By Brannon S. Howse
One of the most common questions I receive from people is, “How can I know the will of God for my life?” This is obviously a significant issue Christians should know about, and fortunately, Scripture outlines simple steps that tell us what we need to know about God’s will for each of us. The two key biblical concepts we need to understand in order to answer the God’s-will-for-your-life question are sovereign and providence.
How Do We Know?
A few years ago, I hosted the first Contend Conference to instruct high school and college students in biblical truth. But how did I know I should do that? Was it the will of God that I hold the conference? I knew it was, precisely because the Bible tells us that we are to “contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3, NKVJ). In this verse, Jude cautions believers about false teachers and says we should be able to refute them using the Word of God. Elsewhere, the Bible tells us that we are to make disciples and to rightfully divide the Word of Truth. So, I don’t have to spend a lot of time praying about whether or not to hold a conference to teach young people how to think biblically, how to discern the times, and how to contend against the false teachings of our day. The Bible has spoken to that issue and said that “contending for the faith” is what we are supposed to be doing.
Many people spend way too much time praying about things that are already answered in Scripture. The primary way we can understand the will of God for our lives is through the Word of God. While other ways—such as the Holy Spirit illuminating the Word to us—take us further, the first step is to study the Word of God and grasp what it tells us to do.
Students from 23 states registered for the Contend Conference that year, and I certainly did pray that God would make sure those He wanted to be there would show up. I asked that the Holy Spirit would motivate adult believers to take leadership and bring high school and college students to Collierville, Tennessee (just outside of Memphis) to the conference. I also prayed, “Lord, give me wisdom to know who I should invite to speak for this and to know what topics they should speak on.” I earnestly desired wisdom from God.
And what is wisdom? It is the appropriate application of knowledge. The sequence is this: Knowledge is the acquisition of biblical truth, and wisdom is the application of that truth. Because I know contending for the faith is a biblical mandate, I didn’t spend much time praying about that, but I did pray about the details, that the Lord’s will would be done, and that He would move providentially in the lives of young people and the adults who would help them get to the conference. I believe the Lord honored the event and accomplished His will through what we did.
I prayed the Lord would first move in their hearts and minds, and then, that He, being in total control—sovereign—would direct the steps of young people and adults to this conference. And that’s exactly what happened. As a result, we rejoice in what the Lord—not us!—did.
It’s significant to note that God placed it on my heart to hold the Contend Conference. You see, as we study God’s Word, being faithful and obedient, He places desires in our hearts—the things that are His will. Then, when you go and do those things, God accomplishes His will. This is how the sovereign providence and will of God work.
Our Contend conference is just one of many examples I could give through which I have seen God sovereignly and providentially moving in my life to accomplish His will. It doesn’t require any visions, dreams, or extra-biblical revelation. There’s no going into the silence and having a literal, physical encounter with God by asking, “Now, God, what would you have me to do?” Many people would say you need to do such things, but that’s because much of Christianity today is based on emotionalism and personal experience. Many think that to know God’s will for your life, you need to be involved in some kind mystical experience and receive an extra-biblical revelation. To the contrary, though, those things are against the will of God. The Bible tells us to have nothing to do with mysticism and such.
Scripture itself says that the Word provides us with everything we need to be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Many “Christian” authors, though, promote discovering God’s will or purpose for your life in ways that are not biblical at all. The fact is, apart from the Word of God, you cannot know the will of God for your life. Pop psychology won’t tell you. Scripture taken out of context can’t guide you in His path for your life. You simply cannot know the Word of God apart from accurate study of God’s Word, by correctly dividing the Word of Truth and allowing the Holy Spirit to illuminate it for you.
Are We Meant to Know?
Why should we know the will of God? Ephesians 5:17 answers that: “Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” The Bible commands us to know the will of the Lord.
To clarify why this is true, let’s now define our terms, sovereign and providence. To say that God is sovereign is to say that He is the Supreme Ruler. God is all powerful. He has total control, or rule.
Do we see examples of this sovereignty in the Word of God? Absolutely. Here are a couple of them:
- Colossians 1:17—“And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.”
- Hebrews 1:3—(speaking of Christ) “...who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the Word of His power, when He had Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
God upholds all things by the Word of His power. Even science bears this out.
In my curriculum, Put Your Beliefs to the Test, I included a section about the complexity of the cell and its DNA to show the absurdity of naturalistic evolution. I cited this quote from D. G. Lindsay and will restate it here:
What is the binding force of an atom? Scientists have discovered this binding force and its properties have been worked out mathematically, but they do not know what it is, or how it got there. Recently they have found two new forces within the atom called the pi mesons. They believe the pi mesons may be the energy holding things together. It is totally invisible; it can’t be seen, felt, tasted or weighed. But it is there! What is this nuclear glue?
