How can you know God’s will for your life?
It’s a simple but profound question asked by teenagers, young adults, and aging adults at every juncture of life. Where should I go to school? What should I major in? Who should I marry? What job should I take? Where should we live? What church should I go to? How should I raise my kids? When should I retire?
We often (and mistakenly) make many of these decisions based on our own gut feelings or logical conclusions. Marry the person who makes you happy. Go to the school that feels “right.” Take the job that pays the best. Live in a place that most convenient or the best investment. Attend the church that offers cutting-edge ministries. Retire as soon as possible. That’s God’s will, isn’t it?
If God has given us minds and souls, how does God’s will factor into our decision-making equation? When we believe that God’s will is our personal happiness, we won’t investigate past our own emotions and desires. We will decide that God’s will is mysterious and specific, and we’ll be frustrated, angry, and confused about what God wants for us and why bad things happen.
But—if God’s will is learning to walk in the perimeters he sets throughout the Bible, we can learn to avoid dangerous decisions or misinterpretation of his “rules.”
Why People Want to Know God’s Will
I recently guest-spoke via Zoom to a college girls’ Bible study. The girls hadn’t assigned me a speaking topic, so in the first few minutes, I threw out a few ideas and elaborated on each to see what resonated with the group. When I suggested “How to know God’s will,” pretty little faces on my screen began nodding excitedly.
“I just asked someone that question,” one girl said.
“I was just wondering today—how do I even know what God’s voice sounds like? How can I tell when he’s speaking to me?”
And so, we began to unpack that God has a will for the whole world and a will for each of us individually. We all want to know God’s will. Perhaps we desire to play an active role in his mission. Perhaps we’re afraid of messing up our lives. The truth is: anyone who claims to follow God or have a relationship with God must settle the mystery of knowing God’s will.
We each possess free will to make decisions, and yet God chooses to speak specifically to each of us and guide us in his plans when we’re willing to listen and follow him. God’s will comprises a beautiful blend of blessing, calling, trust, obedience, and adventure for anyone who believes what God says about himself and us.
Here are five questions to help you understand God’s will for your life and do it.
1. What Is God’s Will for Everyone?
Jesus explained God’s will to his disciples in Matthew 22:37-40 with two simple commands: love God and love people. That is God’s will. Jesus applied these statements before his death when he explained, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). God’s will is that we will obey his word; by obeying, we remain in his will. In John 15, Jesus says that when we remain in him, he remains in us, our lives become fruitful and productive (John 15:5). God desires for us to reproduce his image—to be light-bearers of the gospel (Matthew 28:19-20). He calls us to live under his grace (Galatians 1:6) and freedom (Galatians 5:13) by loving him first and people second.
God’s will gives us the freedom to make any decisions that align with God’s stated truth. Should you marry an unbeliever? No, because God has already forbidden it (2 Corinthians 6:14). Should you have an affair and leave your spouse? No, because God has already explained that sex should remain exclusive to your spouse (Exodus 20:14). Should you gossip about someone? No, because God has already stated that gossip is a sin (2 Corinthians 12:20). Extenuating circumstances like convenience, love, change of mind, betrayal, or financial hardship should never determine our stance on any sin because God has already spoken clearly on what sin is, and God doesn’t change his mind about that (Hebrews 13:8).
God’s will has always been that we live in a relationship with him. God created the earth and the people in it to reflect his glory. Sin intercepts that purpose, yet Jesus’ death made a relationship with God possible again. We live to glorify him. Any sin, therefore, obstructs that purpose and derails God’s planned trajectory of our lives.
Paul explains God’s will like this: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1-2).
2. What Is God’s Specific Will for You?
While you might be clear that God’s will is for you to marry a Christian, attend church, and teach your kids about God, you might have more precise concerns. Who’s the “right” person for you? Which church is the “right” one for you? What kind of schooling is best for you?
Here’s the good news: when you’re seeking God first, the decisions you make will be the “right” decisions. Every decision made following God is a path that brings you closer to God. Which is what God wants more than anything.
Once we individually accept Christ and follow Him, God gives us a powerful gift: the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13). The Holy Spirit intercedes, convicts, directs, prompts, interprets, comforts, guides, and affirms decisions. When we are reading Scripture and praying, we will begin to recognize what the prompting of the Holy Spirit feels like. We will recognize his voice. We will have the wisdom to use our freedom accordingly.
Paul explains to Christians that we have the freedom to follow Christ because God lives in us and directs us. Freedom in Christ (sometimes called “Christian liberty”) never negates sin, but Christian liberty allows believers to make decisions according to the Holy Spirit’s prompting. God can speak to different people in different ways about the same thing. Rather than judging others for their liberty, grace dictates that we adhere to what the Holy Spirit is individually pressing us to do or not do.
