“It’s just sex” – Relational MythBusters 2

When I was a young teenager I wondered whether “fruit of the tree” was a euphemism for sexual intercourse – the original sin that caused the fall.  It’s a ludicrous thought, but I recently found that I was not alone in my thinking:  the Church fathers, heavily influenced by Stoic and Gnostic education deduced that all sex was wrong and only necessary for procreation.  For instance Tertullian (150 – 230 AC) accused woman of being “the unsealer of the forbidden tree” that caused the fall, Justin Martyr (c. 100–165) said “Christians marry only to produce children” with Jerome (c. 320-420) adding “he who is too ardent a lover of his own wife is an adulterer.”  This statement makes no sense, but he firmly believed Adam and Eve were virgins before the fall, and only married (euphemistic speech for “had sex”) once they were cast out of paradise.  The severity of sexual sin is evident in their responses to temptations:  Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) once looked at the face of a beautiful woman, and to avoid sexual temptation jumped into an icy pond.  Benedict of Nursia (480-547 CE) once threw himself naked into thorn bushes, rolling around to ensure the pain would remove all sexual desires.  Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) frequently rolled around naked in the snow when tempted with sexual desires, but when there was no snow he followed the painful example of Benedict.  (Be thankful for ready access to cold showers!)

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Yet we know sex is not sin – we were created as sexual beings “male and female” from the very beginning, and commanded to “multiply” (Genesis 1:26-28).  Our sexual desires were not the result of the fall but part of the desire for intimacy – the reason God made Adam a helper to deliver him from his loneliness (reference).  Sex between husband and wife is good and meant to be pleasant – it is created by God, honoured by God (Hebrews 13:4), encouraged by God (Proverbs 5:18-19) and married couples are even commanded to please one another sexually (1 Corinthians 7:2-4) to avoid sexual temptation.

Only sinful sex is sin.  The Mosaic Law lists various sexual misconducts including adultery (Exodus 20:14, Leviticus 18:20, Deuteronomy 5:18), bestiality (Leviticus 18:23, Deuteronomy 27:21), homosexual acts (Leviticus 18:22), incest (Leviticus 18:6−18; Deuteronomy 22:30; 27:20, 22−23), prostitution (Leviticus 19:29, Deuteronomy 23:18), rape (Deuteronomy 22:25−29), sex before marriage (Exodus 22:16−17), shrine-prostitution (Deuteronomy 23:17), transvestism (Deuteronomy 22:5), unclean acts (Leviticus 18:19), and violation of betrothal (Deuteronomy 22:23−27).  These laws, although negative and carrying severe punishment in case of transgression, were given by God “for [our] good always” (Deuteronomy 6:24). [i]

These Mosaic laws were asserted by Jesus (Matthew 5:19), stating that these sins emanate from the heart (Matthew 5:27-28; compare Proverbs 6:27-29) and defile a person (Mark 7:23) so that one who practices these things will not inherit the Kingdom of God and therefore have to be avoided at all cost (Matthew 5:29-30).  Therefore the apostles also taught that the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Ephesians 5:5), and warned against the sins of adultery and fornication (Hebrews 13:4), homosexual acts (Romans 1:26−27, 1 Corinthians 6:9−11, 1 Timothy 1:8−11, Jude 1:7), incest (1 Corinthians 5:1−5), and prostitution (1 Corinthians 6:15−16).  As in the Old Testament, the apostles warned the early church that God still judges sexually immoral acts in the new dispensation (Hebrews 13:4; 1 Corinthians 10:8; Jude 1:7; Revelations 21:8, 22:15).

However, in the new dispensation there is grace for forgiveness and restoration of those who have fallen prey to sexual temptation and a lifestyle of immorality (1 Corinthians 6: 11).  Jesus demonstrated welcoming hospitality and kindness toward those who sought him (Luke 7:36-50) and taught humble identification and mercy with those battling the lure of lust (John 8:2-11).  Yet he never stopped warning about God’s judgment on sexual immorality (Matthew 5:29-30; Mark 7:23), but reached out to sinners (Luke 5:32).  Thus the disposition of the church towards believing sexual sinners should not be indifference or judgment, but rather humble support towards restoration (Galatians 6:1), yet unrepentive believing sinners should be publically disassociated after ample warning to prevent others emulating the immoral  behavior and perhaps granting the sinner repentance in the light of the seriousness consequences (1 Corinthians 5:1-13), all the while trusting and praying for repentance and hoping for restoration (2 Corinthians 2:5-11).

