Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Seeking God's Will? - A Lutheran Perspective

Recently a non-denominational church that I pass as I take my children to and from school had the following message on their sign: “Ask God your questions, and then listen for the answer.”  Christians often wonder about what God’s will is for their life.  As we consider decisions in life like our vocation and the person we marry, Christians are often told to “seek God’s will.” They are encouraged to look for ways in which God is directing them toward this will. Often this is something that becomes a burden for Christians, when in fact it never should be.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus Christ taught us to pray, “Thy will be done.”  As Christians, we certainly want God’s will to be done.  We are confident that God will carry out His will.  After all, He is God.   We trust that He controls the course of history, for as Paul told the crowd at Athens, “And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26).

The more difficult subject for many Christians arises when they begin to think about specific matters in their own lives.  Here again, Christians certainly believe that God has a will for them and they want His will to be done in their lives.  But in the Christianity that has been shaped by American evangelicalism, there is often a belief that God has a specific will for our lives and that it is our responsibility to seek it; to discover it.  Specific life decisions like, “Should I choose this career?; should I take this job?; should I marry this person?; should I move to this place?” become occasions when Christians think they must work to “discover God’s will” for them.   They must seek God’s will for their lives.  Christians turn to intense prayer and reflection as they look for something inside of themselves that tells them this is the “right” decision.  Or they look for external events and signs that God is using to help them find the “right” decision. They do this because there is the fear that somehow they may make the wrong decision and fail to do God’s will.

This is an activity that is based on what we do.  It is based on the notion that if we pray hard enough we will get a sense of direction or peace.  If we look hard enough at the signs around us, we will discover guidance or confirmation.  But since this is based on what we do, it is a matter of the Law.  And the Law doesn’t bring peace or certainty.  Instead, it brings the questions of whether we have prayed enough; of whether that feeling is strong enough; of whether that feeling is still there; of whether we read those signs correctly. The Law is about doing, and so it constantly sends us to do more.

As Lutherans, we realize that God only reveals His will in one place – in His Word.  If we want to know God’s will with absolute certainty, then we look to Scripture.  God’s will is that He “desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).  God’s will is that “everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:40).  We can know God’s will for how He wants us to live life as we listen to our Lord Jesus and the apostles explain the Ten Commandments.  We can know God’s will for how His Means of Grace are to be administered in our midst.

Yet when it comes to the individual decisions of life like whether I should take this specific job or whether I should marry this specific person, Scripture does not provide any guidance. God’s will on these matters simply has not been revealed and we do not have His promise that we can know it.

Instead, we are free in the Gospel to make the best decision we can.  We are free to use the gifts God has given us in gathering information and making the best decision possible.  Naturally, God’s will revealed in Scripture will be an important part of this information.  So for example, we will not choose bank robber as our career!  But in most decisions we will end up using “sanctified common sense.” 

Certainly, our decision process will involve prayer.  We will ask for God’s guidance in deciding and pray that His will be done.  But this doesn’t mean we will expect some kind of feeling from God to tell us a decision is the “right one” or that we will expect to see some sign in the world guiding or confirming our decision.  Instead, our prayer is simply faith putting the First Commandment into practice as we acknowledge that we fear, love and trust in God above all things.  We will make our decisions in the confession and trust that God is God and we are not.  James put it this way, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet 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 4:13-15).

We make the best decision we can, and then we go forward, walking by faith.  We can do this because God’s great “Yes!” to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20) gives us the assurance that God works for our good no matter how things may appear. God’s ability to weave together our contingent decisions into His divine purpose is wrapped up in the same mysterious working by which He was able to elect us in Christ from all eternity.  Paul tells us, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). 

God's great "Yes!" to us in Christ gives us the assurance that God works for our good and that our decisions can't get in the way of God carrying out his will. It is comforting to know that our bumbling can't prevent God from doing what He wants to get done.  We needlessly torment ourselves if we worry about figuring out what God’s will is on these kinds of specific life decisions.  We can’t know it.  What we do know is the love God has revealed in Christ, and this guarantees that God is working for our good.  So pray, “Thy will be done.”  So make the best decision you can.  And then walk in faith, knowing that God will work out His purpose.


  1. Excellent post. We have tremendous freedom to act within the bounds of the Law. You can please God without having to play the "guess what God's thinking" game. There is also a trap I've seen many people fall into. If, for example, you marry the "wrong" person is that something to be repented of and remedied through divorce? If you pick the "wrong" job is it doomed to failure because it can't be God-pleasing? As you say, there are dangers to looking for God's will where there's no promise we'll know it.

  2. Christopher, Thanks. Yes, people cause themselves so many problems by trying to figure out something that God has not promised they can know.

  3. Thank you so much. Could have used this years ago!

  4. Excellent post. I frequently ask my parishioners these questions when they ask "What does God want me to do?" (1.) What do the Ten Commandments (including their exposition by our Lord and in the Catechism) have to say? (2.) What is your vocation and what passages would apply to you (but perhaps not others) because of that vocation? (In other words, a parent may be bound in a way that a childless individual is not.) (3.) How would the decision fit in with what else God has to say about His will, namely that He "wants all people to be saved to come to the knowledge of the truth"? (4.) What wise counsel can you glean from others and from your own "sanctified common sense"?

    I often use the following analogy. God's law is like a highway map that tells you where you may drive your car. As long as you are taking a legitimate road, whether it is an interstate or a county road, you may go wherever you want, although some roads may require you to pay a toll and some roads may be faster or slower than others. Also, we make our choices knowing that what seems the most sensible route and the best destination may ultimately lead us to a horrible car wreck that we could not foresee. By the same token, you have the gospel freedom to pick from a wide variety of choices in life, as long as you do not act contrary to the gospel, although you must realize that some choices will have repercussions that other choices will not. And sometimes even your best choices in life turn out to be utter wrecks, despite your best efforts. But God is with you even there and His will is being done even there.

  5. James, Thanks. That's a great analogy. I will remember it for the future.

  6. Well said. It's interesting how deeply the American evangelical practice invades even the deliberation of the divine call into the Office. There seems to be the attitude - on both the calling congregation's part and the called - that the least information available, the better because, otherwise, the decision that is reached won't REALLY be Spirit-led. I'm not advocating for trial sermons and such - these things present an artificial atmosphere for evaluating a shepherd's abilities and suitablility - but the lack of information doesn't make a decision either more or less spiritual and, therefore, better.

  7. James, It is remarkable how the call process often prompt us to act like little enthusiasts. Well said - less information does not make the decision more spiritual. It probably just makes it a less informed decision, and generally speaking we don't think that is a good idea in other areas of church life.

  8. Pastor Surburg,

    I know I am walking the knife's edge here, but I have a different take on this: http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/how-god-communicates-with-us-outside-of-but-in-harmony-with-the-scriptures-part-ii/

    I did link to your article in mine. I'm open to being directed to any reading materials you think I should take a look at - if you feel so led to give me guidance. : )


  9. As Lutherans, we realize that God only reveals His will in one place – in His Word.

    I thank you for these words. Though I doubt that most may not agree with the word "only", as I can't claim it doesn't give me pause. But in as such, it can be clear what God's will is for us. I am struck by such resonance throughout the Word for His calling to His peoples. Also, how throughout the breaking of God's Will, He is still faithful.

    As is in life, we can also see how far away we fall from this Will. Do we carry the light or heavy load? As the Churches reflect on His Will we should be able to move mountains.

    In the Book of Revelation it discusses the fate of "churches" by their faithfulness. This should also give us confidence, and we should learn to strengthen our "church" against the admonitions.