Thursday, August 30, 2012

How to Know and Do God's Will

“I want to do God’s will”—the Christian who makes this statement tacitly admits that God’s will remains in the future as something possibly unknown but certainly undone. After all, if we truly want to do God’s will, why hesitate? Why not just do God’s will and not talk about it? If we were more thoughtful and candid, perhaps we would state the case a little differently, such as “I don’t know God’s will,” or “I know God’s will but I am afraid to do it,” or “I know God’s will but I do not like it.” Those more honest statements provide three valuable insights as to why we hesitate when confronted with choices about God’s will for our lives. The first statement, “I don’t know God’s will,” indicates unawareness or, dare we say, an ignorance of God’s will; the second statement, “I know God’s will but I am afraid to do it,” implies fear of God’s will; the third statement, “I know God’s will but I do not like it,” signifies rebellion against God’s will.

While fear of God’s will or rebellion against God’s will demand inquiry and remedy, we must leave these topics to another day; we aim to encourage the willing Christian who says, “I do not know God’s will, but I want to do God’s will.” Hence, Paul’s maxim to the Thessalonians becomes our mandate–“understanding what the will of the Lord is.” Of course, humility inquires, “How can we, whose own wills are fallible, feeble, and fickle at best, discover, much less do, God’s will?” But if Paul exhorts us to understand God’s will, we must therefore conclude that, not only is it possible to know God’s will, but also that we must know God’s will and do God’s will as well. Therefore, based upon the Pauline premise that we can both know and do God’s will, we set forth seven principles or “steps” by which God’s will may be known and done.

Step I:    Flick the Switch

Had the Psalmist David lived in the 21st century, he might have written, “Your Word is a light-switch in a dark room,” “Your Word is a flashlight on my dim path,” “Your Word is a halogen headlight for the dark highway,” or “Your Word is a laser beam through the black night.” Of course David did not know about a light switch, flashlight, halogen headlight, or laser beam, so he described the illuminating power of God’s Word with imagery familiar to his own experience. Envision David the Shepherd walking at night through a green pasture or up a rocky slope, holding a lamp to light his way to his flock; David the Warrior standing in a pre-dawn battlefield holding a torch to inspect his soldiers; or David the King walking through the midnight streets of Jerusalem with a candle to light his path. No doubt on one such occasion, as David watched the dancing flicker and shadows cast by his path-light, this memorable idea came to his mind, “God’s word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” No matter how we describe it–flashlight, headlight, laser beam, torch, lamp, or candle, when we read God’s Word, it shines, and its radiance lights our pathway.

Step II: Stare at the Star

During the Civil War, runaway slaves traveled at night to avoid detection and thus evade their captors. Through the darkness, the North Star shown down upon them, guiding them to freedomland. How liberating for them, not just to flee their bondage, but to look heavenward and fix their eyes upon the North Star. Scientists tell us that our bodies are comprised of the same matter and energy as the North Star–we are star-stuff. So as the slaves stared at the North Star, in a way they became one with the star, and that oneness kept them on the right path to freedom. We, too, are runaway slaves, and God’s Word is our Northern Star. On our journey, we raise our eyes heavenward and look to that Star whose silver beams penetrate our minds, illuminate our bodies, and shine down into our very souls. Jesus tells us something even more important than scientists, “If your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light.” By “single” Jesus means that our eyes must be sharply focused upon one thing–God’s Word–and by that singular focus our entire being becomes “full of light.” And how is it that we focus upon God’s Word–meditation. When the runaway slave fled for freedom, he did not fixate on the bloodhounds pursuing him; the darkness all around him; or the stones, briars, and thorns that impeded his steps; he kept his eye upon the guiding star. In the same way, if we would find our way through the darkness, around obstacles, and over impediments, we too must fix our eye upon a guiding star, that is, we must meditate upon God’s Word. To meditate upon God’s word means that we clear our minds of every fear and worry and concentrate fully upon God’s Word. We must stare at the Star. When we do that, our whole being–body, soul and spirit–becomes “full of light.” We become Star-stuff, one with God. His thoughts become our thoughts, and His ways our ways–we depend, not upon what we think, but upon what God says; we find, not our way, but His way, His way out of bondage, His way through the dark night, and His way to the sweet land of liberty. Dear Friend, if you want to know God’s way, then look to the Northern Star of His Word. Make your eye “single.” Focus upon God’s Word, meditate upon God’s Word. Stare at the Star.

