When I was in college, I struggled with not knowing God’s will about my future career. The common question What do you plan to do after graduation? triggered shame and anger. As time went on and I still lacked clarity, I began to feel as if the Lord just didn’t care about my future and would never give me direction.
Whether it’s regarding who to marry, where to live, what vocation to pursue, or something else, we all need the Lord’s direction. However, there are a lot of misunderstandings about God’s will that lead to confusion and frustration. The fear of making the wrong move can paralyze us into inaction.
It does not have to be this way. A Biblical understanding of the concept of God’s will gives us joy and confidence even through periods of uncertainty.
Understanding the Concept of God’s Will
The phrase God’s will refers to what the Lord wants. We see this in the original Greek in Mark’s gospel:
For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.
Mark 3:35 ESV
In this verse, the word translated as will, θέλημα, is the substantive (noun) of θέλω, the Greek verb for I want. This usage occurs in over 60 places in the New Testament, and it helps us arrive at a simple definition of what God’s will is: what the Lord wants.
Doing what the Lord wants goes hand-in-hand with our salvation. We see this in many verses,
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Matthew 7:21 ESV
For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.
John 6:40 ESV
And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
1 John 2:17 ESV
Those who do God’s will “enter the kingdom of heaven,” “have eternal life,” and “abide forever.” We will be held accountable for doing God’s will, which means we must be able to understand what the Lord wants us to do.
Putting Ourselves in a Position to Hear From the Lord
Knowing what the Lord wants begins with preparing our hearts to hear from him. This is a three-fold process: trusting for direction, embracing complete surrender, and obeying what we already know to do.
Trusting for direction
We do not have to be afraid we are going to be stuck in confusion or miss out on something. The Lord has promised to give us direction:
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Psalm 32:8 ESV
The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand.
Psalm 37:23-24 ESV
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
Knowing we will have direction exactly when we need it primes us to surrender to the Lord.
Embracing Complete Surrender
We are surrendered to the Lord when we are willing to do whatever he tells us. The only reason to seek direction is to obey him; we are not credited for knowing God’s will, but doing it. As James writes,
So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
James 4:17 ESV
However, getting to the place of surrender can be difficult because the Lord’s plan may be different from our own, as we see in 1 Peter:
For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.
1 Peter 3:17 (ESV)
It is better to be suffering in God’s will than succeeding out of it. Indeed, having a predetermined decision to obey even in the face of suffering is essential to knowing God’s will in the first place. George Müller, a German missionary who founded and directed orphan houses in England, writes about the difficulty of this decision and the benefits on the other side:
Nine-tenths of the difficulties are overcome when our hearts are ready to do the Lord’s will, whatever it may be. When one is truly in this state, it is usually but a little way to the knowledge of what His will is.
George Müller, Answers to Prayer From George Müller’s Narratives
Jesus connects the ability to see truth to a willingness to obey in John’s gospel:
If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.
John 7:17 ESV
Our understanding of God’s will for our lives is proportional to our surrender, which translates into obedience.
Obeying in the everyday
We already have a lot of information about God’s will in The Bible. For example, there is moral instruction in 1 Thessalonians, where Paul writes,
For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.
1 Thessalonians 4:2-7 ESV
Even if we don’t know who the Lord wants us to marry, what our vocational calling is, or answers to the hundreds of questions in between, we know from 1 Thessalonians we are called to daily obedience, becoming more like Christ each day. We know to seek holiness and aim at our sanctification.
If we are not embracing this truth in our daily lives, we have no ground to seek more direction from the Lord. Why would he give us direction if we are not acting on what he has already given us? Obeying what know about God’s will gives us ground to ask him questions about what we don’t.
Bringing Questions to the Lord
When we bring our questions to the Lord with trust, surrender, and obedience in our hearts, the Lord will give us the direction that we need. This begins with understanding that the Lord leaves a lot of our choices up to us.
Embracing Freedom of Choice
When we are seeking the Lord in our daily lives, we do not need to be anxious about purchasing the wrong car, taking the wrong job, or going to the wrong college. Barring moral impropriety and specific direction from the Holy Spirit, the Lord lets us choose. As A. W. Tozer writes in his book, Set of the Sail:
Now, a happy truth too often overlooked in our anxious search for God’s will is that in the majority of decisions touching our lives God expresses no choice but allows us to choose our preference. Some Christians walk uncertainly, worrying about which profession they should enter, which car they should drive, which school they should attend, where they should live and other such matters. The Lord has set Christians to follow their own personal bent, guided only by their love for Him and their fellow men.
