The waitress patiently waited (at least on the outside she appeared to be patient) as my eyes darted back and forth between two particularly appealing choices – Which one do I choose? Does God have a plan for which one I should choose so that if I choose one and not the other I would be outside of his will for my life? – To be honest neither of these questions popped into my head as I contemplated lunch, I simply chose the one that I was most hungry for (I went with the Roast Beef and a side caesar – it was really good!). This may be a trivial situation in which to ask the above questions about God’s plan and his will for my situational living, so let’s consider the ‘bigger’ stuff – decisions about who to marry, what job to take, where or if to move, etc.; and let’s assume that decisions concerning what to eat, what to wear, or what brand of cola to buy are not ‘big’ decisions. Big decisions, like the ones we just mentioned, can consume us with worry because we often think of these kinds of things in the context of ‘God’s will / plan for my life.’ We worry and fret about these kinds of decisions because we do not want to move in a direction that is going to situate us outside of ‘God’s will for our life.’ As Christians we want to remain in this ‘will of God’ at all costs; because if we don’t. . . well, we just don’t want to go there.
As we begin, let me pause to ask a simple straightforward question that many of us have maybe never thought of before: should we even be asking the question, ‘Does God have a will / plan for my life?’ and related questions. Is this even a biblical way of approaching our life and the decisions that are incessantly confronting us? Let’s delve into the Scriptures, and do some theological work along the way to determine our answers.
Theologians make a number of divisions when speaking of the ‘will’ of God. God has a necessary and free will; he has a secret and a revealed will; or to use a threefold division, he has a decretive will, a preceptive will and an undesired will (technically this is a subset of God’s decretive will along with God’s ‘wish’ will). Each of these distinctions are based upon intense biblical study and they are helpful in giving us a deeper and fuller understanding of God’s will. Which in turn, gives us a deeper, more beautiful, picture of God. Each term highlights one particular aspect of God’s will (cf. Feinberg, No One Like Him, 694ff):
God’s decretive will refers to God’s sovereign choice by which he decides whatever happens. We see this kind of will in verses like Acts 4:27-28; Eph 1:3-11; 1 Peter 3:17; 4:19; James 4:13-15; and a whole host of Old Testament passages. This decree is for God’s glory alone, and it is based upon nothing outside of himself and his pursuit of his own glory. All of God’s will in this regard comes to pass and nothing can thwart him.
God’s preceptive will (or revealed will) refers to the moral commands for governing life that God has set forth for us in his word. This includes things like the 10 commandments, to present our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1), to be kind, tender-hearted and forgiving of one another (Eph 4:32). These are things that God wants us to obey, even though we may not. In this way we can really know God’s ‘will’ for our life. This will in God is distinguished from the former and the next in such verses as Deut 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of his law.” In other words, God has revealed (in the Bible) what he wants us to know, the rest is kept hidden in his mind.
God’s undesired will refers to those things that are contrary to God’s nature and his preceptive will: sin and evil. Things happen in this world that are sinful and/or a direct result of living in a fallen world (tornado’s, cancer, accidents, etc.), that do not come directly from God, for God can do no evil, cannot sin, nor tempt to sin, yet sin and evil remain within his plans and decretive will for his creation. For example, Acts 2:23 affirms that Christs murder was decreed and controlled by God, but this leads to a potential problem – how can God decree this and still keep his hands clean from sin? In short, God does decree this sinful act (Acts says he did), even though it is contrary to his preceptive will. So we can say that preceptively he did not want Christ to be murdered, but decretively he willed it to happen and thus it will come to pass (but the guilt falls on the perpetrators not on God). How this exactly works we will never know, after all we are dealing with God right!
So what’s the point of this discussion? Well, three reasons. First, is that we will realize that sometimes we ask questions and assume that they are good ones, like ‘does God have a will / plan for my life?’ without stopping to ask if they are biblical questions. Let me be blunt – just because the evangelical world, or an author in a book, or the pastor at some church somewhere tells us we should ask these kinds of things, doesn’t mean we should. God’s word should rule both the questions we ask and the answers we seek.
Second, it is to draw our attention to the complexity of understanding God’s will, and the multi-faceted ways in which we must deal with it. God’s ways are higher than our ways, his knowledge and understanding are infinite, he knows the end from the beginning, and his ways in the world are beyond our understanding, thus we need to be very careful when saying that we can know ‘God’s will for my life’ when we struggle to understand God’s will from the pages of his direct word to us – Scripture. If we battle to read God’s will properly from the pages of the Bible, how can we claim in any way to know God’s will as he ‘speaks’ to us in some other way? We will explore this idea in more detail later.
Last, it draws to mind something quite simple – Scripture nowhere tells us that we can find an answer to the question as we sometimes pose it – ‘Does God have a will / plan for my life?’ – it is simply not a question that God is pleased to have us ask, and thus the Scriptures do not answer it for us. So biblically speaking the above question seems to be quite wrongheaded. This does not mean that God does not love you. It does not mean that God does not care which way you turn, which school you go to, who you marry, or what you will have for lunch – he does! Nor does it mean that we should not pray for God’s guidance, or seek Spiritual (from the Holy Spirit) peace concerning a decision that we must make. (We will explore these kinds of things in later blogs.) What it does mean, however, is that the answers to the ‘Does God have a will / plan for my life?’ kinds of questions will not be found in the pages of Scripture, and it does not seem to be God’s practice to reveal them to us in any other way either. God’s decretive will is hidden from us (cf. Deut 29:29), and thus we should not be overly preoccupied with questions and concerns that the Scriptures deem to be of little importance for us.
So, does God have a ‘will / plan for my life?’ Yes he does, and it can be found throughout the pages of God’s word. His ‘will’ for your life can be summed up in this, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. . . and love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt 22:34-40), and it includes anything else in Scripture that teaches you how to be more like Christ, and how to live out that relationship in the presence of others. Thus God’s will for your life includes things like – bearing others burdens, confessing your sins to others and forgiving them when they sin against you, showing grace and mercy, confronting sin in your life and in the life of a fellow believer, submitting to the leaders God has placed above you, and on and on we could go. Don’t you think all our other ‘big’ decisions would take care of themselves if our focus was properly placed on these things?
Now I know one could respond with things like this – the Scriptures are full of situations where God spoke directly to people telling them what to do and where to go – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Isaiah, Paul, Peter, to name a few, all got direct instruction from God, can this not happen to me as well? Or, what about the fact that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Christ (Col 2:3). Does this not mean that if I know Christ I can know all of these treasures and thus God’s ‘will’ for my life? For the answer to these questions you will need to wait. . . but let me give you a hint. . . No and No. . . but now I’ve said too much already. . .
Soli Deo Gloria