Archives For God’s Will

God Is Sovereign, But…

Mark Beuving —  August 25, 2014 — 4 Comments

God is in control of what happens in this world. “He does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth” (Dan. 4:35). He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). Even the roll of the dice and wicked events of this world ultimately fall under his orchestration (Prov. 16:33; Gen. 50:20; Acts 2:23, 4:27–28).

In other words, God is sovereign.

But…

We are terrible at interpreting his sovereign plan as it unfolds.

Every Christian can take comfort in knowing that at every moment, “all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). So however unpredictable or devastating your circumstances, God knows, he sees, and he is weaving it all together into a beautiful tapestry that will one day illustrate true good, true glory. That is something we don’t have to second-guess. It’s a promise we can count on.

Magic 8 BallBut we often go further than trusting the promise. We want to know what it all means. It’s not enough to know that God is doing something in our circumstances, we want to know what he’s doing. So we interpret. “I lost that job because God wanted me in this other career.” “She broke up with me because God wants me to be single for awhile.” “I was late and missed the interview because God wants me somewhere else.” “We were the only two people who showed up at that group event because God wants us to get married.” God is sovereign.

But God’s sovereignty is not an excuse. Maybe you missed the interview because you’re a lazy procrastinator. How do you know God is telling you to switch careers? Maybe he’s showing you the consequences of your decisions so you’ll pursue discipline. Similarly, taking an unexpected one on one conversation with a member of the opposite sex as a sign from God that you should be together is sketchy.

When we over-interpret life events, saying that this or that circumstance means that God says _______ or God wants ________ , we’re doing something very similar to (or exactly like) putting words in God’s mouth. And he frowns on that:

“I did not send the prophets,
yet they ran;
I did not speak to them,
yet they prophesied.” (Jeremiah 23:21)

“Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! …They say, ‘Declares the Lord,’ when the Lord has not sent them… Have you not seen a false vision and uttered a lying divination, whenever you have said, ‘Declares the Lord,’ although I have not spoken?” (Ezekiel 13:3, 6–7)

We all do the best we can to discern the Lord’s leading day by day. It’s not wrong to wonder whether or not this or that turn of events means that God is directing you. He is certainly working in your life circumstances. But be careful about how much weight you give to your interpretation of events.

Joseph didn’t have a clue what God was doing through his twisted life story until his brothers walked into the room asking to buy grain. Job never got an explanation for the cataclysmic turn of affairs that struck his life—but his friends proved to be fools when they over-interpreted his circumstances and Job himself was rebuked for thinking he knew what should have been happening.

God’s sovereignty is a reality, not an excuse. It is a source of comfort, not a palm-reading. God will reveal what he’s up to when the time is right. Until then, trust that his plan is perfect, and that you know only what you need to know. God knows, and that’s enough.

“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).

“If we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:15).

If you pray for something, you’ll get it. Isn’t that what these verses are telling us? Well, we all know that it doesn’t work like this in real life. We have all prayed for things and then not received what we were asking for. So either these verses are wrong, or we are wrong to interpret them as blank checks from God to be filled however we desire.

God makes clear that there are some types of prayer that won’t be answered. On the one hand, James tells us: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (4:2). So there are some things that we don’t have simply because we have to ask for them first. But in the next verse he goes on to say: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (v. 3). So it is possible for us to ask for the wrong things or with the wrong motives, and in those situations God will not grant what we ask for.

Even 1 John 5:15 does not appear to be a blank check when we take it in context. The preceding verse says: “This is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” So it’s not the asking itself that guarantees a favorable response, it’s asking according to God’s will. We should also keep in mind that sin in our lives can hinder our prayers (see 1 Peter 3:7).

All that this means is that God is not a genie. And prayer is not a formulaic transaction. It’s a relationship.

But what about those times when we ask for something good and it goes unanswered? What about the times when we pray that our cancer-ridden Christian friend who spends her life witnessing to Jesus will be healed so she can keep ministering? What about the prayers we make on her behalf that go unanswered? What do we do when that godly woman dies and our godly prayers go unanswered?

