Does God promise to reveal His specific will on matters not directly addressed in Scripture?
Few of us struggle with discerning God’s will on matters that are clearly commanded or clearly forbidden in Scripture. When we lack specific biblical directives, we often look to other means for discovering God’s will. But in such undefined areas, we must remember that Scripture firmly warns us to attach an “if” to all our plans.
James 4:13-16 provides us with a very helpful illustration concerning God’s will in these areas. Take a moment and read this text.
“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ 14. Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ 16. As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.”
The picture here is of first century Jewish merchants confidently asserting their plans for future business and profit.
James does not explicitly condemn them for planning, but warns them to attach an “if” to their plans out of honor for God’s final authority. James wrote, “…you ought to say, ‘if the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that’” (v. 15.)
The merchants in the illustration confidently assert
- A short-term plan: “today or tomorrow,”
- A long-term plan: “spend a year,”
- A specific plan: “in such and such a city,” and
- A final result: “to make a profit.”
The problem is not really with the detail of their plans, but with the arrogant attitude behind the plans. Nor does James say, “First ask God to reveal the plan, then you can speak confidently about the future.”
No amount of prayer will give us the authority to drop the “if” from our plans. Christians should therefore not say, “we prayed fervently about this plan and we know God is going to accomplish it.” James would say, “Where is your ‘if’?” And the absence of the “if” in our plans is disrespect for God’s final right to change anything he desires. It fails to honor God’s sovereignty over life itself. Thus, “you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’” (15). The presence of the “if” recognizes God as supreme over all of life.
James is not requiring a slavish use of the phrase, “If the Lord wills…” as much as a submissive attitude of heart and restraint in how we speak about the future.
Proverbs 27:1 wisely reminds us, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”
The “if” is also a place of peace and security in God’s final authority over life. Our decisions should be made with peaceful assurance that our Heavenly Father (who knows our needs before we ask, Matthew 6:8) is sovereign.
The recognition of God’s sovereignty is not just that, “He works all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11), but that He also promised to, “work all things together for good for those who love Him” (Romans 8:28).
“The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
The Bible repeatedly advocates wise planning. But it also announces God’s right to change or set limits on our plans. So be careful in how you speak about God’s will on matters not specifically addressed in Scripture.
God has provided us with a great wealth of wisdom in Scripture (I Timothy 3:15-17) and gifted us with teachers to equip and mature the Church (Ephesians 4:11-16). God holds us responsible for our use of His provisions.
God may not choose to tell us everything we want to know but he has told us all we need to know.
“…it is to be feared that many today who profess to be Christ’s never learn wisdom through failure to attend sufficiently to God’s written Word. … It is folly to pretend to seek God’s will for your life, in terms of a marriage partner or some form of Christian vocation, when there is no deep desire to pursue God’s will as he has already kindly revealed it” (D.A. Carson, Spiritual Reformation).
When making decisions our first responsibility is to discover whether there are any direct commands in Scripture either forbidding or demanding a specific course of action. If specific statements cannot be found, we must seek general biblical principles or examples that apply to the decision. But even here we must be careful not to normalize biblical examples as if God works the same way in every period of history. Gideon’s fleece, for example, was never intended as a normal pattern for guidance.
Circumstantial signs, opened doors, inner impressions, or feeling called by God
The most important matter is whether circumstantial signs or inner impressions align with Scripture and sound counsel. Subjective data (desires and signs) must always be determined by objective considerations. For example, one may feel called to pastoral ministry and even believe God has opened doors to pursue this desire. But the final test of God’s call is the qualifications for church leaders in the New Testament (see: I Timothy 3 and Titus 1). A man disqualifies himself from pursuing his desires and opened doors if he fails to meet the objective qualifications for Church leadership.
See also, “Do inner promptings reveal God’s will?”
Listen: Short audio about God’s will