As Christians, we want to know and do God’s will, but many Christians struggle to hear God’s voice and know His will. They find the whole process frustrating and vague, and they are left feeling spiritually paralyzed. Could it be that the problem does not lie with God’s silence nor our inability to hear what God is saying, but with our conception of God’s will and the particular methods we use for discerning it? Could it be that our conception of God’s will and hearing His voice is not taught in the Bible? Perhaps we have over-complicated and over-spiritualized the will of God.

Many Christians think God’s will for their life is both extensive and detailed. In addition to God’s general will that we develop our moral character, He also has a more specific will for us concerning our education, our vocation, our residency, our spouse, where we congregate, and other matters big and small. Our job is to (1) discern God’s will in these matters using various methods such as a peace in our heart, open and closed doors, unbidden thoughts, impressions, signs, and fleeces, and then (2) make choices that match God’s will. The process is similar to navigating: God chooses our destination and the route we should take to get there, and our job is merely to discover the map and follow it turn-by-turn.

This sounds reasonable and perhaps even comforting, but is it Biblical? I assumed so, until I was forced to look at Scripture more carefully. Now, I’m convinced that this understanding of the will of God – while well-intentioned – errs in its assumptions about (1) the extent of God’s will and (2) the methods for discerning it.

How extensive is God’s will?

Does God have a will for our life? Of course! The question is how extensive that will is. Does it extend to our choice of residence, vocation, employer, spouse, etc., or is it of a more general nature, focused primarily on our character and moral development? The Biblical data leads me to conclude it is the latter (Eph 5:17-18; 1 Thes 4:3; 5:16-18; 1 Pet 2:13-15). God’s will is more akin to a compass than a road map. He is more concerned with the kind of person we are and the moral choices we make than He is with our individual life choices (Eph 5:17-18; 1 Thes 4:3; 5:18; 1 Pet 2:13-15). His will is that we become a certain kind of person, not necessarily that we go to X college, marry Y person, or live in Z city. So long as we are becoming more like Christ and using the giftings God has endowed us with for His glory and for the furtherance of His kingdom, we can be confident that we are in the will of God.

For example, when it comes to marriage, God only wills that our spouse (1) be of the opposite sex and (2) be a Christian (Gen 2:18,21-24; Mt 19:4-5; Rom 1:27; 1 Cor 7: 39; 2 Cor 6:14). God hasn’t chosen “the one” for us, but gives us options. That’s why Scripture says “he who finds a wife finds a good thing” (Prov 18:22), not “he who finds the wife God has destined for him fulfills the will of God.” Paul didn’t admonish single Christians to pray to God to show them who to marry, but rather to gauge their level of self-control in abstaining from sex (1 Cor 7:1-2,9).

When it comes to ministry, we do not need to have a “calling” experience from God. “Calling” in the Bible often speaks of salvation (Acts 2:39; Rom 11:29; 1 Cor 1:26; 2 Pet 1:10). While we do see a few people being specially commissioned by God for ministry (Moses, Jeremiah, Paul), this is not the norm and there is no expectation set by Scripture that everyone called to ministry will have a similar supernatural experience. Instead, we are told that someone should “aspire to the office of overseer,” and if he does, “he desires a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1). Paul instructed Timothy and Titus to look for men who fulfilled certain character traits and possessed certain abilities and then appoint them as overseers. No calling experience was required. God distributes ministry through gifting, not calling. God’s will is that we exercise the giftings He has given us for the growth of His kingdom and edification of the body of Christ (Rom 12:4-8; Gal 2:7-9; Eph 3:7-8; 1 Cor 15:9-10; 1 Pet 4:10-11). How we exercise His giftings matters more than where we exercise them. To find our ministry, we simply need to look at what we desire to do for God (Phil 2:13; 1 Tim 3:1), what we are gifted to do (Rom 12:4-8; Gal 2:7-9; Eph 3:7-8; 1 Cor 15:9-10; 1 Pet 4:10-11), and we can expect that our giftings will be recognized/confirmed by other Christians/leaders (Acts 13:1-3; Gal 2:1-9; 1 Tim 4:14).

How do we discover God’s will?

Should we seek the will of God? Yes, but we should do so using Biblical methods. Unfortunately, most methods used for discerning the will of God are not found in Scripture. For example, people are told to look for the will of God in our thoughts (unbidden thoughts), feelings (peace in your heart), impressions (still small voice, led by the Spirit, etc.), and signs (literally, songs and license plates for some Christians). These methods are neither taught nor modeled in Scripture. While some of the terms are found in Scripture, they mean something very different:

