What Is “God’s Will” and How Can One Find It?

What Is “God’s Will” and How Can One Find It? April 27, 2013

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.

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  • Jack Harper

    Roger, thanks for bring this forward, I have to admit that I believed the same way about God’s master blueprint. I usually felt I missed his plan, or blamed someone else from keeping me from it. It wasn’t until recently that as I reflected back over my life that God in his wisdom and purpose kept me from getting involved with certain desires I thought were his will. Although God may not determine every aspect of our lives James gives us the right perspective to have (James 4:13-15). In Friesen’s book, does he mention what we should do if the path is unclear? Blessings.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t remember. It’s been too many years since I read the book. But remembering his overall argument, I’m sure he would say to keep on living the Jesus life and trust God to open and close doors.

  • Anneliese

    I am a junior in high school and I have been struggling with the decision of where to go to college. While it may seen crazy to my friends and college counselor, I’m not too worried about where I’m going to go. I’ve been thinking that no matter where I go, God can “work with it ” and bless me as long as I stay close to him. The same goes for my career. I am faced with so many options, yet I feel calm, because I know wherever I end up, God can bless me as long as I remember him. This was a very encouraging article affirming my belief that there isn’t just one specific place God has in mind. As long as we realize our whole lives, the purpose of our existence and being, is to glorify God, I think I will be alright.

    • Ann

      You will be alright! Great maturity. God bless you in the years ahead. 🙂

  • g pahl

    Thanks you for this succinct blog. While some folks struggle to find “God’s will” others abuse the concept or use it to manipulate. It is sometimes used to justify an already decided position. One even hears pastors say things like “I know that is God’s will that I be your pastor”. Or what about, “It is God’s will/plan that we build a new church building.” While it might be the case, such statements are sometimes thrown out to claim divine endorsement for something or to simply stifle critical thinking and discussion. After all, who could possibly argue against “God’s will”. My mom tells the story of a young man who approached her in her youth with something like “I know for sure that It is God’s will that you should be my wife.” It seemed that God forgot to give her the same insight. Fortunately, my parents never tried “It is God’s will that you eat your peas” (although it would have probably been good if I had).

    • rogereolson

      When my mother died when I was a toddler a “righteous” woman told my dad it was because they (he and my mother) had resisted God’s call to the mission field. They hadn’t, of course, as they never felt any such call. When I was in college (a Bible college) the regents (such an august name for such a bunch as they were!) introduced the college’s new president to us and said it was “God’s will.” I knew him to be a scoundrel. Sure enough, he nearly ruined the college with “misappropriation of funds” and was forced out a year later. The point? As you say, “It’s God’s will” (“Deus vult!”) has been misused throughout history to justify all kinds of nonsense.

  • Marshall

    when God does want a believer to do something, he tells them

    I believe that’s right. The place where God expresses is will, where he is working to get things done, is his Kingdom rather than my life as such. Since God’s strategy for the Kingdom is far above my understanding, he mostly tells me what I need to know when I need to know it, not so much otherwise. In the meantime he wishes me well apart from any useful work I do for him, but OTOH cross-carrying doesn’t just mean present thorns, it also means that when we get to where we are going ….

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Well said. I wish I would have read that as a teen-ager – could have saved me much angst.
    I think it is only the most rare person that God singles out for special plans (prepared ahead of time). The only examples I can think of are Biblical – like Moses or Samson or John (the Baptist).

  • Steve Rogers

    Referring to folk religion’s misuse of Jeremiah, you observe that “most of that is not in the text or the context.” You go on to state “no place in Scripture indicates that God has an individual blueprint for each believer’s life.” I’ve often heard the Bible referred to as an “instruction manual” for believers. But who understands most instruction manuals? I have come to believe that such reliance upon the printed page in preference for prayer, soul searching and what I call “gut instinct” lends itself to needless complication of the issue of God’s will in particular decisions. The first question I ask someone weighing a decision is what do you want to do? What is your heart telling you? Assuming one isn’t contemplating some obviously harmful course, and absent any clear “word from above to the contrary”, I advise to go with your heart. Walking with God through life depends much more upon faith and relational dynamics than one’s ability to decipher some written code.

  • Lyn Barrett

    I would be so bold as to suggest that God also leads or calls people who are not believers. As a Christian pastor who grew up an atheist, I can look back on my early life to see how God was working in it. God does not require our belief to do God’s work. I just sat with a Confirmand this afternoon who has decided not to be confirmed because she’s not sure what she believes. I affirmed her honesty and integrity, and suggested God might be working in her through this decision to take her, eventually, to an authentic faith.