Step III: Stop Trying to Figure Out Things by Yourself

Perhaps this is the most difficult step in knowing and doing God’s will. Our natural tendency is to try to figure out things for ourselves, to assess our situation, analyze our problems, weigh the pros and cons of doing this or that, and then map out a doubtful strategy in some uncertain direction. But the Bible commands us to do something quite contrary to our nature: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not to your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths.” We learn four important things from that wonderful verse of scripture. First, we learn that, if we really want to know and do God’s will, then we must “trust” God. The Hebrew word for trust, bawtakh, connotes a trust so complete and dynamic as to inspire both confidence and boldness. After all, when we truly and fully trust God, we do not trust in other people or in the uncertain possibilities of the unknown future, much less in ourselves and our own devices; we trust in the LORD, God Almighty, and thus we have both confidence and courage, faith and boldness. Secondly, we learn that to trust God is not a matter of the head but of the heart”–“Trust in the LORD with all your heart,” Solomon says, “and do not lean upon your own understanding.” In other words, knowing and doing God’s will is not merely a rational process but rather a spiritual experience. Third, we learn that “in all our ways” we must “acknowledge Him.” “All our ways” means just that. Nothing is too big for God, and nothing too little for Him either. Stated another way, “No matter what your circumstance, small or big, easy or hard, don’t put yourself first; don’t even put others first. Put God first. Do not think about what you want to do, or what others think you should do; focus upon what God wants you to do. As Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God” and then everything else will take care of itself or, more correctly, “seek first the kingdom of God” and then God will take care of everything else. Finally, we learn that God “will direct your path.” Isn’t that exactly what we want when we seek to know and do God’s will, for God to “direct” our path? God says He will do precisely that–if we trust God with our hearts and not our heads, and acknowledge God first in every circumstance–God promises us that He will “direct” our paths.

Step IV: Talk to your Father

A good father never gives his child anything that hurts him but always what is best for the child. Jesus illustrates this principle in a parable, “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?” Of course Jesus’ hearers understood that a loving father or mother would never give a child a stone for bread, a serpent for a fish, or a scorpion for an egg. The same holds true for our Heavenly Father. When we ask something from Him, He always gives us what is best for us. How comforting to know that, when we call out to God in prayer, He promises that “I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things which thou knowest not.”

That last phrase, “things which thou knowest not,” aptly describes our situation when we face seemingly insurmountable problems for which we can see no easy solution. Even though an infant cannot speak a single syllable, a loving parent can still interpret the child’s inarticulate cry. The same holds true in our relationship to our Heavenly Father; if we do not know how we should pray about a problem, or perhaps we do not even know what to pray, the Holy Spirit “makes intercession for us with groanings which we cannot utter.” To our great comfort, that powerful promise, “the Spirit makes intercession for us,” directly precedes these precious words, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His promise.” We know that all things, even the bad things, will work together for our good and God’s glory because the Holy Spirit makes intercession for us, and because we believe our Father’s promise that He will do “exceedingly and abundantly above all that we ask or think.”

Another way prayer helps us find our way through life’s difficulties is by changing our desires. David wrote, “Delight yourself also in the LORD, and he will give thee the desires of your heart.” If we interpret that verse superficially and materially, we will wrongly conclude that God will give us whatever we desire: “Lord, I want a new car; a new job; a new house; more money; greater influence and power, a better education, or perhaps a spouse,” and then God says, “OK, you can have whatever you desire.” But we know that interpretation is false; God never gives us everything we desire, not that He could not give us everything we desire; He could, but our desires are too often not God’s desires, and, besides, God knows that what we desire is not necessarily what we need. What we need is not every desire fulfilled but every desire transformed. That is the true meaning of David’s words, “Delight yourself also in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” When we “delight” ourselves in the Lord, He gives us, not the things we desire but the “desires” themselves. The Hebrew word for “delight” infers delicate softness and therefore pliability; He who delights himself in the LORD is delicate and soft towards God’s will, and therefore pliable and moldable to God’s desires. Prayer makes us pliable in such a way that God changes our desires, and by that change of desires, God transforms our affections that we might love the things He loves, and desire those things He desires. That includes life’s pathways as we seek to know and do God’s will. Thus, we should pray, “Lord; I delight myself in you; I am soft and pliable to be molded like clay in your hands; change my heart’s desires that I may desire what you desire and walk the path you want me to walk; change my desires that I may know and do your will.”

Step V: Connect with the Holy Spirit 

Actually, we don’t have to “connect with the Holy Spirit”; He connects with us. Scripture plainly teaches that the Holy Spirit indwells Christians the same way He indwelt the Tabernacle and Temple. The Shekinah glory has come down from heaven and actually resides in our bodies. “Your bodies,” Paul says, “are the temple of the Holy Spirit.” Sometimes we forget that, like Aaron and Levi in the Tabernacle and Temple, the Holy Spirit is also a Person and therefore has a personality. Every personality has traits, and the traits of the Holy Spirit are “love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, patience, faith, humility, and self-control.” As residences of the Holy Spirit, and through the process of sanctification, each of us gradually and progressively look more and more like our Father, become more and more conformed to the image of His Son, and more and more we think and behave like the Holy Spirit. Through His presence God’s love is shed abundantly in our hearts, God’s unspeakable joy effervesces within us like a bubbling fountain, God’s peace guards our minds and hearts as a royal solder would guard the king’s own son; we become gentler, goodness spurs our motives and redefines our goals, patience calms our anxieties and slows our clock, faith enables us to move mountains, humility teaches us to bow our heads to God and open our hearts to men, and self-control disciplines our passions and appetites. These nine aspects of the Spirit fruit–love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, patience, faith, meekness, and self-control–play a vital role as we seek to know and do God’s will.

