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Knowing God's Will
Finding Guidance for Personal Decisions
Revised/Expanded Edition
M. Blaine Smith, InterVarsity Press, 1991

Chapter One
A Critical Concern

When Paul was confronted by Christ on Damascus Road, he inquired, "Who are you, Lord?" When the response came, "I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting," Paul asked only one question, "What shall I do, Lord?" (Acts 22:8-10). There is no record of Paul's requesting any further information from the Lord. His sole concern was to know and do what Christ willed for him to do.

As we follow Christ today, Paul's prayer echoes across the centuries and reflects our own. "What shall I do, Lord?" is so often the question on our mind which far outweighs all the others.

It is an understatement to say that guidance is a major concern of Christians today. For many, it is the primary concern.

This is unquestionably true for students. We can still heartily agree with Joseph Bayly's claim:

"If there is a serious concern among Christian students today, it is for guidance. Holiness may have been the passion of another generation of Christian young men and women. Or soul winning. Or evangelizing the world in their generation. But not today. Today the theme is getting to know the will of God."

Yet guidance is not only the interest of students and young Christians who see their life as a blank canvas before them but a chronic concern of many older believers as well. It is not unusual for retirees to attend my seminars on knowing God's will, aware they have important time remaining to serve the Lord yet as confused as ever about what direction to take. A remarkable widow in her seventies confessed to me that knowing God's will was her ongoing concern.

Spiritually mature Christians seem to wrestle with questions about God's will as greatly as young believers and those with little Christian experience. This is true even for pastors and those with considerable biblical knowledge. I think of a pastor friend who had two excellent job options open to him and for some time struggled with which to choose. He admitted to me that he was tiring of having well-meaning friends ask him which he wanted more or which he was more qualified to handle. "I'll be happy doing anything as long as I'm confident it's where the Lord wants me," he said. "The question is, how do I know?"

Our concern with knowing the will of God is not hard to understand. It springs from curiosity and a natural need for direction. On the deepest level it reflects our desire to be accountable to Christ and a profound concern to accomplish something significant with our life.

I'll never forget the way one young woman expressed it to me: "When I stand before Christ at the end of my life, I want to feel good about what I've done and to have some confidence that I've accomplished what he placed me on this planet to do."

She added, though, that she was plagued with the fear that her life was not as effective for Christ as it should be. It was baffling to her to understand where her potential really lay and what she could do that would truly make a difference. If she only knew what Christ wanted her to do, that would settle things.

Christians often voice this frustration. They long to see their life count for something yet have no clear sense of what direction to take. I once heard a school teacher summarize it well. Although he was successful in his position and meeting many needs, he was frustrated by the lack of a clear calling to the teaching profession. "The Bible declares that St. Paul was commanded by God to be an apostle," he noted. "My problem is that I don't feel commanded by God to do anything!" Like so many Christians today he was uncertain how God's call to a particular profession might be known and wondered why he didn't receive a call as unmistakable as Paul's. Lacking this clear sense of calling, he found his work regrettably mundane.

Of course, our need for guidance comes not only in career choices but in many other areas as well. Not the least of these is the whole murky area of relationships and decisions about marriage. When I wrote Should I Get Married? several years ago, I noted that the majority of Christians seeking my counsel at that time were looking for advice about whether to marry a particular person. That remains true today. Even as I'm writing this paragraph a woman phones--a mature Christian in her thirties wanting direction for a relationship. While there are many factors involved in a decision to marry, serious Christians almost always wrestle with how to recognize the Lord's guidance in it. Everything comes back to the question, "What shall I do, Lord?"

A Maze of Options

The concern for guidance is nothing new. Christians have always sought to know God's will and have always wrestled with questions about it. What is new is the level of concern. Certain factors in modern life make the need for guidance greater for believers today than at any prior time in history.

Chief among these factors is the unprecedented diversity of choice which we face in most major decision areas today. Had you lived a century ago, chances are good you would have followed the profession of your parents. Even if you didn't, your options would still have been very limited, restricted to geographical boundaries which only the most adventuresome would transcend.

Today, as young Christians especially, we tend to think of our vocational options as practically unlimited. The ease of travel, too, greatly expands our horizons for where we might live and work, yet so often leaves our geographical identity at no fixed address.