The theological answer is that God’s will is still being done. He has a good purpose even for evil events. Joseph knew his brothers betrayed and sold him with evil intent, but he acknowledged that God meant those circumstances for good (Gen. 50:20). Peter knew that the most evil event in history—the corrupt conspiracy against and murder of the only innocent Person ever—was carried out with evil intent by evil people but still fell under the plan and purpose of God (Acts 2:23, 4:27-28). So we have to acknowledge that sometimes God’s will includes evil things, and we need to be okay with God choosing to forego our good requests for the greater good that only he can see.

But the theological answer is not always easy to swallow, particularly when we or the people we love are going through intense suffering and God appears to be turning a deaf ear. In those cases, people don’t necessarily need to be convinced of a theological truth. They need to feel loved. They need us to mourn with them (Rom. 12:15). They need to know that evil deeply grieves God as well, and that he is at work in our world to heal that which is broken, to destroy that which is evil. They need to be reminded that the day is swiftly approaching in which sin will be no more, when every tear will be wiped away and justice will be perfectly fulfilled (see Rev. 21–22).

Unanswered prayer will only be a roadblock to faith if we assume that prayer is a blank check designed to make us happy in every moment. Prayer is powerful and effective, and God is constantly accomplishing mighty things through the prayers of his people. We will not always see the direct effect of those prayers, nor will we always receive the things we ask for. But if we trust that our God is good and that our God is powerful, then we can enjoy the fellowship of prayer. We can delight in the reality that God calls us to know him and to be involved in his workings in our world through prayer. And we can lean on him when things aren’t going the way we think they should.

I will end with the same passage that I closed with last week. It is so essential to know we are not always going to know what to pray for and to be okay with that. The Spirit himself is praying for us, and he knows what to pray for. God is on your side, and if all you can muster is a prayer of uncertainty and a request to God to guide you as he sees best, then you’re on the right track:

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:26-28)

 

Yesterday I wrote about what it means to hear the voice of God and tried to navigate some of the subjectivity of how you know what God is calling you to do. Today I want to continue in that vein.

Many Christians firmly believe that they have received a God-giving calling or vocation. This may be to preaching, to politics, to art, to anything really. Sometimes the calling is based on a feeling they have received, sometimes it’s based on the counsel respected Christian leaders, sometimes it’s even based on more direct means of revelation.

We could argue the validity of these callings, but I don’t see the point. I have seen many Christians try to discourage other Christians from believing that God has called them to anything in particular. The concerned Christian tells the called Christian, “God didn’t call you to that because he doesn’t speak in that way” (or “he doesn’t call people to that vocation,” or “I don’t believe he called you specifically to that specifically”). Then the called Christian responds, “Well, all I know is that he called me to this, so I have to follow.” I don’t see much point in trying to tell someone that they didn’t experience what they are claiming to experience. How should I know what anyone else experienced?

I am more interested in how we respond to this calling. Let’s say God called you to be a teacher. What next? Well, I say you should pursue teaching. Prayerfully and humbly pursue God’s calling to the furthest extent of your understanding and to the best of your ability. Do your best to discern what God is really leading you to do, but as far as you understand his calling, go for it.

Too many Christians let a little bit of discouragement keep them from something that they were once convinced was God’s will for their lives. “God called me to be a teacher, but getting my appropriate credentials was really difficult, so he must not have been calling me to that.” Really? Since when has God’s will been about avoiding that which is difficult? I don’t buy it. If God is calling you to serve him in that way, it doesn’t matter how difficult it is. Take a cue from Jesus: sacrifice is important.

But here is where I need to insert a word of warning. Your understanding of God’s calling is not infallible. As I said yesterday, you could well have misunderstood what God was calling you to. Or perhaps he was calling you in this direction, and now that you are where you are he made be leading you in a slightly different direction.

So if God is calling you to preach, does that necessarily mean that you are predestined to be the next Francis Chan? Or might God’s calling mean that you spend your life powerfully preaching in the power of the Spirit to a congregation of 50 people? I submit that it may well mean that. God’s calling is not often about prestige or success as the world gauges it. Don’t forget that Jeremiah was in the center of God’s will and faithfully used the prophetic gifts that God gave him for the course of his life. Yet he never saw a revival. God’s calling doesn’t ensure numbers, “success,” or recognition. It may not even stay as specific as you’d like. Your job is to follow God’s calling and let him decide exactly where that calling will take you and how he will use it.

