Until the last two centuries of human history, hardly anyone alive on the earth doubted the existence of higher beings who control man's destiny. Primitive man has always believed that powerful spirits lurk in nature, inhabiting the trees, rivers, and mountains. But civilized man has always put his deities on a higher plane. If he has not known the true God, he has worshiped animals, natural forces (such as the lightning and thunder), celestial bodies, or even deities essentially human in appearance and personality. However man has visualized his gods, he has looked to them for blessing and guidance.

Every society in the past had an arsenal of methods for determining what the gods wanted. The Bible shows us which methods were popular in ancient Babylon. When King Nebuchadnezzar was greatly troubled by a dream he could not interpret, he called for his magicians, astrologers, sorcerers, and Chaldeans (Dan. 2:2). These specialized in different magical arts. The Chaldeans, for example, lived in their own quarter of the city and devoted themselves to the systematic study of celestial bodies, for they believed that through the medium of astronomical events, the gods revealed the fortunes of rulers and nations. What kind of magic the other wise men employed is uncertain. It is likely, however, that all of them practiced divination; that is, the interpretation of signs and omens. The literature of Mesopotamia abounds with texts containing long lists of omens together with their expected consequences.

Professional diviners had various techniques for discerning the future. One type of specialist looked at the patterns made by oil poured on water. Another read the smoke rising from burning incense. Yet another opened up dead animals and made prognostications based on irregularities in the viscera. The prophet Ezekiel describes the occult methods favored by Nebuchadnezzar (Ezek. 21:21). "He made his arrows bright" should be rendered, "He shakes his arrows." Ezekiel is referring to belomancy, the use of arrows for casting lots. Someone seeking divine direction by this method tagged headless arrows so that each represented an option under consideration. He then placed them in a quiver, shook them, and spilled them out. The first to fall gave him the answer. The "images" ("teraphim") may have been small idols in human form that supposedly delivered oracles through a human medium. The livers that Nebuchadnezzar examined were taken from dead sheep. Peculiarities in color or marking were interpreted as omens.

We mention the superstitions that have held men in bondage so that we will better appreciate the light of true religion. Because we know the true God as He is revealed in His Word, no occult religious system, with its priesthood speaking mumbo-jumbo, can oppress us with false promises and false answers, giving Satan a hold on our minds. We can dispense with vain methods and determine the will of God very simply, by prayer and Bible study.

Seven Principles for Finding God's Will

Four principles considered in this lesson and three more considered in the next lesson enable us to clear away the fog and determine exactly what God wants.

First: the principle of divine truthfulness

This affirms that God's will is always consistent with His Word. If God urged or approved any course of action that contradicted the Bible, He would be guilty of breaking His word—that is, lying. But God cannot lie (Rom. 3:4; Ps. 146:6). Therefore, we can be confident that anything in violation of God's Word is also contrary to His will.

Yet Christians have often deceived themselves that something unscriptural was really okay, or even highly spiritual.

  1. In recent years some in the anti-abortion movement have decided that it is an act of Christian justice to bomb an abortion clinic or shoot an abortion doctor. They are blind to the real dynamics of their own behavior. They do not see that they, like the abortion providers, are sheltering nasty violence under the claim of doing good. But to do violence outside the law is against the teaching of Scripture. Scripture gives the authority to punish wrongdoers solely to officers of government (Rom. 13:1-4). It teaches, moreover, that we should love our enemies, not kill them (Matt. 5:44).
  2. Some who profess to be Christians have adopted a radical anti-government philosophy which condones not paying taxes. Yet the Bible says specifically that we should give Caesar his due (Matt. 22:21; Rom. 13:6-8).
  3. I once heard a preacher argue that we need not drive within the speed limit. He said that the real speed limit was whatever the police chose to enforce. His advice cannot, however, be reconciled with Scripture (1 Pet. 2:13-5).
  4. In years past there were many in the so-called Bible belt who believed that the Bible supported racism and even slavery. The text usually cited was Genesis 9:25. But this is referring not to black people, but to the Canaanites—the people Israel dispossessed from the land of Palestine. The Bible tells us that all believers regardless of their race, gender, or social condition are equally children of God (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11; Jas 2:1-9). If we should not treat anyone in the church as inferior, how can we justify treating anyone in society at large as inferior?

Second: the principle of divine holiness

This affirms that God's will is always consistent with His character. God is absolutely free of iniquity (Deut. 32:4). He "is righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works" (Ps. 145:17). Therefore, we can be sure that anything with an immoral or unethical tinge must be against His will.

