The Secret to Knowing God’s Will

19 October 2019 Chatswood

The freedom to choose is an amazing gift. Science can’t explain it. God has given us this gift: freedom of choice.

How do we know what the right decision is?

  • Who to marry
  • Where to live
  • What to do for work
  • Where to send my kids to school

Today we’re going to find out some amazing things about God’s character, his love. In the area of how to know God’s will. How to make decisions.

I work at in the water industry. We have a structured way of making decisions. Look at the options, drivers for change, stakeholders, risks. Analyse the costs and benefits. Write it all up, then take it to a committee for approval.

In our personal lives though, how do we make decisions? As Christians, how do we make our decisions?

Can we know God’s will? I believe we can, but maybe not in the way you may think. As we learn the secret to knowing God’s will for our decisions today, I think we’re going to appreciate God’s love for us more.

This is a sermon of two halves: what doesn’t work, then what does work.

Here’s a Bible verse that sounds like the answer for good decision-making. Is 30:21.

Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying,
“This is the way, walk in it,”
Whenever you turn to the right hand
Or whenever you turn to the left.

This idea of the still small voice, that tells you which option to take at every turn. For every decision you make God tells you which option is best.

Should I wear this shirt or that shirt? Ok, this one.

Is that the way it works?

We’ll come back to this verse a little later – it’s important. But I’m going to suggest though that some Christians may misunderstand and misapply this verse. It’s easy to get confused on this.

First we need to have another look at God’s character of love and freedom. Then this verse will make a whole lot of sense.

God’s character is beautiful, and a daily relationship with Him is amazing. Sometimes we have misplaced expectations, though.

Have you ever felt that you just don’t pick up the right signs when it comes to a plan for your life?  Have you ever felt that God’s “impressions” led you into a brick wall?

A lot of people would like to believe that God would speak to us whenever we make a decision. Guide us away from disasters. Guide us to the good life.  But many of us have been frustrated in our attempts to get any clear sense of God’s will.  The signs seem to point in different directions.

Maybe you’ve been in a situation where you were faced with a tough decision. You wanted to know whether to take a new job, to move to a new town, or continue a relationship.  Maybe you went to bed wishing you could wake up and find a big fat “yes” or “no” painted in the sky when you woke up.

And then you feel even worse when someone tells you that God gave them clear direction. But you’re still waiting for Him to give you clear guidance. Does it make you feel just a bit jealous?  Why doesn’t God direct my decisions?

I’ve seen some interesting approaches to decision making, among my Christian friends.

One person used to open the Bible randomly, blindly point to a verse, then interpret it as either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about buying a particular investment.

Another friend used to flip a coin for his decisions, and pray that God would direct through that.

I know a girl who was extra keen to make her decisions based on signs that God was leading. She said to her boyfriend that she’d prayed to God that she would marry the man who said a particular phrase to her. She didn’t say what that phrase was. She did say that he’d almost said it though.

They broke up a few months later. He must not have said the right phrase.

Another young couple met at church and started a relationship. He believed God spoke to him and said to him that she was the woman for him, so he asked her to marry him. She said yes, and it was happily ever after. Well, not quite. They divorced and both remarried. They both started to question if God even exists. Partly because they thought God was leading them and now they feel betrayed.

I could share plenty more examples. People being impressed to read certain Bible verses that seem to point to a particular decision. But that too can lead you astray. The devil tried that trick with Jesus. He quoted the Bible to try to tempt Jesus to do the wrong thing. You can read about it in Matthew 4.

Experiencing God’s direct intervention in our lives can be addictive. Or at least thinking we are being directed by God.

We can easily get trapped into thinking that “God’s will for me is one path and one path only. The exact career path, home locations, “the one” life partner. Any deviation from that one thread of decision-making is living out of His will.

And if I’m not seeing clear signs, then I must be off that one path for my life.” At least that’s how many Christians think.

I’ve thought that there’s only one path and it’s my job to find it and stay on it as close as I can. It’s addictive, and it’s also deceptive.

