We think that knowing the will of God is the hard part. We are wrong. God freely tells us His will in His time. The hard part is our unwillingness to do what He commands.
In Bible Fellowship we were discussing John 9, the healing of the man born blind. During the conversation we noted how the man heard Jesus tell him to wash in the pool of Siloam, and he trusted and obeyed the word of the Lord. Later when confronted by the Pharisees he boldly told his story; that he was blind and now he could see. The formerly blind man didn’t exaggerate the truth and he didn’t “soft pedal” it to soothe his inquisitors. By obeying Jesus’ command and by telling his story with courage, this man was following the will of God for his life. This comment occasioned the question “how can we know the will of God in our lives?” Though we did not have time to delve into it then, I promised my class that I would write on the topic this week.
Step 1 – Do what the Bible says to do
Christians often consider knowing the will of God as knowing which career to pursue, which person to marry, or which house to buy. While these are important questions, they make up a tiny fraction of our life decisions. God is concerned with every moment, the “big” as well as the “small”, because ultimately He knows that “big” things are really only summations of “little” ones.
The first week of medical school, I was afraid. I had heard for years that becoming a doctor was hard and only the most brilliant could do it. Who was I to think that I could succeed? I felt like a pretender. No one in my family had ever received a college degree, much less embarked on a medical career. Why was I there? My head spun and my stomach churned as I stared blankly at my first anatomy quiz. Moments passed and I prayed. Suddenly a peace engulfed me and a voice spoke in my mind. I didn’t have to pass medical school that day and I didn’t have to pass anatomy that day. I didn’t even have to pass the quiz that day. All I had to do was answer the question that faced me at that moment. So I did. Then I answered the next one and the next one. Soon the time was up and my quiz was done. My score was 80%; not great, but good enough. I realized that even something as big as medical school was just the summation of thousands of questions, thousands of hours, hundreds of patients, and thousands of other little things. I didn’t have to confront them all at once, just one at a time. That lesson carried me through four years of medical school and many decades of life challenges since.
If life is a summation of little things, then the little things are what really matters. The Bible tells us to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). It tells us to care for the less fortunate (James 1:27), both physically and spiritually, and to support our families (1 Timothy 5:8). It commands us to “cast our cares on Him for He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7)” and to “be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication let our requests be made known to Him (Philippians 4:6).” God in His word directs us to forgive others (Matthew 18:21-22), to worship Him (John 4:23-24), and to be thankful in everything (1 Thessalonians 5:18). We must live in peace with others (Romans 12:18, Hebrews 12:14). And in order to do this, we must know the Bible (Joshua 1:8-9).
The idea of knowing the Bible deserves special mention. Christians have the idea that reading the Bible is enough, but in reality it is only the beginning. If I want to know medicine I must first read my notes and textbooks. Then I study them, understanding each topic and discovering how the topics relate to each other. For example, I study the circulatory system (heart, blood and vessels) and the respiratory system (airways and lungs), and then discover how those systems relate to each other (in this case, oxygen and carbon dioxide passing from capillaries to alveoli, etc.). In the same way, to know the Bible I need to know and Old and New Testaments and also how they relate to each other. The human body has over a dozen systems including trillions of cells that interact in millions of ways, and the Bible has 66 books covering 2,000 years of human history with dozens of cultures and millions of people. A man could study each for a hundred lifetimes and never fully unveil their mysteries.
We never finish reading and studying, but the next tasks are to memorize and meditate on Scripture. Learning happens consciously and subconsciously, and the concepts that we learn keep growing and connecting in our minds even when we are doing something else. German physiologist Otto Loewi (1873-1961) had the insight that impulses travel between nerves chemically, not electrically, during a dream. German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz (1829-1896) discovered that carbon was tetravalent because of a dream. When we memorize the Bible and meditate on it, God reveals His truths in life changing ways, and does it at the least expected times.
