I’ve heard it and you’ve heard it, I’ve used it, and you’ve used it: “I think it’s the will of God that I do such and such.” Who should I marry? What should I study? When should I do this? Where should I work? Why has this happened? But the question behind those questions is: how do I go about discerning God’s will? And, I might add, that’s the question that must be answered before we go any further. If we don’t know how God reveals his will to us it will do little good to ask those particular questions.
A bit anecdotally, I remember beginning my college career at a small Christian liberal arts university in Minnesota. Of course, the whole environment of the university was aimed at trying to get young men and women to find their future spouse during their college years. The conspiracy theory was that this would give a good return to the school because regardless of what the academic experience was–or how much it cost–tales of lore would be told that this was the place where two people fell in love. And it wasn’t uncommon, for instance, for a young man to approach a potential candidate for marriage and say: “God has been telling me it’s his will that we get together.” Of course, the clever suitor would respond to such creepy allegations: “Odd, he hasn’t told me it’s his will.” My point is this. It’s commonplace for Christians to invoke the will of God as the rubber stamp for their plans and decisions. But, how can I know for sure?
To answer that question we need to descend into some theological detail. My apologies to those who don’t like distinctions, but bear with me because it’s necessary. One of the most common distinctions used in regard to the will of God is the distinction between his secret will and his revealed will. His secret will, or sometimes it’s called his sovereign will, is what God according to his good pleasure has willed from eternity past. It applies to all things since God has sovereignly determined whatever happens. It’s called his secret will because it is known only to him and not to us. As Moses said: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29), or David after him: “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:3), and the Apostle Paul: “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).
His revealed will, sometimes called his will of precept, is that which God has revealed in his law and gospel. It is that standard which he has plainly made known to us as the rule of our obedience and judgment and shows us how we can enjoy the blessings of God. Again, as Moses said: “…but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of his law” (Deuteronomy 29:29), and Jesus: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50), and Paul: “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). And that revealed will is fully made known to us in the Bible: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15-17).
Now, this is a necessary distinction precisely for this reason. You and I are not asked to figure out the secret will of God. But often, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. As we wrestle with questions–who, what, when, where, why, and how–we want a name, we want details, we want specifics, we want a plan. But those things are inaccessible to us until after the fact. Nevertheless, our wanting to know the secret will of God is often the source of all kinds of fears, anxieties, and worries. But what we are called to do is carefully study and apply the Bible–which is completely sufficient for the task–to our various decisions and plans. There’s your calling! God isn’t going to reveal to you the name and face of who you should marry, but he does offer guidance in the Bible as to the kind of person you should marry. God isn’t going to tell you what your major and minor must be and set your class schedule, but he is going to guide you through the Bible to know how to study any field you decide to enter into. When you apply the commands and principles of the Bible to all areas of your life and walk in obedience to the revealed will of God, you can be assured that you are pursuing and living in God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will. As Sinclair Ferguson noted in his excellent little book: “We are not called by God to make the mysterious, the unusual, the inexplicable the rule of our lives, but his Word.”
That may not do much to appease those who insist on knowing details, or are convinced they need to figure out some particular calling. But it’s what God requires of us–it’s all that God requires of us. Obedience to his will revealed in the Scriptures. That’s not encouraging a lazy thoughtlessness but rather a careful study and application of the Bible that takes deep roots in the heart and overflows into the decisions and plans you make. As Paul said: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). Saturate yourself in that and, if I can put it this way, do what you want.