Jeremy Sarber On Life & Scripture
Jeremy Sarber

Following Jesus requires God’s will

Series: Following Jesus

How do we know the Lord’s will for us? How can we follow Jesus if we don’t know what he wants for us? What does the Bible tell us about his will?

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Romans chapter 12 begins this way. The apostle Paul writes:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1, 2)

I’ll tell you a little something about myself. I don’t enjoy making a lot of decisions. And what I mean is I don’t enjoy making a lot of small, probably arbitrary decisions—decisions that don’t bear much weight. When I go to a restaurant, for instance, I don’t want a 100-page menu like you get at Cheesecake Factory. I was talking about this the other day. If there were a restaurant simply called Meat, Potatoes, and Bread, I’d go to that place any day of the week. That’s why I always liked Waffle House when I lived in the South. I don’t need a lot of options. I know they have waffles. That’s good enough.

I’m not alone, either. I’ve read how most modern presidents do not choose their own clothing in the morning. Someone else picks out their suits and ties. We commonly see many of the tech CEOs wearing the same exact clothes every day. Think of Steve Jobs wearing that black turtleneck. These people have a lot of big decisions to make every day, so they don’t want to waste time or energy thinking about the small things.

Making big decisions

Now, as much as I don’t care for the small decisions, the big ones present a different kind of challenge. Should I take this job? Should I buy this car? Should I live here or there? Should I marry this person? Along the way, we all have some pretty big decisions to make. And, of course, the Christian’s great concern is, What is the Lord’s will in this matter? What does God want me to do? As followers of Christ, none of us want to live outside of God’s will. We don’t want to make a decision that would go against his will and suffer the consequences of it. But how can we know the Lord’s will?

I’ll tell you a brief story. Back in 2008 and 2009, I was recently ordained for pastoral ministry and was waiting for an opportunity to serve a church somewhere. After several months, I was traveling pretty much every other weekend. Six churches across five states were considering me as a candidate for pastor. So, I spent a lot of time on the road and in airports, and I spent a lot of time praying, Lord, what is your will? Please show me. Give me clarity. Help me to know where I should go. I often said a prayer you’ve probably prayed yourself. Lord, give me peace about making this decision.

You see, I knew the time would eventually come when one of these churches would likely call me to be their pastor, and I’d have a big decision to make. Five of the six churches would involve me moving across the country. I’ll admit I was a little nervous. I was nervous because I didn’t want to make the wrong decision. It’s one thing to choose a lousy meal at a restaurant. The consequences don’t last very long. But packing up and moving across the country to take a new job is not a decision to make lightly.

Things got a bit more complicated when two different churches asked me to be their pastor within a week of each other. Now, my decision wasn’t a simple yes or no. On the one hand, I could serve the church near my home, which would be convenient, but I also knew I’d have my work cut out for me. Unfortunately, this church was struggling with some division among them. On the other hand, I could go to a church far from home that seemed to be perfectly united with one another, but I might have to make a pretty big sacrifice. You see, at the time, my wife and I were still dating, and we were currently working through some pretty big theological differences. And I thought that if I moved away, there was a decent chance we wouldn’t make it. I thought the relationship would probably end. Thankfully, I was wrong, but that was one of the things going through my mind.

Ultimately, though, I just wanted to know the Lord’s will. I wanted him to make the decision plain and obvious. I was tempted to leave my fleece on the ground overnight. It worked for Gideon. Maybe I could cast lots.

I suspect most of you have been in a similar position. You’ve been desperate to know the Lord’s will for your life. Maybe you’ve even prayed for him to show you a sign, but it didn’t come. I know this is very prevalent among young people. I’ve had those conversations. Does God want me to go to this school or that one? Should I study this subject or this other one? Should I become a doctor, a lawyer, a missionary? What does the Lord want me to do?

Well, that’s our subject today. How do we know the Lord’s will for us? We’re still considering what it means to follow Jesus, and knowing the Lord’s will is certainly a relevant subject. How can we follow him if we don’t know what he wants for us?

The will of God?

Now, we’ll look at Romans 12 in a moment, but first, let’s think about God’s will in general. We tend to make reference to God’s will quite often, but we don’t always make much effort to define it. What does the Bible tell us about his will?

Admittedly, the phrase will of God” can be very confusing. Sometimes, we are talking about slightly different things when we use that phrase. For example, we may be talking about God doing things according to his sovereign will. Other times, we may be talking about his commandments. When we obey his commandments, we refer to that as doing the will of God. And if that weren’t enough to confuse us, we have a third way of talking about the will of God, which requires a bit more explanation. We’ll come to that.

God’s hidden will

Let’s start with what is often called God’s hidden will. We can also call it his will of decree. In other words, we’re talking about God being God. We’re talking about how Almighty God ordains what will happen within his creation. He is, after all, God. He is sovereign over everything. His will, his decrees, will inevitably come to pass. What he wills will happen.

