We have already looked at four principles basic to discerning God's will. Now we will consider another three.
Fifth: the focus principle
This affirms that in pursuing God's will, we must often limit ourselves by looking at one option at a time or by taking one step at a time. One or the other of these restrictions is the course of wisdom in many important decisions.
One option at a time: This restriction applies to many decision-making processes that are potentially competitive, as when a congregation chooses a new pastor. If they follow the customary practice of self-governing churches, they examine one candidate at a time. Each comes and preaches, and then the congregation votes up or down whether to call him. Only if they decide not to call him do they invite another man. Withholding a decision until they see several candidates turns the process into a competition or election. The process is then wrong for many reasons.
- It may impose unnecessary costs on some candidates. A candidate who comes to the church after they have already seen the right man for the job is wasting any money or other resources that he himself invests in the process. Even though the church defrays his expenses and gives him a generous love offering, he cannot be reimbursed for loss of time and emotional energy that he would have channeled elsewhere if he had known that no job was truly available.
- It needlessly puts the same candidates in the place of losers. To be rejected is hardly an encouragement to any man in his ongoing labors for the Lord. But these candidates—the ones who come after the church has seen the right man—suffer rejection only because the church was not kind enough to consider one man at a time.
- It may push some candidates to a premature commitment. A one-at-a-time procedure allows both the church and the candidate to view the decision properly—as an attempt to discern whether the man and the ministry are a good fit. Just as the church must ponder and pray, so must the candidate, and each side refrains from committing itself until it has peace as to God's leading. In a competition, however, the candidates are less inclined to be careful. They feel pressure to make themselves as appealing as possible. And since a church is likely to favor a more enthusiastic candidate, all the candidates tend to profess too much interest too soon. The may even go so far as to declare up front their intent to come if they are called.
- It may tempt the church to deceive some candidates, or at least give them misleading information. In an effort to be nice, the church might fail to tell each candidate the number and qualifications of his rivals; or worse, they might heap such praise upon each candidate that he goes away with a very unrealistic notion of his chances; or they might stoop to an even lower ethical plane. To make the process more entertaining, they might invite candidates that they are not seriously considering.
- It may tempt candidates to use political methods of persuasion. These include flattery of influential people or pie-in-the-sky promises of new buildings and programs.
- It can easily generate factions in the church. When choosing a pastor from a field of candidates, a church is unlikely to be unanimous in its judgment. Different groups will have their own favorites, and soon the process may degenerate into a political election rather than a sober searching after the mind of God. The final result may be a church split.
In some spheres of life, competition serves the best interests of society. It assures that providers of goods and services, for example, will offer the best they can. To do comparison shopping when buying a car or choosing a college is therefore legitimate. But it is not the best way to start relationships, especially within the body of Christ. A one-at-a-time procedure safeguards against negative consequences not only when choosing a pastor, but also in many other kinds of decisions, especially the following:
- When choosing a ministry. Some of the people who came to interview for jobs at the school where my son was principal some years ago did not have a serious interest. He fed them at nice restaurants, showed them around town, and spent long hours with them, only to discover later that they had already decided to go elsewhere. They had no right to make his school the loser in an unnecessary competition. By giving them definite leading to other schools, the Lord had shown them that He was fully capable of revealing His will concerning each option when considered alone.
- When choosing a mate. The world, scornful of seeking God's will, encourages the young to view choosing a mate as another kind of comparison shopping, like buying a car or computer. But the way to true happiness follows God's leading. In the choice of a mate, some attention to the field of possibilities is obviously necessary, but once a particular person emerges as the leading possibility, it is then time to pray earnestly for God's direction, and He will certainly provide it. In such a matter, affecting the whole remainder of life, a young person can be confident that God will not permit an obedient child to go wrong. He will clearly say "yes" or "no" with regard to any particular prospect. The decision need not be made by considering whether there might be better prospects.