In contrast, I believe God gives us freedom to choose our path within a broad range of options that are all within His will. His Word gives broad principles of how we should live our lives.

That principle is evident right from the beginning. Did God tell Adam and Eve which food to eat?

No, he let them choose from a very wide variety, but just said there was one tree not to eat from. In Gen 2 God said:

“Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.”

This is a key principle for Christian decision making. There’s often many choices that God can bless. God gives clear boundaries for what is good and bad, but there’s often a broad range of options that are acceptable and good. We often waste a lot of time and energy trying to be sure that we make the best choice when our lives could be much more effective if we just made a good decision and moved on.

The devil has twisted this to make it look like God is restrictive on our choices. In Gen 3 he said to Eve that God told them they couldn’t eat from every tree.

There’s actually a Bible verse that says we should make good decisions and move on, not agonise over the best choice: Eccl 11:4,6: The whole chapter is great.

Whoever watches the wind will not plant;
    whoever looks at the clouds will not reap….

Sow your seed in the morning,
    and at evening let your hands not be idle,
for you do not know which will succeed,
    whether this or that,
    or whether both will do equally well.

In other words, make good decisions and move on without worrying over whether it was the best decision.

Only rarely does God specifically tell us who to marry. Hosea and Gomer spring to mind as an example.

Or where to live. Abraham.

Or what career to pursue: think of Jonah, Moses and Saul who became Paul.

I believe these are special cases. Exceptions, not the rule.

In none of these cases do we find the human praying to God that He would reveal His choice in these specific matters. God simply came and unambiguously gave an unexpected life-changing plan.

But many Christians today tend to seek God’s will in their decision-making much like fortune-telling.

We want to avoid the hard work, risk and responsibility involved in constantly prioritising among good options for major life decisions. We want God to do more than simply tell us broadly what is good and bad. We want Him to tell us which specific option is best. Wouldn’t that make life much easier? I say this looking in the mirror.

Who likes making decisions?

Decision-making is hard! Not many people enjoy the responsibility of making decisions. Who’s been in a group that goes out to eat or do something and you all look for someone else to decide where to go? No one wants to make the decision in case it’s not the best thing.

But God created us with this funny thing called free choice.

God created us to be free persons, with the ability to creatively express ourselves. To be independent. To love. Love is only possible for one who has freedom to choose. Otherwise we are merely robots.

God is a good God! Way better than a fortune teller. Let’s not sell ourselves short on just how good God is! He didn’t give us the gift of free choice, only to turn around and want to take it back from us.

In a good marriage, both partners try to please each other. But imagine if a wife tried to please her husband by asking him which job he wanted her to take, which clothes he wanted her to wear, and made every decision according to his desires. One of them would soon become unhappy. The wife would tire of the husband’s overbearing control. Or the husband would tire of his wife’s inability to figure things out for herself. Probably both of them would end up frustrated.

Yet sometimes we treat our relationship with God like that. Why do we want Him to make all our major decisions? Are we really looking for a mutually satisfying loving relationship based on freedom?

I don’t know about you, but my motivations have been selfish and lazy, when I’ve fallen into that trap, of treating God like a fortune teller.

The marriage relationship is happiest when there is freedom of choice – freedom of creative expression. All within rather broad boundaries of what’s acceptable and what isn’t. I think that’s how it is with God, too.

God didn’t give us the gift of free choice only to want to take it back from us.

We’re also God’s children. If the parent makes every decision for the child, the relationship will soon become dysfunctional and the child will not learn or grow.

In reality, God gives us broad principles of right and wrong and gives us freedom to exercise our creativity and choice.

Isn’t that what we’d prefer for our kids?

Can you imagine wanting your kids to just ask you to direct all their career and life choices? Yet that’s effectively what we expect God to do for us sometimes.

Wouldn’t you prefer your growing children to express their own unique identity and make decisions for themselves? We still like our kids to talk to us about their decisions – just like God likes us to bring every part of our lives to Him in prayer. Prayer is asking God for wisdom, for His character.

