Dr. Paul J. Dean Christian Blog and Commentary

Knowing God's Will

One of the most common questions I get as a pastor is "how can I know God's will for my life?" This question is on the mind of many, and many are the methods people espouse and/or use to determine God's will. At the same time, confusion abounds as to how to determine such and what is in fact God's will. For example, so often in counseling, persons will tell us that it is God's will for them to divorce. After probing, we discover that no biblical reason exists for a divorce in a particular case or cases. As we point this fact out to so many, the typical response is "God told me to divorce." Or, one might say, "I know it's God's will for me to be happy, and I'm not happy. Therefore, God wants me to divorce." The problem is that people are determining God's will based upon personal desire.


God's will for someone will never contradict His word. We live in a contemporary culture of self-centered pleasure-seeking that causes persons to be prone to making decisions based solely upon their feelings or desires. Because many Christians are not grounded in sound doctrine, they find themselves dishonoring Christ in their feelings, thoughts, actions, and decision-making without even realizing it. The question is, "can we know God's will for our lives?" Correspondently, "how can we know such?" And, "if we know God's will, what will be the results?"


The first general dynamic we want to affirm is that God's will for us is something we can know with assurance. In Col. 1:9, Paul helps us with this subject. He has conveyed to the Colossians that he has given thanks to God for them since he heard of their faith in Christ Jesus, their love for all the saints, their hope in heaven, their receipt of the word of truth, and their fruit-bearing as a result of the power of the gospel in their lives. He now says that he not only gives thanks to God for them, but he prays for them in a positive way. He prays for specific things in their lives as Christians since he has heard of God's work in their lives. Based upon this dynamic he affirms, "for this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding."


To reiterate, Paul bases his prayer upon that which he has heard. His request for the Colossians to be "filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will" is grounded in their salvation. Only those who know Christ and have the Spirit of Christ in them can be filled with such a thing. All others walk in darkness and have no ability to comprehend the things of God, understand His revealed will, or receive His wisdom or understanding (1 Cor. 2:14).


Paul tells the Colossians that he does not cease to pray for them. He does not mean that he spends every waking moment in prayer for the Colossians. Nor does he mean that he mentions them every time he prays. He simply means that he prays for them on a regular basis. He has not stopped praying for them since the day he heard of their faith in Christ Jesus. He has prayed for them on a regular basis from that time until now (the writing of his letter).


Paul's prayer is profound. He prays that the saints at Colosse might be "filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will." A few points may be made here. First, Paul wants the saints to be filled with this knowledge. The word "filled" connotes something that is filled to the brim and overflowing. Paul wants them to have complete understanding of God's will. Indeed, that is what we want as well.


Second, in regard to being "filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will," the concept of God's will has only two meanings in Scripture. In the first place, there is the concept of God's decretive (concealed) will which refers to that which God has ordained to come to pass. God has a plan for His universe that unfolds before us in time. His plan is secret and known only to Him (Deut. 29:29). He has revealed certain elements of that plan such as the fact that Christ is coming again. However, no one knows the future. Thus, no one can know the secret plan of God.


Confusion abounds in this regard as many believers attempt to discover "God's will for their lives" through various means including impressions, feelings, promptings, dreams, visions, voices, signs, etc. Someone may be trying to determine if it is God's will he marry a particular woman. He looks for God to prompt him with an impression or some other experiential means in order that he might have a sign or get direction.


The problem is that no one can know what the future holds. In fact, such planning and prognostication is evil. James tells us, "Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit;' whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.' But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin. (Jas. 4:13-17)." James specifically says that we do not know what the future holds. We are to submit to the sovereign providence of God in our lives.


So, how does the man determine if he is to marry the woman? That question leads us to the second way in which God's will is spoken about in the Bible. There is also the concept in Scripture of God's prescriptive (revealed) will. In other words, God has given His word to believers that they might know His will for them. His will for the Christian is revealed in His word.


So, in order to understand God's will, we must make a distinction between His decretive or concealed will, and His prescriptive or revealed will. We cannot know the future, but we can know God's word. We must not confuse these two separate dynamics if we are to know and apply God's will for and to our lives. God does guide His people. He guides us generally by His providence. There are many things we will do today that we don't even think about. We simply do them as God directs our path. But understand that God guides us specifically by His word. We look to the Scriptures to know how God wants us to live. As we proceed, we are going to discover that knowing God's will for the most part is simply walking in the Spirit or being obedient to God's word in the every day ebb and flow of our lives.


Thus, as to whether or not the man ought to marry the woman in question, biblical principles would have to be applied to the situation. He should ask himself some questions. Is she a believer? Are they on the same page theologically? Do they have similar goals? Is there anything in Scripture that would prohibit them from getting married? Do they enjoy one another? Can he love this woman and spend the rest of his life with her? Is her father favorable to the marriage? If he can answer these questions in an affirmative way, then he may freely proceed with engagement and marriage. He is walking according to God's revealed will.


Now, let us point out quickly that we still don't know if it is God’s decreed will for them to be married. We don't know the future. Only God knows the future. We will know whether or not it is God's decreed will if and when the wedding actually takes place. Again, one need not worry with God's decreed will. The secret things belong to Him (Deut. 29:29). We need only worry about His revealed will that we might obey Him (Deut. 29:29).


