“What is God’s will for my life?” This is a question we hear asked more frequently than others. It is coupled to one of the great existential questions of life: “Why am I here?” and more specific “What is the purpose of my life?” Not surprisingly, it is one of the main themes of the Bible and also one of the things Jesus frequently spoke about – regarding his own life and the lives of his followers.
Jesus said he came down from heaven only to do his Father’s will (John 6:38). Even as a young child Jesus made it clear that he was “about his Father’s business” (Luke 2:49). Therefore he did nothing on his own, but he sought only to do his Father’s will (John 5:30), which strengthened him – even physically (John 4:34). He told his followers that not everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21; compare 21:31), and these ones who do God’s will he regards his brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:30; compare John 1:13). In the end, Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice on the cross was in obedience to the will of his Father (Matthew 26:39; Galatians 1:4; see also Hebrews 10:5-10) destroying the works of the devil (1John 3:8). Jesus literally lived and died to do the will of his Father – an example for us to follow after.
The Apostles followed his example of selfless obedience to the will of God for their lives, and also encouraged the churches to do the same (Philippians 2:5-8). In fact most of the New Testament Text in itself answers the question “What is the will of God (for me)?” in a particular situation. Some of the instructions are explicit regarding God’s will, for example “do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17), in order to “do the will of God from the heart” (Ephesians 6:6). This will of God is not automatically known, therefore our minds need to be renewed “to know the will of God” (Romans 12:2) and the Spirit of God helps us to pray the will of God (Romans 8:27). We are called to “stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (Colossians 4:12), with “endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.” (Hebrews 12:36)
It is clear that obedience to “the will of God” is extremely important, and even desirable, so what is the will of God? What do the Biblical authors mean when they use this and similar phrases?
God’s will of decree (sovereign, predetermined, immutable)
In many instances in the Bible, when the phrase “the will of God” (or similar) is used, it refers to God’s pre-determined plan for his creation. This encompasses all the times and events in history which will take place, because God wills it and orchestrates it in his sovereignty. As such, this “will of God” is immutable (or unchangeable, Isaiah 14:26-27), universal (or everywhere, Isaiah 14:26-27), efficacious (or certain, Isaiah 55:10-11, Hebrews 6:17-19), all-encompassing (considers all variables, human decisions and even evil plans, see Genesis 50:20, Colossians 1:16) and eternal (or for all time, Psalm 33:11). This plan or “will of God” is unfolding (or progressively being revealed, 1 Peter 1:10-12). The following well-knows passage in Isaiah captures God’s will of decree well:
Isaiah 46:9-11 “Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.”
God’s will of decree is clearly seen in fulfilled prophesies as recorded in the Bible, in particular the birth, life death of Jesus Christ. God’s redemption plan in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ is foretold in the Old Testament (Psalm 22, Isaiah 53) and revealed in the New testament (Acts 2:22-24, Hebrews 10:5-10, Ephesians 3:1-12), and in particular the many events surrounding his conception, birth and early years (Luke 1:26-38, 67-79: 2:8-14, 25-35, 2:46-50).
The knowledge of God’s will of decree comforts us with the truth that he is in control, always, everywhere. Biblically, God’s will of decree has two sure outcomes: firstly, God’s reign will be universal (Philippians 2:10-11) and his glory known everywhere (Habakkuk 2:14), and secondly a good outcome for the Christian (Romans 8:28).
God’s will of desire (moral, ethical, voluntary)
The second use of the phrase “the will of God” (and similar phrases) implies that which is pleasing to God, that which he longs for in his creatures. This is also known as the moral or ethical will of God and is already made known to us in the exemplary life and Christ Jesus (Colossians 1:9), or found in the commands of the Old Testament laws and the New Testament instructions. Examples of God’s revealed will of desire include “this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3), “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) and “the Father is seeking” “true worshippers [who] will worship him in Spirit and truth” (John 4:23). His heart for salvation of all people is expressed in this will of desire: “God is not willing that any should perish, but that al should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) for he “desires all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4; Matthew 18:14) as they “look on the Son and believe in Him” (John 6:40). The apostles wrote the letters to help the early churches understand what God’s will of desire is in their specific circumstances, as in this instance regarding suffering unjustly, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” (1 Peter 2:15)
These expressions of desire and instructions are labelled God’s will, but unlike the will of decree described above, humans have a choice in the matter. It is clear that obedience to these instructions has salvivic consequences as implied in several New Testament texts. Apart from the above verse mentioned in the previous paragraph, 1 John 2:15-17 serves as an example “Do not love the world or the things in the world… And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”
Obedience to God’s will of desire results in eternal life and eternal rewards when Jesus returns to judge the world (Revelation 22:12).