Too many Christians take a good calling of God and turn it into an idolatrous pursuit, where their goal becomes more important than God’s glory. Always hold God’s gifts and calling with an open hand, trusting that if he decides to pull away that goal, dream, or vocation, then he has a better reason than you could ever imagine. If your ultimate aim is to glorify God then you won’t care if God takes away what you thought he was calling you to. It’s for him and about him, not about your career.

So take God’s calling seriously, but hold your dreams with an open hand. If God has led you to pursue a certain vocation, pursue it with all your might. Do everything you can to be as God-honoring and effective in that vocation as you possibly can. But be okay with God determining the size of the crowd and the degree to which that vocation will be used by him.

 

We all want to hear the voice of God. What is his will for my life? Should I buy this car? Marry this person? Attend this school?

It makes sense that we’re looking for God’s voice in these things. We make so many decisions every day, and we don’t completely trust ourselves to perfectly assess each situation and know what is best. And as Christians, we want nothing more than to see God’s will done in our lives.

So how do we discern what God wants us to do in each situation?

Let’s start with the obvious. God has declared his will to us in the Bible. So there are some areas of God’s will that you never have to doubt. God always wants you to love your neighbor, to be faithful to your spouse, to not be anxious, etc. So if you ever find yourself in a decision between sin and righteousness (“should I sleep with my girlfriend or not?”), then finding God’s will is easy.

But things are not always that clear. Let’s say you have $100 that could be put into savings or could be given to a charity. Neither decision involves sin. So what do you do?

Well, pray. Ask God to guide you. Ask him to lead you into the right decision. Ask him to close doors and open doors. Maybe you’ll hear a clear response. But maybe you won’t. That’s okay. If you are a Spirit-filled Christian seeking the Lord’s will, he’s not going to trick you into spending the money in the wrong way. We can have enough confidence in God that if we’re seeking him, we can make the decisions that seem best at the moment and trust that he is going to use those decisions in the way he wants to.

I have made plenty of important life decisions that I was convinced were God’s will for my life, only to discover that God had something a little different in mind. I prayerfully chose to study Electrical Engineering in college. After two years, I prayerfully decided that I should switch to Speech Communication and become a minister. I prayerfully decided to go to seminary to be a church planter. Then during seminary I prayerfully decided to use my seminary training to be a Christian educator.

The point is, I made each of these decisions while trying to do my best to stay within God’s will. When I discovered that God’s will for me was not exactly what I expected, I didn’t need to have a crisis of faith. I can look back and see God guiding my life through each of those decisions. Had my life not followed exactly that pattern, I wouldn’t have met my wife, I wouldn’t have my daughters, I wouldn’t be serving at Eternity Bible College, I wouldn’t be writing, etc.

We do our best to discern God’s leading, we follow that leading as best we can, and we continue to discern and follow when it seems that either (1) we misunderstood what God was leading us to do or (2) God’s guidance in that moment of our lives was not for a permanent life course but was meant to continue leading us on a beautifully wandering journey.

I know some Christians that are paralyzed if they are not hearing God’s voice telling them what to do in each situation. One of my friends described it this way: “trying to hear the Spirit’s leading in every situation breaks down into OCD when you’re not hearing him clearly at every moment.” God delights in faith, and for that reason we shouldn’t expect a divinely written itinerary for our lives.

I do believe that God will at times tell us something very clearly. But we still need to be careful. We are never infallible and can certainly misunderstand even what we are certain is God’s clear communication to us.

Some of my more “charismatic” friends have heard God telling them that a certain person is going to die soon. Three separate friends of mine were in this situation. And since God revealed it to them, they went ahead and warned the person. But then the person didn’t die. You can argue that those people are still going to die, but my friends were predicting an imminent death for these individuals—in one case it was within a year. Yet years have passed and those people keep living. I think we have to admit that we don’t always hear God’s voice perfectly, even if we feel certain in the moment.

Ultimately, trying to hear God’s voice is a wonderfully faith-filled adventure. We do our best to seek and follow the Spirit’s leading, but we have to be okay with not knowing in every situation. And we can have the confidence that even when we don’t know, God does, and he is still working in our lives:

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:26-28)