If you choose a mate by comparison shopping, you look for which person has the most to offer. But it works both ways. You must also show that you have the most to offer the other person. But such a way of settling your future is very risky. You might look like the best today, but tomorrow somebody who looks better might come along. Then where will you be? One reason the institution of marriage is collapsing is that we no longer view marriage as made in heaven. Instead we see it as a consumer choice, getting the best deal available now. As a result, because old choices may grow stale or even prove disappointing and because life is always presenting new opportunities, marriage in our culture is very unstable and short-lived.
The remedy is to choose a mate according to the right standard—not the person who presently seems best in satisfying your checklist of requirements, but the person who is the one and only one God has designed for you. The person He wants to give you will, over the course of your life together, be best suited to help you grow spiritually and serve God fruitfully.
These are God’s wise criteria of a good match. They are not the criteria that a young person is likely to use. Even if he tried, he could not, because his knowledge is too limited. That is why successful marriage requires that you marry the one person in the world who is God’s provision.
One step at a time: The Christian life is not like traveling with a road map but like following a shepherd (Ps. 23). The shepherd does not say to his sheep, "We're going to the meadow behind Farmer Smith's cornfield. If we get separated, meet me there." No, he leads them one step at a time. In like manner God leads all who follow Him. The Bible gives many illustrations of His stepwise direction.
- When God called Abram out of Haran, He did not reveal where Abram was going. He said only that He would take Abram "unto a land that I will show thee" (Gen. 12:1). Then God led Abram step-by-step to the land of Canaan, and in this same fashion He continued to lead him throughout his life.
- When Abraham's servant went to find a wife for Isaac, he did not know which girl he was seeking or where to find her. Yet God led him to the city of Nahor and arranged circumstances so that the first girl who approached him after his arrival was Rebekah, the wife God intended. Later, the servant testified, "I being in the way, the LORD led me" (Gen. 24:27).
- The New Testament teaches that the wilderness wanderings of Israel picture the Christian life (1 Cor. 10:1-6). On any given day during their forty-year trek from Egypt to Canaan, the people never knew where they would find themselves on the day following. A pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night stood over the tabernacle. When the pillar was taken up, the people broke camp and followed it. When it stopped, they stopped also, and there they remained until the pillar moved again (Exod. 40:36-8). The guidance the Lord provided was literally step by step.
The one-step-at-a-time principle implies several practical rules.
- Do not overplan your life (Jer. 10:23; Prov. 16:9; James 4:13-5). Hedge every plan or promise with the reservation, "God willing."
- Do not worry about the future (Matt. 6:34). In relation to the future, we exercise prudence. That is, we prepare for possible emergencies and losses. We develop skills that will enable us to support ourselves and serve God. We set aside resources for future needs. But we do not worry about trouble that has not yet come to pass. Perhaps it never will.
- Do not puzzle over decisions prematurely. A high school student need not figure out who his or her future mate will be. An adult need not think about the changes in lifestyle that a severe illness might necessitate. Instead, we should make decisions when we need to make them. We should deal with problems as they arise. We should focus on life today.
The principle of stepwise guidance does not imply that our future is always a complete mystery. God may give us a glimpse of the future so that we can properly prepare for it. He may, for example, give us a vision of some work to do, or a call to some form of service. Many years ago He gave me an intense desire for a ministry of writing. At that time I had no idea that a door would someday open for me to write textbooks, or that the internet would someday come into being, making it possible for me to build a Web site that would draw well over a million visitors.
Sixth: the surrender principle
This affirms that to follow God, we must turn away from self. One text that throws especially bright illumination on the process of determining God's will is Romans 12:1-2. Paul sets forth certain conditions for knowing "that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." "Acceptable" means "well-pleasing." The three terms describing God’s will seem to form a progression, which could be rendered, "good, better, and best." The writer is perhaps implying that in every situation calling for a decision, God's will may allow alternatives to the best decision. Yet he is not saying that a surrendered believer can choose whichever alternative he prefers. Rather, he is saying that such a believer has the privilege of finding and following God's will in the form that is not just good and not just well-pleasing, but absolutely perfect.