  1. He is true. Therefore, He will never approve of anything false, deceitful, or underhanded.
  2. He is holy. Therefore, He will never approve of anything unholy or impure.
  3. He is love. Therefore, He will never approve of anything unloving, hateful, mean, or injurious.
  4. He is just. Therefore, He will never approve of anything unjust or unfair.

The second principle implies that living for God never requires us to compromise our ethical convictions, or to engage in anything questionable. The ethical complexity of a problem we face may frustrate our attempts to discern the best solution. But we will never go wrong if we always chart a course as far as possible from the line between good and evil. Generally, if we go to what we think is that line, we find that we have already crossed it.

Still, in many circumstances it may seem that by moving a little closer to the line, we will gain more promise of success. But God is in control. He is a caring Father, who dearly wants to teach His children a love of doing right. Therefore, He will never punish them or withhold from them His blessing simply because they have been overcautious. Indeed, if caution should lead them astray, He can easily stop them and send them in a better direction.

As Christians, we must never slip into a strictly pragmatic mentality, supposing that the end justifies the means. With God, the end never justifies the means. His chief end is to uphold righteousness.

Third: the principle of appropriate methods

This affirms that we determine God’s will by depending on the Spirit and the Word. Whether the door to a particular option is open must also be considered, as we will explain. But otherwise we give no heed to things that happen. We reject signs and omens. And we do not test God's leading by flipping a coin or looking at other outcomes normally based on mere luck.

Old Testament methods. Three methods that would now be inappropriate for obtaining divine guidance were permissible in Old Testament times.

  1. The Urim and Thummim (Exod. 28:30). Upon presenting a question to the Lord, the high priest discovered the answer by consulting the Urim and Thummim, which he carried in the pouch of his breastplate. It has long been debated what these were. Perhaps they were two small stones, one representing "yes," the other "no," and the high priest found the answer by drawing out one stone at random. But on some occasions their use did not yield a definite answer (1 Sam. 28:6; another probable instance is 1 Sam. 14:37). Therefore, most scholars agree that we simply do not know anything about the Urim and Thummim except their names. No doubt God has withheld further information because he does not want us to make replicas for use today.
  2. Seeking signs. The most famous example is the method Gideon used to assure himself that God had really called him to lead the armies of Israel against the Midianites (Judg. 6:36-40). He asked God for a sign. Specifically, he wanted to set out a dry fleece at night, then in the morning to find the fleece soaked with dew but sitting on dry ground. God complied with the request and gave him the sign as confirmation of His will. Unsatisfied, Gideon asked for a second sign. He wanted to find just the opposite, the ground wet but the fleece dry. Again God complied.
  3. Casting lots. The Old Testament approved this method for deciding questions that might otherwise lead to conflict (Prov. 16:33).
         The last time when saints legitimately cast lots to assess the mind of God is recorded in the Book of Acts. The believers waiting in the Upper Room for the descent of the Holy Spirit used this method to determine who should succeed Judas as the twelfth apostle (Acts 1:26). The moment marked the end of an era—of a dispensation featuring a religion of external rites. A few days later the Holy Spirit descended and a new dispensation, the Church Age, began. Although casting lots was still proper during the twilight hours of the older dispensation, the descent of the Spirit rendered this method obsolete. Now that He has come, believers never need to consult events or circumstances to find God’s leading. Instead, they can listen to the Spirit. Moreover, ever since the New Testament was completed, they have had another source of guidance that was never available before. With both the Spirit and the completed Word to show them the will of God, believers require no other help.

To repeat, the only reliable ways of learning the will of God are by His Spirit and by His Word. It follows that another source of helpful guidance is the counsel of the godly, whose judgment is shaped by the Spirit and the Word.

Picking Scripture at random. Yet some believers in the course of church history have not been content with the Spirit and the Word as sole sources of guidance. They have relapsed into older methods, or they have adopted others which also assume that God controls chance outcomes. One method in particular has seduced many good Christians into bad decisions. It is to open the Bible aimlessly and read the first text that comes to the eye. Toward the beginning of their careers, the Wesleys, following the example of the Moravians, used this procedure. For a while they were satisfied with the results. But then after some first-spied passages threatened them with doom if they took a step that proved critical for forwarding God’s work, they realized that God wanted them to find better methods for determining His will. If He had formerly led them through Scripture picked at random, He was only making a temporary concession to their naiveté.

Many Christians can testify that this method can be a fast road to disaster. For example, once when I was considering whether I should allow the buyers of our former residence to move in early and pay rent, I happened to open my Bible to Psalm 4:2: "O ye sons of men, how long will ye turn my glory into shame? how long will ye love vanity, and seek after leasing? Selah." The word "leasing" here means "lying," not "letting out for rent." Nevertheless, if I had been willing to take the verse out of context, I could have supposed that God brought it to my attention as a warning against renting my house. As it turned out, renting it for a while was a good idea.

