5 Tips for Understanding God’s Will in Your Life

Should I change my major? Should I take this job, or stay at my present position? Should I ask this person to marry me? How many kids should we have? How should we balance our family’s activities and obligations? Should I start a business? How do we deal with the tension in our marriage? Should we buy that house? How do I handle that difficult situation at work?

Those are just some of the many important decisions we face from time to time in our lives. But how do we know what to do when they come? More specifically, how do understand what God’s will is for us in those situations?

I won’t claim to have the last word on the topic, but here are at least five guidelines to help the process:

1. Pray

At least in my own life, I‘ve found that the obvious isn’t always so obvious. I’m quick to weigh options and evaluate variables, but often slow to pray. But if we want to know what God’s will is for us in a particular situation, shouldn’t we should ask him? And I’ll add this, when we do, we should prepare for him to answer us in a variety of ways (on which see below).

2. The answer isn’t necessarily tied to the results you might expect.

Most of us will naturally want to avoid difficulty in our lives. And in fact there’s no real virtue in undergoing hardship for its own sake. But if staying clear of such things is the primary factor in determining which direction we steer our lives, we’ll almost surely find ourselves on the wrong track.

It’s hard to think of a person that we can more confidently assess as following God’s plan for his life than the apostle Paul. And yet he faced suffering and challenges again and again (see 2 Corinthians 11:24-29). It’s no surprise, then, that the same man wrote on more than one occasion that God actually accomplishes his good purposes in our lives through hardship (see, e.g., 2 Corinthians 4:17; Romans 8:28).

Along the same lines, prosperity can be a very good thing. But decisions that lead to it aren’t always the correct choice. Jesus told a parable about a rich farmer who was preoccupied with how to store his abundant crop. But God’s response to the farmer’s plan to build bigger barns and then “eat, drink, and be merry” indicates that the man had not approached his life wisely: “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (see Luke 12:16-21).

3. You have reason to doubt yourself.

“I’m going with my gut.” “I took it as a sign from God.” “I’m trusting my feelings.” “I feel God leading me.”

Having now been in vocational ministry for over twenty years, I frankly no longer put much stock in any of these explanations…at least when they’re the only ones offered. That’s because I’ve seen one fundamental biblical truth affirmed over and over again, both in my life and in the lives of those around me: we’re all finite and sinful people. We often don’t have all the perspective we need. We regularly misinterpret what’s going on around us. We tend to “feel led” to do what we simply want to do in the first place. On more than one occasion, I’ve followed what I could alternately describe as my heart, or my judgment, or my sense of how God was leading me…and been wrong, with significant consequences.

I don’t mean that God never works through our intuition, or never gives us some kind of unspoken assurance in taking a particular path. But I would suggest he rarely does only that. Usually, there will also be solid reasons to do something, reasons that others can also identify and affirm. And that’s why we should—and this is critical—regularly seek the advice and judgement of mature fellow believers, people who will be able to identify when we’re listening to something or someone other than God and instead point us in the right direction. This is related to the next point.

4. You should be guided by God’s word.

This is again a seemingly obvious point that not’s always so obvious. But God has given us all kinds of clear instruction that can and should inform our lives and decisions. For example, a young dating couple may have convinced themselves that it’s okay before God for them to sleep together because they truly love each other, or they’re eventually going to be married, etc. But God’s word unambiguously contradicts that idea. It reserves the great gift of sex to husband and wife within their marriage. There is no exception.

Likewise, you and I might think that we simply have to have something in our lives (a new job, a new spouse, a better house, the right set of friends, etc.) to be fulfilled and happy. But the Bible repeated assures us that in fact we won’t ultimately find those things there.

God has the unerring perspective and judgment that we lack. And he’s communicated a great deal of these things in his word. Not only is it our obligation to listen to it, but if we’re interested in making decisions that will ultimately bring about our good, we should very much want to. This entails that we regularly read it and hear it taught. And that we have friends who speak into our lives on the basis of its truth.

5. Dependence is key.

The Bible is of inestimable value in guiding our lives. But it’s not a flow chart that includes an exhaustive list of variables and invariably leads us to a specific course of action. Even when we’ve been mindful of all the things mentioned above, sometimes our choice still isn’t the clearest. When that happens, I’m persuaded that the decision you make is less crucial than trusting God with it once you’ve made it. That means depending on him for the resources you need to move forward, for correcting you if need be, and so on. After all, that kind of dependence is one of the things that the Bible teaches, and celebrates, in the first place.

One Comment

  1. Brett Rawlings said:

    I appreciate this post, Nathan. Thank you for this!

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