This is a talk I gave recently to a Christian youth group.
What Is “God’s Will” and How Can One Find It?
Roger E. Olson
There is probably no more important and confusing issue for Christian young people than “finding God’s will for life.” Many have heard that “God has a wonderful plan for your life” and been urged to seek God for his will. Whether told to or not, many have concluded that they should wait until God revealed his will or pray fervently for a revelation of his will before making any important life decisions. Many become all tied up in knots wondering what God’s will is for their lives and attempting to find it. Some are paralyzed by uncertainty and miss opportunities; others rush into rash decisions because someone prophesied over them or they dropped their Bible open, pointed to a passage at random and interpreted that as God’s will. Others have followed Gideon’s example and put out “fleeces,” tests to determine God’s will. “God, if you want me to marry Becky, make it rain tonight.”
Every Christian young person knows this dilemma—some better and more painfully than others. It’s an enduring one—every generation seems to struggle with it. Unfortunately, one of its main causes is also enduring; few pastors, youth pastors, youth counselors, Christian college teachers, seem courageous enough to resolve the dilemma. Why? Because the weight of what I call “folk religion” militates against the obvious solution. Throughout America, perhaps the world, especially evangelical Christians believe in what I call the “blueprint model” of God’s will. I’ll come back to that after I explain “folk religion.”
Folk religion is the popular, unreflective belief system of the masses. It’s like folk medicine—some truth but also much error. And hardly a substitute for scientific medicine. Folk medicine is not based on rigorous research; it’s based on rumors, clichés, anecdotes, desperation. Now don’t get me wrong; science has discovered that some folk medical remedies and treatments help people cope with pain and disease. But rarely does it contain a cure for any serious illness. What’s an example of folk medicine? “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Sure, an apple a day is good for you, but it won’t keep the doctor away or you away from the doctor if you catch an infectious disease or come down with diabetes.
Folk religion is similar. It’s what is popularly believed by deeply devout people but without support other than stories, clichés, Bible verses taken out of context, unreflective beliefs based on comfort. For example, a common folk religious saying is that “God helps those who help themselves.” It’s nowhere found in Scripture and the weight of Christian tradition goes against it. In fact, it’s a popularization of a heresy called Pelagianism or at least semi-Pelagianism—the belief that a person can exercise a good will toward God without God’s prevenient, assisting grace. Semi-Pelagianism is one of the common beliefs of at least American folk Christianity. Songs like “The Savior is waiting to enter your heart; why don’t you let him come in?” contribute to it.
Just as doctors struggle with their patients’ reliance on folk medicine, so theologians struggle with Christians’ reliance on folk religion, folk Christianity. Folk religion is unexamined faith, unexamined belief. Plato said that an unexamined life is not worth living, most Christian theologians (probably all) say the unexamined faith is not worth believing—at least for the mature Christian. That’s why Christian colleges and universities have required courses in religion, Bible and theology—to correct students’ folk religion and raise their faith to a higher level of reflection, critical thinking.
Back to the issue of God’s will for life. Folk religion quotes Jeremiah 29:11 where God says to the remnant of Israel not taken into exile “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Folk religion takes that verse out of context and applies it directly, uncritically, without examination of its true meaning, to every individual Christian’s life—as if it is a promise that if a person remains devout he or she will prosper and never suffer harm. It’s also used to teach that God has a specific will for each individual’s life and enjoying God’s blessing depends on finding that will and following it closely.
Of course, most of that is not in the text or the context. First, the prophecy is for Israel in that time and place; it can’t be applied directly to every believer everywhere and at all times. On the other hand, surely God has the same general intention toward all his people. But second, the prophecy nowhere says that bad things won’t happen to the people of God or promise that bad things will only happen if they deviate from his blueprint will for their lives. In fact, no place in Scripture indicates that God has an individual blueprint for each believer’s life.
Time doesn’t allow me to go into more detail exegeting that passage or talking about folk religion and its many ways of mishandling Scripture. Let me just reiterate that nowhere does Scripture teach that God has an individual, inflexible blueprint plan for each individual life.
