Should you marry the person you’re dating? Should you take that job offer in a different city? Which college should you attend? Should you adopt a child?
At some point in your life, you have probably faced a major decision and wondered how to know which option to choose. If you have a relationship with God, you also probably hoped you were doing what God wanted you to do.
Some aspects of God’s will are very clearly spelled out in the Bible. Instructions are clear about giving thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:18), avoiding sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3) and doing good (1 Peter 2:15) for example.
But other things, like knowing the right time to buy a house or whether you should go back to school, are not covered in the Bible.
If you’re facing a big decision, you may wish God would just write His will for you on the wall or speak with an audible voice. But He rarely chooses to make His will for your life that obvious. Instead, He wants you to be persistent in seeking His guidance.
As Jesus said, “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and He will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:33, New Living Translation).
God knows that the process of seeking Him is as important as the answer He might give to any question. As you take steps of faith and learn to recognize His leading, you grow spiritually and strengthen your relationship with Him. It is not always a simple process, but in the end, it’s worth it.
Paul, the early Christian leader who wrote much of the New Testament, prayed this for the church in the city of Colossae: “We ask God to give you complete knowledge of His will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better” (Colossians 1:9-10, NLT).
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When the Bible talks about God’s will, it is usually referring to one of two different things: God’s sovereign will or God’s prescriptive will.
In one sense God’s will is something that will always happen no matter what. This is sometimes called God’s sovereign will. When God states that something will happen, it does. No person could have stopped Jesus from dying on the cross for the sins of the world. That was God’s will, and it was going to come to pass no matter what.
When we make big decisions, we can take comfort in His sovereign will, because no matter what we do, we cannot ruin God’s ultimate plans. In times of uncertainty, you can remember God’s permanent will that once you become a child of God, nothing can separate you from His love.
The apostle Paul put it this way: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39, New International Version).
The other aspect of God’s will is what He asks His people to do. This is often referred to as His prescriptive will.
God has given many commands to His people, but He also allows people a choice: whether or not to obey His commands. There are many specific instances of God’s will recorded throughout the Bible. There are not specific commands for every possible situation in your life, but understanding God’s character through His words and specific commands enables you to seek His will in any situation.
When you do know God’s will, you can choose to obey or disobey Him, but ultimately, God is still in control. Our disobedience cannot derail God’s ultimate plan.
Before we explore six guiding principles for knowing God’s will for your life, there is one fundamental truth you need to know. God is not just guiding you from outside of you. If you have entrusted your life to Jesus, His Holy Spirit lives within you.
After Jesus was raised from the dead, He appeared to His closest followers. They were afraid of what lay ahead of them, and Jesus knew that He was about to return to His Father in heaven.
But rather than leave them with detailed instructions about everything they needed to do from then on, He gave them the ultimate gift and source of guidance. He promised that His Spirit, the Holy Spirit, would come and guide them.
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After He said this, he showed them His hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent Me, I am sending you.” And with that He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:19-23, NIV)
Jesus has given this same gift, His Holy Spirit, to all who have believed in Him since.
It’s vital for you to remember that God the Holy Spirit lives within you. This is the foundation upon which the principles we are about to explore makes sense. The Holy Spirit tells you what He hears from God and makes it known to you.
It will take time to learn how to listen to the Holy Spirit, and the following principles will help you grow in doing that. But without understanding this first, you will be trying to do everything in your own strength rather than using the greatest resource God can give you: Himself.
Find out more about the Holy Spirit and how you can experience God’s presence in your life.
There are many ways to seek God’s will. The best thing to do is to use more than one method and look for agreement among them.
The following six principles for seeking God’s will in any situation are intended to be used together rather than individually.
As you spend time working through your options, consider the whole picture. It can be dangerous to make a decision based on one principle you feel strongly about while ignoring the other five.
As you seek God’s will, it’s important to be sure you are fully open to whatever God wants. If you have actually already decided what to do and are only coming to God so He can approve your decision, you are not really seeking His will.
You may have something in mind that you think is best or that you want to happen. That’s OK; just make sure to acknowledge that you are biased toward a certain decision or outcome. Think through why you feel more drawn to one particular option. Don’t mistake your own thoughts, desires and plans for God’s voice.
To really understand what God is saying to you, be open to God guiding you in any direction. When your desire to follow God outweighs your desire for a certain outcome, you are ready to hear from God.
Psalm 37:4 (NLT) says, “Take delight in the Lord and He will give you your heart’s desires.” This verse does not mean you will get what you want in every situation. But if your ultimate desire is a closer relationship with God, you will always get that desire when you genuinely seek His will.
Don’t ignore your emotions and desires when seeking God’s will. God gives you emotions and desires, so listening to them is part of this process. But you shouldn’t let them cloud your vision as you consider different sources of guidance.
Also, learn to surrender your desire to please other people. The apostle Paul says, “Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant” (Galatians 1:10, NLT).
Consider how your choices will impact other people, but don’t make a decision just to please someone else. Following God will not always make everyone else happy, so be willing to disappoint others in your pursuit of God’s will.
Psalm 119:105 (NLT) says, “Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path.” The Bible can light the way as you choose your next steps.
When you make a decision, it should line up with, or at least not contradict, what God has said through the Bible. As you read Scripture, you will understand more about God’s character and be better able to know what He wants. Just as you know the things that please your close family and friends, you will learn what pleases God as you get to know Him better.
