We as Christians tend to be paralyzed by our fear of being outside of God's will. “I just don’t know if this is God’s will for my life,” we may say. Now, without a doubt, it is an admirable desire to be inside of God's will. When thinking through this practical topic, a couple of basic questions arise: 1. How do we come to know God's will? 2. What are the limits to knowing his will? I will attempt to address these questions in some detail below.
Certainly, we as creatures can't know the future other than what God has revealed in Scripture. All that God tells us of the future (the return of Christ, resurrection of the body etc.) excludes any particulars about our individual lives (which job to take, what man/woman to marry, what shirt to wear etc.). Everyone generally agrees on this last point. As a result some have asked whether or not the Bible has enough information to keep us in God’s will. Should we rely on dreams, intense desires and feelings to reveal God’s will for the specific details of our lives? These are good and weighty questions, and thankfully the Bible has substantive answers to them.
The Bible itself teaches us (2 Tim. 3:16-17) that everything we need to know about God’s will is found within its pages. Theologians call this God's “revealed will.” We know, for instance, that God prohibits adultery, murder, and theft according to Scripture. Consequently, when we disobey these prohibitions, Christians possess certainty that our actions stand outside of God’s revealed will. Sin, in its basic definition, is failing to obey God’s revealed will for our lives. Theologians speak not only of God’s “revealed will” but also of His “secret will.”
The secret will of God includes all that will occur in creation, including our acts of disobedience to His revealed will (acts of murder, adultery and theft). God is not passive in regard to these events. On the contrary, he determined “all things” (Eph. 1:11). The secret will of God is just that, secret. It is for God's knowledge alone. No one besides God is aware of His secret will (Deut. 29:29).
Nowhere in Scripture does God promise to reveal aspects of his secret will to individuals through the cryptic means of goose bumps, dreams, internal nudges, or the like. Just imagine if sin included a breach, not only of God’s revealed will but also of God’s secret will? How would you avoid sinning if the standard of sin has not been revealed to you? Of course some believe that God’s secret will is revealed to individuals in selective parts.
I have met people who believe that they are married to the wrong person, or that they moved to a new place when they shouldn’t have. How do they know? They claim to be informed by a strong feeling or desire, which they labeled “a word from God.” But, what if they mistook that strong feeling or misinterpreted that strange coincidence. By what standard could you discover your failure to interpret God’s sign? How do you decide between your interpretations of what is God’s secret will and someone else’s opposing interpretations? “God told me to break up with you,” one person may say. Well, what if the other person responds, “But…God told me to marry you.” How does this couple follow God’s will if God appears to be speaking from both sides of his mouth? This is the confusion that results when Scripture fails to provide sufficient words from God on how to live the Christian life.
Sometimes Christians have strong desires and feelings that move them toward certain behaviors. These behaviors may often line up with God’s revealed will as well as end up being wise decisions. This success does not, however, justify labeling our intense desires and feelings as being “a word from God.” Only the Bible is “breathed out” from God (2 Tim 3:16-17). Our feelings and nudges should not add to the amount of words we have from the Lord. How, then, should we understand the wise decisions that often result from these so-called messages from God? In these situations, I think there is a more biblically responsible category to which we should appeal.
Why do we need to label the nudges of our consciences as being from God anyway? Don’t we think that the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of Christians could better explain our increasingly accurate consciences? I’m of the opinion that it could. Perhaps our Spiritually and biblically renewed desires, emotions, intellects, and feelings could be responsible for leading us to make godly choices. This alternative to “God said” or “God told me” does not strip our ordinary lives of the work of God. Rather, it prevents two dangers and promotes two goods.
First, this alternative prevents us from attributing potentially false desires and thoughts to God. “God told me to abandon my spouse,” for example. Secondly, it prevents manipulative elitism. Those who claim to have received special, private information from God can use that information as a power play against others. For instance, “God told me that you should really go on a diet.”
My proposed explanation also promotes the exaltation of the Spirit of God, rather than exalting our thoughts and desires. “Because the Holy Spirit has been diligently working on my stubborn heart, conforming me to Christ’s image, through learning Scripture in the worship and fellowship of Christians, I was able to make a godly decision.” Notice that the credit goes to God’s Spirit and God’s Word, both of which are accessible to all Christians. Lastly, when Christians give advice, this approach promotes grounding one’s perspective in Scripture rather than in an appeal to personal authority.
Here is the simplest way I know for Christians to stay in God’s will: Make decisions in the fellowship of the church, informed by the sufficient Word of God in Scripture by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God our Father. And when we stumble and sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, to whom we flee.
For further reading on this topic I would recommend Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung and The Doctrine of the Word of God by John M. Frame (especially the chapter on the sufficiency of Scripture)