Should I be looking for “God’s will for my life” in every decision?

Q.  Gary Friesen’s book Decision Making and the Will of God has profoundly impacted the way I think about God’s will. It argues that God has only a Sovereign Will (which is essentially unknowable) and a Moral Will, which is knowable, fully revealed in his Word, delineating what activity is acceptable to God. Within that Moral Will, God gives us the freedom, responsibility, and wisdom to make good choices.  Friesen criticizes the view that God also has an Individual Will for each person’s life, which they should constantly be trying to figure out by looking for signs of various kinds: “open doors,” “putting out a fleece,” etc.  

I find this incredibly freeing, because one is then allowed to make choices within God’s Moral Will without a ton of extra stress. So long as we make the best choices we can and stay within God’s moral bounds, God backs us up and we can’t actually “miss his will.” This also means there isn’t always a “better and a best” for every decision; some things are actually equal alternatives.  

Do you find this to be a valid description of what the Bible teaches?

I read Friesen’s book myself some years ago when it was first published, but I will not attempt a review of it here.  Instead, I will try to respond to your question briefly.

When it comes to deciding what activities God wants us to pursue, I believe Jesus sets the ideal example.  In my study guide to the gospel of John, I describe how Jesus pursued what scholars often call “co-operation” with the Father.  Within the context of his overall life mission as he understood it, Jesus discerned where God was already at work and considered how he could join in. His classic statement of this approach was, “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.”

In the study guide I give this example of “co-operation” at the wedding feast in Cana:

When the wine runs out, Jesus’ mother Mary asks him to help.  Jesus expects that the power of God will only be increasingly demonstrated through him as his “hour” draws near (meaning the time of his death as the Savior of the world).  But Mary’s persistent faith and implicit trust show that God is powerfully at work in this very moment.  Jesus performs a miracle . . .  This first sign reveals Jesus’ “glory”—not so much his miraculous powers, but his intimate relationship with God and his sensitivity to the work that God wants to do through him at each moment.

But I think “co-operation” can also work in the other direction.  Besides seeing where God is already at work and joining in, we can also take sanctified initiative within the context of our life mission, and see whether God will join in with us!

This is what happens, I believe, in the book of Samuel-Kings when the Israelite prince Jonathan proposes to attack the Philistine garrison at Mikmash. He says to his armor-bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf.”  In other words, as soldiers defending their homeland, they have a mission to try to repel the invaders.

Jonathan wonders whether an attack against this garrison will succeed.  I find it interesting how he frames the decision.  Jonathan tells his armor bearer that if the Philistines say, “Come over here,” that means the two of them should attack, because their enemies are already surrendering the territory in between, and especially sparing them the need to fight their way up a very steep incline.  In other words, God would already be joining in and getting them part way to victory.  But if the Philistines say, “Wait there for us,” the two of them should flee, because God isn’t giving them any ground to start things off.

So within the context of our understanding of our duty and mission in life, we may either discern where God is at work, and join in, or else “put the puck on the ice,” so to speak, and see whether God will skate off with it.  These are the two possible directions in which “co-operation” may flow.

All of this assumes, of course that we have already been developing an understanding of our duty and mission in life, which requires reflection, counsel, study of God’s word, reasonable experimentation, etc.  It also means that we are attentive enough to spiritual signals to get some sense of where God is at work.

But I don’t think this is the same thing as looking for “signs” or “clues” pointing to “God’s will for my life,” as if that were a unique thing we were supposed to discover passively and submit to.  That’s not putting enough stock in the human side of “co-operation.”  I think sometimes we take sanctified initiative, even though we don’t know everything and our motives are inevitably mixed, and God says, “I can work with that.”

Friesen’s formulation, on the other hand, might not allow quite enough room for the divine side  of “co-operation.”  I think there’s a bit more to it than us making the best and wisest decision we can and expecting God to back us up if we’re within his Moral Will.  I think sometimes God gets things started around us and expects us to discern this activity and consider how we can join in.

Well, this is very brief, and a lot more could be said to flesh these concepts out, but I hope it is helpful as you continue to reflect on “decision making and the will of God.”

“The Wedding at Cana”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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