I once knew a pastor of a “successful” evangelical church who explained his philosophy of ministry to me as follows:
“Every week I do my best to make sure my people are in fear, because if I don’t, they might live loosely.”
Only the pain of that statement exceeds its sadness. This pitiable man was correct in one way: fear is the animating principle of all forms of control. Keeping people in anxiety about finding and walking in the “perfect will of God” for their lives is a form of control. You can be free of it.
Fear of missing God’s specific will for our lives is a paralyzing stronghold that is regularly used by the well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) misinformed in their “discipleship” efforts. Dependent docility, full altar calls, and packed prayer meetings are easily obtainable by keeping people in fear, anxiety, and uncertainty regarding the specific will of God for their lives.
This is especially true for youth and young adult ministries. It’s normal for young adults to have questions about their future. This makes them easy targets for manipulation by those who claim to have spiritual insights into the will of God for their lives. Older adults, as well, often live every day with a nagging sense of regret (in some cases torment) that they may have “missed God’s will for their lives” because of certain decisions they have made over the years.
This fear, anxiety, and torment is sustained by common abusive teachings regarding God’s specific will such as: “don’t miss God’s best,” God will “take your anointing and give it to someone else who is more obedient,” the devil will “get you if you walk outside of God’s will for your life,” “99% obedience is disobedience” and “delayed obedience is disobedience” and many more biblically baseless “preacherisms” like these.
This state of affairs regarding the will of God is somewhat inevitable if we don’t grasp the practical implications of the significant change in the fabric of the universe that took place on the Day of Pentecost.
The change from the Old to the New Covenant era is radical and far reaching. It affects not only our theology or the way we interpret Scripture, but also the practical outworking of our lives in relationship to God and humanity. Nowhere is the change from the old to the new more profound than in the matter of “seeking the will of God.”
There’s not a single verse in the New Testament (NT) that exhorts the New Covenant believer to “seek the will of God,” “seek His face,” “call upon Him while He is near,” “seek Him,” etc. Every NT reference to the will of God is passive and permissive. Every imperative verse regarding seeking God, His will, etc., is in the old economy. We cannot afford to miss this significance.
The astute Bible student will undoubtedly object here and jump to Heb 11:6. Hold on for a moment. I will deal with Heb 11:6 at the end of this article.
The good news on this matter is so radically good, so radically full of grace, and so radically different than what is normally preached and believed, that to many, it will sound too good to be true, “out of balance,” or perhaps worse . . . as error. I would kindly ask the reader not to dismiss what I am going to say herein until you have made it to the end.
You wouldn’t do it anyway
Those who emphasize seeking the specific will of God for our lives are operating under a few flawed paradigms, not the least of which is the assumption that if God revealed His will to us, we would do it! God tried revealing His specific will to humanity. It didn’t work.
In the garden, He revealed His specific will. How well did that go over? Answer: Instantaneous disobedience.
At Sinai He revealed His specific will. How did that work out? Answer: Instantaneous disobedience.
In the Person of Jesus Christ, He revealed His specific will for humanity. How did that play out? Answer: Instantaneous disobedience, and for good measure, we crucified the Revealer as a statement about how we felt about the specific revealed will of God.
Uh, Houston . . . we have a problem.
So, suppose tomorrow God revealed His specific will to you or me? What makes any of us think that on our own, we would do better than the above? To think so indicates a lack of understanding about human nature in general, an inflated sense of our own individual abilities, and a woeful failure to grasp the basics of the gospel. What if God’s revealed will for us was nothing but rejection, hardship, suffering, persecution, and martyrdom? These promises would not likely end up in our “promise box” or as a fridge magnet for us.
What if God had revealed to Corrie ten Boom that His perfect specific will for her was for her father to die alone in a hallway in a Nazi jail, for herself and her sister to spend years in a Nazi concentration camp and for her sister to die there? Without the active grace of God, she (and you and I) would have responded utterly humanly and rejected God’s revealed will. Yet, it was all God’s perfect will, and the world was changed for the better for it, even through the suffering.
The kindest thing God can do for us is withhold the understanding of His perfect will until its time, when He will walk with us in it, in the present, instead of instructing us about it from the future.
Without the life-giving power of the indwelling Spirit animating me, I will never obey the revealed will of God. So, if it is all of grace, and my obedience is God’s gift to me, not my gift to God, why all the straining about the will of God?
How is it that people who normally believe that before conversion, there is none who are good, and none that seek God, and who believe that the essence of salvation is God finding them (election) not them finding God, believe and teach that all hope for spiritual success after conversion is dependent on the believer seeking God? Apparently, the God who freely makes Himself known at conversion, retreats into hiding for the rest of the believer’s mortal days and His hidden face must be sought after.