And we see this very clearly throughout Scripture. From the biggest events to the smallest, God ordains what comes to pass. For example, listen to how the brethren talk about the crucifixion of Christ in Acts chapter 4. In verse 27, they say in prayer:

For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:27, 28)

Now, that’s a profound statement. It’s similar to what Peter said when speaking to the people of Jerusalem. He said to them, This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men (Ac 2:23). While everyone involved—Herod, Pilate, the Romans, the Jews—were personally and really responsible for Christ’s death, the Bible also says Jesus died according to God’s predestined plan. He ordained the crucifixion to take place. It was a wicked act of men, but God ordained it, proving that God is sovereign over all, and because he is sovereign over all, he can bring good out of even the worst circumstances.

Yes, the Lord’s crucifixion was by the hands of lawless men, but it happened only because God predestined it to take place (Ac 2:23; 4:28).

Now, that’s an example of God ordaining a big event—the biggest, in fact—but what about the small things in this life? Is he intimately involved in the minute details? Well, in Matthew 10, Jesus says, Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father (Mt 10:29). In other words, not a single bird falls from the sky apart from God’s will. That’s in sharp contrast to what the deist believes about God. The deist says God created the world and essentially left it to run its course. He may intervene now and then, but he’s mostly uninvolved. He’s detached. He just sits back and watches. But that’s not what Jesus said. Not a single sparrow will fall apart from God’s will.

And if you wonder what sparrows have to do with us, notice what Jesus said next. Even the hairs of your head are all numbered (Mt 10:30). If God is personally and intimately involved in the fate of birds, you better believe he’s personally and intimately involved in our lives. After all, we’re his image-bearers. We’re his most special creation. Psalm 139, verse 16 says, Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them (Ps 139:16).

God knows everything about us. He knows the number of hairs on our heads. He knows the number of days we will live. He’s known those things since before we came into existence. And he knows these things not because he can see into the future. Yes, he can see into the future, but he knows these things because he ordained them. He decreed them. He willed them.

Isaiah 46, verses 9 and 10 say, I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’ (Isa 49:9, 10).

God knows all things because he ordained all things. As R.C. Sproul used to say, there isn’t a single maverick molecule in the universe. Everything is under God’s sovereign control. Everything happens according to God’s sovereign will.

But God’s will of decree is also a hidden will. In Isaiah, he says, For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isa 55:9). Put another way, he’s God, and we’re not. We can’t possibly know everything he knows. We’d like to, but we can’t. Most of his decreed will is hidden from us. The only way we can know his decreed will is if, first of all, he reveals it to us. That’s what we have in his promises regarding the future. But even then, we don’t necessarily have all of the details. Second, we know something about his decreed will from the Bible and history books. We can see the hand of God at work in what’s already taken place, but again, all of the reasons why are still hidden.

God’s revealed will

Deuteronomy 29:29 is what we might call the definitive text regarding God’s hidden will. It says, The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law (Dt 29:29). So, part of God’s will is hidden, and Deuteronomy says we should not be overly concerned with it. It’s hidden. It’s secret. It belongs to God alone. We can’t know it, and we don’t need to know it.

But Deuteronomy also says God has a revealed will. And we can know that will. In fact, Moses says it belongs to us. It is meant for us. God reveals it for us.

First John chapter 2 speaks of God’s revealed will. This is not what God ordains. It’s what he desires for us. In verses 15 through 17, John writes:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

Obviously, John isn’t talking about God’s sovereign decrees. Otherwise, we would have no option but to do the will of God. Instead, he implores his readers to obey God by doing the will of God. In other words, God has revealed his will for us, and we are responsible for following his revealed will.

How does God reveal his will?

Now, the question before us is, how does God reveal his will? How does he tell us what he wants us to do? How do we know?

Well, let’s start with what should be plain to us. We have the Bible. As I’ve quoted a few times throughout this series, All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2Ti 3:16, 17). Scripture is God’s clear revelation of what he wants us to know. Through the Bible, he’s given us his will in black and white.

In Ephesians 2, Paul says the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone (Eph 2:20). Of course, the apostles and prophets were largely responsible for penning the Bible. And while I’m not an expert builder, I know enough to know the foundation is crucial. In some respects, it’s the most important part of a structure. It’s certainly not something to be tampered with.

So, that’s always our starting place as we strive to learn more about God’s will for us. We start with the Bible. What does the Bible say?

Now, we’ll talk about this more in a moment, but some people seem determined to discover God’s will through any means other than the Bible. I’ve heard of Christians using Ouiji boards to ask God questions. And I know some will argue that God has used all kinds of ways to communicate with his people in the past. He’s spoken from heaven. He’s spoken through animals. He’s written on stone tablets. But we live in a different time. The book of Hebrews begins, Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (Heb 1:1, 2).