  • Being “led by the Spirit” (Rom 8:14; Gal 5:18) refers to moral development, not hearing God’s voice or obtaining personal direction from God.
  • Having a “peace in my heart” is based on Colossians 3:15, but the context has nothing to do with making decisions or discovering God’s will, and the peace that Paul is talking about is not an internal peace one feels in their heart, but an interpersonal peace among the whole body of Christ.
  • The “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-13) Elijah heard was the soft but audible voice of God, not an intra-mental thought or impression. Jesus said “My sheep hear my voice” (Jn 10:3-4,27), but He was speaking figuratively (Jn 10:6) of salvation (Jn 10:1-6, 16, 27-28).
  • There is no Biblical basis for a “check in our spirit.” The Bible does speak of the discerning of spirits (1 Cor 12:10), but this is a spiritual gift that only some believers have and it’s not used to find God’s will for our life. Scripture also speaks of “testing” things, but this is a rational process that does not involve getting information directly from God (Rom 12:1-2; Eph 5:9-10; Heb 5:14; 1 Jn 4:1-3).
  • There is no Biblical basis whatsoever for identifying our “unbidden thoughts” or “impressions” as God’s way of speaking to us.
  • Gideon only “fleeced” the Lord after God had revealed His will (Josh 6:36-40). “Fleecing” the Lord was an evidence of Gideon’s lack of faith.
  • “Confirmations” appears in the context of “two or three witnesses” (Mt 18:16; 1 Tim 5:19; Heb 10:28), but none of these contexts have anything to do with finding God’s will. It is a legal principle. Paul also speaks of “confirming” people in their faith (Phil 1:7; see also Acts 14:22; 15:41), but again, this has nothing to do with getting special direction from God.
  • Scripture speaks of “open doors” and “closed doors” (1 Cor 16:8-9; Col 4:3-4), but these were viewed as opportunities that may or may not be taken advantage of – not divine mandates (Rom 1:9-13; 2 Cor 2:12-13).

God has clearly revealed His will for our lives within the pages of the 66 books of the Bible (2 Tim 3:15-17). You don’t need anything in addition to the Word of God to do the will of God. So if you want to know God’s will, look for a verse rather than a sign, feeling, or impression. Read the Bible and apply its moral principles to your life in wisdom. As one wise man has said, “If you want to hear from God, read your Bible. If you want to hear Him audibly, read it out loud.” The Bible is chalked full of examples of godly men making decisions based on wisdom rather than seeking for or waiting for a personal revelation from God (Acts 6:1-6; 19:21; 20:16; Rom 1:8-13; 15:22-25,28-32; 1 Cor 16:5-9; 2 Cor 1:15-17; Tit 3:12). God actually commands us to seek wisdom (James 1:5). Why? So we can make good decisions in life. But if God has determined most aspects of our life and reveals His will to us, what need would there be for wisdom? Personal revelations of God’s will would make wisdom unnecessary.

This is not to deny that God could have a specific will regarding some non-moral decision in our life that He may want to communicate to us. He might, but if He does, you can rest assured that it will bear the five characteristics of divine revelation we find in Scripture: It’s (1) rare, (2) an intrusion, (3) supernatural in nature, (4) clear, (5) and often goes against the dictates of wisdom.

  1. Rare (not normative)

While it may feel like God was speaking to everyone all the time, this is not true. We only read of God giving special revelation to specific people (Abraham, Moses, the prophets, Paul, etc.), and even they usually went long periods of time without hearing anything from God. In Acts, there are only 16 examples of direction from God over a 30 year period compared to 71 decisions made by wisdom.[1]

  1. Intrusion

Abraham was not seeking direction when God called him out of Ur (Gen 12). Moses was not trying to figure out direction for his life when God appeared to him at the burning bush. Paul not seeking direction when God called Him to 1st missionary journey (Acts 13:1-2). Peter not seeking God about whether he should expand his ministry to the Gentiles (Acts 10). Paul was not asking God if he should minister in Macedonia (Acts 16:9). All of these men received direction from God at a time when they weren’t looking for it. They did not “wait on the Lord” until they received direction. They were going about their normal affairs when God interrupted them.

  1. Supernatural

Whenever we are told how God communicated to people, it was always through supernatural means such as prophecies, angels, an audible voice, visions, a word of knowledge, etc., not through thoughts, feelings, impressions, signs, and the like.[2]

  1. Clear

And because God chose supernatural means to reveal His will, both the message and the source were always clear. God can’t expect people to obey an unclear message. We never find anyone In the Bible asking, “Was that God or just me?” or “What did God say?” No one ever said, “I think God is telling me….” If you think you’ve heard from God, but find yourself questioning either the source or the message, you can bet your bottom dollar it was not God speaking to you.

It’s often said that God is always speaking to us, but we aren’t being attentive to His voice or we’re too carnal to hear Him. But this presumes that God merely tries. Surely not! If God wants to communicate a message to us, He can and will ensure that we get that message. If God could get His message through to sinful pagans who didn’t believe in or obey Him (Gen 20:1-7; Mt 27:19), surely He can get His message through to believers like you and I!

  1. Against the dictates of wisdom

God often provides special revelation only when our normal use of wisdom would not allow us to fulfill some specific will He had for us. For example, it made sense for Paul to go into Asia since he was in Galatia (eastern neighbor), but the Spirit forbade him to go, so he traveled on the northern border of Asia between Asia and Bithynia instead (Acts 16:6). But God didn’t want him going to Bithynia either, so He intervened again (Acts 16:7). So Paul went to Troas (right across from Macedonia) where God gave him a vision of the Macedonian man saying “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:8-10). God had positioned Paul to send him exactly where He wanted him.