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Light in a dark world

Both the Old Testament Law as well as the New Testament letters were written so followers of God living in utterly perverse societies: the older in Baal worshiping country and the newer in Grecko-Roman society.  Both these societies were obsessed with sexual practices, even incorporating shrine prostitutes in their religious ceremony.  Thus it is not strange to find within these writings many instruction pertaining to morality and sexuality.  The commands intended to set a people aside for God which is holy or distinguished from contemporary society so that their everyday lives display the holiness and loving nature of God, a people where God can dwell in holiness.  In one such instruction pertaining to sexuality Paul uses Mosaic text to motivate holiness “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:16-18)

Sadly, today there is no discernable distinction between the sexual conduct of believers and unbelievers.[ii]  Tyler O’Niel reported earlier this year that “A new study on Christian attitudes toward dating and marriage reveals a broad acceptance for cohabitation, premarital sex and a rejection of traditional gender roles. Experts believe that many Christians are following cultural trends over scripture when it comes to sex and marriage.”  The majority of believers have adopted the sinful practices of the world around us, so that we are unable to represent the nature of God and ineffective in our witness to the world.

Justification for sex before marriage

I have heard three noteworthy arguments from believers to justify pre-marital sex, each of which I will shortly address Biblically.  Also refer to a previous post “On Spiritual Maturity: the error of Balaam” to see the various Biblical references to spirituality without morality.

Some think that remaining sexually pure before marriage is out of date.
Some think that remaining sexually pure before marriage is out of date.

1. Abstinence is “outdated” or “old-fashioned”. God does not change (Malachi 3:6), nor does his prescribed law. That is why Jesus himself did not change but obeyed the Law (Matthew 5:17), even intensified the interpretation to go beyond literal fulfillment but taught that it also judges thoughts, motives and emotions (Matthew 5:19-20, 29-30; refer Hebrews 4:12, Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).  Consequently, the apostles also continued to reinforce the sexual morality laws of Old Testament Judaism.  The intent of Scripture is clear: God designed man to find sexual intimacy and fulfillment in faithfulness to one spouse – “for our good always.”

2. Abstinence is “the invention of the Church fathers” – the Bible does not prohibit sex before marriage. Sexual purity was not the invention of the early church fathers but God’s desire for humanity as expressed in the Mosaic Law and contained in the teachings of the Old Testament prophets, Jesus himself and the apostolic writings (as briefly outlined above). Yet some argue that use of “fornication” (Gk: pornea) does not prohibit sexual relations between unmarried, consenting adults – rather it is expressly used for perversities such as pornography, orgies, bestiality etc.  Although pornea is generally used to mean “inappropriate sexual conduct” and is normally translated “sexual immorality” very few linguistic or Biblical scholars would argue that the word excludes fornication (sex outside the bounds of marriage).

However, without using this word a few sections in the Bible make it clear that sexual relations are reserved for marital partners, of which this pointing case suffices to defeat the argument:  1 “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband… But if [the unmarried] cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:2-4)  In this short text Paul makes it clear that no unmarried believer has rights to sexual relations; only with a married partner should that desire be fulfilled. All sex outside the covenant of marriage is sinful and will be subject to God’s judgment (Hebrews 13:4).

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3. “Sex is just sex”. Some believe that “sex is just sex”, meaning it is a biological act like holding hands without spiritual effect and therefore can be enjoyed without harmful spiritual consequences. However, anyone who has been victim of molestation or rape knows that what they experienced was more than a mere physical touch.  Sex is inherently spiritual – this is why God warned the religious leaders in Malachi’s day that unfaithful sexual conduct is detrimental to their spirits, and therefore he cautions them to guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless” (Malachi 2:14-16).

The congregation in Corinth had a similar argument as “sex is just sex”, stating that just as the body needs food, so the body needs sex – and therefore one should feed its sexual appetite; there is nothing more to it.  Paul answered with a powerful rhetoric (1 Corinthians 6:13-20), stating that sexual intercourse binds two people together in a mystical manner, and that should one should not do that improperly (outside of marriage) since the believer is “joined one in spirit with the Lord”.  He concludes that therefore believers ought to “flee sexual immorality… [because] your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you… therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.”  Much could be written about this section, but the essential truth here is this: sexual intercourse is immensely spiritual, and has an impact on the spiritual welfare of the believer.

How do we respond to this?

My personal goal for sexual holiness is articulated in the phrase that Paul used to encourage the church in Ephesus: “among you there should be not be a hint of sexual immorality” (Ephesians 5:3 NASB).  How do we grow towards that in this immoral society?