You might be thinking: “but asking God to make all our decisions has the added benefit of Him knowing the future. So he can tell us what’s going to work out best.” (Like a fortune-teller.)

The problem with the fortune-teller approach is that God’s Word doesn’t work like that. It gives us principles on which to grow in making our own sound decisions. It’s not meant to be a recipe for discerning God’s choices as if we were reading tarot cards or astrology.

God’s character is much more beautiful than that of a fortune teller! He created us to be much more than robots.

There are also many practical problems with the belief that God led you to a particular past decision that you made, or direction that you chose.

Let’s say you pray something like “God, if I get the job I’ve applied for in Melbourne, then I’ll take it as Your leading that You want me to move my family there.”

At first everything seems to confirm that “God” wants you in Melbourne. You get the job; your wife also gets a transfer there. The kids find an excellent school. Everything is going really well.

Then the business that employed you winds up. Your wife falls pregnant again so soon neither of you will be working.

The kids’ school ends up becoming a negative influence on the kids due to bullying and other problems.

What do you do? “God” led you to Melbourne, right?

If God really did enter into all our bargaining and direct our lives like that, would He put an expiry date on His leading in a particular decision? Would He say, for example, “OK, move to Melbourne and stay there no matter what happens for the rest of your lives.” Or maybe, “until things go bad and you feel like going somewhere else.”

To take this approach consistently, you would really have to stay following a particular direction until you received a new or different direction.

If you felt that God chose a particular school for your children, would you be free to move them if they were bullied or abused at that school? Would you interpret any adversity as a new “direction” from God? Or maybe God is testing your faith? How do you know?

There are always going to be exceptional circumstances or events that the original decision doesn’t cover. Unless we literally do have God constantly directing every decision, every moment of our lives. Right down to shoe laces and lane changes.

But is that really what that verse in Isaiah 30:21 meant?

We’re going to resolve this tension soon. We’re going to see what this verse actually means, and how God’s character truly is love. He’s a God of love and freedom, not fortune-telling or control. He didn’t give us the gift of free choice only to take it back from us.

Things become even more complicated when other people are involved.

My mum met someone who had a very clear idea of God’s will for his life. He said he had a direct connection to God’s will. Impressive, eh? Only problem: this guy said to my Mum: God told me to marry you.

Oops! What would you do? Fortunately mum was able to think quickly so she said: Well, God hasn’t told me that.

The guy was a bit of a fruitloop so my mum got away as quick as she could.

Think twice before praying: “God, I’ll marry the first person who speaks to me.” Such a prayer is foolish. It doesn’t make what happens next “God’s will” just because you put your fortune-telling “God” in a corner.

Jephthah made a stupid deal with God that the next thing that came through the door he would offer as a sacrifice to God. And alas in came his daughter. The tragic story is in Judges 11. The lesson is that we shouldn’t pick random signs like that to make our decisions. God doesn’t intervene just because we made some deal on our terms.

This story may not make much sense at first, but God actually loves us too much to intervene when we make stupid deals.

The fact that God didn’t intervene with Jephthah’s daughter is actually a demonstration of His character of love and freedom. The story is there for our benefit, even though at first it seems terrible. The mistake was by Jephthah, and it’s recorded for us so that we don’t treat God like a fortune teller in our own lives.

Now we’re moving into the second half. We’ve looked at things that don’t work now we’re looking at things that do work.

Does God ever direct particular choices for an individual’s specific life decisions? Very occasionally, yes.

For example Saul on the Damascus road. If He does, it’s, usually unexpected and unambiguous.

God is leading through the circumstances of our lives constantly. We call it Providence. But we usually don’t have specific insight into how God is working in our lives.

If God does give you a specific instruction, then you should definitely follow God’s direction with all your heart and soul.

Or if you have a passion or a burden on your heart to do something in harmony with God’s word, do it with everything you’ve got. Like Ezra and Nehemiah who we’ve been studying about in this quarter’s Sabbath school lesson.