  • Kyle Steinhauser

    Thanks Dr. Olson for good words. I wish I heard these types of messages from my church rather than “10 steps to a biblical marriage.” 🙂

  • Wame Sausau

    Thanks Dr Olson for this succinct piece, and thanks to the others for their helpful comments.
    I agree with the wisdom view, having had similar struggles with the traditional view in the past.
    When I first read Garry Friesen’s book more than fifteen years ago it naturally resonated with my soul. Yes, indeed, it was liberating, to use Dr Olson’s word. In recent years I have been teaching seminars to young and old on ‘discovering God’s will’ from a biblical wisdom perspective, and have blessed and guided others too as I myself have been blessed and guided.
    I am currently reading “How Then Should We Choose? Three Views on God’s will and decision making,” with Douglas Huffman as editor (Kregel Publications, 2009). This book compares and contrasts the traditional (Blackaby), the wisdom (Friesen) and the relationship (Smith) views of decision making. Insightful and helpful analyses and critiques of each views.

    • rogereolson

      For those who don’t have time to read Friesen’s book, I recommend Kyle Lake’s Understanding God’s Will: How to Hack the Equation without Formulas (RelevantBooks). (Kyle was the pastor who died of electrocution in his church’s baptistry some years ago. He was a dear friend and I miss him terribly. I helped him write this book although I take no credit for it.)

  • Ann

    Excellent! Just excellent!

  • Steven Seipke

    Thank You for the concise and insightful thoughts on this very practical topic. I have found the book “the Will of God as a Way of Life…” By Jerry Sittser as another great resource.

  • Blueprint-ism also afflicts many church leaders who erroneously believe that if they implement a “biblical” model of ministry then their churches will flourish.

  • William Huget

    The Friesen book is more biblical, less problematic than other views. It was revised to be more balanced.

  • What an excellent talk. I came to a similar understanding of God’s will for our lives after reading Jennifer Taylor’s “God Does Not Have a Plan for Your Life” in the Christian Standard. I’d highly recommend it! Thanks for this post!

  • Bev Mitchell

    Beautiful advice. I hope all of the youth group received it with both ears and hearts. It really is always about right now, the present. What we did, and other past events (including responses to the Spirit’s leading) shape today’s possibilities for each one of us. His specific will is for right now – his general will, as you say, is obvious from Scripture. How could it be otherwise? Unfortunately, for many, the blueprint view has a comforting appearance. But life has a way of revealing it’s deceptive and often ugly side.

  • Rene

    Dr. Olson,

    I think we are confused about two things: the proper role of the Spirit in decision making, and the proper role of the mind in decision making. The church doesn’t do a very good job of fleshing either one out.

    • rogereolson

      Perhaps the Spirit can work through the Christian mind that is already being aided by the Holy Spirit in all things.

  • Matt

    This is such an important idea to de-program people from…I think an important book about ‘folk religion’ and the evangelical culture is just waiting to be written (or at least hit/impact the culture). I think Philip Cary’s (Eastern University) “Good News for Anxious Christians” is a great start. He has a chapter called “Why You Don’t Have to ‘Find God’s Will for Your Life'” that addresses just this issue wonderfully. Also, his chapters on ‘hearing God’s voice’ and on why it doesn’t have to ‘apply to your life’ are worth the price of the book alone.

    • rogereolson

      I wrote Questions to All Your Answers: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith (Zondervan).

      • Bev Mitchell

        Thanks for the reference – this one flew under the radar for me. It’s available for Kindle for $3.99.

      • Matt

        You’re right! It’s sitting on my shelf waiting to be read! Your book may do just that…but it hasn’t impacted culture enough (yet!). But what I’m waiting for is a book (or a Christian movement) that will really disrupt ‘folk religion’ in the evangelical church world…and really in the world at large. (Dr. Olson – it would be great if your’s did! I think it needs to be from someone of Tim Keller’s wide-ranging respect/reach…Bell and McClaren could write it but are too controversial and/or marginalized by conservatives/YRR people…NT Wright is too narrowly read/understood.)

        I work as a chaplain and it is amazing how much of the evangelical-flavored ‘folk religion’ has infiltrated the hearts and minds of folks who are not evangelical at all…like Catholics, mainline folk, and even the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd (and this is even in the North-east).

        • rogereolson

          You’re hurting my ego! 🙂 I haven’t found many Christians who know what “folk religion” is or care to combat it. Here’s something for you (and others) to think about. Why is it that Keller has “wide-ranging respect/reach” whereas Bell and McClaren are “too controversial and/or marginalized…?” Who decides these things? These reputations and stigmas don’t just happen without some pretty hefty help.

  • Aaron

    Forget the blueprint. Toss it because the only reason we want it is we don’t like taking risks and learning the “will of God” through the school of hard knocks, failures, mistakes and miscalculations.

