(This blog post is inspired by the book “Decision Making and the Will of God” by Garry Friesen. A highly recommended read! See this link for a preview.)
I think everyone has experienced it at some point in their lives, having to make a decision that just feels impossible to make. Maybe you had to decide which school to attend, whether to move to a different city or even who to date and who to marry. Or maybe you’re the kind of person who can’t even decide what to have for breakfast. Decisions are hard. And finding God’s will for those decisions can make it even more complicated.
I would know. I once spent two years figuring out God’s will for a past relationship. I had many sleepless nights thinking about what would be the best decision, praying to God to show me what this decision would look like. Maybe God could tell me through a sign, through friends, or a sermon. I didn’t want to make such an important decision alone. I needed God to tell me directly. However, He never did, not noticeably anyway, and in the end, I decided without a clear sign from God.
This raises some questions. Did I miss God’s guidance? Could I have somehow seen God’s will in my circumstances or my friends’ advice? Should I have waited on God to reveal His will to me more clearly? And did this cause me to make the wrong decision? Or maybe I just didn’t know how to discern God’s will. Maybe I was never taught by my church or my parents. How does God make His will known to us? Does He have a perfect will for each of our lives, and if so, how do we base our daily decision-making on that perfect will? Is it possible to fall out of God’s will, even when we think we’re making righteous or good choices?
God’s will in the Bible
However unclear God’s will can feel in our daily lives, God’s will is clearly described in the Bible. Nonetheless, the Bible can also cause confusion as there are two clear and very different meanings for the term “will of God” in the Bible, the sovereign will of God and the moral will of God. It is therefore good to make a distinction between these two.
God’s sovereign will
- “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” (Proverbs 19:21)
- “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4:27-28)
- “You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:14-15)
What do these verses have in common? They all talk about the will of God that is hidden and that is bound to happen. God’s sovereign will is God’s secret plan that determines everything that happens in the universe (see Daniel 4:35; Proverbs 16:33; 19:21; 21:1; Revelation 4:11; Ephesians 1:11; Romans 9:19; 11:33-36; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; James 4:14-15). Read a good history book and you’re reading God’s sovereign will for the past.
In general, God’s sovereign will is secret. We don’t know His plans for tomorrow or the day after that. But there are two exceptions to the secrecy of God’s sovereign will. One of them is prophecy (Amos 3:7). For example, God told us that Jesus is coming back (Matthew 24:30) and that there will be wars until then (Matthew 24:6-7). The other exception is God’s plan for salvation. We know that through faith in Jesus, we are forgiven and will spend eternity in His heavenly kingdom and presence.
You can see His sovereign will at work throughout the Bible. Despite people’s bad choices, God was never stopped and ultimately brought redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Human’s bad choices didn’t obstruct God’s perfect plan. The people of Israel were chosen to be a holy nation and an image of who God is to the rest of the nations. But they made many wrong decisions. Just read the Old Testament. God stayed faithful to an unfaithful nation and did not let their terrible choices stand in the way of His sovereign will.
One other example is the life of Joseph. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers, was harassed by his master’s wife, and thrown into prison. But when his brothers came to him with fear, Joseph said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). Joseph’s brothers, Potiphar’s wife, and the cupbearer all made bad choices, but God used it for good.
Now, because God’s sovereign will is mostly secret, it usually won’t influence our decisions. However, it does show us that, ultimately, we are not in control. Our choices do have an impact and we carry a responsibility for them, but God is the one who, through our good or bad choices, has control. We are not in the hands of man; we are in the hands of a good and caring God who is working everything for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).
God’s moral will
- “But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know His will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law.” (Romans 2:17-18)
- “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.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-6)
- “Whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17)
- “Do not kill the innocent” (Exodus 23:7)
- “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)
These verses show God’s moral will, which is God’s revealed commands in the Bible that teach how men ought to believe and live (Romans 2:18; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; 5:18; 2 Corinthians 6:14; plus all other direct commands in Scripture). Where God has spoken in the Bible, the believer must obey.
In contrast with God’s sovereign will, the moral will of God is fully revealed in the Bible. It isn’t secret, and we humans often fail to keep it; moreover, we can choose to disobey Him. God’s sovereign will is done whether we believe in it or not. God’s moral will we can fail to do and thus plays a larger role in our decision-making. We can choose to be honest or dishonest, look at other people with love or with lust, be humble or prideful, be diligent or lazy, be content or greedy, and so on.