Medical students and residents today always have their smart phones and medical apps ready to answer any question. Several have told me that they don’t see the point in memorizing medical facts when they can look up whatever they need in seconds. I certainly would have loved to have such information so readily available when I was training, but this mindset is dangerous. A physician is more than a storehouse of readily retrievable facts. Rather, he or she is a living organism that builds connections between facts, feelings, and thousands of other data elements received from each patient and their environment. Just as scientists, physicians have insights that change the lives of their patients. It is no different in ministry. Teachers of the Gospel and individual Christians use Scriptural facts and insights, combined with their individual experiences, to live their lives and meet the needs of others. Four activities, reading, studying, memorizing and meditating, are the key to knowing the Bible.
How do you know that you know the Bible? When Scriptures pop into your mind and roll off your lips effortlessly as you encounter the joys and challenges of life, you know the Bible. When others come to you for Christian help with their problems, you know the Bible. When your first thoughts in a crisis are not of television shows, internet articles or pop psychology, but of timeless truths from people of God, you know the Bible. When your actions mimic the actions of Christ, you know the Bible.
The Lord does not hide His will from us but He does require that we do what we know He wants before He gives us more guidance. If we truly want to know God’s will for our lives, we must begin by doing what the Bible says to do.
Step 2 – Do not do what the Bible says not to do.
When I was in college a friend told me that he wanted to marry a certain girl. I asked him why, and he replied that they enjoyed each other’s company, including getting drunk, smoking pot, and having good sex. They had little in common, and though his Christian faith had rusted, she did not even pretend to know the Lord. I told him that marrying her was a stupid idea and that he could do better. He was furious and called me a Pharisee, hypocrite, and every other human villain in the Bible he could think of. It was rough for several weeks, but eventually they broke off their relationship. Years later, after pulling his life back together and marrying a wonderful girl, he thanked me.
Just as the word of God is clear about what we should do it is also clear about what we should not do. Sexual relations outside of marriage are wrong, but how many men have convinced themselves that it was God’s will to leave their wives and marry someone else? Envy and covetousness are wrong, but how many people spend their days in resentment over others’ possessions and accomplishments? Galatians 5:19-21 provides a wonderful list of things that the Lord tells us not to do, but we do them anyway. In fact, we angrily defend our right to do these things even though in the end they will destroy us. The alcoholic often knows that his habit is ruining him, and yet will violently oppose those who try to take his liquor away. By its very nature, sin is self-destructive, and it should be no surprise that the person most harmed by sin is the one who does it.
If we truly want to know God’s will for our lives, we must begin by not doing what the Bible says not to do.
Step 3 – Deal with the past; confess it and make it right
I once had a patient in El Paso who was wracked by anxiety. She was raised a staunch Catholic but her marriage had failed and her daughter was now living with her boyfriend in her upstairs bedroom. In her early fifties, this patient had renewed her faith and strove daily to do what was right and not to do what was wrong, but she bore a heavy burden of guilt from her past. She had come towards the end of the day so we had plenty of time to talk and even read a few Scriptures together. From our interactions the way to healing became clear to her; she needed to deal with her past.
- Confess and accept forgiveness for the sins you know about (1 John 1:9).
- Ask the Lord to search your heart and reveal hidden, unconfessed sin (Psalm 139:23-24).
- Be reconciled to others (Matthew 5:23-24), especially your family (1 Peter 3:7), forgiving those that you need to forgive, whether you think that they deserve it or not. Forgiveness is given; it is never earned.
- Confess and accept forgiveness for these sins.
- Thank God for His mercy and grace to you, and praise Him for all that He is (Psalm 100).
- Thank and praise Him again, and again, and again. Do it every day for the rest of your life.
We should not try to short cut these steps, because if we keep sin in our hearts, the Lord will not hear us (Psalm 66:18). For the woman noted above to truly deal with her past was going to take weeks or months. The state of her heart may have required hours of prayer, even before she contacted those to whom she needed reconciliation. The process of restoring relationships with others is long and painful, and sometimes the others refuse to reconcile. Nonetheless God holds us responsible for our own actions, not those of others.
