How do I know what Jesus is calling me to do?

Q. How do I know what Jesus is calling me to do?

I’m not sure whether you mean this question in the sense of daily matters of obedience or in the sense of a life “calling” (that is, a vocation). But I will answer it in the first sense and then say how the answer applies to the second sense as well.

Ideally, we learn to recognize the voice of Jesus by developing a close relationship with him through prayer, worship, devotion, and obedience. There is an analogy that Jesus himself gave that I find very helpful. When Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd, he said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” He said that after explaining in general terms about a shepherd: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” So the ideal is to learn to recognize the voice of Jesus so that we know enough to follow him when we hear him speaking, and we also know enough to run away from what opposing voices are telling us.

But this is a process that takes time, and there are things that can help us along the way. I think it is accurate and helpful to expect that a number of factors will converge to show us how God is leading us. In addition to the way we may have a sense of God speaking to us, these factors include what God says in the Scriptures; the advice we receive from wise, trusted advisors; what the circumstances permit (“open doors” vs. “closed doors”); the godly desires of our own hearts; the fact that we find we are yielded and willing to obey God about something—to have it, not to have it, or to wait; a sense of peace about it; and a recognition that it will require faith and that God is giving us the faith to believe for it. When many such factors converge to point in a direction that we sense the voice of Jesus is also indicating, then we can reasonably proceed in that direction, believing that he is guiding us that way.

But we should always be open to continual refinement of our understanding. We need to learn from experience. If it turns out that somehow we got the wrong sense of what God wanted us to do, then we need to think about how that happened and learn from it for the next time. There is a learning curve here. But it is also an adventure of walking by faith with a loving God who will reward us for our desire to hear and obey his voice, not punish us for hearing imperfectly while we are learning.

All of these principles apply to God’s guidance about a life “calling” or vocation. Vocation includes our paid work or profession, but it also includes our relationships, the ministry we have in our church, volunteer and leisure-time activities, and so forth. It is the “whole package” of life, but it does center around certain key decision such as what work to do and where, and what our primary relationships will be. The main difference between guidance about this and about daily obedience is that vocational guidance unfolds over time, as the result of much exploration. So you should still study the Scriptures, pray, seek godly counsel, understand the desires of your heart, and so forth. But you should just expect that you will need to find your way over time into your vocation; it’s unlikely that one day God will suddenly announce the whole picture to you.

Here are a couple of questions that are usually helpful for people exploring what their vocations should be.

  • What would you do if you could do anything in the world, if money were no obstacle and assuming that you could get any education or training you might need for it? Those limitations might actually be there, but answering this question helps you know what direction to head in.
  • What can you “not not” do? Most people can do a number of things well. But there is one thing, or a related cluster of things, that they just can’t help doing, no matter where they are. That points very clearly in the direction of God’s vocation for their lives. So don’t ask, “What can I do?” Ask, “What can I not not do?”

I hope these reflections are helpful, and may you find yourself able to hear more and more clearly all the time what Jesus is calling you to do.

Does the Bible say that people shouldn’t immigrate?

Q. When God tells the Israelites, You are not to go back that way again,” meaning that they shouldn’t return to Egypt, in what context are we to understand that? We know that the Israelites originally went to Egypt mainly because of economic hardships in the land where they were living. Abraham went there, and so did Jacob, both because of famine, which we can translate as modern readers to mean economic hardships. If this is the case, does this statement now imply that when we are in hardships, we should stay where Lord has put us? I ask this because we have seen a lot of immigration in our time, people leaving their places of birth, sometimes because of political persecution or economic hardships. How are we to navigate though hardships, remaining faithful to the Kingdom of God while at the same time seeking self preservation?

I’ll explore shortly what the statement you’re asking about means. But let me say first that it quite clearly cannot mean that people shouldn’t leave their countries of birth because of political persecution or economic hardship, because in the Bible we see God repeatedly commanding people to do just that, even after He has said here, “You are not to go back that way again.”

The clearest example comes from the life of Jesus himself. When he was just a baby, an angel of the Lord appeared to his father Joseph in a dream and told him, “Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So at God’s command, Jesus became a refugee in a foreign country to escape deadly political persecution. (We are filled with humble gratitude when we realize that Jesus willingly shared our human condition to such an extent.)

But this is not the only example in the Bible of God commanding someone to leave their country for reasons such as you’ve mentioned. The prophet Elijah announced to king Ahab that because of his wickedness, there would be no rain in the kingdom of Israel. This drought led to famine, and Ahab tried to kill Elijah. So God commanded him to leave the country to find both food and safety: Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.”