If you don’t have specific instruction from God on your particular life choices, it is not because you are any less spiritual. You can still live your life knowing you are within His will. Look at this verse in Galatians 1:4:

who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,

If we’re letting God deliver us from this present evil age, then we know we’re in God’s will! It almost sounds too simple, doesn’t it?

So then should we depend more on ourselves for making decisions and spend less energy seeking to know God’s will? Absolutely not. Seeking knowledge of God’s will is more about understanding His character and growing in wisdom, faith and love than about getting arbitrary signs that point to option A or B.

And yes, we should still give God the glory for His leading in our lives. For giving us wisdom, and growing our characters. But hesitate before you claim that God directed you to a particular choice as though He were a fortune-teller that could be commanded to give you an answer through a job interview or a flip of a coin. That could backfire on you; and bring God’s name into disrepute.

I’ve made this mistake, of treating God like a fortune teller. I prayed that if I got accepted to do a PhD, I would take it as God’s will. When I got accepted, I told people that God led me to do the PhD. In hindsight, I don’t actually have any evidence that doing the PhD really was God’s specific calling for my life at that stage. The mistake was not so much doing the PhD, but claiming that that was God’s will for me.

What if I prayed “God, if I get accepted to be a drug mule I’ll take that as Your will that I should go to Indonesia.” I would most likely get the gig. But does that make it God’s will because I prayed that prayer?

What if Steve Smith prays, “God, I’ll take it as Your will that I should play Test cricket for the summer if I get selected”.

Of course he’ll get selected for the next test match. Whether playing cricket would be God’s specific choice for him or not is an entirely different question.

Test matches usually go over Sabbath. The first test in Brisbane next month goes over Sabbath. So on that basis his choice should be automatic. He doesn’t need a sign. God has already told him not to work or do his own pleasure on the Sabbath.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like Steve Smith. I’m happy for his story of redemption after being banned for a year. It’s a great story. But wouldn’t it be even better if he found Jesus and gave up cricket because he found something that truly satisfies! Why chase fame and glory through sport when you have everything in Jesus?

If Steve Smith chose to obey God, he would have to give up Test cricket. Following God is much more rewarding than being regarded as the best batsman in the world. What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?

Often doors will open or close suggesting an answer to your prayers. But there’s always the problem of not knowing whether an obstacle is God allowing your faith to be tested or God closing a door. Or whether an opportunity is God allowing you to be tempted or God opening a door.

Often God simply doesn’t intervene at all, beyond natural cause and effect. He allows us to mature and grow in our decision-making. Slowly we begin to realise the confusion created by treating God like a fortune-teller. As though we could command him to give us answers whenever we’re in a pickle.

We treat God like Google sometimes – we go to Him only when we want answers. And sometimes God works with that! He reaches us where we’re at – thankfully!

God is our loving Father. He’s more than happy to give us wisdom and freedom to creatively express ourselves. He loves to see our loving response to His goodness as we learn and grow. This does not lead to decision-making independent from God. It leads us to closer intimacy with our Heavenly Father. Over time we appreciate more and more the amazing gift of freedom of choice. That is love, and God is love.

God has given us freedom to choose, to express ourselves, to be our own unique person. In short: to love, not to be robots. So to be anxious for the right answer for every decision is missing the point. God didn’t give us free choice only to want to take it back again.

I want to leave you with three things that do work for knowing God’s will.

The first principle for the secret of knowing God’s will for your life is this — become familiar with God’s voice. How?  Not primarily by listening to voices inside us, but by listening to the Bible, the Word, that God Himself has spoken.

This is so basic. If you want to know when God is speaking, you need to be familiar with His voice. What does He sound like? What kind of things does He say? What does He tend to emphasize?  You find all that recorded in the Bible.

That’s where you KNOW that you’re listening to God’s voice – learning the secret of His will.

Jesus Himself gives us a wonderful promise about His words:

Matthew 7:24:

“Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock:”

Jesus contrasts this with the one who ignores His words.  That’s like building your house on shifting sand.

The Word is a good foundation.  It’s where we build from.

There’s a lot more things the Bible says that we know are God’s will. Here’s some examples.