Now, I believe God can communicate with us however he wants. He could talk to us through a burning bush. He could write a message on a wall. He could convey his message through a fleece on the ground. But those would certainly be unusual cases. They are not ordinary. In fact, they weren’t ordinary even in the Old Testament. All things considered, God used extraordinary means in relatively few cases with relatively few people.

And let me add something to that. If someone believes God has spoken to them through some kind of extraordinary means, and what he has said contradicts the Bible, he has not spoken to them. God will not contradict himself. He cannot contradict himself. Whatever they heard did not come from God.

God’s will for us is…

Now, obviously, we don’t have time to explore everything God’s revealed will tells us. The Bible is, after all, a pretty big book. But I do want to look at a couple of passages that give us pretty good insight into what this will of God is all about.

The first is in 1 Thessalonians chapter 5. You’re welcome to go there with me. First Thessalonians chapter 5. I’ll begin reading at verse 12.

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-24)

Now, the apostle Paul mentions several things that we should be doing. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a helpful one. But I read this passage because he explicitly says, This is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1Th 5:17). If you’ve ever asked, What is God’s will for me?” Paul says, Here it is.” Again, it’s not an exhaustive list, but it certainly points us in the right direction.

Now, it’s not abundantly clear which parts of this Paul means are the will of God for us. Is he referring only to us giving thanks in all circumstances? (1Th 5:18). Does he have the totality of the list in mind? I’m inclined to believe he’s talking about all of this. This is all part of God’s will for us. And it’s summarized well in verse 23. He says, Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely (1Th 5:23).

Everything here—respecting our pastors, striving for peace, helping one another, doing good to everyone, rejoicing always, praying constantly, being thankful, abstaining from evil. Everything mentioned here is part of our ongoing sanctification, which is the will of God. In fact, that’s what Paul says in the previous chapter—chapter 4, verse 3. For this is the will of God, your sanctification (1Th 4:3).

We talked about this a couple of weeks ago. God saved us to change us. He saved us to conform us to the image of his Son. Here, Paul says the God of peace is sanctifying us (1Th 5:23). He’s changing us. He’s working to make us increasingly obedient, increasingly holy, increasingly more like his Son, who was perfectly holy and obedient.

And you’ll notice both wills of God at work in our sanctification. There’s the unseen, decreed will. It is God who is sanctifying us. He’s working behind the scenes, if you will, to make us more holy because he decreed we would be holy. Ephesians 1: He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him (Eph 1:4). The next verse says, In love he predestined us (Eph 1:5). Even before the world began, he decreed that we would be holy.

At the same time, Paul is encouraging the church to do these things willingly. He’s instructing them how to be holy, how to be sanctified. So, there’s a sense in which sanctification is the decreed will of God and another sense in which it is the revealed will of God. It’s both. God decreed his people to be holy while he also commands us to be obedient to his revealed will.

So, the Bible presents us with two views regarding God’s will. We have his hidden, decreed will, and we have his revealed will. And again, Deuteronomy 29 tells us that one belongs to the Lord, and the other belongs to us. We can’t know God’s hidden will, and we don’t need to because he reveals what we need to know. He has given us what we need to know through Scripture.

God’s will of direction

But what about that third category I mentioned before? You see, we often talk about God’s will as something pressing and needed for us but simultaneously hidden. Let’s say you’re given a job offer. You already have a job, and you can think of many reasons why you shouldn’t leave. But now you have this new job offer, and you can think of many reasons for taking it. So, you begin praying, Lord, what should I do? What is your will for me?”

Now, in most situations like this, you won’t be able to consult the Bible to get a clear answer. Unless maybe you’re offered a job by the mafia to become a hitman, the Bible isn’t going to give you a straight answer. If your job requires you to murder people or violate some other command of God, yes, the Bible will be explicit. But if you’re torn between working as a financial advisor for company A or company B, the Bible won’t tell you what to do.

This is what Kevin DeYoung calls God’s will of direction.” In most cases, when someone asks, What is God’s will for my life?” this is what they’re looking for. Which job should I take? What major should I pursue in college? Should I marry this man or woman? Should I stay here or move to Denver? You see, we have this sense that God has a purposeful direction for our lives. He’s nudging us along as we go. He has this beautifully satisfying future in mind. The only problem is that we don’t know what it is. So, God’s will of direction is like his decreed will. It’s hidden. But it also operates a bit like his revealed will. If we don’t follow it, we’ll be in trouble. At the very least, we’ll be miserable.

It’s kind of like this. It’s like God holding two choices in his hands. And he says, In one hand, I have great, satisfying joy. In the other hand, I have dissatisfaction and misery. Now, let me put them behind my back, mix them up, and I’ll let you pick one.”