The prophet Elisha, who was Elijah’s successor, himself commanded someone in the name of the Lord to leave the country to escape economic hardship. He told a woman who had been very helpful to his ministry, “Go away with your family and stay for a while wherever you can, because the Lord has decreed a famine in the land that will last seven years.” The Bible reports that she “proceeded to do as the man of God said. She and her family went away and stayed in the land of the Philistines seven years.”

So we can recognize that when, as you observed, Abraham and Jacob both left the land of Israel and went to Egypt to escape famine, this wasn’t something exceptional that happened before God established a commandment against immigration. Rather, it’s consistent with something that God does throughout the whole Bible. While we’re not told that God specifically encouraged Abraham to leave Israel to escape famine, we are told that God did tell Jacob to do this. His son Joseph had already urged him to come to Egypt without delay, “so you, your household, and everyone with you won’t starve.” Jacob had started out for Egypt with his extended family and on the way God appeared to him in a vision and said, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there.

We might add that in the Bible God sometimes commands people to leave their countries for positive reasons, not just to escape extreme danger or hardship. For example, God’s whole sequence of redemptive covenants begins when he tells Abraham, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” In this new land Abraham and his descendants become a great nation and a blessing to all the peoples on the earth.

Later in the Bible a woman named Ruth leaves her home country of Moab and returns to Israel with her mother-in-law Naomi (who originally left Israel to escape a famine) after they are both widowed. While God does not specifically command Ruth to do this, she is nevertheless commended for leaving her country for positive reasons. Boaz, her future Israelite husband, blesses her in the name of the Lord for showing compassion to Naomi and for choosing to live where she can worship the true God: “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”

So if God repeatedly commands people to leave their countries (or they are commended for doing so), for both positive and negative reasons, then it cannot be the case that when the Lord tells the Israelites, “You are not to go back that way again,” this establishes a precedent for all subsequent believers never to leave their home countries, but instead to “stay where the Lord has put them” and deal with any hardships right where they are. What, then, does this statement mean?

The statement is actually found within the instructions Moses gives the Israelites, recorded in the book of Deuteronomy, for the kind of king they may appoint. He tells them first that their king must not be a foreigner, who would not be familiar with God’s laws and ways, but an Israelite. In fact, the king is require to write out a copy of the law and read it every day so that he will follow it carefully. Moses also specifies that the king “must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold,” have a large harem, or build a large chariot force. Regarding this last provision specifically, he says that the king must not make anyone return to Egypt to get more chariot horses, “for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.'”

At first it sounds as if this prohibition applies to returning physically to Egypt, even to making short trips back to Egypt to get things such as chariot horses. But we discover that it has a broader meaning when we try to find out exactly where, in the story of the Bible, God has told the people, “You are not to go back that way again”—and we discover that he hasn’t!

Well, not in so many words, anyway. Most interpreters agree that this is actually a paraphrase of what God told the Israelites when they were hemmed in at the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army was closing in on them. They thought they were all going to be killed for trying to escape and they said, “It would have been better for us to stay and be slaves to the Egyptians than to come out here and die in the desert.” But Moses told them, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.” And sure enough, Pharaoh’s whole army was drowned in the Red Sea while the Israelites passed through it safely to a new life of freedom.

As most interpreters see it, Moses is referring to that last sentence in his words of encouragement at the Red Sea—”The Egyptians you see today you will never see again“—when he tells the people in Deuteronomy that God had told them they were “not to go back that way again.” In other words, he means, specifically regarding the kind of king they might appoint, “You are not to go back to being slaves again.” That is, don’t appoint a king who will oppress you by seeking great wealth and building a large army.

This meaning is confirmed by a reprise of the statement later in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses warns that if the people don’t keep God’s laws, they will suffer various punishments and curses, and if they continue to rebel, ultimately they will be conquered by their enemies and exiled from their land. At the end of this long warning he says, “The Lord will send you back in ships to Egypt on a journey I said you should never make again. There you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no one will buy you.

So the statement “you are not to go back that way again” means “you are not to go back to being slaves again.” It’s not a prohibition of immigration, it’s a commandment not to appoint a king who would be economically and politically oppressive. And so when we ask how we should translate the statement as modern readers and apply it to the conditions of our time, we realize that it is a call to resist and oppose economic and political oppression. If some people actually have to flee their own countries to escape these things, then the implications of the statement are that we should welcome such people and help them.