I will give an example that is likely apocryphal, but nonetheless amusing and instructive. My pastor when I was young told of the man who opened his Bible at random and found, "Judas went out and hanged himself." Hoping that he had not correctly discerned the Lord's will, he tried again and found, "Go thou and do likewise." Still undaunted, he located a third text. This one said, "What thou doest, do quickly."

Proper use of Scripture. Yet I must be careful not to leave the wrong impression. At times of need, it is entirely appropriate to seek help by opening a Bible. But it is not a magical game where you treat the first verse you see as a special message from God. Rather, after asking the Spirit for guidance, you search the Scriptures until you find a text that He certifies as right for your need. He will then counsel your heart to rest in the truth that He has brought to your attention.

This way of gaining help from the Bible will be most fruitful if you have already invested the time and effort required to learn the Bible from cover to cover. Then, when you have a need or problem, the Holy Spirit can direct you, through your own knowledge, to the passage that is truly relevant to your situation.

Yet a full perspective on the proper use of Scripture requires two more observations:

  1. Almost every important decision has a moral dimension. Therefore, when you seek God's leading, He will probably show you, either in His Word or through the counsel of the Spirit, the relevant moral principle so that you can determine for yourself which is the right course. He will expect you, once reminded of this principle, to exercise your own discernment. In other words, if you face two options, A and B, and if A is morally superior, God is not likely to guide you by pointing to A. Rather, He is likely to reawaken your conscience to the specific moral law bearing on your decision.
         It is not always possible to see a moral difference between options, however. In an earlier lesson, we spoke of Isobel Kuhn's uncertainty whether she should flee China. It was not a moral question, but a question of unforeseen perils. God intervened by basically telling her to go now. So always, He will give the answer that is needed.
  2. Frequently as you are reading the Bible during personal devotions, you come to a passage that seems to apply directly to your situation. Should you dismiss this as merely a magical coincidence? No. When you set up your reading program with the Spirit's aid, He knew exactly which texts you would need on every future day. Picking Scripture at random is pure laziness, and God declines to honor it. But regular devotions are a character-building discipline, and God rewards a child faithful in devotions by making them a channel for His voice. Still, if the text coming to your attention seems to ask for a specific response without a clear moral advantage, you should be careful. You should not proceed unless God, through other texts or inner leading or godly counsel, confirms it as His will.

Looking at circumstances alone. Many Christians judge the right course simply by looking for an open door. They take mere opportunity as proof of God's leading. If they are seeking a job, for example, and one opens up, they say, "This must be the right job for me!" Perhaps, perhaps not. In my life, I am glad that I never let myself be guided by opportunity alone. Some years ago, when we looked for a house with acreage, we found several at an acceptable price, but each was rather far from our place of ministry or would have required time-consuming renovations. Purchasing any of these would have stolen time from our Christian service. Only after further searching did we realize that God wanted us to build a new house on empty land near our place of ministry.

Proper use of circumstances. I am not denying that an important test of God’s leading is whether a door is open or closed. As we look at our lives in retrospect, we see that God always opened the door He wanted us to go through. Sometimes at the critical moment when we had to step forward, He swept aside all difficulties preventing us from going in the right direction.

But the problem is this. It is difficult to judge God's will by looking at the doors open today. Today, the door to doing wrong may be wide open. Today, the door to doing right may be closed. How then should we use circumstances in assessing God's will? The answer is, we should not use them at all for primary guidance. Rather, we should rely on the Spirit and the Word and godly advice to find the will of God and then use circumstances only to verify our conclusions. In other words, when seeking the right direction, we should take the following steps:

  1. We depend on direct spiritual leading to show us the right door.
  2. Then, and only then, we trust God to guide us through circumstances. Proceeding in the faith that He will not allow us to go through a wrong door, we approach the door we feel is right and see what happens. If it is open or if it opens as we approach, we go through it. If it is closed or if it closes as we approach, we wait for it to open, trusting that if it is the wrong door, the Lord will convince us in our hearts that we should look elsewhere.

The right procedure is clear, although a little complicated to describe. Suppose you are choosing a college. You must first exert yourself to acquire a Biblical perspective on every college you are considering and to gain a sense of the Spirit's leading. Then, after you attain an inner peace as to the college you should attend, you start the process of enrolling. Christians sometimes refer to this stage of seeking God's will as "rattling the doorknob." It is so called because it assumes that God will intervene to control the outcome, either by locking the door or by pulling it wide open. If the college accepts you and nothing stands in the way of you going there, you go, confident that God has led you.