God’s will of direction (destiny, purpose, wisdom for situation)
The third way in which the phrase “the will of God” (and similar) is used implies one’s destiny, purpose or the intended direction of one’s life or a particular situation. In Psalm 139 the psalmist sings about God’s intricate involvement in every aspect and acute awareness of every moment of one’s life – even before creation. God’s call of the patriarchs, judges, prophets, kings in the Old Testament, as well as his call of the apostles in the New Testament shows that God does call one by name for a specific purpose. In Jeremiah’s call we read clearly that God has this plan in mind before his birth (Jeremiah 1:5); so also in the call of Paul the apostle (Galatians 1:15). Jesus lived with this reality of God’s will of direction for his life, referring to “the will of my Father” repeatedly in the gospels, especially in John’s gospel. The image is what the psalmist sketches in Psalm 127 of a father directing and propelling his children towards their goal (target) in life.
God’s will of direction is also used in Scripture to indicate the wisdom of God for a specific situation, i.e. “What is the will of God for this difficult situation? What does God want us to do?” as David did in 1 Samuel 30:8. Much of New Old Testament prophesy is an answer to God to confused people in troubled times regarding this answer from God, where God’s expressed will comes through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21).
This is the will of God we tend to pray about more as we prayerfully search for God’s guidance while making decisions regarding marriage partners, business partners, career choices, financial decisions or holidays. And rightly so! God’s will of direction confirms that God has an intended plan for each of his creatures, and that in his wisdom he knows best for each situation. He invites us to ask him in relationship about these plans he has.
So what is the will of God for me?
God the Creator governs the world and nations, allotting their seasons and territories (Acts 17:26), steering the events towards the culmination of his redemptive plan for creation upon Christ’s return. This is God’s will of Decrees; our lives form part of this great plan of God which will certainly take place regardless of our participation or opposition.
But we have a role to play in God’s will for our lives. The first is often neglected in the pursuit for God’s will, with devastating effects. (New Testament authors write about this as the error of Balaam).
Firstly, God’s will of desire for my life is that I will respond to his gracious invitation for salvation in Christ Jesus and that I will participate with his transforming work in shaping me into the image of his Son Jesus Christ, to embrace his character and mission. Thus God’s will for my life is firstly to become a certain person, before I do a particular job. God wants me to walk worthy of Christ in the everyday elementary things in life; I must represent and emulate Christ in his loving, humble, kind, obedient, joyful nature (Romans 8:28). The Bible says that this emulation of Christ is essential in fulfilling God’s will since faith without character transformation will lead to a fruitless Christian life – the corrupted nature will thwart sincere efforts of good works and obedience to God (see 2 Peter 1:3-10).
Secondly, God’s will of direction for my life is unique; it is my calling. And my calling is usually not towards full time Christian ministry; God calls people to teach, to build, to steward projects or finances, to govern. God’s calls people to do essential everyday things, also “non-essential” everyday things such as arts and music. The lives of Amos the sheep-farming prophet, Deborah the mother-judge-deliverer of Israel and Paul the tent-making-apostle-preacher teach us that you can do many things in one lifetime and be perfectly in God’s eternal will for your life.
How do I know what is God’s will of direction for my life? This question will be unpacked in a later blog, but let me leave you with this: start by sincerely asking your creator to lead you into his intended path for your life. And while you wait, listen and respond to his promptings, comfort yourself in this mindset:
“I TRUST MORE IN GOD’s ABILITY TO LEAD ME THAN IN MY ABILITY TO FOLLOW HIM.” Let the Good Shepherd lead you on in his path for your life!