When God Is Not Being Clear
As we launch our new program – NEXT2 – we are exploring purpose, vocation, calling and discerning the way ahead through our blog. This week, we are re-posting a blog written by Rowan Lewis, team leader at NEXT, that explores God’s Will and finding our way when things aren’t clear. We will be going deeper with these ideas next week …
I was about 20 years old when I made my first deal with God. I said, “God … this is a big decision. I’m really confused and I just want to do Your will. So I’m not going to take another step until I know which way You want me to go.”
Can you guess what happened next?
Yep, you guessed it. Nothing. Total silence.
The bush I was sitting next to didn’t burst into flames. No angel appeared to touch my tongue with coal. Even the crickets that were chirping in the background when I made my declaration had gone quiet.
Undaunted I persisted in the silence, waiting, hoping, pleading for anything that would give me a clue as to what I should do. I remained for what seemed like an age.
But the fallen branch I was sitting on felt uncomfortable. And then my tummy gurgled and reminded me it was dinnertime. And then a song that I had been listening to earlier crept into my head. And then a little ant crawled onto my hand, tickling my skin. And then a car drove down the road beside the paddock and a cow sauntered across to the nearly dry dam for a drink.
The moment was gone.
My mind filled up with ‘stuff’ and I looked down at my watch. It had only been 10 minutes.
Dejected I made my way back to the house. How do you discover God’s will for your life?
Finding God’s Will
Finding God’s will can be a tricky business. In this first post, we’ll look at the idea of God having a specific opinion or preference about what you should or should not do and discover that it is important to distinguish between God’s general and specific will for our lives. In subsequent posts we will explore the question of a ‘Personal Calling’ and I’ll step you through a really practical way my mentor taught me to discern whether God has a specific will for you in a particular moment, and if so, what that will might be.
So what do we mean when we speak of “God’s will?”
Christians derive the concept of God’s will from scriptures that speaks of God’s guidance in human lives (like Jeremiah 29:11) as well as His concern to restore all things to their rightful place and intended state (like Col 1:15-20). As such, the concept of God having a will for your life is not saying that God is a meddling control-freak who enjoys messing with people’s lives. Instead it describes a God who uses His unstoppable power and unending knowledge to call and redeem us and our world to live in freedom together.
So when we talk about “God’s will” in relation to our particular circumstances, we are saying that God might have a specific opinion or preference about what you should (or should not) do. Figuring out this preference (when God doesn’t have an actual body to stand in front of you or a physical voice-box to speak with) takes discernment – and discernment can be a tricky process because it assumes that God uses all sorts of different ways and means to get your attention and tell you what to do. And that means you are left to interpret conversations, experiences, bible verses, thoughts in your head and feelings in your gut – none of which is certain, sure or scientifically verifiable.
Of course, all of this raises some really big questions – or at least highlights some big assumptions. Does God really have a specific opinion about what I should do? And if He does, down to what level of detail – like does God really care what I have for breakfast? Is God really forced to use all sorts of weird, indirect methods to communicate His will? And if I unknowingly fail to do His will am I being disobedient?
In this first post, we’ll tackle the first of these questions – the idea of God having a specific opinion or preference about what you should or should not do.
To do, or not to do – that is the question … or is it?
Does God really care what I have for breakfast? Or what clothes I wear? Should I be listening out for God’s voice in relation to this trivial everyday stuff, or only for the big decisions?
Something I’ve found really helpful in figuring my way through this, is an insight that comes from R. Paul Stevens. In a great book called ‘The Other Six Days – Vocaiton, Work and Ministry in Biblical Perspective’ he points out that it helps to think about God having as both a general and specific will – that is, a broad and unchanging preference about how we should live that we can discover in Scripture as well as occasionally a specific and personal calling that we discover over the course of our life.
God’s General Will
First of all, God has a will for All Humanity – Stevens call this the ‘Human Calling’. Everybody share’s in the human calling – Christian or not – simply by being alive. Our human calling is God’s constant an unchanging will that comes to us simply because we are all created in God’s image – and that has implications. Being created in God’s image means that we can live in ways that reflect our Creator (and so we ‘conform’ to His image), or we can live in ways that deny the creator (and so ‘deform’ the image).
This is the most general level of God’s will and reflects the fact that we live in a moral universe created by a moral God. God’s will for humanity doesn’t really change from moment to moment – so discerning this aspect of God’s will is much more about discovering God’s character and bringing it to life. Guidance for this way of living is all over the bible, like the Beatitudes in Matthew 5-7.
Within this general will, Stevens also talks about a ‘Christian Calling’ that is also made to all people but is a little more specific because it is a calling given in response to the fact that our humanity has become broken and tarnished by sin. This aspect of God’s will highlights the specific directions God gives to the Church – those united by their discipleship as members of God’s kingdom.
Again, this aspect of God’s will doesn’t really change from moment to moment. An example of this will is reflected in Paul’s instruction to Timothy where he says ‘fan into flame the Gift of God which is in you’ (2 Tim 1:6). While this sounds kinda personal and specific, it is a reminder from Paul to do what all Christians are charged with doing, which is to participate with the Holy Spirit and bring to life the Spirit’s gifts. Another example might be the way Peter charges the church collectively to be careful with its use of power and silence foolish people by living submissive lives that are beyond reproach (1 Peter 2:11-17)
In discerning both of these forms of God’s Will, we can gain much resource from Scripture. What we can learn from the Bible is how we can all live freely in the fullness of our image-bearing humanity (and live out our human calling), as well as the way we can collectively participate with God’s Spirit to redeem and restore the world marred by sin. To put it another way, as you read and engage with Scripture and live your life in ways that reflect your creator and His redemptive plan, you are living God’s (general) will for your life.
