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“What does God want me to do?” Have you ever asked yourself that question? I know I have. I’ve wondered, Does God want me to live here? Does God want me to marry this person? Does God want me to take this job? What does God want me to do? These questions can be agonizing to answer, because they are so significant. We want as much certainty as possible in regard to answering significant questions. Why? Because when we lack certainty, we often feel scared. Not knowing what we should do next makes us feel as if we could make a mistake. It makes us anxious. In fact, though we may not admit it, sometimes we’re even afraid that we could miss God’s will.
The struggle to find God’s will is a struggle with certainty. We naturally seek as much certainty as possible in regard to decisions. Certainty helps us feel more in control, and when we feel in control, we feel safe.
Seeking more certainty in regard to decisions isn’t wrong. It’s good for us to consider the consequences of decisions, to seek out wise counsel, and to prayerfully consider what to do. Sometimes, however, uncertainty can cause our hearts to have the wrong motivations in seeking God’s will. That is, as Christians, we’re called to trust God for His control, but our desire to know God’s will can actually come from a deeper desire to have more control for ourselves. We want God to tell us exactly what to do so that no faith is required. That would put our hearts at ease, wouldn’t it? It’s thus strange how a presumably good desire (wanting to know God’s will) can sometimes be twisted into a bad one (wanting more control for ourselves). It reminds me of the Pharisees. They thought they were scrupulously doing God’s will by tithing their mint and cumin in exacting quantities (Luke 11:42). Jesus said they strained out a gnat to swallow a camel (Matt. 23:24). That is, they sought to control the absolute smallest details but missed faith in God. Jesus called them whitewashed tombs (v. 27). They looked nice on the outside, but inside they were dead. Their hearts didn’t trust God, though they were presumably seeking to do God’s will.
The story of the Pharisees is a cautionary tale for Christians. We need to be careful that ostensibly good desires aren’t proceeding from sinful motivations. This is a difficult thing to do, and it requires much heart searching. Were the Pharisees wrong to desire certainty about some things? No, they were not. We are certain, of course, about what God wants us to do in some regards. For example, we know that He has said, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts” (Col. 3:12). We know that He has said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12), and, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). These are examples of God’s will. He has said other, even more specific things. For example, He has called us, if we marry, to marry only another Christian—not a non-Christian (1 Cor. 7:39; 2 Cor. 6:14). He has also called us to work (Col. 3:23; 1 Tim. 5:8).
These passages and others tell us God’s will. But we’re actually looking for something more specific, right? We’re often not so worried about His moral will, that is, His commandments (theologians often call this God’s preceptive will). We’re wondering, specifically, what to do next among an array of morally good options. God’s moral will can give us more certainty in regard to some options, but it doesn’t narrow it down to a specific choice. When we talk about specific choices that God hasn’t revealed, we are talking about His secret will—that will that God has chosen not to reveal to us. God’s secret, or hidden, will is mysterious. It involves everything He has not told us regarding exact decisions (What would God choose if He were me?), about the future (Will I marry this person?), and pretty much everything else that God keeps to Himself (Why was I born now rather than a century ago?).
As we search for what God hasn’t revealed—His secret will—we often employ a variety of methods. Sometimes we take biblical injunctions, which are good, and twist them to use them for our own purposes. For example, getting counsel about decisions is good (Prov. 11:14; 15:22). Pastors, family members, and friends often highlight and affirm God’s love and direction for us in particular situations. They can and do help us as we make decisions. But sometimes instead of simply seeking wisdom from counselors, we use counselors as a way to “find” God’s secret will. We take our pastor’s opinion on a matter as though he were God directly telling us His will, or we trust that our friend has heard “a word from the Lord.” Prayer is also a commendable thing to do, and we are called to ask for wisdom (1 Thess. 5:17; James 1:5). We can—and should—pray for direction. But sometimes Christians go even further. They ask God to give them a divine sign, such as sending them a phone call at an exact moment or ordaining that a billboard with a particular message for them appear on their morning commute.
These sorts of practices are often done with a sincere desire to know and do God’s will, and many have made good and right decisions by using strange practices. Our decision, for instance, might meet with success if we confirm God’s secret will by seeing a billboard with an unusual message. However, seeking confirmation of God’s secret will in these peculiar ways isn’t biblical. Scripture doesn’t say that we can find God’s secret will through counselors, peaceful feelings, unusual coincidences, or other things. His secret will is, by its very nature, hidden.
Does this make God distant from us? No, because uncertainty doesn’t mean that God is distant. Consider how much uncertainty and fear the Israelites had when they came to the Red Sea and saw Pharaoh’s armies approaching (Ex. 14:10–14). The people of Israel were uncertain, but nevertheless God was with them. He protected them from the Egyptians and saw His people safely across the Red Sea. We likewise may feel uncertain about a particular decision or situation, but we can still rest in the knowledge that God is with us. We can trust Him when He hasn’t revealed exactly what to do. He is directing our steps even as we take our steps.
the necessity of faith
I have met many older men and women in the faith who look back on their lives and understand in a profound but almost indescribable way how God has been with them throughout their journey. Frequently, these older saints are surprised about how God brought them to where they are. They often tell me they had very little to do with it, though if I asked them, they would tell me they were making decisions all the time. I sometimes wonder if that’s how Abraham felt when he looked back on his life. What I find so comforting about these stories is the reminder that God is with us wherever we go, and He is directing our steps—albeit mysteriously (Prov. 16:9).
Thinking on these stories reminds me of how God works in our lives. He calls us to trust Him. Abraham was called to faith, and so are we. Faith is trust in God—certainty in God. It’s what the Pharisees lacked. It wasn’t a Pharisee, after all, but a common fisherman, who walked on the water with Jesus. By faith Peter stepped out on the Sea of Galilee, and it was like solid ground. His certainty, though imperfect, was in God. When He did doubt, He turned back to the Lord and cried, “Save me” (Matt. 14:30). Jesus reached out to him, caught him, and asked him, “Why did you doubt?”
To eliminate the struggle with our uncertainty is to eliminate the necessity of faith. We don’t know everything that God knows. Yet we are called to trust God as we take uncertain steps, like Peter. When we do, God will be with us. Sometimes we will make decisions that seem to meet with great success. At other times, we will make decisions that seem like a mistake. We may doubt. Yet God has a peculiar way of turning our weaknesses into strengths and of making evil turn out for good (Gen. 50:20; 2 Cor. 12:9). And, when we call out like Peter, “Save me,” He is ready and willing to save.