I believe Colossians 1:17 tells us what it is. At the atomic level, it is God Himself. Why? Because God has total control of all that happens. Likewise, Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes.” That’s how sovereign God is. He turns the heart of the king, or the president, or the prime minister, or the congressman, or the U.S. senator, or the governor whichever way He wants. He is sovereign. Psalm 2:1-4 likewise speaks to this:
Why do the nations rage, and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, “Let us break Their bonds in pieces and cast away Their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall hold them in derision.
Apparently, the context for this psalm is that the nations or the leaders of the world are plotting against God, but ultimately, God will put them in their place. The scripture says God sits in the heavens and laughs. Why? Because leaders of the earth are foolish. In reality, they have no control. They may think they’re mighty, sovereign authorities, perhaps even little gods on earth, but they are nothing more than men who will die. Only God is sovereign. Only He is in control.
Although the terms sovereignty and providence are related, it’s important to distinguish between them, so now let’s look at the definition of providence. Providence is God’s ordaining of what comes to pass. God orders and directs our lives according to His will. He knows every detail about what we’re going to do, and He likewise governs the world. So to make the connection between our terms: God can move providentially because He is sovereign.
These days, some people teach an alternative to God’s complete sovereignty with a concept called “open theism.” This belief has been popularized by emergent church leaders like Greg Boyd. “Christian” authors like Boyd teach that God doesn’t know the future—or at least He chooses not to know. As a result, some happenings surprise Him. But that is not what we see in God’s Word. God is outside of time and knows the end (of everything) from the beginning. Called the “alpha and the omega” in Scripture, God is all knowing and all powerful. He governs the world in detail, ordering all that comes to pass. For individuals, that means He directs our lives according to His will.
That God would be shocked by some of the choices men make—as open theism teaches—is unthinkable from a truly biblical perspective. As we look at Scripture references, you’ll see how ridiculous the idea of open theism is. Matthew 10:29-31 offers a dramatic illustration of the intimacy of God’s involvement in the world:
Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Just as our definition of providence suggests, God knows everything—even about birds. He is aware of every detail within creation and the world. And isn’t it comforting to recognize that God knows the number of hairs on your head? I love the old hymn that picks up this theme:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free.
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
The Old Testament story of Joseph’s fortunes and misfortunes in Genesis 37 through 50 exemplifies God’s sovereign work in a person’s life. You’ll recall that Joseph’s father favored Joseph with a multicolored coat. The favoritism, combined with Joseph’s arrogance, though, made his brothers jealous, and they sold him into slavery. Although the situation likely did little to make Joseph think God was providentially at work in his life, he later understood that what happened was meant for evil, but God had planned all along for good to come of it (Genesis 50:20).
From a human standpoint, the difficult aspect of providence is that we generally do not fully understand our circumstances until we look back and see what has transpired. Although God orders our steps, we don’t recognize what is happening. To be sure, there is no such thing as luck. God is always providentially orchestrating your steps.
Likely, you have your own testimony of how God has providentially moved in your life. In the midst of the situation, you may not have realized how all of the confusing pieces fit together, but now that you look back, you see God’s hand at work. You can say, “Way too many pieces came together for the outcome to be coincidental.” And you’re exactly right, of course. Just as there is no such thing as luck, there are no coincidences, either.
In the New Testament, Romans 8:28 also speaks to God’s providential will: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” Even if some mean to do us harm, the Bible assures us that everything we’re going through will be used by God for good.
You can be sure that when we reach glory, we will fully understand what God’s plan was. Even if you don’t get a complete answer in this life, in the next life you will say, “Wow, God was providentially orchestrating those things. Even things which I didn’t understand at that time, which were difficult to go through, which were extremely hard—now I see that God providentially used it all for His honor and glory to accomplish His purpose.”
We have no idea how many people will join us in heaven because of what the Lord has allowed us to endure. His plans are big, very big. Just through Worldview Weekend, our reach averages 120 nations every month, but I have no idea what actually comes of our broadcasts. Only God does.
Often the Lord lays on my heart to do a program on a particular topic, and I wonder if the program benefited anybody. God, though, has reasons for what He leads us to do. Sometimes I get an inkling of what God is up to because I receive an e-mail or letter from someone saying he or she had been led to a particular program that the person especially needed to hear. Yet, when we reach glory, I believe we will learn the remarkable stories of how God used our faithfulness and obedience in proclaiming His Word, and how our work led to God’s will being done in the lives of believers.
