Before we turn to the New Testament, let’s take a closer looker at why there seems to be so much confusion regarding what it means to follow God’s will.
Many Christians have come to believe that finding the will of God is much like walking on a balance beam, the narrow beam of wood that gymnasts balance on as they perform their routine. The thought goes a bit like this: the will of God, like a balance beam, is hard to stay on and easy to fall off. God has one, very specific path for every person to find and once they find it, they must stay on this narrow path in order to experience the favor and blessings of God. This way of thinking is what we might call the “balance-beam” approach to God’s will.
Someone with this belief about God’s will might offer a prayer like: “Jesus, show me your will . . . ” There is an assumption that once Jesus reveals his will for us, we will always obey. The difficulty is discerning what Jesus is telling us to do in each particular situation.
The stakes are high in this view of God’s will. If we veer off the narrow path of God’s will for us, we could wreck our entire future, the life God had intended for us. Seeing God’s will this way almost inevitably leads to a great deal of fear, anxiety, and confusion.
What’s more, there’s often a time pressure on important decisions. The decision date is set and it looms large, so we need to know what God wants us to do by a certain time—or else. With that kind of pressure, we can sometimes get very creative in trying to determine God’s will. Who has time to study the Scriptures in context? We need a word from God now! As a result, we may play “Bible roulette,” flipping randomly among the pages of Scripture looking for that specific answer to our particular burning will-of-God question. Or, we might stop reading the Bible altogether and focus more on our own thoughts and feelings. As we get more desperate, we might resort to seeking signs from God about what he wants us to do. Things can get plain crazy at that point—if the light turns green in two seconds, I’ll take the new job; if I see a billboard of a couple holding hands in the next mile, I’ll go forward in the relationship; if this or that happens then God must want me to take a particular course. Crazy!
Even after we make the decision, the anxiety can continue. Did I really find God’s will and make the right choice? Am I still on the “narrow path” of God’s perfect will for my life? How can I be sure? What if I misread the signs? What happens if this decision wasn’t God’s will? Does that mean that I’ve completely messed up my life?
Just on the face of it, does it make sense for God to put us through this kind of rigmarole? Is this really how God expects us to live? Is this really what God is like?
The “balance-beam” approach to God’s will can impact our lifestyle choices in problematic ways. We can become focused on what we see as the “big” decisions—the ones we see as determining our alignment with God’s plan for us—to the neglect of what we see as more minor responsibilities. We start thinking that if we make the “correct” choice of school, spouse, job, church, and so on, then life will automatically work out the way God wants. But Scripture reveals that it’s the so-called “little” decisions that really define the quality of our life. Obeying God in the everyday, routine choices is what shapes our faith and defines our character. In fact, that’s true of any relationship. If I focused on remembering significant events like my wife Judy’s birthday and our anniversary but ignored the dishes, laundry, checkbook, and spending meaningful time with her, I wonder if we would really have a good relationship. On the other hand, if I’m faithful in the little things, I will also very naturally remember and celebrate her birthday and our anniversary.
A related problem with this narrow view of God’s will is that it can lead us to become overly introspective and self-absorbed. When your friend is struggling over a decision they see as a crucial part of God’s will for their life, “the decision” can become all this person talks about. Your conversations don’t last five minutes before they begin talking about “the decision.” As you try to listen to the same spiel that you’ve heard ten times before, you may find yourself mentally working on your to-do list. Feeling pressure to find that narrow path of God’s will and stay on it can lead to a self-focus that is unhealthy for us and our community.
As alluded to earlier, the balance-beam approach to God’s will can also leave us confused about the character of God. If God really wants us to do his will, why doesn’t he just make it clear and plain? Why does it feel like a cosmic game of hide and seek? This way of thinking can lead us to question God’s motives and even doubt God’s goodness.
Finally, as I’ve experienced and observed firsthand, the balance-beam approach to God’s will can lead us to become obsessed with knowing and controlling our future. God is sovereign and we are not, but the balance-beam approach to God’s will confuses these two, putting the pressure on us to secure our future. A question we must all ask is: Do I want to know God’s will in order to obey, or in order to be more in control of my life and my future? Is the bottom-line motive following God or a need for control? That’s a hard question for many of us.
If you’re weary of the confusion and dead-ends that the balance-beam approach to God’s will leads to, perhaps you’re ready for a different approach. So, let’s return to considering our primary question: what does God say about his will? As we do so, we’ll need to keep in mind that each of us is on a journey, a faith pilgrimage with our Lord and his people. What we’ll need most as we seek to grow in our understanding of God’s will is the biblical quality known as wisdom.