Can We Know God's Will For Our Lives? Part 1

Regardless of one's stage in life, a Christian should always be able to answer the questions: what do I think Jesus is saying to me and how do I know that he's saying it to me? These inquiries were advised unendingly by Gordon T. Smith; a scholar who taught at Regent College where I recently graduated. I can still hear him say it from a recent lecture I attended on God's will.

Before graduate school I frequented a more-than-usual-charismatic bible college that echoed the importance for individuals to "get" God's will for our lives. I tried, so hard, and for the most part, felt like I failed. I would spend hours on my knees, in silence, in prayer, in Scripture, begging God for a dream, a picture, a word--something for me to share with my peers who, to my wonder, could speak of God's revealed plan for their lives with beaming grins. Everyone seemed to know their divine blueprint for their lives from start to finish.

I knew there something wrong with the whole endeavour, even though I wanted to believe that God worked that way. One of the reasons for my skepticism was simply because it wasn't working for me, but another reason, more importantly, was that this way of conceiving God's way of dealing with us discounted the possibility of being surprised by him. In retrospect, it was evident that the "God told me" language helpfully put accountability from friends, family and peers out of reach.

Upon graduation I went on to listen to what others were saying on the topic. I came across a little book called "Just Do Something," by Kevin DeYoung. The point was simple: stop waiting for a special "word" from the Lord and get to work--the Bible is enough! The Bible gives us plenty of direction for our lives, so stop "obsessing" over the future. That made sense to me and it made my problem much simpler. We don't need to waste time waiting, listening, slowing down; just be obedient to what God has shown in Scripture, everything else will follow. And when you have to choose between moving to California or Italy, or studying science or art, as long as you're not sinning, either decision will be fine.

I have sympathy for those who approach the God's Will question this way. This answer tells my generation of millennials that our life is vastly different than the lives of our grandparents, and we just need to learn to be grateful for the (too) many choices that we do have, and to stop being cowards who look for fulfilment in the "most ideal choice." I get that. I too am tired of the millennial problem (or let's just say realization--it's a universal problem that we've only just seemed to have discovered and named) that humans including myself are in some degree or another ungrateful. Suck it up, make a choice, stop being paralyzed by the fear of not living up to what's expected of you through your phone. Fair enough, some people need to hear that.

Sadly, this approach is much like the first in that it puts the possibility to be surprised by God out of reach. In both approaches what is complex and difficult is simplified and made easy.  In the first approach we get a clear blueprint for the rest of our lives from the mouth of God himself, and in the second approach we get nothing with regards to our particular context or calling. They're both minimalist attempts to make a difficult burden go away.

The problem is that life is not as simple as we'd like it to be. And it's not a new problem. God's people have always had to wrestle with the question of God's will for their particular, day-to-day lives. We see it expressed in the Psalms, we see it in the life of Abraham, David, Samuel, Paul, Barnabas and John; we see it in Jesus and in the church and its history. The stories of Gideon's fleece, and Jacob's wife aren't exactly imperatives but certainly attest to the universal human longing to hear from God for direction and the far from simple predicament of our lives.

And in the New Testament, we're told to do things like this: "discern what is pleasing to the Lord," and "Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking..." and "my sheep hear my voice,"  and similar direction. The Gospel holds more than the promise of heaven or right standing with God; in it we are promised that Christ is present with us by his Spirit. And living as a Christian is to intentionally respond to the God who speaks.

But the Spirit is not merely present in some general fashion as the sun is present to everyone for whom it is day. The Spirit's presence to the Christian is in the details of our lives, like the heat and light we feel and see from the sun. The God who takes on ordinary human flesh and institutes a meal to act as a means of worshiping him is the God who encounters us in the earthly realities of food and drink. And the particularity of the voice of Jesus means that the way he encounters person A will likely be different than person B, even though their situations are very similar.

Take for instance the stories we find in Luke 18 and Luke 19. The first story is about a rich young ruler who has obeyed the law as a good Jew. He approaches Jesus to know about what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus throws a curve ball and tells him to sell all he has, give it to the poor, and follow him. The man walked away, saddened by Christ's words.

The second story is about another wealthy man named Zacchaeus, who is just the opposite: a tax collector known for cheating people in his own town.  Zacchaeus, the tree climber, was surprised to see Jesus approach him and invite himself over. Spending time with the tax collector, Jesus announced: "salvation has come to this home" which propelled a promise by Zacchaeus to give half of his money to the poor and pay back those he had defrauded.

What if the rich young ruler saw Jesus' interactions with Zacchaeus?  What would he say? Perhaps he would wonder why Jesus didn't tell Zacchaeus to sell all his money, or why he neglected to mention money at all?

The answer is quite simple and yet quite concerning: there is no single rule applied to both men.  Jesus knew what was in the hearts of both and spoke to them accordingly. He spoke the words they needed to hear. God's will is not that simple.

The concerning implication is this: there is no formulaic voice of Jesus that works for everyone nor is there a divine blueprint provided from start to finish. My first experience in the Pentecostal tradition was right in its emphasis that God does speak today, but it was weak in providing boundary markers and accountability. My second experience with what has been called the Neo-Puritan movement put an important emphasis on grace and the aim of sanctification as God's primary word to us in Christ, but did so at the expense of the important christian task to discern God's will of direction in the day-to-day.

Jesus is a person and will speak personally, and he is God thereby speaking precisely what we need to hear in order for us to become what we need to become. There is no blueprint, nor is there a formula. The word of Christ brings new life, and Christ always speaks into a particular context that is always new and always unique. In my next post I'll unpack how we can listen to the voice of Jesus when we take the time to listen to Scripture, the church, our community, and our emotions, in the context of the Gospel.