Suppose I have a big decision to make. Let’s say I feel called to ministry but I’m not sure. I seek godly counsel, I pray, I fast and then one glorious day I take my first job as a vocational minister.
Was that decision God’s will for my life?
To listen to some people, It depends on how it turned out. If you are listening to a successful preacher then they will likely say that this was God’s call on their life and their success proves it. Perhaps, but perhaps they are gifted, hard-working and God was pleased to let them choose any career they wanted.
How often do you hear the same beginning to the story of someone who failed in ministry. Someone who left devastated and swore never to return to it. That person may have felt just as called but perhaps they lacked the skills they needed or maybe they just had a bad experience.
How can this be? Two godly men, prayed, fasted, sought counsel and both felt they were called but one ended badly while the other went well.
In our pop Christian culture we strive to do God’s will. To marry the “right” person. To have the “right” career. To go to the “right” church. We speak of God’s mysterious will being known through a “feeling of being led”.
- Anyone feel “led” to pray?
- I felt “led” to pick up a hitchhiker
- I feel that I’m being “led” to go to another church
Later we judge the “rightness” of our feeling based on the outcome.
- If the marriage works – I was right. If it ends in divorce my feeling was wrong.
- If the hitchhiker comes to Christ I was really right. If they don’t I was wrong.
- If the other church is great – I was right. If it turns out to be a mistake – I was wrong.
What does the Bible say?
- Does the Bible teach that God has a specific “right” choice for me when it comes to things like a career, a spouse, a church etc.?
- Does God lead Christians to make such decisions through a “feeling”?
- Does a good outcome of the decision mean it was God’s will?
Behind these questions is an assumption. The assumption is that God has a perfect plan for your life. Everything has a right choice and a wrong choice. People think of this will as a circle with a dot in the middle. The goal is to live life in the circle, as close as possible (given our failings) to the dot. We even hear people say “I want to be in the center of God’s will.” Oh – so you want to stand on the dot do you?
Of course, life moves through time so the dot becomes a line and at any given point in time the decisions you make will either follow the dot as closely as possible or perhaps stray from the dot because you made a wrong choice. But here is the problem (thanks to James MacDonald for this illustration).
Suppose that there are 2 men and 2 women. Jane and Joe Smith and Mary and Mark Johnson. Years ago, Jane and Joe were deeply in love but today their marriage is crumbling. Joe recalls how he dated Mary Johnson and even thought of marrying her. Joe wonders if he missed God’s will by marrying Jane. Joe decides that he feels “led” to have an affair with Mary and try to get back on the dot by taking her away from Mark.
Of course, if Joe was supposed to marry Mary, then Mark was supposed to marry someone else and that person was to marry someone else and so on. One person marrying the wrong person would mess up God’s will for thousands of people. And it gets worse of course because Joe and Jane had kids who were never supposed to exist.
You can easily see that if God’s will were a dot none of us would be on it. We would be hopelessly distant from it and by the poor choices we made never able to get back to the dot. If the dot were God’s Plan A for our life, we have gone through every other plan and are now on plan Z.
A Grassy Field
Now let’s imagine a beautiful grassy field. A green meadow that stretches across the hills. We can see that there are fences around the edges but within the field there is more than enough for all the sheep.
The fences represent scriptural boundaries. God says you shouldn’t marry an unbeliever (2 Cor 6:14) that is a fence. Crossing that fence would be clearly outside of God’s will revealed in scripture.
Who can you marry then? As long as you stay inside the fence marry whomever you will.
Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. However, if you do get married, you have not sinned, and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But such people will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you. (1 Corinthians 7:27-28 HCSB)
In this passage, Paul is giving advice to Christians about marriage. He tells them that it is better to stay unmarried like he is but if they do get married they have not sinned.
Does this sound like a man who believes God’s will is a dot? If it were a dot wouldn’t he encourage them to seek God’s will for whether or not they should marry? And who they should marry? There is no discussion about listening to a feeling in your head.
