On Knowing God’s Will

I was asked a question by a young friend in the congregation recently:

In what ways can we know God’s will? For example I feel sometimes I want to know all of God’s will for my life up front so that I don’t have to guess, but it seems in reality that God only shows me bits and pieces of his will over time because he wants me to trust him. Is this correct? I’m asking because [a friend] and I talked on the phone a bit and he mentioned how God’s will is mysterious.

I think my friend was onto a very important truth in the words of his question! I’ll get to that after establishing a bit more context for knowing God’s will.

There may be mysterious things about God’s will; but there is a whole lot of God’s will that is clearly taught from scripture. Check out the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5 through 7, for example. Our problem is often that we have our own agendas and want God to tell us what is next to advance our agenda rather than being satisfied with his agenda in the everyday matters of life. Of course God does have a purpose in life for each of us. That’s where we tend to focus – too much, generally speaking. What unique for me? And then we don’t work on aligning our lives with what we can easily know of His will for every follower of Jesus from scripture – and that’s where we fall short.

I found a couple of pieces of advice lately from a couple of good Christian teachers that I included in a very brief comment in another post.

I wrote an article on community discernment to help on big decisions from a Quaker perspective, too. This article also discusses more generally the “prerequisites” for knowing God’s will.

But the big picture…. I’d say that God’s will for knowing God’s will is that we trust Him. Trust is a more of a relationship thing than a plan.

What we often want is a map of the future or a plan of action or a direction. Then we can take control of it ourselves! We tend to stop waiting on God, stop seeking Him, stop spending time with Him, stop listening – and instead start doing. The “doing” tends to take on more and more of what we think is good and less and less of God’s walking us through living so as to carry His image day by day. Sometimes God starts us in a direction that he intends to change after having his planned impact on us. It’s a mechanism for changing us more than a direction he intends to maintain through to the end that we were thinking of. I think of being directed to grad school. I thought it was to prepare me to be a Christian professor at a major university. Well, that didn’t happen. And it wasn’t a failure. It wasn’t misleading. It was the path that brought me to the not-imaginable-to-me place where I am today. So in that sense, “mysterious” fits.

I don’t think having a map of the future or a full and promised plan of action is generally God’s will for us. God’s will is that we enter into a relationship of trusting Him, growing to know Him more and more over time, and being changed in that relationship to be more like Him (that’s a way of describing what it means to carry His image well).

Relationships are not plans. They are alive. They are community. In our relationship with God, He grants us considerable power over our portion of the relationship. We can abuse it, ignore it, have expectations about it, leave it behind…. or value it, let Him have the position of Lord in it, and so on.

All of our actions regarding the relationship have consequences, but they do not change God’s heart for us or drive Him away. In a sense, we make our bed and then lie in it. Our actions do not force his hand. He is faithful and just and loves us no matter what. But our actions bring the necessary consequences to change us or teach us or humble us or…. whatever is needed in God’s wisdom. We think things are good decisions, and they bring a kind of death, or darkness! Oops. Better learn from that and trust God again!

Can we bring ourselves to trust Him? Even into and through death? Though whatever comes from other humans? Will we trust Him and find Him faithful to himself and His love – even His love for the broken people that we are, in need of change?

Then there’s also some stuff I’ve been checking out lately that packages discipleship as a “Rule for Life” thing. “Rule” is not like a legal thing; it is the older meaning of rule that is more like a framework or support structure or a trellis that holds up a plant, but in this case giving us a form for life to grow around.

Rich Villodas has been talking about “Rule for Life” stuff recently. He attracted my attention with a comment that said:

“Here are 4 core questions to help you build a Rule of Life. These questions are created with prayer, self-care, community, and mission in mind.

  1. What are the spiritual disciplines you need to anchor you in a life with God?
  2. What are the practices of self-care you need to care for your body and nurture your soul?
  3. What core relationships do you need in this season of life to support you on your journey?
  4. What are the gifts, passions, and burdens within that God wants you to express for the blessing of others?”

His comment reminded me of my first little article above quoting Ray Bakke and the bishop who commented on what path makes one the most generous. And also, without satisfactory answers to the questions Rich Villodas poses, I think it is difficult to accurately discern a specific, unique direction of God’s will for us. That is, we need to back up to get the basics of life with God right before He moves us in a more unique direction. It’s like the “talents” parable. If we have not been faithful with the part of God’s will that he has already revealed to us, why would we expect Him to tell us more?

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