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 worshipped 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.

Principles of Knowing God's Will

Seven principles enable us to clear away the fog and determine exactly what God wants.

1. God's will is always consistent with His Word (the principle of divine truthfulness).

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; Psa. 146:6). Therefore, we can be confident that anything in violation of God's Word is also contrary to His will. We said in an earlier lesson that God did not hear David's plea to spare his infant son because He had already said that the son would die (2 Sam. 13:15-9).

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; James 2:1-9). If we should not treat anyone in the church as inferior, how can we justify treating anyone as inferior in society at large?

2. God's will is always consistent with His character (the principle of divine holiness).

God is absolutely free of iniquity (Deut. 32:4). He "is righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works" (Psa. 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.

This 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. A course closer to the line might look more promising 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.

3. We do not determine God's will by looking at events or circumstances (the principle of appropriate methods).

Old Testament methods. Looking at these was permissible in the days before Christ. The Old Testament endorses three methods of this kind.

  1. The Urim and Thummim (Ex. 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. Scholars have long 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. Or perhaps he removed both stones and the one with the right answer glowed supernaturally. Or perhaps he cast them like dice and deduced the answer from the sides facing upward. 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, after setting out a dry fleece at night, he wanted to return in the morning and 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. Then 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.

Picking Scripture at random. Yet some believers in the course of church history have not been content with the Spirit and the Word as sources of guidance. They have relapsed into older methods, or into other methods assuming that God controls chance outcomes. One unreliable method in particular has seduced many good Christians into bad decisions. This is to open the Bible at random and read the first text that comes to the eye. Toward the beginning of their careers, the Wesleys used such a procedure with apparent success. For awhile it produced some good decisions. But then after it gave some doubtful guidance, they realized that God wanted them to find better methods for determining His will. He had formerly led them through Scripture picked at random only as 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 my house 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, letting the buyers pay rent for awhile 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."

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.

Circumstances: Many Christians judge the right course by looking for an open door. They take opportunity as evidence 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. A few 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 robbed 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.

I am not denying that an important test of God’s leading is whether the door is open or closed. As we look at our lives in retrospect, we can see that God paved a way for us to go. At critical moments He swept aside all difficulties preventing us from going in the right direction. He opened the right doors and closed some of the wrong ones.

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 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 I am choosing a college. I must first exert myself to acquire a Biblical perspective on every college I am considering and to gain a sense of the Spirit's leading. Then, after I attain an inner peace as to the right course, I start the process of enrolling at the college of my choice. 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 me and nothing stands in the way of my going there, I go, confident that God has led me.

4. If no option looks right, just wait (the patience principle).

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 (Psa. 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. This is a good rule for all decisions. When you go shopping, for example, your desire to be done may pressure you to override doubt and buy something you do not really want. A few days later you take it back. Or you just absorb the wasted expense. How much better in all decisions to pay attention to doubt! An absence of doubt is a sign (though not an infallible sign) that you are proceeding according to God's will.

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.

Don’t let anyone pressure you into a decision you are not ready to make. Beware of sales and special deals with a deadline right now. The only reason the seller insists on an immediate decision is that he knows if you are given more time, you may come to your senses and realize that you are being swindled.

You should never pursue an option just because it is the only one you see. It may seem that no other option could ever appear on the horizon. Yet if you sense that the option is not right, you should reject it and wait on the Lord, trusting that He can produce something better. Something better may seem impossible to you, 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 you see draws you into wrongdoing, however small it may seem, you 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 job or another circumstance takes 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 today's believer? When you come to a closed door, you should not force it open. God may yield to your demands, but you will someday wish that you had accepted His better plan for your life.