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  • Protect your eyes. One of the most useful lessons I have learned is to seriously sensor what I watch and look at – a lesson I learned while reading the famed Every Man’s Battle by Arterburn and Stoeker. They teach tat like Job we “make a covenant with [our] eyes to not look upon a young woman [or men] with lust in [our] heart” (Job 31:1).  Then you seriously sensor your environment not get sensual stimulation – go cold turkey for a while.  And your learn the habit to “bounce the eyes” – as soon as you see something that usually give sensual stimulation to your mind, you bounce your eyes off to somewhere else and not look there.
  • Renew your mind. During my student years God seriously challenged me to no longer think and live like the world around me does but to “renew my mind” (Romans 12:1-2) and adopt his perspective on life and relationships. Sexual happens when our perverse desires lead us astray (Mark 7:23; James 1:13).  This necessitates a retraining of the heart and mind through deliberate study of God’s precepts, prayer and reflective conversations with believers about God’s will.  Over time I have found that my actions change, my dreams and daydreams became innocent and my relationships became healthy.  God restores innocence!
  • Accountability.  As motivated in a previous blog on accountability relationships we need friends that watch out for us and that help us stay on the path of holiness and relationship with God.  This especially needs confession when we fall in some sexual sin, since nothing brings a sense of shame, guilt and condemnation like sexual sin. A lifestyle of transparency and honest confession (1 John 1:9, James 5:16) keeps us on the path of holiness.
  • Self-control. Learn to control your sexual urges (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; Romans 13:11-14).  I do not advocate throwing yourself into thorn bushes like Benedict and Francis, but one has to do something to redirect energy and teach your body that it cannot always have what it desires.  Simple ways are endurance exercises or fasting which teaches you to ignore the demands of the body, learning the blessing and wisdom of delayed gratification (in a healthy way).  What many young people do not know is that this sexual self-control is also absolutely essential to a happily married life.
  • Avoid tempting circumstances. Not Samson the strongest, nor Solomon the wisest, nor David “the man after God’s own heart” overcame sexual temptation. But Joseph got it right by running away from his seductress (Genesis 39:13).  That is why Paul taught Timothy to flee youthful lust (2 Timothy 2:2; see also 1 Corinthians 6:18).  Avoid sensually luring situations – it is the sure way to have victory over this sin.  You have learned when you are vulnerable to this sin – simply avoid it.  If you can’t, so as the marines do and call a friend to provide cover (prayer) fire!  When tempted we should resist it (1 Peter 5:8).  Just know that you will never be tempted above your ability – with the temptation God will provide a way out (1 Corinthians 10:13).

In closing, God is holy and desires us to be holy as He is.  He has made us to be sexual beings, and created us to enjoy sex – in its rightful place of marriage.  In that proper place God blesses it and calls it good.  Therefore we ought to take heed to the dangers and judgment of sexual immorality, resist and avoid temptation.  We ought to encourage one another to obey God’s moral laws, so that in this perverse society we may represent God’s holiness and loving nature well.

For further reading on similar topics refer to Marriage and our culture, Our Lonely world and The Perfect Match – Relational Mythbusters.

[i] The references in this paragraph comes from a good article by P.G. Nelson © 2009 found at www.theologicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/smorality_nelson.pdf

[ii] The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009 found at https://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/188-faith-has-a-limited-effect-on-most-peoples-behavior#.VEDa5fmSySo .         Results discussed in Kinnaman D., & Lyons G., unChristian (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).  See also Scazzero P., Emotionally healthy Christianity (Zondervan, 2009) for more statistic and results on culture and Christian distinction through discipleship.

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On Spiritual Maturity : The Error of Balaam

In the book of Numbers, four chapters are devoted to the history of a prophet who had a profound impact on God’s people during their conquest of the Promised Land.  This prophet was not a Jewish man, but a seer who dwelt in Pethor: Balaam son of Beor.  In 1967 archeological evidence was discovered with the inscription of “Baalam son of Beor” prophet of “El Shaddai” – the Almighty God as he was known to the Israelites in the days of Moses.  This archeological evidence adds tremendous historic weight this account in the Bible.