The glorious news of the New Covenant is that we are not lost and God is not hiding. The New Covenant era is the era of the open face, not the hidden face. We have been found and God is my Father, who is with me and in me, forever.
The will of God is relational
The will of God is revealed incarnationally and relationally. That is, by understanding who I am as a son in interconnectedness with the body of Christ and my relationship to my Father and by understanding what I have been given (God’s predeterminations regarding my make-up/talents gifts/callings) . . . I just get on with living. This or that, right or left, north or south, doesn’t matter. The kingdom becomes an ever-present reality, in me and through me, with others, learning to live under the smile and Amen of God in Christ Jesus. IN CHRIST JESUS IS THE KEY.
Contrary to all appearance, obsessive praying about the will of God is not a sign of healthy spiritual desire or spiritual maturity. Having constant “prophetic patter” with heaven, “do this, now do that, do this, now do that,” is not categorically a sign of advanced spirituality. Slaves need constant instruction and direction and can only function by explicit permission. Sons are released to live because of the trust that has been established through relationship.
You see, it doesn’t take much faith to walk out explicit instructions, and faith is the only commodity that is “God satisfying.” Inherent in a faith walk is the unknowingness of outcome. Slaves walk by instruction and information. Sons walk by faith and trust. As heretical as it seems, sons don’t need constant instruction.
“Get up, leave Ur of the Chaldees and go to a place I will show you,” is hardly a scripted road map. Just a few “gaps in the going,” you might say.
We want the script, not the screenwriter. We beg God to give us a road map, a step-by-step guide that assures us of a wonderful future. The specific will of God is revealed in the going, not in the praying. That is, God does not give us a road map of His will. He gives Himself. His specific will is bound up in His Person and it is known through relationship, not through revelation. He promises to be with us. He births desire in our hearts by His Spirit that is consistent with our identity, gifts, and callings, and says: “Go.” The will of God is not something that is “sought” like a scrap of a lost treasure map, that if we only could find it, great things would happen. The will of God is bound up in the knowing of the Lord.
Son, please quit bothering me . . . ride the bike . . .
Let’s try a parable to cement the idea that the will of God is bound up in relationship.
Once a benevolent father determined to give his son a bicycle for his 11th birthday, which fell on a Monday. Here’s how the week unfolded:
He gave his son the bike and the son asks: “Dad, can I ride it?” and the father says, “Of course son, that’s why I gave it to you. It’s to be ridden.”
The son comes into his father timidly, sheepishly, with eyes down cast and says: “Dad, I am really not worthy of this bike, are you sure I can ride it?” The father says, “Of course son, ride it.”
The son comes in crying and pleading: “Oh father, I fell off the bike yesterday, can I have your permission to ride the bike?” The father gets a tad annoyed and says, “Quit bothering me. Get out of here, and ride your bike. Falling off is part of the process.”
The son comes in on his hands and knees, wailing and moaning: “Oh Dad, I know you are a great dad, full of mercy and kindness, and you have given me this bike that I am unworthy of . . . can I ride it today?” The father says, “Son, I gave you the bike because I expect you to ride it. Please, don’t do this anymore, just ride it.”
The son comes in, throws himself prostrate on the floor before the father, and with wailing, moaning, and tears: “Oh father, is it your will for me to ride the bike today, can I have your permission?” The exasperated father has had it, loses his cool and says: “Quit bothering me and ride the &^%$##$%^&*(*&^$#@ bike!”
I would hope that any of us reading this would consider this dynamic of seeking the father’s will as relationally dysfunctional.
Allowing for the limitations of the metaphor in my father image, it is (unfortunately) exactly how most Christians pray about the will of God. We believe if we are somehow earnest enough about how unworthy we are, God will somehow be persuaded to reveal something He is otherwise not inclined to reveal. We’re funny in this way, because we would react strongly to pagans who view their gods as having to be assuaged or conditioned to make their will known, but in our own prayer practices, we act like pagans instead of sons.
In my parable, the father’s will has been revealed in the act of giving the bike. The existence of the bike as a gift, presupposes the intent of the giver that it is to be ridden. The son does not have to ask about his father’s will.
What has our heavenly Father given us and what does it presuppose?
- His smile
- His satisfaction
- His rest
- His love
- His indwelling Spirit
- His “amen” over Christ in us
- His gifts and graces
- His calling
- His blessing on the new creation in us . . . and so much more.