The keeping of God’s moral will is so significant that believers are distinguished from unbelievers based on their response to God’s commands. Jesus said that those who do the moral will of God will enter the kingdom of heaven, while those who do not will not (Matthew 7:21; 21:31). Using different terms, Jesus also said that those who obey God’s will are part of His spiritual family (Matthew 12:50). Now of course we know that following God’s moral will, His commandments in the Bible, will not make us righteous, and is only possible through His Holy Spirit. But the moral will of God is the expression of the character of God. And we are called to be His image-bearers.
- “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:3-4)
- “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5:13-15)
God has done everything to make His moral will known to His people. He gave the Israelites the law, His covenant and when they broke this, He sent His prophets. In the end, He even sent His only son. All of a sudden it feels a bit silly to say that we can’t find God’s will for our lives.
God’s individual will?
Now, this is where it becomes tricky. We have now discovered that the Bible talks about a sovereign and a moral will of God. One is hidden and will always come to pass. One is not hidden but fully revealed in the Bible, and we humans often fail to keep it; moreover, we can choose to disobey him. However, does God also have an individual will that has to be discovered? Meaning, does God have an ideal, detailed will that is unique for each person? Does God have an ideal, detailed will for which job you must have, which college to attend, which person you need to marry, where to live? If God’s moral will can be illustrated as an area enclosed by a circle, that area containing all the commands and principles that are morally binding upon a believer, can the individual will of God be a dot in that circle?
If such a will exists, making decisions becomes a much more complicated process and most Christians struggle with this when they want to make a decision that’s in line with the will of God. That’s also what I struggled with most of my life. After all, if I miss God’s ideal and perfect will for my life, making the wrong decision will cause me to live a life that is less ideal and second-best, and God’s plan B. What if God in all His infinite wisdom has decided that His will for my life is for me to be an online marketeer in Taiwan, but I miss His guidance and instead become a nurse in Papua New Guinea? I would not have made a sinful decision, not at all, but I would have missed the perfect decision, the decision that would have given the most glory to God. I would have missed the dot.
The possibility of missing the dot can create a lot of anxiety and insecurity if you’re set on living a life that glorifies God. Missing the dot can have great consequences. Choosing the wrong job or the wrong spouse is life-changing. It can also make you insecure about your own spiritual maturity.
Finding the individual will of God is often said to be a given. Some pastors and spiritual leaders say that God reveals His perfect will to every believer, that you just have to pay close attention, that He cares about the details of your life, and that He wants to speak to you through the small inner voice of the Spirit. Or that God might even reveal His will through your circumstances. You hear stories of people finding the individual will of God and seeing God’s blessing in their life in that. If only it was that simple. However, often it’s not. With most decisions, there is the uncertainty of not truly knowing if it is the will of God or not.
Whether you believe in the individual will of God or not, the fact is that most of us, choose to ignore this will of God when searching for it becomes inconvenient. An adult makes about 35,000 remotely conscious decisions each day (Sahakian and Labuzetta, 2013). This number may sound absurd, but in fact, we make 226.7 decisions each day on just food alone (Wansink and Sobal, 2007). Suddenly, knowing God’s will is important in the big life decisions, but becomes insignificant in the ordinary decisions.
Choices about what to wear, how to get to work, and what to have for lunch are made based on good judgment without long deliberation. This division between important and ordinary decisions is practical but does not make sense if you believe in an ideal, detailed life plan that God wants to make known to every believer. If we’re told to find God’s perfect will for every decision, why do we decide to ignore this when the decision is small and seemingly insignificant? So the question is… Does the individual will of God exist?
Does the individual will of God exist?
A Dutch song that has been very important to me in the last couple of months is called “Wat de toekomst brenge moge” (whatever the future may bring). The song is about trusting God, even if you don’t understand His ways. One line reads “Treat me like a child who cannot find the way alone: take my hand in your hands and guide me like a child.” It illustrates the writer’s desire to blindly trust God like a small child trusts his parent. A beautiful picture. But are we in fact blind? Are we children that with every step of the way have to listen to their Father’s voice?
God wants to be our Father. How does a parent guide their child? How is a child taught to live a good and successful life? A father gives a child rules and teaches him important values and beliefs. When the child grows up he starts to understand the will of his father. Not only because his father told him, but also because he spent time in the presence of his father. The child instinctively knows what his father will say. The child then grows up to be independent and able to make his own decisions. He doesn’t run back to his dad whenever he has to make a choice. Just like this, God wants to guide us, He wants to teach us His will like a Father brings up a child. But He also wants to see us grow up. He wants us to get familiar with His teaching so that we are able to make decisions on our own. We are given freedom and responsibility.