So what do I mean by that? What is an “individual, inflexible blueprint” for life? The folk belief I’m urging you to reconsider, if you hold it, is that God has a detailed design for each believer’s life and that it is the duty of each believer to discover it, live according to it, and that doing so brings blessings from God whereas deviating from it brings a life of sorrow if not disaster.
Let me illustrate. When I was growing up in church, a church that held “testimony time” every Sunday evening (and my dad was the pastor so I had to be there whenever the doors were open for worship, Bible study or prayer meeting!) a sweet little older lady often spoke of how cursed her life had been because she didn’t follow God’s will for her life. That struck terror in my heart. I was taught by my spiritual mentors that that is the result of “missing God’s will.” I formed the impression, as do many young Christians, that God has a blueprint plan for my life and that it’s my job to find out what it is and follow it—to construct my life according to it. Where to go to college was one big issue for me. Whom to marry—another major issue. What profession to pursue. What job to seek and which job offer to take. All these have been major decisions of my life. And let me assure you that God has led me, but not according to an inflexible blueprint such that any deviation from it brought only misery and a cursed life.
I was fortunate that early in my Christian life someone gave me a book entitled Decision Making and the Will of God by theologian Garry Friesen. I read it and found it totally liberating. But some of my spiritual mentors strongly cautioned me against it because it contradicting popular belief about God’s will, folk religion.
Friesen (and later Christian writers who popularized his teaching about God’s will) taught that God does not have a detailed, inflexible blueprint “will” for every life. Rather, God has a general will for every believer’s life and, when God does want a believer to do something, he tells them, they don’t have to struggle to find it out, and even if they disobey God always has a “Plan B.”
Now I’m going to paraphrase Friesen and add to his my own explanation of “God’s will” for the individual Christian’s life.
Every believer is urged by Scripture to receive gifts from God. Some of them may be natural talents to be discovered and enhanced with God’s help. Others are supernatural gifting. The New Testament contains at least three lists of them. They can be found in 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4. But, of course, Scripture is filled with lists of characteristics of character that God values in us. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and Luke contains some. The fruit of the Spirit listed by Paul in Galatians 5 reveals how God wants us to be formed in terms of character.
Instead of thinking of “God’s will” as a rigid blueprint, I think of God’s will as a set of paints and a canvas. The canvas is my life. The paints are God’s gifting—some natural and some supernatural. For example, I discerned early in my Christian life, with others’ help, that I had a natural gift for critical thinking. I believe as I sought the Lord for my life he elevated that into discernment. I believe I have a supernaturally elevated gift of insight that is both a curse and a blessing. I exercise it, for example, on my blog. For years I taught a course in a Christian college on cults and new religions and helped many even mature Christians “see” what I saw in certain religious and even Christian movements and fads. This gift inclined me naturally to a life of Christian scholarship, theology, and teaching—in churches and in educational institutions. I have also used it in writing and editing. Often well-meaning Christians have come to me and expressed enthusiasm for a new teaching they encountered in a popular book or in a religious magazine or on television. I have often had to say “No, that doesn’t sound right. Beware. Here’s why.” That often displeases them, but I have to use my gift regardless of how it’s received. Of course, I always use it with love and not hate or even harshness. At least I try.
For most of us, most of the time, “God’s will” is simply to receive his gifts of character and service and use them to paint a beautiful picture on the canvas of life he has granted us. There is no inflexible, rigid, detailed divine blueprint for every aspect of life such that missing one piece of it, whether through ignorance or disobedience, leads to a miserable existence. No doubt there are life decisions that call for careful, thoughtful, prayerful discernment. However, that discernment process does not involve waiting for a lightening-like revelation of God’s will; it normally involves rational, critical thinking and watching for doors to open and close.
Most of the time, allowing for exceptions, “God’s will” is simply living a vital Christian life, being shaped in the character of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, walking forward trusting God to guide without intensive focus on a mythical blueprint. When there’s an exception and God wants you to do something very specific he will show you clearly without you having to put out fleeces or pray for a special revelation or drop open the Bible and point at random to a verse expected to be God’s clear guidance about that decision.