In fact, the book of Deuteronomy itself contains nearly twenty commandments that list specific ways in which the Israelites are to care for the foreigners among them. For example, when they harvest their fields, they aren’t to go back and pick up any grain that has been left behind; they are to leave it for foreign refugees, who may have no other source of support. (This was how Ruth was cared for when she came to Israel with Naomi.) Every third year, the Israelites were to give the “tithe” of their crops, the 10% that usually went to the priests at the tabernacle, instead to those who had no land of their own to raise crops: “the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.” And so forth.

All of these commandments are summed up in a further statement in Deuteronomy: “You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” In other words, the experience of Jacob going to Egypt with his extended family out of economic hardship was not an exception that was later ruled out by a rule against immigration. Rather, it was something that was supposed to give the people of God a sympathetic and practical compassion for those who’d had to leave their own countries themselves. So if we’re asking how we can and should live this out today, it’s by welcoming and caring for the immigrants and refugees in our midst.

Immigration is never a person’s first choice; they would always prefer to stay in their familiar country, culture, and language, surrounded by family and longtime friends. But sometimes they feel that for the sake of their very survival and that of the family they’re responsible for, they must leave. And when they must, our faithfulness to the kingdom of God is demonstrated in our help and support for them in this desperate situation.

Does God plan every move of our lives if we ask Him to?

Q. Many present-day follows of Jesus, including myself, believe that God is with us once we invite Him into our hearts. That said, I wonder at times how much He is directly involved in our day-to-day lives. Does He plan my every move if I invite that? The thought that God can be in complete “control” of our lives as we “tune out” seems to be a modern concept developed over the last hundred years. A verse often quoted to support His complete direction in our lives is “I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” But it seems to me if we just rely on this as our basis for this argument we may have applied its message too literally. The passage was written to the exiles but it is often quoted out of context as if it applied to every one of us today. I am thankful God gave us His word, the Bible,  the Holy Spirit, and a thinking brain. Would love your thoughts.

I haven’t actually encountered myself the teaching that we can and should “tune out” ourselves and allow God to control our day-to-day lives directly, but let me share some thoughts about this teaching as you describe it.

First, I agree with you that that often-quoted statement from Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles does not really support such an approach.  In context, that statement actually means something like this:  “You might not think that I have good plans for you based on your present circumstances, but long-term, big-picture, I really do.”  The Judeans of Jeremiah’s time thought that those who had been carried off to Babylon were lost from the community and doomed to a dismal future, while those who remained in Judea had excellent prospects.  Jeremiah wrote his letter to the exiles to assure them that just the opposite was true:  that they had a “hope and a future” as remnant that would eventually restore the nation, while those left in Judea were doomed to destruction.

So this statement can appropriately be cited to people today who are in difficult and troubling circumstances, to assure them that long-term, big-picture, God will work things out for His glory in their lives.  But it should not be quoted to support the idea that “God knows the plans He has for us” if we will just “let go” and let Him run every detail of our lives.

I wonder how that would actually work, in fact. How are we supposed to know where to go and what to do to fulfill these “plans” of God?  Are we supposed to be simply passive and trust that anything that happens to us reflects God’s plans?

I’m much more inclined to agree with you that “God gave us His word, the Holy Spirit, and a thinking brain,” and God expects us to develop wisdom and mature character so that we can make good decisions that reflect His values and purposes–not try to chase down His supposed “plans” for the tiniest details of our lives.

I talk about this more in my post entitled, “Should I be looking for ‘God’s will for my life’ in every decision?”  There I encourage us to pursue an approach of “co-operation” with God, which I believe Jesus modeled for us, and which I describe this way: “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.”  As I see it, this honors God, as we take responsibility for using the gifts and opportunities God has given us, guided by our sanctified sense of His own working in and around us.

I hope this is helpful!

Does God determine the exact time of our death?

Q.  I have a question that is difficult for me to understand and I hope you can shed some light on it.  I trust in God’s incredible power and sovereignty, but wrestle with how our free will interacts with that.  Specifically, I recently heard someone say that God is sovereign and controls our time of death.  But I wonder about cases where a person takes their own life.  I struggle with how much God would be responsible for that. Additionally, how much can we control about our health to extend our life time?  It is well known that if I smoke and am overweight, my life will likely will be shortened.  So it seems  that we can make bad choices or good choices that will increase or decrease the odds for our longevity. So has God determined, in advance, the number of days we have on earth?

As I have explained in posts such as this one, I believe that the sovereignty of God means not that God directly determines every individual event of our lives, but rather that God works effectively with the free choices, good and bad, of human moral agents to accomplish His own purposes.