The formula is simple–when we desire to know and do God’s will, we should never do anything that disturbs the Holy Spirit. Paul refers to such a disturbance as grieving or quenching the Holy Spirit, and Stephen called it resisting the Holy Spirit. When I make a decision and choose a pathway, I must ask myself, “Is this decision rooted in love; is this path a pathway of love. Does this decision enhance my joy in God, or does it cloud heaven’s skies? Does this decision bring me peace that surpasses my understanding, or does it trouble the Spirit within me? Is this decision gentle toward others? Is this decision morally and spiritually good? Is this decision made in patience, or is it made in haste? Is this decision a decision based on faith in God’s Word, or premised upon self-trust or trust in others? Is this decision made in humility and meekness, or in pride and arrogance? Is this decision made with self-control, or am I out of control just doing what I want to do?” Any major decision that does not meet that ninefold test is a bad decision, perhaps even a dangerous decision, one that will resist, quench, and grieve the Holy Spirit.

Step VI: Look Around with New Eyes

Solomon tells us, “A wise man’s eyes are in his head.” Solomon’s proverb includes three important aspects of knowing and doing God’s will–the eyes, the head, and wisdom. The eyes connote sight, and thus the ability to see things clearly. A blind person always walks a dangerous path, but keen eyes make every path plain and every footstep sure. Anatomically and neurologically, the eyes connect to the head, so that not only do we see but we also possess the ability to analyze and interpret what we see. In other words, we rationalize what we visualize, and this eye-to-head dynamic enables us both to see and think about the circumstances around them and the paths before them. But the most important element of Solomon’s proverb is neither the eyes nor the head but wisdom. In biblical terms, wisdom is more than visual accuracy and intellectual acumen that enable us to analyze problems and find solutions. Wisdom involves rationality but sanctifies it with spirituality. Wisdom includes the rational ability to use our eyes to see circumstances and our heads to analyze situations, but wisdom transcends physical sight and rational thought and reaches into a supernatural dimension of discernment, a miraculous ability to see things as God sees them, and to think about things as God thinks about them. Wisdom is a tangible, God-given ability to look at the circumstances of Providence, interpret those circumstances, and then make a decision that accords with God’s will. This phenomenal ability to think wisely and do wisely lies within the grasp of every single Christian. “If any man lack wisdom,” James exhorts us, “let him ask of God who gives liberally to all.”

Step VII: Obey

Knowing God’s will requires reading and meditating upon His Word; not trying to figure out things on our won; sensitivity to Spirit’s personality; fervent, effectual prayer; and God-given wisdom. But if we possess all those spiritual graces and do not act, we may know God’s will but we have not done God’s will. Then we would fall into those categories of the spiritual coward who says, “I know God’s will but I fear to do it,” or the spiritual rebel who says, “I know God’s will but I don’t like it.” These are sins of which every Christian must repent. Paul’s maxim to the Thessalonians, “understanding what the will of the Lord is,” necessarily implies that, not only must we know God’s will but also that we must do it. This is where grace comes in. Left to ourselves, none of us would ever do God’s will; but by His grace, all of us can, yea, all of us, must, yea, all of us will do God’s will. Otherwise, we cannot call Jesus Lord and thereby enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus once asked His disciples, “Why do you call Lord if you do not do the things I command you?” Jesus’ words imply an hypocrisy–we cannot say that Jesus is our Lord unless He really is our Lord, unless we are submitted and surrendered to His will. On another occasion Jesus said, “Not everyone who says unto me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” It is not as if Jesus Himself was never tempted with fear of God’s will, or rebellion against God’s will. He was. In the Garden of Gethsemane, facing desertion by His disciples and the brutal and cruel cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” Though no mortal or angel dare charge the Son of God with sin, we know nonetheless that He was tested in all points as we are tested, including the test of whether or not He would do God’s will. That is truly “the last temptation of Christ,” and the lesson of Gethsemane. While we cannot possibly imagine the terrible prospect that lay before the Son of God, the stinging whip, the cruel mockery, the ignoble cross, the heavy hammer, the sharp nail, the merciless spear, and alienation from His heavenly Father, all of us have our lesser Gethsemanes and our lighter crosses, but Gethsemanes and crosses nonetheless. May God’s mercy embolden us to follow the example of our dear Savior, who both knew and did God’s will. May God’s grace enable us to pray as He prayed, “Father, not my will, but thine.”

In conclusion, let us flick the switch of God’s Word and stare at that star; let us cease from trying to figure things out by and for ourselves, and instead ask our Heavenly Father for wisdom; in the face of difficult or puzzling circumstances, may we neither quench nor grieve God the Holy Spirit, but always subject our decisions and pathways to His graces; let us look around with new eyes, and interpret what we see with a new head. Above all, let us obey. By God’s grace and mercy, may we both know and do God’s will.

1 comment:

The Militant Pacifist said...

About 15 years ago my favorite preacher gave me (what is essentially) the outline of this essay in response to my request for counsel about a weighty decision that was evoking anxiety within me.

I still have the “post-it” note where I wrote down the outline as I held the telephone receiver between my neck and shoulder.

Decisions subjected to this paradigm never need to be second guessed.

“If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him (Matthew 7:11)?”