When I talk with Christian teenagers and college students, discerning God’s will for their life is a big concern. They all seem to want their future to be perfect—or at least as perfect as they can dream it should be in light of the things that matter most to them. So often for young Christians, discerning God’s will is tied to questions like: Who should I marry? Where should I go to school? What should I choose for my career?
To answer these questions, we need to begin with a basic Sunday school answer: the Bible. We begin discerning God’s will by opening the Scriptures, not by leaning on our emotions. We don’t begin with our own desires. We begin with God’s Word. That has to be the baseline authority for finding and doing the will of God.
You might think, “Well, that’s obvious.” But it’s really not, because when we’re talking about our heart’s desires, our emotions are automatically involved. Often when we’re leaning on our emotions, it’s tempting to merely see Jesus as the key to getting what we want. Now not everything we want is bad. In fact, a lot of the things we pray for are good. But God doesn’t simply want what is good for us. He wants what is best. And he sometimes doesn’t give us what we want, but he always gives us what we need.
So, when we’re seeking to know God’s will, we start with the Scriptures. And the Bible gives us two theological categories for understanding God’s will. Here they are:
God’s Revealed Will
The first is God’s revealed will, what he shows us in the Bible. His revealed will is not a mystery. You don’t have to try to read the tea leaves or read signs in your circumstances, you just open the Word. Now, there’s a time to look for open doors. If you’re interviewing for a job and everything about it seems right—there’s nothing morally wrong with taking it, it’s a good fit for your family, and the work aligns with your passions— you might pray, “God, if you open this door, I’m going to walk through it.”
But most of the time, there’s no need to “put out a fleece,” because God has made his will perfectly clear. He’s given us clear commands in the Bible. We don’t need to question, for example, whether or not God wants people saved. He does. And he’s going to use the church as his plan A on earth to go and take the gospel to even the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). So we can be confident that he wants us to join him in sharing and spreading the good news. His Word tells us, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Rom. 10:15).
Even if you do something that really frustrates me, hating you is not an option before God, because the Bible says, “Love one another” (John 13:34–35; 1 Peter 4:7–11). Confessing sin (1 John 1:9) using your gifts to serve others in the church (1 Cor. 12), loving your spouse (Eph. 5), and rejoicing in God whatever the circumstances (Phil. 4)—these commands are all a part of God’s revealed will. I don’t need to ask God, “Do you want me to do these things?” He says, “I’ve already written this down in the Bible.” God’s Word has already made his will clear.
God’s Hidden Will
But in addition to God’s revealed will, we also have God’s hidden or secret will. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God.” In other words, there are some things we either can’t know in advance or that we’re just not going to know in this life; they are the secret things. What’s going to happen to me in five years? Why do bad or good things happen to certain people? When is the world going to end? Why did my good friend die so young? God knows the answers to these questions, and we don’t.
And there’s something sweetly comforting about that. God is sovereign, and he’s ruling over all things, so I can trust him. In my finite mind, I can’t understand his infinite purposes. But I can trust that he has a plan, even if it’s a secret to me. In 1 Corinthians 2:9, Paul says “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—the things God has prepared for those who love him.” This verse tells us that God’s secret will isn’t just about the end of the world, it’s also about the amazing things God has in store for us.
When We Don’t Know God’s Will, We Can Pray for It.
When I first began to learn about God’s hidden and sovereign will, I came across a passage that just wrecked me. It’s the prayer that Jesus prayed in Luke 22. Here we find Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed. He’s talking to the Father, and his sweat drops are turning to blood. Jesus says, “Father, if possible, let this cup pass from me.” Then, his agonizing prayer ends with “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Jesus is taking the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s about to experience the full, unbridled wrath of the Father. And he says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” That’s the way we must pray. That is prayer in a nutshell: “God, I really want to have a great job. God, I really want to do well in school.” Yes and amen. “God, I really want to marry an amazing spouse. God, I really would like my children to be saved and have a successful future.” Yes and amen to all those things, “But not my will, but yours be done.”
After all, we don’t know what God has in store for our future. What if he calls us to stand for truth in the midst of persecution? What if you have the American dream in mind, but he sends you to China like Hudson Taylor? What if you’re the next Adoniram Judson? What if you’re the next Amy Carmichael? God may call you to do something great for his great name that’s outside of your dreams. So we pray for our desires in our hearts, but we say, “Thy will be done.”
Costi Hinn is executive pastor of Discipleship at Redeemer Bible Church in Gilbert, Arizona, He’s also the author of God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel as well as the forthcoming More Than a Healer: Not the Jesus You Want but the Jesus You Need.