Fourth: the patience principle

This affirms that if no option looks right, we should wait. Sometimes we are so impatient to move ahead in our lives that we hurry down a path that leads to regret. We must understand that God does not always give guidance exactly when we want it. Sometimes when we seek His will, we receive no immediate answer. Why? Because God requires us to learn the discipline of waiting. The precept that we should wait on the Lord is so important that Scripture states it repeatedly (Ps. 27:14; 33:20; 37:7, 9; 40:1; 62:5; 130:5; Isa. 30:18; 33:2). Waiting teaches us patience, and patience is the fountainhead of many virtues.

  1. With patience comes a greater willingness to accept God's direction, whatever it may be. In other words, patience nurtures surrender.
  2. Also with patience comes a quiet spirit—the opposite of an agitated spirit that continually pesters God with selfish demands.
  3. Patience as we wait for God to show us His will allows us to see and enjoy His goodness day-by-day, and with this experience comes a stronger hope for His goodness in the future (Rom. 5:4-5).

The fourth principle is another suggesting some practical guidelines.

If in doubt, don't. By doubt, we mean reservations as to whether a particular choice is truly right. We do not mean reluctance based on selfish considerations: for example, doubt about going to the mission field because it would require sacrifice. Nor do we mean deficient faith: for example, doubt as to whether God will provide and enable as we seek to serve Him.

But any doubt resisting a natural impulse is always a good reason to stop, whatever our situation. When we go shopping, for example, our desire to be done may pressure us to override doubt and buy something we not really want. A few days later we take it back. Or we just absorb the wasted expense. How much better if in all decisions liable to haste, we pay attention to doubt!

When I was still a young man, there was a time when I wanted to buy a van. One day as I was driving along, I spied exactly what I wanted in a used car lot. So I went into the lot and struck up a conversation with the salesman, who started off by asking whether I was a Mason. I said "no" and began questioning him about the condition of the vehicle. After hearing his assurances that everything was fine, I asked to test drive it. My hopes were rising rapidly, because the van was what I wanted and the price was cheap. But on the road I noticed defects in both the brakes and the clutch. The salesman dismissed the defects with plausible explanations, and I half-believed him (remember, I was quite young). Although I harbored doubt, desire overcame it, and I bought the van, not troubling to get any effective warranty. As you may imagine, I discovered within a short time that I had made a huge error. The van was riddled with problems, several of them beyond correction. Then I learned why the salesman had asked me whether I was a Mason. Apparently, every Mason takes an oath never to lie to another member of the lodge. It was through this experience that I learned to respect doubts about a purchase.

We should never let anyone pressure us into a decision we are not ready to make. Beware of sales and special deals with a deadline right now. The seller is insisting on an immediate decision maybe because he figures that if he gives you more time, you may come to your senses and realize you are being swindled.

We should never pursue an option just because it is the only one we see. It may seem that no other option could ever appear on the horizon. Yet if we sense that the option is not right, we should reject it and wait on the Lord, trusting that He can produce something better. Something better may seem impossible to us, but with God all things are possible (Mark 10:27). Both of my sons were tempted at times to choose girls they knew were not the best match for them. But when they found the best match, they realized that the waiting had been worthwhile.

It is never necessary to choose the lesser of two evils. By "evil" we mean moral compromise. If every option we see draws us into wrongdoing, however small it may seem, we know that the right option has not yet appeared. Consider this example. Many communities in America have no good churches. What then should a believer do if his work or another circumstance tempts him to live in such a community? Should he go to the least objectionable church in town? No, that would be choosing the lesser evil. At whatever personal cost, he should locate himself and his family in a community with a good church.

Don’t force a door open. Remember how the nation of Israel implored Samuel to give them a king (1 Sam. 8:4-22)? Through Samuel, God warned them that turning the nation into a kingdom would lead to regret. But the people rejected Samuel’s advice. They insisted on having a king, so God gave them one. The result of forcing the door open was that they eventually realized their mistake. Some kings were good, but some were abominably wicked, and even the good kings levied taxes, confiscated the people’s land and property for their own use, and pressed the sons and daughters of Israel into the king’s service. The lesson for us? When we come to a closed door, we should not force it open. God may yield to our demands, but we will someday wish that we had accepted His better plan for our life.

Further Reading

This lesson appears in Ed Rickard's Primer of the Christian Life: A Detailed Map of the Pilgrim's Road, designed to serve as the textbook for a yearlong course on basic Christianity. For further information, click here.