The same is true for you. You may not know how the testimony and witness you offer day by day might impact people for eternity. You might teach a Sunday school and find out years later your influence when a child comes back to you as an adult and explains how your teaching impacted them for the Gospel. But then again, you may not find out until you reach glory. Here’s what we do know, though: If we are faithful and obedient, study God’s Word, and let the Holy Spirit illuminate Scripture for us, everything we go through—no matter how hard—will all work together according to His purpose. If we don’t find out exactly how in this life, we will find out in the life to come. As Proverbs 3:5-6 assures us, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.”
If someone says, “I want to know that what I’m doing is what God wants me to do,” then he or she should do as Scripture says: acknowledge Him, proclaim Him, lift Him up, study His Word. Don’t rely on your own understanding, but acquire knowledge. and apply biblical truth. When you choose not to rely on your own understanding, you acknowledge your need to surrender to Christ’s sovereign plan.
You can see this at work in 1 Kings 12:15: “So the king [Rehoboam] did not listen to the people; for the turn of events was from the Lord, that He might fulfill His Word.” The king didn’t pay attention to the Lord, and what ended up happening? God’s Word was fulfilled. God knew in advance what Rehoboam was going to do, and the nation of Israel ended up splitting, and the split was due largely to the sins of Solomon, Rehoboam’s father.
This one story solidly refutes open theism, and many other passages show the Lord is completely aware of what is happening and that each turn of events is from God. Events transpire so His will can be done, His Word fulfilled, and prophecy come to pass.
These days, many contemporary world events are lining up to fulfill biblical prophecy. Some have already occurred, as God said they would. The Bible, for example, predicted that the people of Israel would once again become a nation, and that happened in 1948. Scripture also declared that the nation of Israel would go from being controlled by the Gentiles to the Jews. That happened in 1966. The biblical prophets predicted that, once the nation of Israel became established again, the Jewish people would return from the four corners of the earth. It began in the last century and is still going on today. The Bible even says Israel would return to its original form of money, the shekel, and that has happened.
The Bible said the Jews would return to their original language, Hebrew, and now it is the language of Israel again. This is especially amazing because scholars have seen that when a language goes out of use in a region for 70 years or more, it rarely comes back into use. Yet, despite centuries of disuse in the Jewish homeland, Israeli newspapers today are printed in Hebrew.
The Bible said the deserts of Israel would become as a garden, and today Israeli farmers harvest up to six crops in a growing season. Israel, in fact, exports fruit and flowers all over the world. Scripture said Israel would develop a mighty fighting force, and its air force is one of the best in the world.
Predictions in God’s Word have come to pass because God knows—and controls—the end from the beginning. This end-from-the-beginning applies to us personally, as well, and I’ve identified four key facts about how this plays out in our lives.
1) God determined His will for us before time began.
Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (emphasis mine). Ephesians 1:4 similarly says we were chosen before the foundation of the earth. This means that God has known from eternity past who would receive Him, who would reject Him, and He has prepared from before time began the good works that you and I, as believers, should do.
And what are these good works? Simply put, the good works are doing God’s will.
2) God reveals His will in the Word.
People buy books like Purpose Driven Life and Your Best Life Now just to know their purpose or to find out the will of God for their lives. But not only are these books written by false teachers like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, they are the wrong place to look for the will of God. Studying Scripture—not some other best-selling book—reveals God’s will.
Another serious problem is that most people who buy such books are getting the cart before the horse. The first thing they need to worry about is their own conversion, not “what is God’s will for my life?” They need to deal with God’s primary will for them: to repent, become a believer, and place their faith and trust in Christ.
Stranger still, though, a lot of people who read these books are not really interested in God’s will. They want to cherry pick His will. “Abstain from sexual immorality?” they might wonder, “I want to know God’s will, but not that one.” Because they’re not truly converted, they are “goats” not “sheep.” God’s will is that you become sanctified, pursue righteousness and holiness, and remain faithful and obedient. Most people, though, are more interested in knowing how God can provide a big house, a nice car, a handsome salary, and a corner office. They really want a genie in a bottle, not God. Sadly, many authors of books about discerning God’s will don’t have the spiritual eyes to write a biblically-based book. Even if they use Scripture, they often take it out of context.
Discerning God’s will through Scripture also involves knowing what Scripture teaches. John 7:17 explains that “if anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine.” To know the will of God, you must know correct doctrine—correct teaching or instruction. Yet many people complain that “doctrine is boring, or doctrine is divisive.” Yet doctrine is about the Word of God, and it’s a serious problem if someone thinks the Word of God is boring.
