The Will of God as a Way of Life
Does God have a specific will for your life that you can know? Does He prompt you with personal direction by the Holy Spirit? Or does He only reveal His will in a general way?
Not a Matter of Techniques
First of all, do not make the mistake of thinking, “If I just pray the right words, or if I just do the right spiritual exercise, God will tell me what career to pursue or what school to attend.” Discerning God’s will is not a matter of techniques, but rather a product of an ongoing relationship with Him, in which we grow to know what He loves. As we grow closer to Him, His presence and His Word will begin to define our thought process. This enables us to be heavenly-minded in our earthbound arena. That eternal perspective, in turn, creates a context in which we are attuned to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
The reason we should expect to hear from God in this context is that God’s grace is always previous to our response (John 15:16; 1 John 4:8–21). Just as “we love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19), so we should expect His Spirit to initiate as we live for Him. Paul says that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). If God has prepared our life in the Spirit beforehand, should we not also expect Him to prompt us in the way we should go?
God’s Will as a Way of Life
We should always be listening for the promptings of the Spirit, but not in a way that is disconnected from our ongoing relationship with God. Instead of agonizing over one thing or another, trying to discern God’s will in a particular situation, it is far better to see God’s will as a way of life. In other words, our job is simply to seek to make decisions that are pleasing to the Lord. Then, as we go, we should seek to please the Lord in the particular arena or in the people’s lives that He leads us to.
For example, we already know that it is pleasing to the Lord for believers to “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). So, if you sense the Lord has put someone from your local church on your heart, seek to apply Hebrews 10:24 to that particular person. In this way, you will be doing what you know is the will of God, but in the particular circumstance God has prompted you to do so. You will notice that the more frequently you respond in obedience to these promptings, the more clearly you will hear the still, small voice of the Spirit. But the more you respond in disobedience, the more your ability to hear the Spirit’s promptings will diminish.
God’s Will and Prayer
How does prayer relate to discerning God’s will?
Something I have noticed about the way we pray is that we often seek to use it to control our relationship with the Lord. We go in seeking a certain answer in our prayers, and we don’t get that answer we assume God is either punishing us or not powerful enough to answer our prayer. But what we forget is that we do not truly know what is best for us. God knows better than we do.
Consider the following prayer by 16th century theologian Blaise Pascal:
With perfect consistency of mind, help me to receive all manner of events. For we know not what to ask, and we cannot ask for one event rather than another without presumption. We cannot desire a specific action without presuming to be a judge, and assuming responsibility for what in Your wisdom You may hide from me. O Lord, I know only one thing, and that is that it is good to follow You and wicked to offend You. Beyond this, I do not know what is good for me, whether health or sickness, riches or poverty, or anything else in this world. This knowledge surpasses both the wisdom of men and of angels. It lies hidden in the secrets of Your providence, which I adore, and will not dare to pry open.
What a bold prayer! This is the kind of trust we ought to have in God when we go to Him in prayer.
But what should we make of it when Scripture tells us, “Ask and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7) and when it tells us to intercede for the physical needs of others?
I think the best way to understand this is to remember that God is our heavenly Father. An earthly father will always be concerned about his child’s requests. But that doesn’t mean the child’s requests will always be in the child’s best interest. That child cannot possibly understand how getting a shot at the doctor’s office is in his or her best interest. A good father will listen compassionately to that child’s cries of protest, but in the end the child will still get the shot.
In the same way, it is always right for us to pray for what is in our heart. Our heavenly Father will always be concerned about the heart of His children. But He also has a wisdom that we do not have. So, the wise thing is to pray for our specific desire, not withholding our heart from God in the least, but then surrendering the matter to Him, asking Him to respond according to His will, not ours, since His will is the best response we could hope for.