In his veiled suggestion that there are acceptable alternatives to the perfect will of God, what is Paul talking about? Christians have long understood that besides God's perfect will, there is also His permissive will. His permissive will is anything He allows other than the best. For example, He wanted the state of Israel to be a theocracy—that is, a state under His own rule, mediated by priests and prophets. Yet, after severe warnings as to the consequences, He consented to give Israel a king (1 Sam. 8). Likewise, many believers can testify that when they insisted on second-best, God gave it to them. A successful pastor in America might choose to stay in his church rather than accept a call to the mission field. A young man might choose the prettier of two girls even though the other would have made a better companion. A man purchasing a needed new car might spend an extra $500 on a frill rather than give the money to the church.
God's permissive will may extend not only to good and better, but also to not so good. For example, He permitted the people of Israel to practice divorce, although He preferred that they obey the higher standard forbidding it (Matt. 19:3-9). If He tolerates a radical departure from the best, His chief purpose is to minimize sin—to prevent the lesser sin of imperfect surrender from mushrooming into the greater sin of flagrant disobedience. Yet He also has a didactic purpose. He wants His children to learn through hard experience that His perfect will is indeed perfect.
Paul states two requirements for knowing God's perfect will.
- We must give God our bodies, faculties, and abilities for His use (Rom. 12:1). It is reasonable to do so because He created us, and all these belong to Him anyway. To sacrifice self in our decision-making means that we do not insist on our carnal preferences. Although God gives us many good things pleasing to the flesh—food and rest and home and marriage and so on, the list being interminable, because He is generous beyond our reckoning—yet He may ask us to sacrifice the lower pleasures of life to the higher pleasure of serving Him despite adverse consequences. He may appoint us to a form of service that brings loss of comforts, or the apparent waste of our bodies and abilities, or suffering, or even death. The missionary who goes to a third world country finds God's perfect will at the price of laying himself on the altar.
- We must renounce worldly thinking (Rom. 12:2). An ungodly world has for a lifetime drummed its complacent follies into our minds. So, when we seek God's will, we must start from the premise that our own ideas may be wrong (Prov. 3:5-6). We must resolve to accept thinking different from what we already think. Only when we shake off a worldly mind-set and renew our minds by the Spirit of God—that is, only when we begin to think as God thinks—can we discover His perfect will.
How often in counseling someone who is pursuing nonsense have I heard the defense, "I prayed about it"! We all abuse prayer by seeking God's approval of what we have already decided out of selfish motives. Let us learn to pray in true submission to what God wants.
Seventh: the diligence principle
This affirms that to know God's will, we must seek it intensely with our whole heart. To know His will is really the same as knowing Him, and Scripture teaches plainly that to know Him requires that we seek Him diligently (Deut. 4:29; Jer. 29:13; Prov. 8:17). We have said before that the only two reliable ways of finding God's will are by the Word and the Spirit. Therefore, to seek His will with wholehearted intensity means that we must persist in two disciplines.
- We must give untiring study to the Word of God (Ps. 119:105). We must read it, meditate upon it, dig into its depths, and apply it to our lives. We cannot dip into it at random and expect meaningful guidance. Yet when we have a particular question for God, the Bible is a useful tool for finding the answer. How can we use it in this way? After beseeching the Spirit's aid, we go to passages that He impresses upon our memory, or we search through the whole Bible until we rest upon a passage that seems right. Yet we always exercise caution, recognizing that the devil quotes Scripture too. Before making a decision, we must be sure that we have gained a balanced view based on the whole Bible.
Besides through Scripture, the Spirit can speak to us also through Christian literature, sermons, and the counsel of godly people.
- We must walk in the Spirit (Rom. 8:14). We will not digress into a long discussion of what it means to walk in the Spirit. Instead we will be content with a short definition. To walk in the Spirit means
- to live in obedience to God,
- motivated by love for God,
- all proceeding from a conscious dependence on the Spirit of God,
- all leading to a constant hunger for the will of God.