It appears more spiritual to seek God’s leading than to do the obvious thing. But it is not. If God gave you a watch would you honor Him more by asking Him for the time of day or by consulting the watch?
Except for those things that are specifically commanded or forbidden, it is God’s will that we be free to choose. The shepherd leads the sheep but he does not decide which tuft of grass the sheep shall nibble. Touching our life on earth God is pleased when we are pleased. He wills that we be as free as birds to soar and sing our Maker’s praise without anxiety. God’s choice for us may be any one of a score of possible choices. The Christian who is wholly and joyously surrendered to Christ cannot make a wrong choice.
A. W. Tozer, Set of the Sail
The Lord does not desire to control every decision we make. He has given us talents, desires, and personalities on purpose, and often, instead of giving us specific direction, he lets us choose.
However, sometimes, we aren’t sure if our decision falls into this category. We might not know what to do or have any options to choose from. What then?
How to Ask for Direction
Understanding God’s will happens only in the context of a relationship with the Lord over the course of time. The Lord (usually) does not give us all the information we want overnight in a dream, and neither does he put the entire onus on us. The process of discerning God’s will about a situation begins with clearly articulating our questions.
1. Create a specific question
Vague questions usually yield vague answers and are vulnerable to generalizations, which can make them seem more severe than they are. To get specific about our questions concerning God’s will, we can write them out and rework them until they are as clear as possible. For example, someone might feel like, I don’t know what to do with my life! This feels extreme and frightening, but after thinking through what prompted the question, it might be that he or she is struggling to decide between three potential career tracks or discouraged with his or her current job. In this case, his or her entire life is not in confusion; there is a more specific issue to address. Finding the specific need underneath the question gives clarity, checks against melodrama, and provides a specific prayer to bring to the Lord.
2. Put in the legwork
Asking the Lord for direction is not a shortcut; he expects us to do our part. If we want direction regarding purchasing a car, we shouldn’t wait for the Lord to paint a Toyota logo in the sky. Instead, we can prayerfully learn as much as we can about our options, looking at gas mileage, quality, and other specifics that matter to us. If we’re deciding on a vocation, we should learn everything we can about that field through signing up for internships, talking to people in that field, and taking classes. The decision might be obvious once we put in the legwork.
3. Seek Godly advice
Sometimes we need a new perspective to see what is right in front of us. We are not meant to figure things out by ourselves, which is where Godly friendships or mentors come in! They might make God’s will plain to us, offer encouragement as we wait for guidance, or commit to praying for us to have discernment.
4. Notice providential circumstances
The Lord will often direct us through unexplainable “coincidences.” For example, if we are in the midst of deciding between going into medicine or engineering, and we meet a doctor on a plane, that could be a providential circumstance. It is important to not overinterpret these (assuming what they mean before praying through them), but taking note of such instances and watching for patterns could form a stepping stone to understanding God’s will.
5. Avoid emotional confusion
When we’re asking the Lord for direction about something sensitive and important, emotions run high. Sometimes, they’re easy to confuse with the leading of the Holy Spirit.
For example, when I was in the thick of choosing a vocation, I watched a documentary about a doctor who performed a near-miraculous operation and weepingly decided to become a doctor, assuming that the Lord had put it across my pathway. While I didn’t know it at the time, my feelings were not related to being a doctor, but instead about having a passion that could help people. My overinterpretation of an emotional experience led to months of confusion.
An easy way to avoid this pitfall is to imagine what we would do if we did not have emotions tied to it. I would not have pursued medicine without that experience, which indicates my interpretation was on shaky ground. While we might emotionally respond to the direction that the Lord gives us, we should be careful to distinguish emotions that are reactions to the Holy Spirit’s leading and those that are merely circumstantial, lacking spiritual grounding.
6. Study the Bible for guidance
The Bible roots us in truth and is the foundation of God’s will for our lives. The Lord will often speak through it. As it says in Psalm 119:
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.
Psalm 119:105 ESV
As we read, we can prayerfully ask the Lord to show us what to do. For example, while the Lord might not be calling us to stand up to a king, he might impress on us to put on the courage of Daniel and Meshack, Shadrach, and Abednego. He might make the joy of Paul or the worshipful heart of Isaiah stand out, showing us how to respond to a circumstance in our lives.
In addition, a leading that goes against anything in the Bible is not from the Lord. To make sure that we are not misguided, we should check all of our impulses – spiritual as they may seem – against the Bible.