This personal freedom and responsibility within revealed limits was part of His purpose from the very beginning. It was explicitly declared in the first commandment in the Bible. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17) Adam and Eve could eat from every tree of the garden. They were given freedom. At the same time, this freedom had limits. They could not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And God continued to give His people freedom within revealed limits. These limits were never vague or hard to discover.
God always spoke loud and clear. The people of Israel were given the law. These laws were extensive and crystal clear. They showed God’s character to them and within these laws there was freedom. For example, the Israelites were given specific laws regarding marriage. They were supposed to marry someone from their own people (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3-4), and if the women possessed any land, they were supposed to marry someone from within their own tribe as God says through Moses in Numbers 36:6, “Let them marry whom they think best, only they shall marry within the clan of the tribe of their father.” They could marry whom they thought best. Freedom. God wasn’t going to give each of them a divine word about their future spouse.
Just like this, Paul wrote to the Corinthians “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39). Paul wrote down the command for Christians to marry another believer, but other than this, a believer could marry whomever she wished to marry.
God continued to guide His people through clear rules in the New Testament. And when there were no laws and no divine revelation, there was an area of freedom and responsibility wherein the apostles and church members had to make decisions. This area of freedom and responsibility was even expanded with the new covenant. The regulations for Israel’s national life were set aside (Hebrews 7:18; 10:9; Romans 6:14; 7:6).
For example, in Christ, there was now freedom to choose from a wider menu than the Mosaic law allowed. And on a range of other matters, Paul continues to press on the freedom of the believer. If there was to be an individual will of God for every believer, you would expect Paul to write about how to discover this will. Instead, he reveals the moral will of God and gives them freedom with regards to circumcision (1 Corinthians 7:19), eating food offered to idols (1 Corinthians 10:27), giving (2 Corinthians 9:7), and marriage (1 Corinthians 7:39).
The pattern that the apostles followed in their own decision-making is particularly striking. Not once is it recorded that they attempted to discover God’s individual will for decisions. Their explanations for their plans are worded in phrases like: “We thought it best” (1 Thessalonians 3:1 NIV), “I have thought it necessary” (Philippians 2:25), “If it seems advisable” (1 Corinthians 16:4), “It is not right/desirable” (Acts 6:2), “It seemed good” (Acts 15:22; 25; 28) and simply, “I have decided” (Titus 3:12). Clearly, these men were exercising their freedom of choice (as well as their responsibility to make a wise decision) within God’s moral will.
Having said that, sometimes God does provide special direction to people. The Bible is full of examples. The people of Israel were led through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud (Numbers 9:15-23), prophets received special revelation (e.g. Ezekiel, Moses), people received dreams and visions (e.g. Genesis 37:5–11; Acts 10:9-16), and heard angelic voices (e.g. Acts 5:20). However, until the angel appeared to Philip telling him to go to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8:26-31), Philip was free to preach the gospel wherever there was opportunity. God’s guidance through His scriptures and wisdom is normally fully sufficient. If more is needed, God will take the initiative and give further miraculous guidance.
So, does God have an individual will for every believer that has to be discovered? Simply put, no. Does God know what’s best for you? Yes, of course. Does God have a plan? Does He have control? Absolutely. Does God guide us? Yes, He does. God, however, does not have a perfect will for our life that we have to discover. He does not desire for us to discern His will for which college we have to attend, what clothes to wear, or where to live.
This can make you feel extremely uncomfortable. It can even make you feel lost. It is comforting to know that we can trust God to show us the right decision to make. Especially when it concerns a difficult decision. However, as we discover in the next section, we have been given everything we need to make a good decision. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3).
How to Make a Good Decision?
In the book “Decision Making and the Will of God” the author, Garry Friesen, summarizes good decision making in four points:
- Where God commands, we must obey.
- Where there is no command, God gives us freedom (and responsibility) to choose.
- Where there is no command, God gives us wisdom to choose.
- When we have chosen what is moral and wise, we must trust the sovereign God to work all the details together for good.
Already I’ve written about the first two points. God reveals His moral will in the Bible, and where there is no command, we are given the freedom to choose. This freedom can be daunting. But God does not leave us there.
If you ask a Bible scholar what to read when you want to know about right living, he would probably point to the wisdom books of the Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Job. The wisdom literature is exciting because it deals directly with life. It can’t get more practical than the book of Proverbs for example.