And then there's the media. The incessant, pervasive media. The daily march of personalities and role models and graphic pictures of human need, on television especially, but through radio, newspapers and magazines as well. Constantly we're presented with images of life, images we compare to our own life, images which leave us wondering if there is something different we should be doing with our life.

It's the nature of modern life to present us with options. On one level this is a wonderful benefit to life at the end of the twentieth century, for it greatly expands our possibilities for serving Christ. But it greatly magnifies our confusion as well, and deepens our need to know God's will.

Many of the factors of modern life which dizzy our mind in career choices render decisions about marriage confusing as well. The ease of mobility, for instance, leaves many wondering if they've dated enough or met enough potential candidates to know for certain that they've found the right person to marry. And it removes many from the support base of family and local culture which in past generations played a much more central role in helping individuals find someone suitable to marry.

In addition, the media bombards us with images of romance and marriage which often have little to do with what sort of marriage relationship would be best for us personally. Yet these images are hypnotic in their effect and cloud our understanding about what makes for healthy marriage. They become an unfortunate filter through which we consider the possibility of marriage and weigh the Lord's guidance. We may be too quick to think we've found the perfect match in someone who measures up well to the popular stereotypes. Or we may miss the marriage potential in a good relationship because we're comparing it to an ideal that is based on fantasy.

No Lack of Advice

Unfortunately, the teaching we receive in Christian circles on how to know God's will often serves to confuse us even further. Perspectives on guidance, presented through sermons, lectures, books and counseling, typically are not well integrated. A talk on guidance may present valid principles yet not show adequately how they apply in different circumstances. The listener is left with an oversimplified approach to guidance which may prove misleading.

Too many times the intricate biblical teaching on guidance is reduced to a single idea or formula. Many pat formulas for guidance float around the body of Christ--simple and foolproof solutions to knowing God's will, intended to cover all of life's contingencies. These do not always apply so easily in real-life decisions.

Even worse, the simple and foolproof solutions sometimes contradict each other. One person says, "Love God and do what you wish," while another insists, "To find God's will, you should deny your desires." One teacher says, "God's will is normally the most logical alternative," while another points out, "Abraham 'went out not knowing whither he went,' so God's will is likely to seem illogical to you." One counselor says, "God's will is known through your intuition," while another argues, "Feelings are misleading; God directs through our rational thought process."

We hear many other formulas touted for seeking God's will. Some promote the practice of "putting out a fleece." Others stress the role of supernatural guidance through signs, visions or prophecy. Still others claim that God's will is best found through certain chain-of-command relationships. And some Christians even encourage the use of secular forms of guidance, such as astrology, Ouija boards, seances and palm reading.

All in all, it is no wonder the typical Christian is baffled by the prospect of finding God's will.

In some cases the results of this confusion can be tragic. A young woman came to me convinced God had told her to kill herself. Assuming God was speaking to her through her impulses, she took her suicidal urges as divine guidance. Although her case is clearly extreme, it dramatizes the problems that can arise.

More typically the result is not such a tragically wrong conclusion about God's will but no conclusion at all. Many Christians are left genuinely confused about what direction God wants them to take in their decisions. Yet this is tragic in itself, especially when the decision involves a major life choice, for many conclude they must stumble through it without assurance of God's will. Not only does their well-being suffer but often their fruitfulness as well, for they are not as motivated as they would be if they had stronger confidence of the Lord's leading.

The Goal of This Study

We cannot remove all of the challenge involved in knowing God's will. Yet we can remove much of the frustration. And we can reach a point of confidence that we are following God's will and making decisions which reflect his best intentions for our life.

But for this to happen, we need a broad understanding of biblical teaching on guidance. I stress broad understanding, for as we're noting, the tendency is to oversimplify. Far from reducing the matter to a pat formula or two, the Scriptures present a number of principles of guidance which apply to different aspects of our decisions. The mature Christian needs to understand and embrace all of these principles to be at a point of thinking clearly about the Lord's will in critical choices.

I must hasten to say that this doesn't mean that you must understand all of these principles before you can follow God's will faithfully. When our heart is right before God, he takes an uncanny initiative to guide us within his will, even where our understanding is lacking. Yet as we'll note, many wonderful benefits come from deepening our understanding of how God guides us.

Not the least of these is a greater assurance that our decisions are reflecting his will, which leads to a stronger confidence that our life is accomplishing something significant. It takes a significant commitment of time and study to come to grips with the full range of biblical teaching on guidance. Yet once understood and appreciated, it provides a valuable map for working through our decisions from the standpoint of God's will. The challenge of making these decisions remains. Yet our confidence of walking within the Lord's will increases, and the decision process itself becomes much more of the enjoyable adventure it was meant to be.