7. Listen to the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit speaks to us in many ways – sometimes audibly, but also through the Bible, thoughts, visions, dreams, and other people. We will be able to recognize the Holy Spirit’s instruction because his guidance will align with the Bible and the Lord will give us discernment. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John,
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.
John 10:27 ESV
We should strive to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and keep our thoughts pure (Philippians 4:8) so that we are quick to listen when the Holy Spirit speaks.
The more time we spend with the Lord in prayer, the more we know the Lord; the more we know the Lord, the more sensitive we are to his spirit and his leading. We see the importance of prayer as it connects to God’s will in a letter recorded in Jeremiah 29. The eponymous prophet writes to Israelite exiles, encouraging them to settle in Babylon and pray for its welfare. They are supposed to pray for their conquerors and, after 70 years, the Lord will bring them back to Jerusalem and restore their home. Jeremiah continues,
For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Jeremiah 29:10-14 ESV
Prayer is the hinge of their prosperity; when the Israelites surrendered to the Lord, calling upon him and praying to him, he moved. We have to be careful to avoid self-serving interpretations here; the passage does not indicate that the Lord will always “prosper” us in the way that we “want” (consider that the Lord’s will for the Israelite includes 70 years in exile; before that, it included 400 years of Egyptian slavery). However, it does demonstrate that seeking the Lord’s will begins with seeking him in prayer.
9. Wait Well
Until we know God’s specific will for our circumstances, his will is for us to wait well. We can stop anxious, fearful, or frustrated thoughts with truth: he will show us exactly what to do at just the right time. As it says in Lamentations,
The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
Lamentations 3:25-6 ESV
Even though we might not know when waiting will turn into clarity and action, we can remember what the future King David wrote as he hid from the murderous King Saul in a cave in the wilderness,
I cry out to God Most High,
to God who fulfills his purpose for me.
Psalm 57:2 ESV
David knew the purpose that the Lord had set before him – he was going to be king (1 Samuel 16:1-13). Now his life was in constant danger – he was hiding in a cave! Even when he probably could not imagine how the cave in the wilderness could ever lead to a throne room, he waited well, trusting that the Lord would fulfill his purpose.
Sometimes it is God’s will for us to wait; therefore, we should not despise the days of waiting. Whether in the cave or ruling Israel as a King, David was in the Lord’s will to the same degree. George Müller emphasizes the importance of waiting well and the cost of getting ahead of ourselves and the Lord:
I never remember, in all my Christian course, a period now (in March, 1895) of sixty-nine years and four months, that I ever SINCERELY and PATIENTLY sought to know the will of God by the teaching of the Holy Ghost, through the instrumentality of the Word of God, but I have been ALWAYS directed rightly. But if honesty of heart and uprightness before God were lacking, or if I did not patiently wait upon God for instruction, or if I preferred the counsel of my fellow men to the declarations of the Word of the living God, I made great mistakes.
George Müller, Answers to Prayer From George Müller’s Narratives
It is possible to wait well for direction from the Lord when we trust him to fulfill his promises and purpose for our lives.
Called to be a child
I thought that my struggle with my career choice would be solved by some sort of supernatural experience where the Lord revealed to me just the right classes, thesis, professors, major, internship, first job, and overall career track. Then, I could finally be rid of the anxiety, fear, frustration, and disappointment. Ideally, the question “What are you going to do when you graduate” would no longer throw me into a pit of despair.
If my inability to choose a career had been the true problem, such direction would have been the perfect fix – but the Lord was after something better: he wanted me to understand what it meant to be his child. He wanted me to see that I was not loved in proportion to my work ethic, academic merit, industriousness, foresight, or even my ability to obey him. His love for me was greater than anything I could effort warrant, and his will for me was better than something I could ever deserve: I get to be his child.
God’s will for all of our lives is that simple: he wants us to be his children. We see this in 2 Corinthians, where Paul paraphrases the opening of Jeremiah 31:
I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.
2 Corinthians 6:18 ESV
The Lord loves us; anything that he wants us to do is grounded in this love. C. S. Lewis puts it this way in a 1954 letter:
You ask ‘for what’ God wants you. Isn’t the primary answer that He wants you. We’re not told that the lost sheep was sought out for anything except itself [Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7]. Of course, He may have a special job for you: and the certain job is that of becoming more and more His.
C. S. Lewis, Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C. S. Lewis
What is God’s will for our lives? To be his children, to understand his love more and more, and to dwell with him forever. Everything else is secondary.
© Olivia Davis 2020, all rights reserved