Examples of God’s Leading in the New Testament
There are some examples of God leading people to do specific things
- Acts 8:26 – An angel of the Lord spoke to Phillip
- Acts 9:4-16 – Jesus appears to Paul and Ananias and speaks to them
- Acts 10:13 – Peter has a vision and God speaks to him
- Acts 11:28 – Agabus prophesies a famine by the Spirit
- Acts 13:2 – the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work I have called them to.”
- Acts 16:6-7 The Holy Spirit does not allow them to preach in Asia or Bithynia
- Acts 16:9 – Paul has a vision during the night of the man from Macedonia
Does the Bible teach that God has a specific “right” choice for me when it comes to things like a career, a spouse, a church etc.?
Clearly there were times when God directly spoke through angels, prophets and the Holy Spirit to direct the church in it’s early days. But this is just a few cases in 20-30 years of history.
When Saul was first converted he is so determined he goes to the synagogues first in Damascus and later in Jerusalem. In both cases he argues so effectively that Jesus is the Christ that the Jews want to kill him and the brothers had to smuggle him out of town. There is no mention of anybody receiving guidance from God with regard to this. Nobody praying, no angels appearing, no prophecy no Word from the Lord. Eventually they send Paul back to Tarsus and he spent time in Arabia. One could have thought during those years that Paul was absent from ministry that he must have been wrong about his calling based on how it turned out but we know differently.
When Paul and Barnabas disagreed about John Mark in Acts 15 there is no record of divine guidance on this matter. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along and Paul did not. They disagreed and parted company. No angel, no word of the Lord, no “feeling led”.
Wait a minute you say – in Acts 16 – somehow the Holy Spirit didn’t let them preach in Asia or go into Bithynia. Doesn’t that indicate leading? Yes, it does but it also seems to indicate that they were going and ministering wherever they pleased. Rather than simply asking where should we go an waiting for an answer they simply went. When they tried to go somewhere that the Spirit didn’t want them to go he then led them to Macedonia through a vision.
What about Rom 8:14?
All those led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons. (Romans 8:14 HCSB)
I like what the John MacArthur Commentary says here
led by the Spirit. Believers are not led through subjective, mental impressions or promptings to provide direction in making life’s decisions—something Scripture nowhere teaches. Instead, God’s Spirit objectively leads His children sometimes through the orchestration of circumstances (Act_16:7) but primarily through: (1) illumination, divinely clarifying Scripture to make it understandable to our sinful, finite minds (Luk_24:44-45; 1Co_2:14-16; Eph_1:17-19; cf. Eph_3:16-19; Col_1:9); and (2) sanctification, divinely enabling us to obey Scripture (Gal_5:16-17).
If we want to know God’s will then we simply need to focus on the person he wants us to be and the fences of the field. As God transforms our mind we will naturally gravitate to choices that please the Spirit.
Does God lead Christians to make such decisions through a “feeling”?
If you listen to anyone teach about prayer they will no doubt spend some time chastising you for not “listening” to God. They say that prayer is meant to be a conversation not simply presenting a list of requests to God.
If this is such an important element for your prayer life why didn’t Jesus mention this when teaching the disciples to pray (Luke 11:1)?
If the normal pattern of prayer is to pray a phrase or two and then “listen” for something. An “impression”, an “inaudible voice”? Have you ever tried this only to find an odd mix of thoughts streaming through your mind? Some are obviously not from God because of their content but some could be. How would you know?
If this was vital to our spiritual growth, why didn’t Paul or the other apostles teach about this? There are no commands with instructions for sifting the thoughts in your head so that you can tell which ones come from God.
Finally there are no examples where a believer receives a message from God via an “impression of being led”. There were audible voices, dreams, visions, angels but no impressions. When the believers spoke of messages from God they spoke with certainty of the message received. They didn’t speak of the uncertainty that comes from following a voice in your head.
Tragically many people have done incredibly stupid things because they were told to simply listen to the voice in their head. I am one of them. If you want to hear from God study the scripture and do what it says.