In Part I, I argue that God does not indicate his will to us by means of subjective feelings, and survey the Old Testament record of God’s interactions with his people. In Part II, I look at the New Testament and how to interpret Scripture’s teaching on the subject. In Part III, I ask (and answer!) how to discern the will of God if “sense” or “peace” aren’t it.
What is the will of God for my life? How can I know it?
No other question so thoroughly vexes most of the Christians I know. We are persuaded that God has a plan for our lives that we can ascertain, and as such we are responsible to follow it, for two (very good) reasons. First, we want to honor him and we want very much to avoid disobeying the God we love. Second, should we fail to follow God’s revealed will for our lives, we will miss out on the best things he has for us. These two, in combination, make the yearning to know God’s plan profound and urgent, especially when making large decisions. Should I buy this house or stay in my current home? Should I marry this person or should we break up? Should I go to this university or that one, or none at all?
But the will of God in such areas, we soon find, is mysterious. How is it determined—perhaps by a sense of “peace” about the right decision? or by a strong feeling that we ought to follow a particular course of action? or by the idea that springs into our mind, unbidden, as we ponder the circumstances in front of us? or by some other means entirely?
There is, it turns out, an answer. But you’re probably not going to like it. The question, however, is not whether we like something but whether it is what God has said. We must remember, though, that however disorienting it can be to let Scripture upend our ways of thinking, it is always best in the end.
What Scripture doesn’t say
The idea that the Spirit leads us by inner senses of his will has become a shibboleth among evangelical Christians, especially those influenced by the charismatic movement. This is unfortunate, because the idea is completely without foundation in Scripture and is deeply unhelpful to the many Christians who live their lives as though it were true. I’ll repeat that for emphasis: nowhere does Scripture teach that the Holy Spirit gives us wisdom on personal decision-making by means of our inner state—our thoughts or feelings.
Now, let it be clear: This has nothing to do with the question of the Spirit’s indwelling presence, for He indwells and empowers all believers. It has nothing to do with the question of whether charismatic gifts continue or ceased after the death of the apostles, for the charismatic gifts were (and if they continue, are) not inner subjective senses but clear external signs. One can believe the miraculous gifts had all ceased by A.D. 100 and also that the Spirit leads us by subjective nudges, or that the gifts continue today but that the Spirit does not lead us in that way.1
So back to my thesis: God does not lead us by “giving us a peace” about things, or by “giving us a sense of what we ought to do,” or by thoughts or urges randomly popping into our heads. I imagine I have ruffled a few feathers, rocked a few boats, and possibly even stepped on a few toes by saying this. (I have certainly overdone it with the metaphors.) Those of you who disagree with me are thinking of all the times in Scripture that the Holy Spirit led people—and so am I! The question of the hour is not whether God communicates to his people, but how he communicates to his people. The most helpful thing for us to do, then, is to survey the Scriptures and see how God spoke to his people in the past, because Scripture is the baseline for how we expect him to speak to his people in the present.
When he spoke to Adam and Eve, he is physically present and speaks audibly. In his interactions with Cain, the two have a conversation. Every time he interacts with Abraham, the text tells us what God said to Abraham (whether or not Yahweh was visible to him in any given encounter). He speaks to Isaac and Jacob. He appears in dreams and gives interpretations thereof to Joseph. He appears in a flame and speaks audibly to (and indeed converses with) Moses over and over again, culminating in the beginning of the revelation of Scripture itself, which Exodus tells us he wrote with his own finger. He speaks audibly to many of the judges, telling them exactly what he would have them do, and Gideon carries on a discussion with him. The signs that God performs for Gideon with a fleece are the result of a conversation. Samuel was confused because he heard an audible voice and thought it must be the other person in the house, until that person explained that God was speaking to him. Various prophets were filled with the Spirit and preached the word of God to the people (even Saul, the king of Israel, at one point). Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah all experience dreams and visions and both Daniel and Ezekiel interact with angels, but there, too, their experiences were explained to them.
What about the ambiguous and mysterious bits? Throughout 1 and 2 Samuel, David is seen making decisions with the Urim and the Thummim. We do not know what these were, but the results seem to have been clear and unambiguous at the least. In the New Testament, we see the apostles making a decision by drawing lots, trusting God’s providence to orchestrate the right decision. Neither of these seems to be open options among evangelicals: we do not have the Urim and Thummim, and no one I know suggests we make decisions with dice, which would be the modern equivalent of drawing lots. Perhaps most mysterious is God’s means of revelation to the prophets, but as with the other means here, it seems to have been quite clear. None of the prophets ever wondered what their message was (though Jeremiah seems to have been rather unhappy about its contents, and for good reason). Certainly the audiences of the messages knew exactly what God’s will was: he spelled it out for them, often in great detail.
Perhaps most famous of all in this discussion—and the proof text for the view against which I am arguing—is God’s interaction with Elijah at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 19:9–18). Yahweh, the passage tells us, was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. After all of them was a “the sound of a low whisper” or “a sound, a thin silence” (19:12). First, notice that the “still, small voice” was not in Elijah’s mind: it was a sound. Second, read the next part of the passage:
And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (19:13)
Then they have a conversation, in which Yahweh comforts Elijah and tells him what he ought to do next. He spoke aloud to Elijah, just as he did to so many others.
In short, the consistent record of the Old Testament is that when God led his people—whether individuals or the whole nation—he did so clearly. The majority of the time, these interactions were audible, though occasionally he used dreams or visions, but always making clear the meaning through someone explaining.
- Or that the gifts continue and he leads us that way, or that the gifts ceased and he does not lead us that way. For the record, I am cautiously open to the ongoing practice of the gifts—but this isn’t about that, remember? ↩