  • For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.       1 Tim 2:3,4
  • In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thes 5:18
  • For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.   1 Pet 2:15

The next principle is look for signs that make sense.

Be careful when you ask for a sign. I’m not saying don’t do it. But think about what you’re doing. The Bible gives some interesting examples.

Gideon requested a sign with the fleece after God already told him that he would defeat Midian. God might answer your prayers for a sign, but think about it: was Gideon’s request out of faith or doubt? Did God already tell Him enough to act before the sign?

The Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign, and listen to the response of Jesus in Matthew 16:4:

A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and no sign shall be given to it…

So if you want to look for signs, pray for signs that make sense. And not just to you, but to those looking on – even those who don’t believe in God.

If you’re deciding on a life partner, ask for insight into the person’s character, not for that special person to send you a text message in the next 30 minutes.

Too often people ask God to speak to them through signs that are completely arbitrary.  They want a yes or a no. 

And they give God instructions on how to send the message.  “If you want me to attend that church, then have the pastor call me tomorrow.”

In other words, people just pick something out of the blue and ask God to turn that it into a sign.

There’s better ways of discovering God’s will than that.  God can give you signs that make sense, signs that are information. If you’re evaluating churches, ask God to show you information about those churches, good or bad.

If you need to decide on a life partner, a new job, or moving to a new place, ask God to show you information about your options – the good things and the bad things. These are signs that make sense.

The Bible says God wants to give us wisdom. That doesn’t mean all the answers, it means the understanding and skills we need to come to the answers ourselves.

Let’s look at James 1:5

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.

God wants us to GROW in wisdom and knowledge.  Just picking signs out of the blue, doesn’t help us do that. God wants to make us wiser, not luckier.  So we need to be more careful in looking for signs.  Is this a healthy relationship, or an unhealthy relationship?  Is this choice going to hurt the people I love, or help them?  Is this new job going to expand my abilities, or shrink them?  Ask the right questions.

Ask God to give you meaningful answers, to show you evidence one way or the other.  These are the signs that make sense.

Just asking for God to answer our questions with a yes or no through some random sign will not help us grow in wisdom.

We need to pray for wisdom, not just answers.

That’s why Jesus said: (Matthew 16:4)

A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and no sign shall be given to it…

Men, have you ever wondered why women sometimes don’t tell us exactly what they want? If we want to choose a gift for them, or take them on a romantic date, they sometimes only give us vague answers as to what they want. Do you know the reason for this? Neither do I really. But I’ve been told that it’s because the women in our lives want to know that we love them, and that we know how to express that for ourselves without being told exactly what to do. They don’t want to spoonfeed us!

Sometimes I think it’s the same with God. He doesn’t want to spoonfeed us, to tell us exactly what we should do in certain situations. He’s given us the principles in His word. Now He just wants us to use the love, wisdom and creativity that He’s given us. To live out our lives in a way that demonstrates we choose to love Him. Not as robots that just follow detailed instructions. God doesn’t promise to make us robots, He promises to give us wisdom to discern His voice.

Am I saying that therefore we should totally abandon the idea of Is 30:21 – the text about a voice in our ear guiding us to the left or right? Not at all, the verse is there for a reason. To find out why it’s there, let’s read the very next verse, verse 22.

You will also defile the covering of your images of silver, and the ornament of your molded images of gold;
You will throw them away as an unclean thing;
You will say to them “Get away!”

The verse doesn’t say that God will make every decision for us. It means He will guide us away from evil and toward good. We will know the difference between right & wrong. He speaks to us through our conscience to tell us what is right and wrong.

It’s clear from the context and the rest of the Bible that signs for every decision is not what the verse is telling us. The Bible does not promote fortune telling! But it does give enough guidance to help us know & choose right over sin – every time.