My purpose in this book is to present a systematic study of biblical principles of guidance. Step by step we will work through the teachings of Scripture which most directly relate to understanding God's guidance for major personal decisions. Our goal will be to develop a solid foundation for making these decisions within God's will.

If you have read the first edition of this book, you may still benefit from studying this expanded version. While most of the material from the original book is included and the key points remain the same, there is further elaboration on a number important points; many illustrations have been added and some additional chapters as well. I share my own experience, too, much more in this volume than in the first. Like you, I remain very much a seeker in the matter of knowing God's will. I find I must continually make the effort to apply these principles to the realities of my own life.

I've also added an appendix chapter critiquing the perspective of Garry Friesen's Decision Making and the Will of God, which is that God does not have a will for our personal decisions. Questions about his thesis have been raised to me numerous times by thoughtful Christians, and these deserve a careful response.

Another important addition to this book is a set of study questions at the end of each chapter. While it isn't necessary to work through them in order to understand the major points of the book, they do help to amplify some of the principles we'll examine and provide a further basis in Scripture for many of them. You will find it helpful to write your answers--or new questions which come to your mind--in a notebook as you go along.

Many of the questions are designed to help you apply the principles to your own life. While some of these questions can be answered quickly, most of them are purposely meaty, and many will require fifteen-thirty minutes of study and reflection. For this reason they can provide a good basis for group Bible study.

Where We're Headed

Before moving ahead, it will help to give a brief overview of the book. In this introductory section we'll look first at types of decisions we face and clarify more fully what our focus of concern will be. In chapters three and four we'll consider the step-by-step nature of God's guidance in the Christian life; understanding this is foundational to everything else we discuss. In chapter five we'll give some reassuring emphasis to the initiative God takes for guiding us.

Part two examines our responsibility for knowing God's will in the most basic sense. We'll note that this responsibility has four aspects to it: willingness to do God's will, commitment to prayer, understanding the guidance already given Scripture, and the need to think through a decision carefully. Particular stress will be given to the importance of using the mind God has given us and taking responsibility for reasoning through a decision. The remainder of the book will amplify this point in various ways.

In part three we'll look at exceptions to this principle, examining direct supernatural guidance, prophecy, putting out a fleece and the role of mystical impressions ("inward guidance").

Then in part four we'll look more closely at how to make a responsible decision that glorifies Christ. We'll provide some guidelines for weighing four areas that almost always factor into our major decisions: personal desires, personal ability and potential, circumstances and the counsel of others. In appendix one we'll look further at issues for knowing God's will involved in what are called "chain-of-command" relationships. Finally, in appendix two we'll give careful consideration to the argument that God does not have a specific will for our personal decisions.

As you begin this book, you may be tempted to skip to the chapter that seems most interesting. But I believe the study will be most beneficial to you if you work through the chapters in order. They build on one another to some extent, and some of the later chapters would be difficult to understand fully without the concepts established in the earlier ones.

It is my hope and belief that you will find this study helpful in your personal search to know God's will. And it is my prayer that it will lead you to a deeper experience of joy in the Lord.

For Personal Study:

1. Though most of the questions in this book will involve direct study of Scripture, some are designed purely for personal reflection. Here at the outset of this study, take a moment to reflect on how you hope to benefit from this book. The following are some reasonable goals to have in working through this book. Note any of them which represent needs for growth in your own life and make them your personal goals as you read:

Developing a biblical framework for working through my personal decisions.

Gaining a greater trust in God's willingness to guide my decisions.

Gaining a deeper desire for God's will.

Gaining the courage to tackle decisions and to take risks when necessary.

Realizing the motivation to use my abilities and spiritual gifts.

Feeling the freedom in Christ to be the person he has made me to be.

Developing the wisdom to counsel others in their decisions.

2. Now, list one-to-three personal decisions which you are presently facing, or expect to face in the future, for which you hope to gain some insight through this study.

3. Finally, note specific questions about God's guidance which you hope to resolve through this study.

Excerpt taken from Knowing God's Will--Expanded Edition by M. Blaine Smith. Copyright 1991 by M. Blaine Smith. Used on this Web site with permission from InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515 USA. Not intended for multiple copies.

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