God’s Will—To Know or Not to Know?
As I wrestle with a big decision over the next few months, God’s will is foremost in my mind. And as I talk with my students, many of them are desperately seeking God’s will for their careers, vocations, life partners, schools, etc. Through my life, I have often wished that God would write in the sky what He wanted me to do—or at least lead me to a pertinent Bible verse. But no matter how much I prayed, so many times God seemed silent. While it is tempting to think that meant He did not care, I have slowly come to realize that He actually cares in ways far more beautiful and powerful than my simple understanding, and that God’s will is actually complex in Scripture.
God’s Will and Gideon
The story used the most about seeking God’s will and getting a definite answer is that of Gideon. In Judges 6, he puts out a fleece, and God responds to his requests for wetness and dryness accordingly. However, what is not often mentioned is that Gideon begins his request by saying to God, “‘If You will save Israel by my hand . . .’” (vs. 36).* This is after God has appeared to him as an angel, and told him directly multiple times that God is with him and that He is sending him to save Israel (vss. 12, 14, 16). In addition, Gideon has already asked for a sign that the angel would stay (vs. 18), and God has already given him an additional one through the miraculous consumption of the food (vs. 21). Gideon even fears he will die because he has seen God (vs. 22).
So, Gideon’s fleece was showing doubt and not faith. Asking for a sign is not wrong in many cases, but here God had already spoken directly to him and given him many signs! And yet God is gracious with Gideon’s doubt and wavering. It is important to see the context for this story, since many today are disappointed when God doesn’t answer their fleece, and feel they have not heard Him, or have done something wrong. God is not a genie or a vending machine. He wants a relationship with us and created us to be rational beings with a power to choose.
God’s Will Throughout Scripture
Yet, God clearly does guide us as His followers. Sometimes He gives us a sign or direction as to what we should do (Jonah 1). Sometimes He opens a door and shuts other doors (Acts 16:6–10). Other times, He speaks through prophets, Scripture, or wise and helpful people in our lives (2 Chronicles 20). And in some cases, circumstances that God did not initiate lead us in other directions (Acts 14). God is always the author of peace, so sometimes He may simply give us peace about a certain decision, even though it may not matter ultimately what we decide (John 14:27).
No matter what, however, if there is something God wants us to do, He has no problem making that clear to us. And if we are going the wrong way, He makes it clear and redirects us (Jonah 1–3). God does not leave us in the lurch, guessing and wondering and praying with agony while He seems silent. That would be cruel. If God wanted to direct every minutia of our lives, He would tell us how to ask so that He would do so.
When looking at places in the Bible where the will of God is mentioned, a very interesting picture unfolds. God’s will is for all of us to be saved, and that “‘everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life’” (John 6:40). The will of Jesus is that we may be with Him, and to see His glory (John 17:24). God also desires that we are not “conformed to this world” but are “transformed” as we renew our minds, indicating that God’s will is understanding and following what is “good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). In addition, God desires that we turn away from “all that is in the world,” including “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16). Not only salvation and sanctification, but God’s will is that His people “come to the knowledge of the truth” and have assurance of salvation (1 Tim. 2:4). As a result of salvation, God’s will is that we continue in good works (Heb. 13:20, 21), even if it means suffering as a result (1 Peter 2:15; 3:17). Ultimately, we are to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:18).
Most people want to know God’s will for their life partner or career, but God hardly ever tells anyone in the Bible what to do in these areas. Certainly, there are a few exceptions, like instructing Hosea to marry a prostitute (Hosea 1:2) and Jeremiah not to marry (Jer. 16:2). But mostly, God joyfully allows us to select a fellow believer to marry that will best suit us. For a career or vocation, usually only the prophets and apostles are directly spoken to about it. Mostly, it seems, God is “silent” about who to marry and what to study.
However, it is not that God does not care about us in this silence. It is just that God made us to be rational, decision-making beings. He also puts desires in our hearts, when we delight in Him, implying that He both makes us with certain desires, and also fulfills them (Ps. 37:4). Most of all, God wants a relationship with us. So, when it seems that He does not “care” to answer, perhaps it is because it does not matter in a salvation sense, and He can use us either way. And because the uncertainty and need to choose keeps us talking to Him and close to Him.
Consider the story of Ruth. God never tells her to follow Naomi or to marry Boaz, but she chose to go forward with Naomi’s suggestions, and then added some actions and decisions of her own. God never tells Boaz what to do either; they both make their own decisions as godly persons—both exhibit God’s khesed, or lovingkindness (2:20; 3:10). And God blesses their choices, bringing David through their union (Ruth 4:22)! Humans are not robots, but we would be if God dictated our every move.
My Own Story
In my life, my calling has been a journey. Though I agonized in prayer for years, I never had a revelation from God about which vocational path to follow. For a long time, I thought this was because I was doing something wrong, somehow not looking for the right signs or inexplicably distant from God. I grew up listening to my dad’s sermons on the Old Testament, spending many months in Israel, and even became class pastor in high school. But I also loved science, studying biology in college and grad school. I wrestled long and hard about which path to choose, begging God for some sort of sign, anything at all to tell me what He wanted me to do. But I ended up having to make a choice.
And now, I have come to more greatly value my God-given ability to choose. God is gently guiding me to know myself better, to listen to the passions and dreams that He planted in my heart. God has worked throughout my journey by giving me peace that He would bless either way I chose. Later on, He gave me a settled certainty that where I am is where He wants me to be, teaching Old Testament, as well as using my biology training in various ways. Though the journey has been challenging because of the lack of clear direction from God, my relationship with Him has deepened and grown as a result. Rather than viewing Him as a divine vending machine, where I put in the request and get out the answer, I have instead come to know His heart and have shared my heart with Him. And this, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, has been God’s will all along.
* Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this column are quoted from the English Standard Version of the Bible.