I think God allows us to not have immediate clarity on all our decisions between good alternatives for good reason. I think it’s dangerous for us as humans to have inside knowledge as to God’s will ahead of time. It’s might be OK looking back, but when we’re looking forward, there are several risks:

  • We’ll take things for granted. We’d take people for granted. Instead of choosing to love our spouse, we’d stay with them because God told us to.
  • We’ll become arrogant and difficult to work with. It’s hard to argue with someone who claims to have God’s will on their side.
  • If we really did know where God was leading us, we might freak out because sometimes He leads us places that we’ll only ever understand looking back, not looking forward.

Now, let’s look at our third and final principle which will help us find the secret of knowing God’s will in our lives. It’s this: listen to those who listen.

When we have to make an important decision, it always helps to get feedback from other people.  We don’t want to restrict ourselves solely to a voice inside our own heads.  Other voices are important. The most useful voices are people who listen, people who have themselves listened to the voice of God.

Godly counsellors are a big help.  Men and women who have experience in listening to God speak through His Word. People who are happily following God’s will for their own lives.

Here’s another good piece of advice in Proverbs 11:14:

Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.

Where do we find safety?  In the multitude of counsellors.  Listen to those who listen. Here’s why that’s important.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in the Bible there are many examples of God speaking to us through other people, but only a few where He directly spoke to a human.

God sent messengers and prophets to warn Israel, Jonah to warn Ninevah, and even another prophet to warn His own servant David. God could speak in our ear directly, but sometimes he uses other people.

There’s an interesting example – and that is Saul who became Paul. God did actually speak to Saul directly, but only very briefly. What did God tell Saul to do? He could have laid out the whole plan then and there, while he was lying on the ground blind. But he told him to go find Ananias, and that Ananias would tell him what to do. You can read all about it in Acts 9.

Conclusion

So what have we learned today?

First, God’s will is not simply one path for your life. God has created you with freedom and love. You have creative choice. There are many options for your life that are within God’s will for you. God didn’t give us the gift of free choice only to take it back again.

Second, we learned how to make good decisions that are within God’s will. How do you choose the green paths and not the red paths?

  • Become familiar with God’s voice – in the Bible
  • Look for signs that make sense (ask for wisdom! – not answers)
  • And listen to those who listen

Do you want your decision-making to be more in harmony with God’s will? Do you want to know God’s will for your life? Then ask for wisdom more often than you ask for signs. The bible says we should ask for wisdom, but Jesus says wicked people ask for signs. Ask for God’s character before you ask for the answers that you want.

More often than not, God will answer in ways you don’t expect, because we have a lot of growing to do to understand God’s will and character. I know I have a lot of growing to do!

The answer to knowing God’s will for your life is becoming thoroughly intimate with God’s word. Praying every day that God transforms your character into harmony with the principles of the Bible. Praying for God’s character of love. That’s the important part of being in God’s will. Then you’ll be able to make the little and big decisions in your life more and more in harmony with His will. But it takes time. A lifetime of growth, with plenty of learning from mistakes along the way.

I’m sorry if you were hoping for a silver bullet formula for knowing God’s exact recipe for all your decisions. Like a fortune teller. I simply don’t believe that’s consistent with God’s character of love and freedom.

The reality of God is much better than that! God gave us freedom to choose, to grow. He doesn’t then turn around and ask us to give up that freedom.

The best choice we can make is in Josh 24:15. Choose ye this day whom you will serve. Choose today to serve God. If we do that for all our decision-making, that will get us a long way.

A relationship with God gives us more freedom, not less. Not freedom to be selfish and do whatever we want to do, but freedom from sin. Freedom to love, and to be creative in our expression of that love.

Will you commit to taking time every day to learn more about God’s character of love and freedom, and letting that rub off on you and your decision-making? Will you commit to choosing today to serve God, and to personal growth with God every day of your life?

I believe, for all of us, our decision-making in 10 years time will be way more in harmony with God’s will – his character of love and freedom – than it is today. There’s no simple recipe for instantly moving all your decision-making into exact harmony with God’s master plan for your life. God is not a fortune teller!

God loves us enough to give us freedom.

Following God’s will involves continual learning and growth. Choosing what’s good, true and loving over what’s selfish. It’s the challenge of Christian growth. It takes time, patience, growing trust, and all based on love and freedom.

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