    Come on! Be human and let the God we claim to worship meet us even when it gets dirty.

  • When John Wimber was asked by someone, “What’s God’s will for my life?” he would often answer, “Eat what’s on your plate, and my advice is it’s better to eat it while it’s hot.” My friend Dr. Winn Griffin wrote a great little book titled “Googling God’s Will.” It stands contra folk religion’s concept of God’s will as a blueprint.

    I’ve come to favor the phrase “God’s purpose for my life” rather than “God’s will for my life.” I like the paraphrase of Rom 8:28 that states, “I am convinced that nothing can befall me that can prevent God’s good purpose for me.” When I unpack that idea, it only works if God’s purpose for me is to love God and neighbor.

    Just a thought… -e.

  • John

    What do you think about Leslie Weatherhead’s distinction between God’s intentional will, circumstantial (or provisional) will and perfect (or ultimate) will? (in The Will of God, first published during WWII). I don’t have a copy of it handy, but I read it some years ago and thought his distinction was helpful.

    • rogereolson

      As you probably know, Weatherhead as a Methodist, so I assume his distinction is consistent with Arminianism. The only one of the three “wills” of God I’m not clear about is “God’s intentional will.” I loved his “The Christian Agnostic.”

  • John Metz

    Isn’t the matter of God’s will not so much about what God wants me to do (find a job, get married, which school to go to — all of which have their importance) as it is about discovering God’s overall, eternal will, that is, what he wants from creation to the New Jerusalem?

    • rogereolson

      That was my main point. 🙂

  • Jesse

    Your thoughts in this post on finding God’s will and folk religion are incredibly insightful. I actually have Questions to all Your Answers as an audiobook and have listened to the chapter on God’s will many times. Reading your thoughts on God’s will/guidance, along with open theists like Sanders, Boyd, and Pinnock has been very liberating for me. I am glad that you have chosen to use and pursue the gift of critical thinking that God has given you. I’m sure there was some opposition to that among Christians that you interacted with. I doubt that many Christians would see critical thinking as a gift from God. They would probably think that it was a gift from the devil. I feel that I have a similar gift and I think it will be hard in the church to find a place where this gift is desired and seen as a good thing but your testimony encourages me to stay faithful to who God has made me to be and the gifts he has blessed me with.

    • Roger E. Olson

      May God bless you as you use this difficult gift in love for the building up of the body of Christ.

  • Good article.

    I think many people are trying to figure out what the will of God is for their life so they can grow closer to God. That is putting the cart before the horse. But from what I understand we are to understand that God already has a will for each and every believer and it is not one person does this and another does that. No, the will of God is marked very clearly in scripture. 1 Thessalonians chapter 4. specifically 4:3; “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification….. In 4:1 we are told “how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more.”

    Knowing this, we understand that walking after God and walking in holiness we are drawn closer to God. So rather than chasing after things that we “think” are God’s will we should do what we already know to be God’s will (walk in holiness) and He will lead us us into what He wants us to do, such as preach, teach or just be a godly person or parent, etc, etc…

    Walk in the Spirit and not after the flesh and we will please God and abound more and more!

  • thinker old

    How do you justify the existence of god. Is there any scientific explanation that we can have for it? I have heard enough that these things do not have a scientific explanation. I am really interested.

    • Roger Olson

      If you are really interested read any of a number of books explaining the rational basis for belief in God. There are so many it’s impossible to know where to begin. If you like big books that go into great depth (but are still readable) I suggest Does God Exist? An Answer for Today by Hans Kung.

  • Kenny Burchard

    Dr. Olson –

    Thanks for all your work on Arminianism, and your encouragement to Arminians to embrace the word “Arminian.” I do so gladly. This week, a friend asked me, “What basis does your belief in prevenient grace have in Scripture?” I watched your interview with George P. Wood back in 2010 where he gave you the same question. Your answer was basically that prevenient grace (like the Trinity) is assumed in scripture. I agree. But I think there are texts that affirm the idea of prevenient grace (understood as God’s gracious call to salvation to everyone, not forsaking – as Arminians believe – that this call can be both resisted and rejected). Three that come to mind are:

    1. Prov. 1:20-33 – Wisdom’s voice calls aloud in the streets (to everyone), but some refused to listen.

    2. Mat 13:3-23 – The word of God calling people into God’s kingdom (graciously, and before salvation) falls on every heart, but not all hearts receive it.

    3. Lk. 13:34 – I wanted to gather you together, but you didn’t want it.

    Would you consider these verses indicative of the prevenient grace motif, or something else?

    Thanks for all you do to serve the church of Jesus!!
    Kenny Burchard / Hanford, CA

    • Roger Olson

      They are and also “If I be lifted up….”