Finally, dealing with the past is not a one-time project. Since our natural bent is towards sin, we need to do it again and again. In truth, these steps must be our lifestyle. Only then will we be able to receive God’s guidance in the moments and days of our lives.
Step 4 – Take time
Once our hearts are right before the Lord we can ask Him to reveal His will in the expectation that He will do so. However, this takes time; 60 second prayers generally will not do. In college I needed to pray for an hour just to get ready to pray; only in the second hour and beyond did I begin to feel the Spirit and hear His voice. Since then the requirements have not diminished. Jesus spent 40 days fasting and praying before picking His disciples (Matthew 4:1-22). When in the Garden of Gethsemane, He sought the Father most intensely before His greatest trial of all. The Christians in Antioch fasted and prayed before the Spirit told them to send out Saul and Barnabas as the first missionaries.
Step 5 – Look in the rearview mirror
The Apostle Paul told us that the Church is the Body of Christ. Some of us are fingers, some eyes, and some hips, but every one of us is absolutely vital for the Lord’s work in the world. The prominent are not better and those behind the scenes are not worse. The rich are not better, or more blessed, and the poor are not worse, or less favored.
This being true, God gives each person has a unique set of experiences, and He expects each of His followers to use these experiences in service to Him. Sons in the past tended to follow their father’s occupation, and daughters did the same with their mothers. Even today children often work in the same industries that their relatives did (consider the entertainers Henry Fonda with his daughter Jane and Rosemary Clooney with her nephew George). A friend became a successful plumber because his uncle owned a plumbing company and hired him for a summer job. The Lord used their parents’, friends and relatives’ knowledge, interests, and contacts, to direct the steps of their family members. He does the same in every area of life.
Consider further that our past can guide our future. As a child I was interested in military history and medicine, and God used those interests to make me an officer and physician today. Why shouldn’t children follow in the footsteps of their relatives? Parents can help their children succeed at things that they know and in environments where they have a good network. They probably can’t help as much in other areas.
If you do not know what your next step should be in life, look at what God has done for you in the past. What did your parents, other relatives and friends do? Where were you born, and what opportunities did you have growing up? Singers Shirley Jones, Whitney Houston and Katie Perry got their start in music by singing in church choirs. My children grew up hearing about physicians like John Snow, epidemics like smallpox, and topics like sports medicine. It is probably no coincidence that one has decided on a career in public health and another on a career in physical therapy.
Step 6 – Ask others
God made people to live as individuals and as members of groups; human life is a team sport. This is trebly true of the Christian life. Paul and other Biblical writers are clear that no one can fully experience God by himself; the fullness of God is only available through relationships.
The Lord speaks through many things. He uses people to indicate His will. One hopeful preacher was giving a sermon at a church in Alaska. He spoke and spoke and eventually told his listeners “Speak to me!” An elderly African American woman in the front row replied “When you say something to us, we’ll speak back to you.” The young man was convinced of his call to the ministry but his church disagreed, at least for the time being.
We receive guidance from the Lord through the words and actions of others. Spiritual leaders, parents, relatives and friends are often the source of great wisdom, especially if they trust and obey God themselves. No one should make any important decision by themselves, because in an abundance of counselors there is victory (Proverbs 11:14).
Step 7 – Consider the practicalities
When Saul and Barnabas departed for their first mission trip, they sailed to Cyprus, Barnabas’ home, which was only two days sail from Seleucia and had a sizeable Jewish community (Acts 13:4). It was God’s will for the early Christians to spread the gospel all over the world, but it took the beginnings of persecution in Jerusalem to motivate them to leave their home city and go elsewhere, spreading the Word as they went.
Their first destination was practical, affordable, and likely to be successful. When my wife and I were seeking God on whether or not to buy a house we realized that with extended family moving in we didn’t have enough space. We did all of the other steps and prayed at length, but the practicalities were compelling in our decision what, when, where and how to buy.
Objectively evaluate the pros and cons of the situation. Decision making tools such as the military decision making process (MDMP) and tools to quantify the options can be extremely helpful. Weigh the pros and cons, analyze costs and benefits using hard data and clear thinking.
