How often do children ask for permission to do something, to go outside and play for example? But have you ever heard a child asking 'Can I do my homework?' Every child knows that for those things that just need to be done, there is no need to ask for permission. Thus there are things for which you need permission and things that are allowed.
In sermons and conversations among believers you regularly hear the term 'God's will'. Simple as this term may seem, it has nevertheless been the cause of numerous quarrels and we often tend to misuse the term 'God's Will'.
Why, actually, do we want to know God's will? Is it that we seek God's will as a recognition of the things we are doing? Do we long for spiritual guidance in order to know what is best for us? Or is it our aim to be obedient to God and to walk on his paths? In so far as seeking God's will arises from self-interest, it will lead us into trouble. In Romans 12:2 it is stated very clearly that we can get to know God's will. He longs to make it known to us. We also read here, however, that God makes conditions for us to get to know His will; you can't take it for granted.
What is the meaning of the term 'God's will? There are three different ways in which God's will is revealed to us:
• God's universal will. There are a number of things that God requires from everyone. He doesn't want us to lie, to steal, to commit adultery, to be proud, etc. These are commandments for our own good, but there are also other instructions, such as: sanctification. These are things God asks from everyone in the world.
• God's will for the individual. This will is personal, not universal. To this day God has always led people who seek to obey Him. God is the God of personal relationships. If there is something He asks of you personally, then this does not necessarily apply to others. Therefore, beware of manipulating others. If God wants you to work with the youth in your congregation, don't expect others to feel the duty to do the same.
• God's personal consent. Imagine a child asking your permission to play with his friend after school. You say ok on condition that he will be home at six. When he comes home he is in tears and you ask him what is the matter. He says: 'There was another friend; I didn't like him at all. He beat me'. Your reaction is: 'But why then didn't you come home earlier?' Imagine the child answers: 'I couldn't, for it was your will that I went to play there.' You would feel amazed: it was not your will or order that he go there to play, you simply gave your consent. In a similar way, many Christians confuse God's consent with his absolute will.
How can we discover God's will?
Ephesians 5:17 says: 'Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is.'
God speaks very clearly through his Word. He gives us all sorts of rules and principles with regard to what he expects from us. If we don't obey these, we will commit a sin. There are many things for which we do not need to ask for God's will, just like a child need not ask permission to do his homework. Very often we know very clearly what God's absolute will is. It always starts with simply doing what He asks from us in His word.
There are also quite a number of things that are not mentioned directly in the Bible, like smoking, cohabiting or drinking alcohol. There are different opinions among denominations and cultures. In many countries where alcohol is a serious problem, for example, Christians choose not to drink. Thus in this situation a different text is used to forbid alcohol for Christians. There are difficult issues like homosexuality where the Bible gives clear statements as to how God feels about this. Yet we can bring up all sorts of other verses and in this way the explanation can become a human interpretation, inspired by the culture or spirit of the age.
God wants to guide us most personally. Learning to hear his voice is not always easy. Very often it is a soft voice. The Holy Ghost is a gentleman and will never force His will upon us. But inner guidance alone is not enough, for God's voice can easily be confused with the voice from our own soul.
The Bible gives many examples which show that God sometimes uses circumstances to lead us in a certain direction. Nehemia saw and heard about a need and saw it as God's guidance to do something about it. Genesis 25:50 tells the story of Abraham's servant, who was guided by circumstances in his choice for a wife for Abraham's son. Even Laban saw this course of events as God's guidance. I regularly read testimonies of people who experienced that God revealed His will to them via circumstances. Sometimes people tend to see everything that happens around them as a sign. On the other hand, we shouldn't see circumstances as absolute - not every situation is God's guidance.
God's will is also made known via supernatural things such as dreams, visions, prophesies, and in most exceptional situations you can even be guarded by an angel and shown the right way. About these matters there are not only quite different views, but also people have contradictory experiences, for example, a dream, vision or prophesy that is partly fulfilled. All these matters are means to an end and not the ultimate aim. Not every dream, vision or prophesy comes from God. Sometimes we can be so filled with something that we dream about it. For this reason these things must always be checked with the Bible.
The means that I mentioned above are not all of the same importance. God's word is undisputedly the most important means to make His will known. It may be a combination of the various ways in which God speaks. Of course the order of importance may vary from situation to situation. When you get a prophesy, then this is the most important for you at that moment. But when it comes to actually practising God's will you will have to involve more 'means' and it must never be contradictory to God's word.
Weighing our options
As I wrote before, there are gradations in the absoluteness of God's will. When we discover God's absolute will, we have to obey. But most often it is only God's consent; then we can do it, but do not have to. For example, with the wise men from the East. They saw a star and drew their conclusions: a king was born. They saw it as God's absolute guidance to go on their way, but it led them to the wrong person: Herod. He became alarmed and ordered all children of Bethlehem to be killed. Only after the Scriptures had been opened, they were led to the right 'star': Jesus. The Scriptures have a greater weight than the revelation of a sign in the heavens. Guidance from the Bible is far more absolute than guidance through a dream or circumstances.
In the diagram below you see squares in several shades of blue. The darker the blue, the more absolute and certain God's will. For example, 'thou shalt not lie' is absolute for everyone; its source or the means is the Bible and thus represents God's universal will. If I feel a personal guidance, based on circumstances, to act in a certain way, it is far less absolute and is a lighter shade of blue. In churches and communities or Christian organisations it often occurs that there are different ideas about what God would want. If you seek God's will or consent in your personal situation and you get different answers, try to place them in this diagram. It can help you weigh your options.
My own personal feeling is that as Christians we should have a far more relaxed attitude to the idea of God's will. Moreover, we need to cure ourselves of manipulating each other. In seven out of ten cases God's will is nothing more than God's permission to make our own choices. And also, we must not forget that God has given us a community and other Christians to put our choices to the test, to warn or confirm us.
Do you seek to discover God's will or consent? Then use this checklist:
- what does the Bible say on this issue?
- if the Bible is not clear on this matter, then analyse other texts to get a clear answer.
- ask yourself the following questions: Am I able to hear God's voice? What is my attitude towards God and my neighbour? Are my motives for finding God's will or consent pure? If not so, work on it.
- are there circumstances that can clearly be seen as the hand of God?
- is this a matter of God's universal will or His will or consent for me personally?
- when we (think that we) understand God's will or consent, then we must see what weight it is given in the diagram. A light-coloured square does not give a strong indication for God's will or consent.
- and a new step for many of us: learn to discriminate between God's will (you have to) and God's consent (you are allowed to). You will discover a less anxious approach to the old concept of 'the will of God'.
Dick Slikker is a mission consultant in the Netherlands