Every moment of life is presenced with Him and His will. We live, and move, and have our being in Him. There’s never a time we are apart. Together we enter into His revealed will by simply living life, turning our hearts toward Him, and relating to Him. If the matter at hand is not sin, and not one of the major issues of life (see below), there’s no need to agonize over a mystical idea of the revealed will of God. It will unfold as we experience life together. We do not need advance prescription that any specific activity is, or is not, “His will.”
So much of the “seek God’s will” teaching is based on insecurity, the fear of making a mistake, and a desire for self-protection. We erroneously believe that if we just had the right divine information we could avoid a wrong decision and its temporal consequences.
A decision made in relationship with Him, whose outcome works out circumstantially unpleasant or apparently “wrong,” is better than a decision that is made independently from Him and appears to work out circumstantially “right.” In the former, His Romans 8:28 redemptive grace is activated, in the latter, we are on our own. Who reading this has not learned more through his or her failures than successes?
Yeah, but what if I sin?
Undoubtedly there will be those reading this saying: “Whoa, wait, this is a license to sin to do whatever we want!” Absolutely not.
Everything I have said herein is contingent upon a genuine new creation conversion–that are surprisingly rare! “I don’t care if I sin or not” “God is in the forgiving business, etc.” are inconsistent with the new creation. If this issue isn’t settled, there are more foundational discussions that need to occur apart from debates about “grace,” “free will,” “sin,” and the will of God and so on.
My comments are also based on a functional, living, dynamic relationship with God based in sonship, inheritance, and the promise of the New Covenant. Where love and trust are established through the growth of the new nature, sin is simply not even in the equation. How else can the following verse make any sense at all?
If you abide in me, and my word abides in you, you can ask what you will and it will be done for you.
God has already revealed the “sin” boundary issues in His Word. We don’t need to pray and seek God about things He has already made plain. I do not have to “pray about” whether or not it is God’s will for me to have an affair. There is nothing to seek in this matter. We just have to read and obey. It’s not mysterious. In my pastoral experience it never ceased to amaze me how often the saints would use “prayer for God’s will” as a cover to commit explicit sin. The freedom of the discovering the will of God in relationship is based on the exclusion of sin.
It should be self-evident that what I am saying here is in no way meant to disparage the panoply of resources God has left us. Obviously, the disciplines of prayer, fasting, the counsel of others, proper exercise of the gifts of the spirit, and so on for the 3-4 major decisions of life  are all legitimate. But even in these decisions, we approach the process from the assurance of sonship and a Father who will speak, not from the anxiety of an outsider trying to break into the lock box of His will. If Father does not speak, we proceed under the “amen” of God in Christ. We do what we want, or think, is best.
We trust the Holy Spirit to check us. We live daily in the “yes” of God and stay tuned for the tug of restraint in the “no” of God. I admit: it’s easy to ignore God’s “no.” That being true, it’s part of the risk  God willingly took in uniting His Spirit with a creation so much like Him, that it could say “no” to Him. It is the risk of radical gospel liberty.
I have also learned that the Holy Spirit is a gold medal-level door slammer. He is outstanding at slamming doors of circumstance and opening others. My hands have been caught more than once in doors He was slamming shut. He can be trusted. He’s very good at it.
The specific will of God for our lives is really quite easy:
1. Is it sin . . . yes or no?
2. Is it consistent with my identity, gifts, and calling?
3. Is the door open?
If no to #1, and yes to #2 & #3, then quit the guilt laden, religiously motivated, straining, and striving prayer about the will of God and just get on with it!
We want God to give us the bike and assure us that we won’t scrape our knees if we ride it. Life doesn’t work that way. He promises to be with us and not condemn us for scraping our knees, and to encourage us that His will has been revealed by what He has already given us. His revealed specific will to us is:
Get on the bike. Ride, son . . . ride.
Doesn’t Hebrews 11:6 say that God rewards those who diligently seek Him? Doesn’t our prayer and fasting open up doors of blessing and His revealed will for us? Alone, they don’t.
The phrase “diligently seek Him” is a KJV translation of an idiomatic Jewish expression for holistic worship. God is the rewarder of those whose whole lives are centered in Him, whose entire being is an expression of worship. The reward promised in Hebrews 11:6 is not to those who strive and strain to know the will of God through the determined exercise of Christian disciplines, but to those who consider God in all things, in every aspect of their lives.
 1Cor.16:7; Heb. 6:3 – if God permit.
 But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.
 Gen. 3
 Exo. 24:7; Exo. 32:1-2.
 Only the new nature is obedient, and the new nature is a gift.
 Matt. 19:17
 Psa. 14:3
 2Cor. 3:15-18.
 Gen 12:1
 John 15:7ff
 A mate, a job, a geographic relocation, sickness/health, life, death, etc.
 I don’t want to get bogged down in freewill and predestination issues here.