Image of wall tiles inscribed by "Balaam son of Peor, Prophet of El Shaddai" found at  Tell Deir Alla, Succoth (dated to 1406/750 BC). See  www.bible.ca/archeology/
Image of wall tiles inscribed by “Balaam son of Peor, Prophet of El Shaddai” found at Tell Deir Alla, Succoth (dated to 1406/750 BC). See http://www.bible.ca/archeology/

The reason why this account of a foreign prophet speaking to ancient Israel is important to contemporary believers is highlighted by the numerous New Testament references to Balaam.  All of these references of Balaam are warnings: Peter warns the church of false prophets who “have gone astray… in the way of Balaam…” (2 Peter 2:15).  Jude warns of “ungodly people… [who] abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error” (Jude 1:1, 11).  John wrote of those in the church in Pergamum “who hold to the teachings of Balaam.” (Revelations 2:14).  In each of the three texts the prophet Balaam is used as reference or type of ungodly lifestyles and doctrinal error of believers that is condemnable.  But what is this dangerous “error”, “way” or “doctrine”?

Reading through the historic account of Balaam’s dealings with Israel (Numbers 22:1-25:10, 31:8,16), one has to acknowledge his absolute commitment to relay only what God says: “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God to do less or more” (22:18).  Throughout these three chapters he maintains this stance, repeating his commitment to speak only the words of God another five times (22:38;  23:8, 12, 26; 24:13).  In the end, Balaam’s loyalty to prophesy in truth as God revealed cost him his wages which Balak promised (24:11).  Thus Balaam is an accurate prophet, true to delivering God’s message, not yielding to pressure or bribe to speak falsely.

So why the negative connotations with Balaam?  Numbers 25 records a shameful time in Israel’s travels as they camped on the Eastern side of the Jordan river and started living like the Moabite people.  Swaying under the power of cultural seduction to sexual immorality and idol worship, the Israelites came under the wrath of God through as a plague that killed 24’000 Israelites (Numbers 25:1-9).  This moral decay is attributed to Balaam (Numbers 31:16).  Although he was extremely gifted and graced by God to hear and speak accurately the pure words of God, he himself was an immoral man whose way of life was corrupted with sin (“way of Balaam” 2 Peter 2:15; ““error” Jude 1: 11) and his teachings deceptive (Numbers 31:16).  His lifestyle and teachings were not to be followed, admired or trusted.  In fact, Balaam was executed along with the Midianites under the wrath of God (Numbers 31:8).

The first talking ass - Balaam's donkey!
The first talking ass – Balaam’s donkey!

Although his prophesies is shown to be infallible in the text, the author of Numbers includes the humorous account of his journey on the donkey to Balak (Numbers 22:21-38), which is very deliberately inserted to humble this “great prophet”.  For instance, Balaam the great prophet is hired to subdue Israel with words, but he cannot even subdue his donkey with a stick.  He claims to see visions (24:4,17) but can’s see what the donkey sees on three occasions (22:32).  He claims that his prophetic speech is from God (22:38; 23:5, 12, 16), yet the donkey silences him as its mouth is also opened by God (22:28).  Balaam claims to posess knowledge “from the Most High” (24:16) was beaten in verbal exchange with a stupid donkey (22:30) and then has to admit to the angel “I did not know [what the donkey knows]” (22:34).  Although Balaam is on his way to slay a whole nation with his words he has to draw a sword to kill the donkey (22:29); while lamenting lamenting that he had no sword to slay the animal, the donkey sees the drawn sword in the hands of the angel (22:23) right in front of him.  This irony is meant as a lesson in humility – that the great prophet, like any donkey, can see and speak only what God shows him, and that he simply is graced to serve in the purposes of God.  Secondly, this account shows that although the prophet speaks graceful words by God’s Spirit, he is more beastly than his donkey: where the beast is kind to move his master Balaam out of harm’s way three times, the master is beastly in beating the faithful, kind-hearted, willing animal without considering the motive.

Godliness and our culture

Although Balaam had the ability to speak God’s words accurately, he had lead a whole nation astray.  His life serves as a warning that accurate spiritual discernment without holy living (from a godly character) is dangerous.  What was this ungodliness?  Balaam’s error (2 Peter 2:15) or Balaam’s way (Jude 1:11) simply refers to his lifestyle of cultural acceptance.  Although being a gifted prophet Balaam lived as the Midianites did, and that lead to the corruption of God’s holy people as they followed his “way” and “erred” in his footsteps.  His love for sensual pleasure made him prone towards greed, sexual immorality and cultural festivity surrounding the worship of other gods, plus his independence lead to rebellion.  (See 2 Peter 2:2-14; Jude 1:1, 6-11; Psalm 106:28; Revelation 2:14).

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The doctrine of Balaam: everything goes! No consequences!