Our interests and physical make up guide our decisions. Short and light people cannot be NFL linebackers while tall and heavy people cannot be jockeys. People who are tone deaf have a hard time conducting orchestras but may make wonderful painters. This applies to more than just careers. Folks with chronic knee or back pain should probably choose single level houses, and tall people have trouble in small cars. The secret is to candidly evaluate oneself in every aspect and determine what the realistic possibilities are. No one can do everything, and those who can do many different things struggle with knowing what to do. The key is to make a decision, stick with it, and rejoice that the Lord made us who we are. No thing and no one is more important than any other, provided they follow God.
Step 8 – Beware Human Nature
Humans are notoriously fickle and sometimes feel the need to change for the sake of change. Advances in any field take a long time and often we give up before accomplishing our goal simply because we don’t see enough progress to suit us. The German blitz against airbases in England was devastating Fighter Command in the summer and autumn of 1940, but Hitler did not see the rapid results that he wanted. As a result, he switched the focus of the Luftwaffe to bombing civilian targets and failed to defeat England.
People are also quick to get bored. We work best in a routine, but have to constantly avoid the danger of a routine turning into a rut. Doing the same thing in the same way with the same people in the same place can get old if we let it. Too often we make stupid changes just because we are bored. How many marriages have ended and lives been damaged simply because one or both partners grew tired of the relationship. Work is not so hard, but consistent work over years or decades while seeing few results is exhausting. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.
Because of these characteristics of human nature, if you do not feel clear guidance from the Lord to change what you are doing, don’t change. Keep doing the same thing, and wait upon Him for future answers.
Step 9 – Don’t expect to receive miraculous guidance very often
God wants us to know His will, but doesn’t tell us with visions, dreams or miracles very often. Gideon wanted a fleece and it was given him (Judges 6:36-40). Joseph required dreams (Matthew 1:19-24, 2:19-23) and Mary visions (Luke 1:28-38) to get them to see the movement of the Lord. Peter needed a vision to get him to open the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10:9-17). Paul was headed to Bithynia in northwestern Asia Minor when the Spirit came to him in a vision and told him to go to Europe instead (Acts 16:9). These examples are impressive but such events are actually rare.
Step 10 – If God commands, we must obey
Once the Lord provides direction, He expects us to act on it. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-2) and He did not speak to Jonah again until the reluctant prophet did what He commanded (Jonah 3:1-2). We tell our kids to obey, as Gary Ezzo suggests, “right away, all the way, and with a happy heart.” At first Jonah did none of these, and only terrible suffering forced him into the most grudging obedience. In the end Jonah’s hated enemy, the Assyrians, repented and were forgiven (Jonah 3:10), but Jonah was “angry unto death” (Jonah 4:9) and never gained the best prize, the heart of God (Jonah 4:10-11).
Step 11 – Ultimately, the Lord will redeem the decisions of His children
We have all made decisions that seemed good at the time but turned out bad. Sometimes it is a financial investment, other times it is a career move, and still others it is a relationship. God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9) and things that we see as poor decisions often turn out for the better.
Worse, we sometimes decide to sin. The decision of one person to cheat, injure, rape, or even kill another is evil. The Lord will punish the evildoer. The victim will suffer as a result, but the Lord can and will redeem the suffering for His perfect purposes. Job did nothing to deserve the destruction of his wealth and his children, and those calamities cast a shadow over the rest of his days. Nonetheless the Lord restored him in this life and welcomed him in the next. Though nearly beyond our ability to accept, God does cause all things to work together for good for those who believe, for those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
Knowing the will of God can seem difficult, and sometimes it can be difficult. Nonetheless by knowing His Word, by dealing firmly with sin, and by using our God-given powers of observation, thought and reason, we can discover His direction for us. By obeying and trusting that no matter what happens, the Lord is our shepherd, we can follow the road He has set before us. As a professor said years ago in medical school, “it doesn’t matter what the future holds when you know Who holds the future.”