The Personal or Specific Calling
Yet beyond this is general sense of God’s Will is a much more specific and particular sense – a ‘Personal Calling’. Here Steven’s observes that from time-to-time God clearly steps in to communicate a specific intention or direction for a person’s life.
I find it helpful to divide Personal Calling into two kinds that we find in Scripture. The first I call the ‘out-of-the-blue’ moments. These moments are often transformative and result in turning humble famers and shepherds into prophets and leaders of God’s people. These moments are often stark, very confronting, and rarely sought out by the recipients. Usually the person being called in this moment will actually protest, feeling the fear and frailty of their humanity like Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15) or Isaiah’s angelic visitations (Isaiah 6:1-13).
The second kind of personal calling is where a person actively seeks God’s direction for their life. We see this spiritual practice being actively engaged in the life of Jesus, Paul, Joshua and many others. What I find interesting about this kind of discernment, is that it is often the search for wisdom as well as an act of submission. Take Jesus, for example, staying up all night in prayer before choosing the 12 Disciples (Luke 6:12-16). There may have been many great apostles to be found amongst the 70 or so followers, so Jesus’ choice to seek God’s guidance can be understood to be a request for wisdom to discern amongst a variety of potentially equally good options. The same can be seen in the life of the apostles when they were experiencing extreme persecution in the early years of the Church. As they gathered together in prayer, they often sought God’s wisdom to choose between the options they had available to them (See Acts 6), or even to check if their preferred option was a good idea (See Acts 4:23-31).
Out-of-the-blue moments are highly experiential moments of calling where God makes himself abundantly clear. These moments are initiated by God, are clear and directive, and the individual’s response becomes a matter of obedience of disobedience. Active searching moments are initiated by us humans, seeking wisdom from God and nurturing an posture of submission to His ways.
So Does God Care About What I Eat for Breakfast?
So how does all of this help me figure out God’s will?
I’ll get down to very specific things you can do to discern God’s will in the next post, but for now, let me outline a couple of important points that can save a lot of confusion:
- Compared to other forms of calling, the ‘Out-of-the-Blue’ moments happen comparatively rarely throughout Scripture. This is important to note because while we are commonly drawn to these texts in order to work out our own sense of call, they may not be that helpful. Out-of-the-Blue texts are most useful when they are used to help you understand and authenticate your own out-of-the-blue God moments (which for many people, are also very rare).
- If you are instead trying to make a big decision, then you are better off looking to the wisdom texts where biblical characters are actively seeking God’s direction and nurturing a posture of submission to His ways. If this is the case, then most of our God’s-Will-Decision moments aren’t actually about obedience or disobedience, but of making wise, God-honouring choices.
- And this leads to a third point about the use of Scripture in general. Reading and engaging with Scripture is REALLY helpful for discerning God’s will – especially for understanding our human and Christian calling. Here God’s call is relatively stable and unchanging because it applies to all people in all places. Scripture is also helpful as you seek wisdom in your every day choices, but here you will be looking for how people have applied God’s truth in the past in order to help you to figure out how to apply it in the present.
- Finally, in the absence of a clear out-of-the-blue experience of God, the best way you can discern God’s will is to start at the most basic form of calling, and work your way up. Consider your life in terms of the ways it might reflect or deflect the morality of God’s character. Consider your general Christian calling and the ways in which God has wired you up to participate with Him in His Kingdom plan. In each of these ways, you begin to develop the ‘mind of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 2:16) which helps you to actively seek out and submit to a wise path for your life.
So lets use this framework to think about the little stuff of everyday life – like breakfast or clothing. There aren’t heaps of people who would treat the choice between cornflakes and porridge as a question of God’s specific will. However issues of a healthy diet as well as stewardship of creation do arise and so you may want to consider this question over time through the lens of your human calling.
Equally, choosing between the red or blue top may not make it onto God’s specific agenda for you on a given day, but that is not to say your wardrobe does not raise issues of stewardship, commercial branding, self esteem, cultural sensitivity as well as sweat-shops and human rights. While these are all part of our human calling, you might also consider them in the light of how you want to participate as part of God’s redeeming community.
I hope you can see that living in God’s will doesn’t just have to do with the ‘big’ decisions we need to make from time to time. It has just as much to do with becoming free in our humanity and blessing other’s humanity as well, while also speaking to our participation in the life of the Church as we seek to redeem and restore our broken world.
In the next post, we’ll focus more specifically on the question of a ‘Personal Calling’ and I’ll step you through a really practical way my mentor taught me to discern whether God has a specific will for you in a particular moment, and if so, what that will might be.
Next2 is a space to ask the questions of purpose even whilst you are living them. It is first and foremost a discernment community. A group of people coming together to wrestle with their sense of Calling whilst intentionally supporting each other. One day/week so you can keep doing all that you are doing. One year of your life so you can focus up the rest. Fully accredited towards a diploma or degree. You can find out more about it all right HERE.