This past week Christine (not her real name) told me of her dilemma. Either she accepts a job offer for a youth ministry position that greatly appeals to her, or she commits to her long-term goal of going to seminary, starting this fall. If Christine, one of my students, takes the job, the church wants her to stay at least three years – and she’s afraid that by then she may be deflected from her goal of a seminary education. She deeply wants the path that will most please God. But which of Christine’s two options would do that? How can she know? And, even more importantly, why does this matter?
Every Christian ought to tackle that last question first, as it’s central to every aspect of our daily walk. For the most part, God’s will for our lives is obvious: He wants us to commit ourselves to Him, and become increasingly Christ-like as we allow His lordship over every aspect of our lives. No surprises here. Of course, living out God’s will daily requires a lifetime of discipleship. But the goal is plain enough: we are to live holy, God-pleasing lives that bring Him honor. This we call the general will of God, which is the same for all Christians, at all times, in all places.
Even though we fail often in attaining this goal, it’s at least set clearly before us. By contrast, the waters are much murkier when things get personal. What about the choices we need to make, like the job/seminary dilemma described above? Or choosing this college over that one? At the individual level, when we need to know God’s particular will, our lives at times need specific direction that we can’t discern from His general will. Fortunately, these major decisions come our way relatively infrequently, but when we need to move to specifics, God’s general purposes for all Christians won’t tell me if I should marry Anna or Betty, or take the job in Cleveland or Des Moines.
So how are we to decide? As I’ve outlined in Destination Unknown – A Guide to Discovering God’s Will, Christians have throughout the ages identified five main vehicles for getting those specific, concrete answers about our individual lives. These five considerations are a reliance on scripture, prayer, the advice of mature Christians, the circumstances you face, and a sense of inner peace. Taken together, these avenues for Christian guidance will help you determine what God most wants you to do in the choices you face. No, the Bible won’t talk about Anna or Betty, or Cleveland or Des Moines. But it will help you frame decisions in terms of God’s overall purposes for your life, enabling you to think through what kind of spouse or employee you should be, for example. Similarly, prayer will point you in the right direction, as can advice of Christian friends and mentors, and the circumstances you encounter. Finally, as you pull all these influences together, do you have a sense of inner peace about the way you’re leaning? If yes, you are probably heading in the right direction. If not, you need to do more homework on the issue at hand. Most likely, no one of these avenues will by itself give you clarity. But together, they’re a time-tested way for Christians to determine what God seeks for their lives.
When thinking about guidance, at least three more issues demand attention. First, we must remember that God eagerly wants us to seek and live out the best He has for us. For some perverse reason, we sometimes think that God has this wonderful plan for our lives that He’s reluctant to show us, or that He somehow holds out of reach the good things He has for us. It’s crucial, therefore, when thinking about God’s will, to affirm that He does indeed have only His best options lined up for us, that He wants us to discover and embrace those options, and that with patience and discipline on our part, He’ll make his preferred course plain to us.
Second, it’s important to realize that God may give as far more choice and freedom in important decisions than we realize. For example, if we’re agonizing over whether to aim for a career in accounting or architecture, for each of which we seem gifted, it may be that God will tell you, “I truly don’t mind which direction you go – I can use you richly in either area; you choose.” As long as we seek to honor God in living out that choice, the actual direction may not matter a whit to Him.
Third, for the most part guidance is far more ordinary and unspectacular than some Christians think. Yes, at times God will show us with burning-bush clarity what He seeks of us, but it seems He mostly prefers to deal with us through ordinary means. Usually, He expects us to think through the issues we face, without the aid of thunder and lightning or other dramatic signs. If we’re waiting for Him to show us some spectacular sign about whom we should marry, we may end up waiting a long time. As someone once wrote, “Faith accepts guidance. Only unbelief demands a miracle.”
Similarly, many Christians who are otherwise perfectly sensible folk can sometimes go off the deep end in how they actually seek God’s leading. Some depend on techniques like flipping a coin, putting out a fleece to test God (as Gideon did in Judges 6) or randomly jabbing our finger at Bible verses to discover God’s will. Each of these approaches ignores our capacity for sanctified thinking and the Holy Spirit’s ability and readiness to help us think through tough issues.
Given our sinful natures, we will of course still make wrong decisions even after working through the five steps noted above. Guidance, quite simply, can be a messy, complicated business, as well as hard work. But the very God of the universe is so interested in your life and mine that He promises to guide us unfailingly, so that with clarity and confidence we can move to our next destination.[Gordon S. Jackson is the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Whitworth College, in Spokane, Wash. He is the author of “Destination Unknown: – A Guide to Discovering God’s Wil”l (NavPress: 2004), and four other books.]