When I talk with Christian teenagers and college students, discerning God’s will for their life is a big concern. They all seem to want their future to be perfect—or at least as perfect as they can dream it should be in light of the things that matter most to them. So often for young Christians, discerning God’s will is tied to questions like: Who should I marry? Where should I go to school? What should I choose for my career?
To answer these questions, we need to begin with a basic Sunday school answer: the Bible. We begin discerning God’s will by opening the Scriptures, not by leaning on our emotions. We don’t begin with our own desires. We begin with God’s Word, which is the baseline authority for finding and doing the will of God.
You might think, “Well, that’s obvious.” But it’s really not, because when we’re talking about our heart’s desires, our emotions tend to get in the way. Our emotions are constantly tempted by our selfish ambitions. If led by our emotions, we begin to see Jesus as the key to getting what we want. Suddenly, God’s will becomes about our will.
Not everything we want is bad. In fact, a lot of the things we pray for are good. But God doesn’t simply want what is good for us. He wants what is best. That means He doesn’t always give us what we want, but He always gives us what we need.
When we’re seeking to know God’s will, we start with the Scriptures. The Bible gives us two theological categories for understanding God’s will.
Here they are:
God’s Revealed Will
The first category is God’s revealed will, which is what He shows (reveals to) us in the Bible. His revealed will is not a mystery. You don’t have to try to read the tea leaves or read signs in your circumstances, you just open the Word. Now, there’s a time to look for open doors. If you’re interviewing for a job and it provides for your family, aligns with your passions, and does not lead you into sin, then you might pray, “God, if you open this door, I’m going to walk through it.”
But with many other aspects of life and faith, there’s no need to test God or wonder what to do, because God has made His will perfectly clear. He’s given us clear commands in the Bible. We don’t need to question, for example, whether or not God wants people saved. He does. He’s going to use the church as His “plan A” on earth to go and take the gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). That is an example of how we can be confident about His will. Other examples of His clearly stated will include your sexual purity and sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3), praying and rejoicing with thanksgiving in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), and that your good deeds silence foolish people (1 Peter 2:15).
Beyond those explicit “God’s will” passages, every command in the Bible can be seen as God’s will since it is what He wants us to do for His glory and our own good. The Bible says, “Love one another” (John 13:34–35), confess sin (1 John 1:9) use your gifts to serve others in the church (1 Cor. 12; 1 Peter 4:7-11), and love your wife and submit to your husband (Eph. 5:22-33). These commands and many more are all a part of God’s revealed will. You don’t need to ask “God, do you want me to do these things?” He has already given you His Word as His revealed will.
God’s Hidden Will
In addition to God’s revealed will, we also have God’s hidden or secret will. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God.” In other words, there are some things we either can’t know in advance or that we’re just not going to know in this life; they are the secret things. What’s going to happen to me in five years? Why do bad or good things happen to certain people? When is the world going to end? Why did my good friend die so young? God knows the answers to these questions, and many times, we don’t.
When it comes to God’s hidden will, we must seek to understand that God is sovereign, and He is ruling over all things, so we can trust Him (Psalm 115:3). In our finite minds, we can’t understand His infinite purposes. But we can trust that He has a plan, even if it’s a secret to us right now. In 1 Corinthians 2:9, Paul says “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—the things God has prepared for those who love Him.” This verse tells us that God’s secret will isn’t just about the end of the world or circumstantial questions during hard times on earth, it’s also about the amazing things God has in store for us in the future.
When We Don’t Know God’s Will, We Can Pray for It.
When I first began to learn about God’s will, I came across a passage that stopped me in my tracks. It’s the prayer that Jesus prayed in Luke 22. In that moment, we find Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night He was betrayed. He’s talking to the Father, and His sweat drops are turning to blood. Jesus says, “Father, if possible, let this cup pass from Me.” Then, His agonizing prayer ends with, “Not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42)
Jesus is taking the weight of the world on His shoulders. He’s about to experience the full, unbridled wrath of the Father, and He says, “Not My will, but Yours be done.” When you think about that, it’s convicting and inspiring all at the same time! Simply put: that is the way we must pray. If you were to take His prayer and apply it to the way we often pray, it changes us! Does God care if you have a great job? I imagine He does. Does He want you to marry an incredible spouse? We can say, yes! Is He pleased when you succeed in life for His glory? Yes! But no matter what dreams you have and what success you long for, prayer is not about getting God to do your will, but rather, it is submitting yourself and every request to His will — like Jesus did.
After all, we don’t know what God has in store for our future. What if He calls us to stand for truth in the midst of persecution? What if you have the American dream in mind, but He sends you to China like Hudson Taylor? What if you’re the next Adoniram Judson? What if you’re the next Amy Carmichael? God may call you to do something great for His great name that has little to do with your dreams of comfort and pleasure, but does bring Him great glory for all eternity!
Pray for your heart’s desire, but in the end, may we all say, “Thy will be done.”
This blog article is a modified transcription from a portion of an interview between Costi Hinn and Dr. Brian Arnold at Phoenix Seminary on the will of God.