3. How Does Your “Free Will” Factor into Obeying God’s Will?
Expressing free will in Christ should never cause us anxiety. Depression, indecision, worry, self-loathing, and fear are attributes of the devil, not the Lord. If you experience angst over decision-making or you distrust God’s prompting, go to the Lord in prayer and confess this. Ask the Holy Spirit to comfort you and make his will clear. Speak against the negative feelings you have. The Spirit’s power gives you the ability to overcome discouragement and deceitful thoughts that the enemy throws at you.
Using free will to choose a mate, a career, or an opportunity doesn’t guarantee life will be problem-free. We live in a fallen world run by the devil, who is prowling about trying to devour us (1 Peter 5:7). Difficult and undesirable things will happen to you when you live in the will of God. But every experience, whether it feels like a trial or a blessing, is an opportunity to glorify God’s work with your life.
Problems—or even mistakes—showcase God’s grace and favor. We don’t have to pressure ourselves into making the “right” decision when we’re choosing between two Christ-honoring options; God gives us the freedom to choose and will accompany us as we move forward. We only get into trouble when we don’t pray for God’s will or aren’t willing to wait for him to speak to us.
4. How Can You Tell When God Is Speaking?
When I am living in an attitude of worship and obedience, I hear constantly from God. I’ll speak wise counsel. I’ll be amazingly creative. God will give me words for people and situations at just the right moment. He will prompt me to pray for people at the moment they need his covering or give them something they need without my realizing they have a problem. I won’t need to understand what I’m doing—I’ll just know I should do it. My life will take on supernatural kindness, grace, wisdom, and creativity. That is God. Not me.
In 1 Kings 19:11-13, God speaks to Elijah in a gentle whisper. In Exodus 33:11, “The Lord would speak to Moses’ face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” Abraham bargains with God for Sodom and Gomorrah. Gideon argues with God about his assignment to lead the army. Hezekiah laments to God about the unfairness of his illness. All throughout Scripture, ordinary humans speak to God honestly and openly, and God answers them. In fact, God is moved by his people’s prayers. And he adjusts his instructions for his people “for his own sake” (2 Kings 20:1-6). When I want his will, I will be able to speak openly with him, and I will hear his voice.
The brilliant God-ideas and words that form in my head will sound like my own voice. But since they are way smarter than my other thoughts, I’ll know that’s God talking. Experience has shown me the difference between God’s ideas and mine. I speak without a kingdom mindset when I think on my own.
God speaks with affirmation, love, and patience. The devil pushes you, accuses you, condemns you, and belittles you. Any time you begin beating yourself up over an idea, that’s the devil pushing you toward discouragement and destruction. God is redemptive. He makes beauty from ashes (Isaiah 61:3). He raises the dead to life. Your poor decisions don’t freak him out at all; they present another opportunity for God to prove his love to you.
5. What If God’s Will Doesn’t Make Any Sense?
Start reading through the Old Testament stories or read Jesus’ teaching. God’s will never make sense, according to the world’s logic. The stories about Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, David, Solomon, Esther, Elijah, Elisha, and Jonah don’t make logical sense. They seem like fun children’s stories, except that every miraculous story has a theme and a purpose: a character’s unflinching obedience to a crazy command brings about redemption and salvation for God’s people. Jesus’ commands to love your enemies (Matthew 5:43), turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38), and die to self (Luke 9:23), don’t make any sense outside of God’s mission. If God used logical methods to save the world, why would anyone believe he is an almighty God? Why would we need a god at all?
God loves using ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things because the process brings those people and others into a relationship with himself.
So… How Do You Make Decisions?
Read Scripture and pray (James 1:5). Seek godly counsel. Be obedient and faithful. If you read and obey enough of God’s words, you will recognize his words when you hear them, and you will know his will because God has stated it throughout 66 different books of the Bible. He’s communicated it through 40-some different writers, writing over 1500 years from different cultures and nations. God’s message is consistent: he wants you to love and serve him. Any decision that allows you to do that, without compromising your obedience to his Word, is a good decision. Pray about it, of course. But whenever your heart seeks God first (Matthew 6:32), your heart will seek God’s will and have the courage to do it.
Sue Schlesman is an award-winning author, speaker, blogger, English teacher, and pastor’s wife. Her second book, Soulspeak: Praying Change into Unexpected Places, won a Selah Award in 2020. Sue was also a top-15 contributor at Crosswalk.com in 2020. Sue has a BA in Creative Writing and a Master’s in Theology & Culture. Her material appears in a variety of print, online, radio, and podcast mediums. She has a passion for poetry, missions, justice, traveling, reading, and the local church. You can find her writing about life, education, and Jesus at sueschlesman.com.