Conclusion

In summary, God’s will for our life is more about our moral choices than our life choices, and is most fully revealed in Scripture. As a rule, God has given us the responsibility to make good life decisions by applying wisdom to God’s revealed moral will (in Scripture) rather than waiting on special, divine revelation. In rare circumstances, God may will that you make a specific life choice and reveal that will to you, but when He does, it will come via supernatural means, it will be clear, it will likely be unexpected, and will likely go against the dictates of wisdom. Knowing God’s will is not difficult, and it does not require any new spiritual abilities. We do not have to wait for a whisper in our ear before we make decisions. Apart from any clear, supernatural communication from God, we are free and responsible to make decisions in light of the moral teachings of Scripture, in light of wisdom, and with a view towards what is spiritually advantageous. Now go and do the will of God with confidence!

 

Post-script

Whenever I address this topic, invariably there are a myriad of misunderstandings – and I provide a lot more detail in my live presentations than what I have provided here – so let me clarify some things:

  • The question isn’t whether people can encounter/experience God. They can. We can experience the presence of God, supernatural interventions, moves of the Spirit, deep emotional experiences, and Spirit-directed insight into Scripture. What I am referring to is the specific experience of God revealing specific information to us for the purpose of making decisions.
  • I am not claiming that God doesn’t have a plan for our lives, but rather that His will is more about our moral development than it is about specific life decisions we make.
  • I’m not saying what God can or cannot do. God can do anything He wants. I am talking about what Scripture teaches believers should expect as a normative
  • The question isn’t whether God can/does speak to people today, but rather the means by which God speaks and how often He does so.
  • The question isn’t whether God guides our decisions, but how He does so (via thoughts, impressions, etc., or through Scripture, wisdom, counsel, etc.)

It’s also common for people to dismiss my Biblical case for decision making and the will of God by appealing to some experience they had that they think serves as proof that God does speak to us through thoughts, feelings, impressions, signs, fleeces, open doors, peace in our heart, etc. The problem with experience is that it is subjective by nature, and can’t be evaluated objectively. Scripture, however, is objective. And since Scripture, not experience, is the standard for our faith and practice, Scripture ought to be determinative on this matter. I can’t exegete an experience, but I can exegete Scripture. If we are to believe that God’s will for our lives is very detailed, that we need to receive revelation of God’s will prior to making decisions, that God will reveal that will to us through thoughts/impressions/signs/feelings/peace/open doors, and that this is normative for all Christians, then it needs to be demonstrated from Scripture. Unfortunately, there is no exegetical basis for this view, which is why it always has to be supported from purported experiences.

Another problem with experience is the tendency toward confirmation bias. We ignore the many times we were wrong about what we thought God was saying to us, while trotting out the few times that it “worked.” Think about it. How many times have you had thoughts/impressions that you thought were from God, but turned out to be mistaken? For example, if we ask God to help us find our keys and we feel impressed (have the thought) to look in the couch cushions, but discover that the keys aren’t in the couch, we don’t say “God lied to me!” We recognize that impressions are not reliable indicators of divine direction. We only remember the times such experiences seemed to work, and assume this confirms that God speaks to us in this way.

Of course, most instances in which people claim God spoke to them can’t even be tested to determine whether it is God or just their own thoughts/impressions/feelings. We feel like God told us to start a particular ministry or that God is telling us to join a specific church. How could anyone – including yourself – ever know if it was God or not since these sorts of “messages” can’t be tested? Even semi-testable claims, such as “God told me to marry such-and-such person” can’t truly be tested, because if the marriage does not happen, you can always blame the other person for disobeying the will of God. What you are left with is a multitude of claims to hear God for which there is no test, a good number of testable claims that proved false, and only a few testable claims that proved true. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

I am not minimizing experience, but at best, experience will confirm Scripture, not supersede it. Even if I granted the legitimacy of one’s experience, at best it would show that God does speak in ways not taught or modeled in Scripture. What it wouldn’t show is that God normally speaks that way, or that such experiences are normative for every Christian.

Invariably, many of you will challenge me on this topic because the idea that God’s will is expansive and that He regularly communicates that will to all Christians via thoughts, feelings, impressions, etc. is so embedded in Christian culture that you take it for granted as gospel truth. I’m open to being challenged, but if you want to claim that the normative Christian experience is to regularly receive divine direction/information through thoughts, feelings, impressions, etc., you’ll need to present a Biblical case for that view rather than merely appealing to some experience.

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[1]See Greg Koukl, “Divine Direction & Decision Making in the Book of Acts”; available from https://www.str.org/articles/divine-direction-decision-making-in-the-book-of-acts; Internet; accessed 09 January 2020.

[2]There are many instances in the Bible in which God communicated His will to human beings, but we are not told how God communicated. While these instances may be instructive regarding the kind of information God communicates, they are of no help in determining the means by which God communicates that information. Only those passages that tell us how God communicated can inform us regarding God’s methods for communicating, and in every instance where we are told how God communicated, it was always via some supernatural means.