How can we discern God’s will on matters not specifically addressed in the Bible?
Let’s first be clear that we are always responsible before God to make wise decisions.
We are stewards entrusted with resources from God for wise decision-making. The time will come when we will answer to God for all we have done in this life (II Corinthians 5:9-10).
Let’s also be clear that on matters not specifically addressed in Scripture, God does not require us to discover His decisions. God has provided adequate resources for making wise decisions.
It is our responsibility to make right and wise decisions. God’s revealed will (in Scripture) offers many truths and principles that apply in some way to all matters in life.
3 steps for understanding God’s will
Three steps will help us walk in God’s will through all decision making.
In Scripture, we are reminded that God “guides the humble in what is right and teaches them His way” (Ps. 25:9). Furthermore, “God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble” (I Pet. 5:6). God told us that He looks with favor on “the one who is humble and contrite of spirit and trembles at my word” (Isa.66:2). This emphasis permeates Scripture and reminds us of the need to yield to God in all decision making (Romans 12:1-2). All decision making should begin with a yielded heart—a heart controlled by a desire to please and honor God. This is the meaning behind James 4:13-16:
“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.” 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. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.”
Jesus said, “Ask and it shall be given to you” (Matt. 7:7). James wrote, “You have not because you ask not” (Jam. 4:2). Yet sometimes, “you ask and do not receive because you ask with wrongmotives” (Jam. 4:3). Prayer is both an expression of our inadequacy and our humble dependence upon God. Prayer should not be used as an excuse for inaction where God has already spoken. For example, the head of a household would be wrong to say, “I am praying to see if God wants me to work and meet the needs of my family.” Prayer, in this case, is not needed because God has clearly revealed His will (I Tim. 5:8).
Some decisions are made based on clear guidance already given by God; others are more complex, causing us to feel the need for greater clarity. Accepting responsibility to work and provide is one thing; deciding between job options is another. In many cultures, prosperity and freedom increase options. In other parts of the world, a person is content simply to have a job to meet the family needs (whether it gives him a sense of fulfillment and significance or not; see: I Tim. 6:8).
Christians often have a tendency to overly spiritualize everything. This happens when we pray about simple matters of daily routine. Another more harmful illustration occurs when believers use prayer to avoid counsel from others. They say, “I’ve prayed and God has told me.” Such bold declarations imply that counsel from others is not needed. Again, prayer was never intended to be an excuse for inaction or for avoiding mature counsel.
Sometimes we lack adequate information for making decisions. We need to pray and allow God to shape our thinking before hastily moving forward. The way God shapes our thinking is through Scripture, counsel, research and patient observation.
Jesus contrasted two lives in Matthew chapter 7. One life was built on an insecure foundation; the other was firmly established. Both lives experienced severe trial and only one held strong. The key to stability was an obedient response to Jesus’ words. Jesus said, “everyone who hears these words of mine and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock” (Matt. 7:24). We must have “ears to hear” what God has spoken. But (as James warns) we must also “be doers of the word and not hearers only” lest we deceive our own hearts (Rev. 2,3; Jam. 1:22).
Above all, we need minds saturated with biblical truth and hearts eager to obey. When making decisions, our first responsibility is to discover whether there are any direct commands in Scripture either forbidding or demanding a certain course of action.
If no specific statements can be found, we must seek general biblical principles or examples that justifiably apply to the decision. In this step, be very careful not to normalize every biblical example. Gideon’s fleece for example, was never intended to establish a normal pattern for guidance.
“Rather than being an example of a proper approach to receiving guidance, Gideon’s demand for further signs was really an expression of doubt and unbelief. God’s instructions to Gideon were clear, as He Himself indicated. Apparently, God graciously acceded to Gideon’s lack of faith because of the severe circumstances which tested him. As understandable as his fears might have been, Gideon’s perpetual testing of the Lord was not appropriate. For God’s attitude toward those who demand signs in unbelief is expressed in Christ’s rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 12:38-39), and demonstrated in the silencing of the priest, Zacharias (Luke 1:11-20). Gideon’s apologetic tone in asking for the second fleece sign shows that even to him it looked so like a peevish, humorous distrust of God and dissatisfaction with the many assurances He had already given him. “What we have seen, then, is that the practice of ‘putting out a fleece’ cannot be established by the scriptural passage on which it is based. For Gideon was not seeking a circumstantial sign, but a miraculous one; he did not use the fleece to obtain guidance, but to confirm guidance already given; and his motivation was not a desire to do God’s will, but rather his reluctance to follow God’s guidance because of his own doubts” (Garry Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God, p. 233).
Seek mature counsel
After discovering relevant biblical truth, it would be wise to seek mature counsel on some decisions. Seeking godly counsel is repeatedly encouraged in Scripture: “Listen to counsel and accept discipline, that you may be wise the rest of your days (Prov. 19:20). “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice” (Prov. 12:15). It is a sign of conceit and immaturity to resist advice in major decisions.
Counsel from Stott
“Although one of the strengths of Protestant Christianity is its insistence on the `right of private judgment’, we must not imagine that this means we should make all our decisions alone. On the contrary, God has given us to each other in His family. So we need to be humble enough to talk to others, including our parents, in order to seek their counsel, for `wisdom is found in those who take advice’ (Prov. 3:10)” (John R.W. Stott, The Contemporary Christian, p. 131).
Counsel from Packer
“Don’t be a spiritual lone ranger… draw on the wisdom of those who are wiser than you are; take advice” (Knowing and Doing the Will of God, p. 401).
If circumstantial signs or inner impressions fail to align with Scripture and sound counsel, discredit their value! Subjective data (desires and signs) must always be determined by objective considerations. A man, for example, may feel called to the ministry and believe God has “opened doors” for him to pursue his desire, but the final test must be the qualifications for church leaders in the New Testament (see: I Tim. 3 and Titus 1). A man is disqualified from pursuing his desires and “opened doors” if he fails to meet the qualifications for church leadership.
Yield, pray, and listen. These three guidelines will help Christians make wise decisions. God has given each of His children certain gifts, abilities, desires and circumstances. We must maximize what God has given to further the Gospel and be the salt and light that the world desperately needs.