I was raised in a denomination that took the “will of God” very seriously. Not only that, it was an allusive, mystical thing that could only be tapped by a certain amount of faith, prayer and spiritual-mindedness.
The result was a throng of earnest but frustrated Christians who would sell their firstborn for a real assurance of God’s direction for their lives (which, to their dismay, would undoubtedly include the admonition, “Don’t sell your firstborn.”)
Things could have been different. If he wanted to, God could certainly decide to micro-manage our lives, separating the spiritual men from the spiritual boys by calling out each step in a voice only the truly spiritual could hear. Imagine an army taking orders by radio, at an extremely precise frequency that takes a great deal of practice and effort to find.
I know many people who suffer under this misconception, always wondering why God doesn’t just speak up already, and tell them what school to attend, what job to accept, what person to marry, what house to buy. God’s silence is understood not as silence on the part of the speaker, but deafness on the part of the hearer, and an intense guilt is incurred for one’s failure to “tune in.”
Granted, I believe that, in many cases, God actually does have a school picked out for someone… or a job, or a wife, or a house. But there is really only one thing that he specifically wants for every person: to become more like his Son, Jesus.
So let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that we all manage to drop our little petitions, and focus our hearts on being conformed to Christ. It would not take too long for us to notice ourselves becoming more wise, more joyful, more satisfied, more selfless, and (most importantly,) more interested in bringing glory to the Father.
Isn’t it inevitable that a person like this is going to make much godlier decisions about his or her life? So if you want to know the will of God for your life, and you are actually interested in that step-by-step stuff, I’ll give you my take:
1) Do what I just talked about. Check your heart, and make sure you’re really committed to following through on all the stuff God has already told you to do, like praying, giving, reading the Word, denying yourself, loving your neighbor, etc, etc. God may have said something very specific in the past that you weren’t interested in, such as “I want you to get rid of your TV.” Have you done it yet? If not, God is unlikely to trust you with greater responsibilities.
2) Even though, by this point, your heart is in the right place to begin understanding God’s will, you still need to ask him the specific questions that are on your heart. As I said, it’s possible that God really does have a particular house for you to buy, so you’ll want to give him an opportunity to express that to you. Just take some time to clear your heart of selfish biases as much as possible, and listen. Do not consider yourself to be done with Step 2 until you are certain that you’ve really listened to God with an open mind and an open heart, and you were ready to accept anything he had to say.
3) If you are certain in your heart that God has told you to do something, do it. If not, then gather all the facts, surround yourself with wise and godly counsel, and keep praying that God will be with you. Then make up your mind. Oftentimes God is ready to bless any decision we make, when we proceed with a selfless and godly attitude.
4) Now it’s time to re-think your pre-conceived notions of success. If you pick a school, then can’t afford it and have to leave after a year or two, does that mean that God disapproved of your choice? If you marry a man, and he cheats on you, does that mean you missed God’s will? What about if you start a church and it fails (a little too close to home for me…)?
If we have begun the process by conforming ourselves to the character of Christ, we should also see a change in how we evaluate the effectiveness of our lives. There are many examples in the Bible of people who failed in the eyes of the world, but succeeded wildly in the eyes of God, so we should always be asking him to show us how he is using us within our particular circumstances. Otherwise we are bound to measure ourselves solely by the world’s standards.
In the end, if God is the only one we really want to please, it will be impossible to fail.