This is how we often perceive God’s will for us. We know he has it. We know it’s meaningful. But we don’t know what it is. So, we scramble to figure it out. We pray about it. We look for signs. We ask God to give us peace in making a decision. In some cases, we don’t do anything at all because we’re crippled by fear. We’re afraid to make the wrong decision. The truly spiritual” among us—and I use the word spiritual in quotes—may disregard every logical consideration when making a decision because either they feel or expect to feel God’s clear call in one direction or the other. Maybe he’ll speak to them from heaven, but they’re waiting for a clear answer. This is the will of God.

Is this a legitimate third category for God’s will? The answer is no. In most cases, the answer is no. Now, I say in most cases because we see exceptions in Scripture, and some people are quick to point that out. They say, Look. God told the apostles where to go. He told them what to do. He spoke to them in dreams and other ways.” Yes, he did, but there were many of times when he didn’t. We often see Paul, for instance, seemingly deciding for himself what to do next. It didn’t always happen that way, but he made many decisions without waiting for a sign from heaven. For example, he tells the Romans that he has every intention of going to Spain to preach the gospel. But he never made it to Spain. He didn’t make it any farther than Rome.

There’s another interesting example in Acts chapter 16. I’ll read it. This is Acts 16:5.

And they [that is, Paul and his ministry companions] went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. (Acts 16:5-8)

Here, Paul knows what his mission is. He’s supposed to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. So, he sets off in one direction, but the Spirit stops him. So, he sets off in another direction, and the Spirit stops him again. He’s clearly not waiting for some clear sign from God. He’s going. He’s doing what he knows he’s supposed to be doing. And yet, God has his ways of steering him in the right direction even though Paul doesn’t know what that direction is.

Now, we may ask, How did the Spirit stop him?” Well, we don’t know, but it could have been something remarkably simple. Maybe a bridge was out, so they couldn’t cross. Maybe they spotted a large Roman army, and Paul said, You know, guys, maybe we should go another direction.” Maybe God gave Paul a strong feeling about it. Maybe God spoke to him. We don’t know, but Paul didn’t wait to find out. He simply obeyed the Lord’s command to preach the gospel in whatever way he saw fit. Only then did God intervene and give him more precise directions.

I think this third category, God’s will of direction, is a fairly modern, Western idea. It seems so commonplace today, but I don’t remember seeing much of it in the writings and sermons of church figures in the past. I don’t really see it in the Bible. I wonder whether it’s the result of us having such prosperous lives.

You see, I’ve come to notice that prosperity creates problems that don’t actually exist. Have you ever heard the expression first-world problems”? Do you want to know why middle-class college kids are throwing cans of soup on classic works of art? Do you want to know why people are confused about something as simple and straightforward as their biology? Do you want to know why people are protesting injustices that don’t actually exist? Well, I can’t help but wonder whether part of it is sheer boredom. Life has gotten too easy for us, and we have too much time on our hands, so we create new problems.

That’s a theory anyhow.

But I think it’s true that our prosperity has led us to believe we can enjoy something close to heaven on earth. You know, we’re almost there. Our lives are comfortable. We enjoy untold luxuries. Maybe, just maybe, the next job we take or the next move we make, assuming it’s God’s will for us, will lead us right into paradise. But that’s pretty far from how the Bible teaches us to think. The Bible says we’re pilgrims in this world. We don’t live for this world.

Seek first the kingdom of God

Consider what Jesus says in Matthew 6.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, What shall we eat?” or What shall we drink?” or What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:25-33)

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Mt 6:33). That’s it. That’s the secret to following Christ in this world. Yes, God has a plan for us, and that plan unfolds day after day. We don’t need to know his hidden will. We simply need to read and study his revealed will. If we strive to obey his revealed will, everything else falls into place. You can take job A or job B. It doesn’t ultimately matter. Perhaps you make a poor decision. It won’t ultimately matter. First of all, you’re not violating God’s will by taking the worse job of the two. Second, walking by faith never guarantees health, wealth, and prosperity. And third, you can glorify God in whichever job you take.

Briefly, let me comment on Romans 12:2. Paul says, Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Ro 12:2).

If there’s a secret to making decisions or seeking guidance when confronted with a big decision, here it is. The more we learn about God’s revealed will, the more our minds will be renewed, as Paul says. Our minds will be shaped by the will of God. In another place, Paul says, We have the mind of Christ (1Co 2:16). The more our thoughts are conformed to what God has revealed, the easier it is to discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Ro 12:2).

In short, the more we learn about God, his Son, his commandments, his Word, and his revealed will for us, the more we grow in wisdom. And as we grow in wisdom, the decisions we face in this life get easier. They get easier either because we find it easier to detect which path is right or because we know either path can be right.

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and everything else will fall into place (Mt 6:33). If God’s glory is your sincere desire in whatever you do, don’t worry about making a so-called wrong decision. If you are always striving to glorify God in everything you do, you can’t go wrong.