Resist the temptation to randomly open the Bible expecting to find the answer in whatever verse you read first. You may or may not find something that seems relevant, but it’s not the same as understanding God’s word and applying its direct commands and underlying principles to your decision. When you find a relevant verse, read the other verses around it or the rest of the chapter — or even that whole book of the Bible — for context, to make sure it really applies to your situation.
The most obvious answer to the question, “How can I know God’s will for my life?” is to ask Him. Turn to God in prayer and ask Him what He wants you to do.
If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask Him, and He will gladly tell you, for He is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask Him; He will not resent it. But when you ask Him, be sure that you really expect Him to tell you. (James 1:5-6, The Living Bible)
God wants you to go through the process of seeking His will without believing the lie that He is trying to hide it from you. If you believe that, you will struggle to see God as your loving Father. His desire is for you to know His will. So when you ask, expect Him to answer.
Making big decisions can cause a lot of anxiety and worry, but you can turn to God with all your fears and uncertainties. The Bible tells us, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all He has done” (Philippians 4:6, NLT).
As you pray and ask God what to do, write down the sense of direction you get from Him over time. This will help you avoid being overly influenced by your most recent thought.
“Too often our most recent thought will dominate our thinking and have the most influence, whether or not it merits that privilege,” says Keith Davy, former director of research and development for Cru's campus ministry.
Find mature, dedicated Christians and ask them what they think you should do. The pieces of advice you receive may conflict, but they should give you another perspective to think about. Talk to your mentors, parents, friends, pastors or church leaders.
Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many advisers bring success. — Proverbs 15:22, NLT
Ask people you trust to pray about your decision. Follow up with them to see if they sense God’s leading in a certain way. It can also help to go through some or all of these steps with someone who can help you sort out everything you are considering as you make a decision.
You are ultimately the one responsible for your decisions, and you cannot rely exclusively on what other people say. They may have biases of their own clouding their vision, even if they are strong Christians. They care about you, so they will care about what you decide.
As with surrendering your desires, you need to concern yourself more with pleasing God than pleasing people or following their advice. Seeking advice is wise, but don’t let someone else make your decision for you.
God can open and close the doors of opportunity in your life. You may have heard someone say, “God closed the door on this opportunity,” or “God was opening doors to give me the job.”
God, not circumstances, should guide your decision-making. But God may use events in your life to point you in a certain direction. Sometimes, your decision is made for you. For example, when a job or college application is rejected, God has likely closed that door.
On the other hand, not all obstacles are closed doors. Some are just things you need to overcome as you follow God. Similarly, just because a door is open does not mean God always wants you to walk through it. This is another reason to consider a number of sources when seeking God’s will.
“Many Christians follow the illogical and unbiblical closed door policy, often with unsatisfactory and frustrating consequences,” writes Bill Bright, the co-founder of Cru, in the Bible study “Five Steps to Knowing God’s Will.” “God’s work in our lives does not exclude such experiences, but the closed door policy refers to a careless hit or miss attitude that does not include evaluation of all the issues.”
God’s Spirit can direct your mind and reasoning. Sometimes Christians are so focused on hearing from God that they forget to use reason and common sense. Just as the Holy Spirit can influence your emotions, He can also influence your mind.
Jesus promised that when the Holy Spirit came, He would teach us and help us remember Jesus’ teachings: “When the Father sends the Advocate as My representative — that is, the Holy Spirit — He will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you” (John 14:26, NLT).
The Holy Spirit helps us to understand God’s Word and follow God. As the apostle Paul told the Galatians, “Let the Holy Spirit guide your lives” (Galatians 5:16, NLT).
Using Spirit-filled reasoning and wisdom, create a list with all of your options and write out the benefits and drawbacks of each. Using reason or a pros and cons list is not unspiritual. God created reason, and He gave us minds so we could use them. But as with all of the principles, you should not rely exclusively on this kind of logical exercise.
“The prudent carefully consider their steps.” — Proverbs 14:15, NLT
It’s also important to apply your reason with God’s values rather than using the values of our culture. In our culture, doing the thing that will be the most successful or prestigious is logical. But God does not value success and prestige for their own sake the way we do, although He sometimes puts us in positions of influence.
He cares about helping you grow and using you to help others know Him and experience His love. This may come with worldly success, because God can use success and prestige for His purposes, but His purposes may be accomplished better by something that is less impressive in the eyes of others.
Try journaling as you work through each of these six principles so you can more easily see a pattern emerging. If all six principles are pointing in the same direction, prayerfully move forward, trusting God to guide you as you go.
If, after going through the six principles, there is no clear pattern and you are still confused, you may need to wait before making a decision and continue thinking through these guidelines.
Sometimes you may need to make a decision before you have a very clear pattern. If you are truly seeking God’s will, He will guide you, whether or not you realize it at the time.
Once you discern God’s will, the next step is to actually do what He says. Remember Philippians 2:13 (NLT): “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.”
God will give you the strength and courage to do whatever He calls you to do. You are not alone.
Whatever the outcome, remember God is still in control. Proverbs 16:9 (NLT) says, “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.”
Again, even if you choose the wrong thing or knowingly defy what God is calling you to do, “You can make many plans, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail” (Proverbs 19:21, NLT).
So take a deep breath. Work through the six principles, and remind yourself that what you choose to do matters to God, but God is ultimately the one in control.
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