Scripture is alive and active and sharper than a double-edged sword. It is true, though, that doctrine is divisive, because many people do not want to accept right doctrine. The truth of God’s Word is divisive. Jesus said He would even divide families. A man’s enemies would be from his own household, and He would set mother against daughter-in-law, father against son (Matthew 10:34-36).
There’s a popular phrase today that ‘doctrine divides, but the spirit unites.’ It’s used by people who want all the world’s religions to come together and who want to avoid “uncomfortable” issues such as the exclusivity of Jesus Christ. But He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Strangely, many people today regard that as “intolerant.” They’re offended by doctrine and so it divides “intolerant” Christians from others. But do you know which spirit is the one really trying to unite people in this way? According to the Bible, it’s the spirit of antichrist.
“Divisive” or not, God wants us to know His will. As Ephesians 5:17 points out: “Therefore, do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” We do this as we are led by the Spirit of God. The next verse, Ephesians 5:18, says, “Do not be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.” People who are filled with the Spirit do not live in the way of flesh, but walk in faithfulness and obedience. When we do that, we can fully understand God’s Word, and He will help us to understand His will.
The Word shows the way to go: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105, NKJV). Second Timothy 3:16-17 also heralds the place of Scripture in this process:
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
3) The Holy Spirit illuminates the Word and will of God.
While it’s wonderful that the will of God is revealed in His Word, we need the ministry of the Holy Spirit to help us understand what we read, and then to live it out. Psalm 119:133 speaks of this: “Direct my steps by Your Word and let no iniquity have dominion over me.” It’s a powerful combination: We study God’s Word, and then the Holy Spirit helps us walk in its truth.
Romans 12:2 offers an additional insight into what happens in us through the Word and the Spirit: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” If you want to know the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God, you need to be transformed by the renewing of your mind through the Word of God and not be conformed to the world. Using the Word of God, the Holy Spirit transforms and renews our minds, so we can know the will of God.
A student of the Scripture can rightly grasp the Word of Truth. With regard to God’s will, this is different than simply wanting to know, “What job should I take?” The believer who wants to know the will of God works to understand the truth through study of the Word. In 1 Corinthians 2:9-16, Paul explains that we need the Holy Spirit to help because:
“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”
But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so, no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For “who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
Paul is quoting Isaiah, and for some reason, many people use this passage completely out of context. They think “eye has not seen, nor ear heard” refers to heaven—which it doesn’t. This verse refers to the wisdom of God. Only the Holy Spirit knows “the deep things of God” so as to illuminate the Word for us. And do you see where this takes us? “We have the mind of Christ” as the Holy Spirit illuminates the will and Word of God.
4) The Holy Spirit leads us in God’s will.
The Holy Spirit helps us understand God’s Word, illuminates God’s Word and will to us, and then the Holy Spirit helps us to walk in that way. You can’t expect the Holy Spirit to lead you, though, unless you’re studying the Word. When you do, the Holy Spirit helps you walk in faithfulness and obedience.
The Holy Spirit helps us understand biblical principles for living and to follow God’s will. Proverbs 16:9 says it this way: “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” The key here is that the plans of your heart must be godly. You cannot expect the Lord to lead you in ungodly plans. If you have godly plans, though, it’s because God put them there. If you desire to do something righteous, godly, and honoring to the Lord, He laid that on your heart. The righteousness we do can only come from God. Why? Because we are sinful, depraved beings, and only the regeneration of the Holy Spirit produces any righteous act through us. This is so significant, in fact, that the Bible says apart from Jesus Christ, our righteous deeds look like wickedness to God. It’s only because of Christ that God has placed on our hearts anything to do that is righteous.
Psalm 37:4 shows the relationship between the Holy Spirit’s work in us and the transformation of our hearts: “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.” This means God will take away your old, sinful, fleshly desires and give you godly desires instead.
That’s how I ended up putting on the Contend Conference—God placed it on my heart. Only God could have convinced me to take all the time, energy, and work required to put together that event. I could have taken time off and gone hunting and relaxed more with my family during the Christmas holiday, but instead, we busied ourselves getting ready for a conference with kids from 23 states. That was a big deal. I had the desire to do that only because God gave it to me. He gave it to me because my study of His Word changed the desires of my heart so that I wanted what He wanted. Good and godly desires truly are the natural result of studying the Word of God.
Copyright 2016 ©Brannon Howse. This content is for Situation Room members and is not to be duplicated in any form or uploaded to other websites without the express written permission of Brannon Howse or his legally authorized representative.