By way of example, I have two godly friends who believed it was God's will for them to marry. Sadly, the woman was killed in an automobile accident just prior to the wedding. Was it God's decreed will that they be married? No. Were they, however, in God's will by proceeding with wedding plans? Yes. How can I say such in light of what happened? Because they were walking according to the Scriptures. That is what God wants us to do. We follow Him and He directs our path. In Prov. 16:9 we read, "a man's heart plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps."


Christians are to avail themselves of God's means of grace that they might walk in the Spirit and bear fruit. God graciously works in their lives by the Spirit. At the same time, He uses means. As the children of God saturate their minds with God's word, as they pray, as they worship, etc., they will gain a more intimate knowledge of God, His character, and His ways. They understand how He wants them to live their lives as the Spirit applies His word to their hearts. As Christians walk in the Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit is born in their lives. If the fruit of the Spirit is being born in your life, you are in the center of God's will.


One might ask, "what if a person is trying to determine a career move?" He should apply biblical principles to the question. More money is not the only issue involved. Knowledge of God's will, that is, what He wants His children to do, is no mere obedience to a set of rules or commands. God certainly gives commands, but He also gives principles. He desires that His children seek a closer relationship with Him, and that they seek to apply His commands and principles to their lives and decision making, so that His character might shine through them for His glory. He expects Christians to grow in knowledge and wisdom that they might be wise in their decision making. In simple terms, Christians must gain wisdom to know how to apply God's revealed will (Scripture) to their lives. As they do so, they can be confident they are fulfilling God's will for their lives.


What if after applying biblical principles, a person is left with two equally, biblically appealing choices? In that case, if we have prayed and asked God for guidance, then we may freely choose. God will not trick us. He is not waiting to zap us the moment we get out of line. If we pray and search the Scriptures, He will lead. We can move with confidence.


Sometime ago, I was asked to teach a class. I immediately responded by accepting the invitation. The individual asked why I didn't need to pray about the decision before I accepted so quickly. My response was that I had already been praying for such an opportunity. This one was an answer to my prayer. No further prayer was needed. For what would I be praying anyway? Would I be praying for God to give me an impression? I did not need an impression. I needed to be obedient. The problem with impressions is that they may or may not be from God. We cannot make decisions based upon such. We must make decisions based upon truth.


Moreover, if something takes us by surprise, we know that it is God's will. God's decretive will cannot be changed. He has a plan that will come to pass. Christians cannot miss that will as God has ordained it and brings it about through His providential control of all things. The Christian need not try and figure out what that plan is. The Christian must simply glean wisdom to walk in God's ways. That is precisely why Paul prays the way he does in Colossians.


Not too long ago, a Christian woman told me she was married to an unbeliever. She was distraught as she had discovered she should not have done so nor did she have the type of husband she wanted. She felt she had missed God's best for her. Well, she was only partly right. In regard to God's revealed will, she did make the wrong decision to marry this man. However, it was God's decreed will because it came to pass. Now, and here is the critical thing to understand, she did not miss God's best for her. There was no other plan out there that did not materialize. God does not have more than one plan. To lament that we have missed God's best is sin at worst, a waste of time at best, and too often discouraging. What should we do? If we discover that we sinned, we should repent. God is gracious to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We can then move on to walk in the Spirit. In this particular case, it was God's will (decreed) for her to marry this man even though it went against His revealed will. It is now His will (revealed) that she love this man as her husband, find joy in Christ and in her marriage, and glorify God in the process.


Third, as noted, Paul indeed prays that the Colossians "may be filled with the knowledge of [God's] (revealed) will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding." Thus, let us go on to say that we know God's revealed will by way of spiritual understanding and we know God's revealed will by way of wisdom. "Wisdom" refers to an ability to take one's spiritual understanding and apply it to one's particular life or a particular situation. "Spiritual understanding" refers to insight into God's character, commands, and ways as revealed in His word. As the unbeliever cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:14), the believer can understand such things. The believer grows in such understanding as he/she is progressively sanctified. That sanctification process is increased as one avails himself of the means of grace (worship, fellowship, the word, and prayer). This individual grows in his understanding of the things of God.


Thus, a person who has spiritual understanding must then have wisdom to apply that understanding to his life. If a person has wisdom, he can walk confident that he is pleasing God because with spiritual understanding and wisdom he is now being filled with the knowledge of God's (revealed) will. As he is filled with that knowledge, he has the ability to apply it to his life. As he does so, he is filled with joy and God is glorified. In fact, Paul outlines this very dynamic, purpose, and result in vv. 10-11.


It may be pointed out here, and not to be taken as a mere add on or an aside, that Paul stresses that the Colossians be "filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding" as opposed to any supposed wisdom from the world. An insipid form of Gnosticism had crept into the church at Colosse and Paul sought to cut it out at the root. In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:3). The Colossians were to beware of philosophy and the hollow traditions of men (2:8). He wants them committed to Christ and His true wisdom that their lives might glorify Him. The application for us is that God's will is not to be found in gnostic or secret knowledge. It is to be found in His word applied to our lives with increasing spiritual understanding and wisdom.


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