The doctrine of Balaam (Revelation 2:14) teaches that God’s people are chosen, holy and saved in God’s eternal covenant and therefore nothing can change that reality – not even their lifestyle.  So by his example and by his teachings the great prophet Balaam deceived God’s people into a lifestyle of sexual immorality and the worship of Baal of Peor.  As a result, many died under the wrath of God, never reaching the Promised Land (Jude 1:5).  Still today Balaam’s dualism (distinguishing spiritual holiness from moral life) is taught in many places (associated with Gnosticism in the early church and extreme grace teachings).  Apart from formal teaching, the way of Balaam is engrained in our spiritual DNA by the example of our contemporary church culture where Sundays is God’s day, and the rest of the week we live good lives, but find pleasure and security as the rest of society does.

Balaam is not the only example of this fallacy in Scripture.  Samson, the mighty deliverer of Israel was like him: a man empowered by the Spirit of God to lead and deliver Israel, yet always seduced and enticed by his worldly passions and made ineffective. (Judges 14-16)  Giving in to the seduction of sensual sins enslaves God’s people and brings shame to his Name.

In contrast to Balaam and Samson, Daniel and his friends stand out as examples of godliness amidst a crooked world.  Daniel chapter three records how Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden image that everyone in his kingdom had to bow down to whenever the music played. The image was not an image of a particular god, but rather represented the religious culture of the day.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the image, and was persevered by God in the fire.  Their refusal to succumb to the cultural pressure in faithfulness to the One True God stands as an example to every believer in our present-day materialistic, promiscuous culture feeling pressures us to conform.

How do we respond?

Considering the the error of Balaam, I find three ways to respond to this in pursuit of spiritual maturity.

  1. Review your definition of “Spiritual Maturity”

The reference to Balaam in Peter’s second epistle pertains to false prophets among the first readers, thus spiritually gifted leaders. This is worth mentioning.  Peter appeals to his readers to note the ungodly fruit of these spiritually gifted ministers, and therefore not following their example of sensuality and rebellion.  Peter looked at the character and behavior of these gifted leaders and was not easily mesmerized by their prophetic ability.  After all, Jesus taught him that a person is “known by [his] fruit” (Matthew 12:33).

Peter needed to write this to the growing young church, since the charismatic gift of prophets is very appealing to especially young believers.  And the display of spiritual gifts is easily taken as signs of spiritual maturity. It is the will of God that we grow up (Ephesians 4:11ff), but how do you define maturity? That is why these warnings by Jesus and his apostles are so strong and clear.  So re-evaluate your view of spiritual maturity: Who do you admire?  Who do you want to follow after?  Consider their character – are they known by their love? What can you learn from their marriage and family relationships, their work ethic and how they manage money?

Take stock of your life spiritually.
Take stock of your life spiritually.
  1. Take stock of your own life.

In Jude and Revelations the warning to individuals walking in the error or teachings of Balaam is merely to wrong belief of individuals in their congregations of those in their midst.  Balaam is the image of a spiritually gifted man with the lust of sensual pleasures that are lead by his passions through this life like waves thrown around by their earthly desires (Jude 1:12-14).  Take an honest view of your life your own life, with special reference to you your passions and desires.  Are you leaving it unchecked?  What are you doing about it?  And who are you accountable to about it?

  1. Grow in godliness.

Our aim remains to be conformed to the image of Christ Jesus and to help form others into that image (Romans 8:29; Colossians 2:28-29).  Be purposeful about it.  How have you grown in godliness in the last year, and in which area do you need to grow now?  Are you growing in the will of God?  What does the Lord say, and what will you do to grow in that area of Christ-likeness.  Again, and who knows about that?

While closing with growth in Christ-likeness, remember these words of Paul: “Continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, giving you the desire and ability for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)  Continue, don’t stagnate in your pursuit of Christ-likeness.  Work it out yourself, don’t expect it to automatic or someone else’s job.  As you grow in Christ-likeness you also will grow to emulate the Christ – the Anointed One (Acts 10:38).  Earnestly desire spiritual gifts but let the motive be love (1 Corinthians 12:31).

And work with God – it is he that works in you, leading your through your desires and gracing your with the power needed to grow in Christ-likeness.  Don’t stop!  Work joyfully with the grace God gives.

What is the will of God (for me)?

“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)

Will of Decree

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)

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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)

God's will of destiny is the purpose or goal that he has for us in life, or in a particular situation
God’s will of destiny is the purpose or goal that he has for us in life, or in a particular 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!

sheherd-leading-sheep