These books all deal with the concept of wisdom. Wisdom is an important theme in the Bible. You’ll not only find it in the wisdom literature but in every book of the Bible. The whole Hebrew Bible is meditation literature that, the longer you sit with it, gives you wisdom and insight. But what is wisdom? In our modern (and western) understanding, it often refers to intellectual knowledge. If someone’s wise that person is probably smart and has a lot of life experience. In the Bible, it has a somewhat different meaning. In the book of Proverbs, wisdom is described as the fear of the Lord. It’s a loving reverence for God that includes submission to His Lordship and the command of His word (Ecclesiastes 12:13). In simpler words, wisdom is trusting that God knows best which then leads to living your life according to His commands.
- “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7)
- “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.” (Proverbs 3:7)
- “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)
To have true wisdom, we must stop trusting in ourselves and our own assessment of what is “good” and trust rather in God’s wisdom and in His commands. Now, this is not just something we will have to do in our own strength, for James says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). God will actually give us wisdom so we are able to live the good life that is described in the book of Proverbs. How? By His Spirit.
The Holy Spirit
In the Old Testament, God always gave clear guidance through his commandments, prophets, and supernatural revelation. Then Jesus came and showed us who God is, His character, His wisdom, and His will. Jesus revealed God to us. But when Jesus left earth, we were not left helpless. We received the Helper, the Holy Spirit.
- “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. You know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:15-17)
- “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26)
When Jesus left, He did not leave us as orphans without someone to guide us. The Father sent His Holy Spirit who would always lead us back to Jesus, drawing attention to the words that God has spoken through His Son. The Spirit is God’s life-giving breath, his ruach, His presence within us. Just like in Genesis 1, the Spirit is God’s presence who creates order, beauty, and life in previously dark, chaotic, and uninhabitable environments.
So how does the Spirit help us in our decision-making? Does He tell us the right decision to make by speaking to us through a small inner voice? No, the Spirit writes the moral law of God on our hearts so that we can be free in Christ. Through the Spirit, we are able to desire God’s moral will. Paul says it like this in Romans 8:5-10:
“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”
Through the Spirit, we are transformed into the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29). We are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15). A creation that was dead but is now alive. Just like in Genesis 1 when God created order, beauty, and life in a dark, chaotic and uninhabitable environment, God wants to transform you so His life, beauty, and order can also reign in you.
Now, is it easy to do the things of the Spirit, the things of God? Unfortunately, not. In Romans chapter 7, Paul shows the struggle that all believers go through, and that is, just like Paul, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19), and like him, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18b). I think we must all confess to this. We all have a battle to fight with every decision we make.
However, we must trust the Holy Spirit to do His work in us. We must trust in the fact that through the Holy Spirit we are in fact fully able to discern the will of God. Through setting our mind on the Spirit our minds (our thoughts, feelings, and desires) are renewed so that we are able to see what is good, acceptable, and perfect. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2).
So, where does this leave us?
Unfortunately, important decisions will still be hard. Just like Paul, we’ll struggle to make the right decision. We do what we do not want to do. Although we want to do what is right, we find ourselves doing what is sinful instead. And although God’s moral will is fully revealed to us, the Bible can still be hard to understand.
However, making the right decision is far less complicated than we thought it would be. We don’t have to wait on God to magically reveal the right decision to us. We don’t have to be afraid of making the wrong decision. This is important. Through faith, we are made righteous. Our morally wrong decisions are “washed clean”. Making a wrong decision will not ruin God’s plan for us. We are just not that powerful. And we are not in control. It would be arrogant to think we are (James 4:14-15).
This leaves us with embracing our freedom and responsibility to make the right decision, like a child who knows his Father’s will. To be able to do this, we have to immerse ourselves in His Word, that will teach us wisdom, God’s definition of good and evil, and trust the Holy Spirit to do His work in us and the people around us. We should ask for advice from wise people in our lives (Proverbs 12:15; 19:20-21; 1 Kings 12:1-20). And ultimately it all comes down to this:
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:16-23)
- Sahakian, B. J. & Labuzetta, J. N. (2013). Bad moves: how decision making goes wrong, and the ethics of smart drugs. London: Oxford University Press.
- Wansink, B. & Sobal, J. (2007). Mindless eating: The 200 daily food decisions we overlook. Environment and Behavior, 39:1, 106-123.
- Friesen, G., & Maxson, R. J. (2004). Decision Making and the Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View (Twenty-Fifth Anniversary, Revised and Updated ed.). Multnomah.
- Waltke, B. K. (2016). Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? (Second ed.). Eerdmans.
- Tim Mackie Archives. (2017, 21 Augustus). Be filled with the Spirit – All things new [Ephesians] Tim Mackie (the Bible Project) [Video]. YouTube.
 Both pictures have been adapted from Garry Friesen’s book Decision Making and the Will of God