One illustration of this that I find in Scripture is when Joseph says to his brothers, referring to how they sold him into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.”  In other words, God turned His good intentions towards what would otherwise be a human act of cruelty and betrayal and worked in that situation to bring about a good outcome that also advanced His larger purposes.

Accordingly, we may think of events as falling along a spectrum, with events that are largely determined by human free moral choices at one end, and events that are largely determined by God working with such choices at the other end.  Most events will be somewhere in between, so that it is difficult to discern to what extent they are determined by human choice and to what extent by divine sovereign working.  This is why we speak of the interaction between the two as a mystery of our faith.

When it comes to the time of a person’s death, I think we would say that when someone takes their own life, this is an event essentially determined by human choice.  I believe that God would want something different and better for that person and their loved ones.  (Ironically, however, the person may actually think they are making a good choice, because depression and other conditions can make a person believe, sincerely but tragically, that their family and friends would be better off without them.  So we need to have great sympathy and understanding in these situations.)

Let’s consider another kind of case.  In one of the churches I served as pastor, there was a woman who had fought a long and courageous battle with cancer.  It had gone into remission several times, but now it was back again and there was nothing more the doctors could do.  This woman was looking at many months of painful suffering before she could, as she put it, “move to my new home.”  But one night she died unexpectedly of a heart attack.  I have always seen this as an act of divine sovereignty and indeed divine mercy, God bringing her home much sooner than would have been humanly expected.

But as I said before, most events fall somewhere in between.  If we don’t take good care of our health, we may die sooner than we otherwise might have, and as a result we may accomplish less for God in this world than we otherwise might have, although many other factors, including God’s sovereign working, would be at play to determine exactly how long we did live.  So I think we need to do everything that depends on us, as free moral agents, to make ourselves available to God for His purposes, for as long as we might live, through the choices we make.  Everything beyond that depends on God’s sovereignty, in ways we won’t always understand.

But I would certainly not consider God responsible for a person’s choice to take their own life, as if “their time had come” in God’s eyes and this was the means God used. Many of us have lost a loved one to suicide and it is always a tragedy over which God grieves very tenderly with us, never something that God plans or causes to happen.


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”

“Take no thought for tomorrow”—don’t we have to plan for the future?

Q.  Jesus told us to “take no thought for tomorrow.” But don’t we have to plan for the future?

When Matthew records Jesus’ teaching about what our attitude toward tomorrow should be, he uses a Greek word that can, in many contexts, mean to give careful consideration to something.

Paul uses the same word, for example, when he tells the Philippians that Timothy is genuinely concerned for their welfare, and when he writes in 1 Corinthians that all parts of Christ’s body should have equal concern for each other.  The King James Version reflects this common meaning of the word in its translation of Jesus’ teaching, “Take no thought for tomorrow.”

This translation, however, can suggest to modern readers that we can and should take a spontaneous, impromptu approach to life, making no provision for the future.   People can even spiritualize such an attitude, as I discuss in this post.  Unfortunately, this can lead to many mistakes and misfortunes that could have been avoided with a little forethought.  Even though these mistakes actually reflect a lack of due diligence, people can excuse them by saying they were following Jesus’ teaching.  They might even judge others who do plan for the future.

This is all really a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what Jesus was saying.  The same Greek term can also mean—in fact, it more commonly means—to be unduly anxious or worried about something.  The context in the Sermon on the Mount, where this saying of Jesus appears, shows that that is his intended meaning there.

Jesus assures us that our heavenly Father cares for us and will provide for us, so we don’t need to wonder, “What will we eat?  What will we drink?  What will we wear?”  If we seek his kingdom and righteousness, all these things will be provided as well.  And so, Jesus concludes, “do not worry about tomorrow” (NIV, NRSV) or “do not be anxious about tomorrow” (ESV).

Other passages in Scripture teach positively that we should plan carefully for the future.  Proverbs, for example, teaches:

Be sure you know the condition of your flocks,
give careful attention to your herds;
for riches do not endure forever,
and a crown is not secure for all generations.
When the hay is removed and new growth appears
and the grass from the hills is gathered in,
the lambs will provide you with clothing,
and the goats with the price of a field.
You will have plenty of goats’ milk to feed your family
and to nourish your female servants.

Even though this teaching is offered in an ancient agricultural context, its implications are clear for us today.  We can’t assume that things will always go well, so we need to make careful provisions for the future.  But “careful” shouldn’t mean “full of care.” We shouldn’t be anxious or worried, but trust in our heavenly Father’s love.  That’s what Jesus is telling us in the Sermon on the Mount.