What Christian does not want to live in the will of God? What an admirable aspiration, and what a difficult thing to figure out. Many Christians have needlessly tied themselves up in knots over this issue.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (Jas. 4:13-17)
James is addressing Christians who are in the middle of making business plans, and he insists that they do so while taking the will of God into account. But note what he does not say. He does not say that “you should first prayerfully determine that it is in fact God’s will.” He says rather that you need to hold your plans before Him with open palms because you do not know what the will of God is. He is addressing those who are in the midst of plans (v. 13). He responds to this, not with an exhortation to pietistic assurance, but rather to the kind of humility that comes from internalizing the book of Ecclesiastes. Your life, and mine, is a mist (v. 14). This means that all our plans should be made contingently—if the Lord wills, we will do this or that (v. 15). If you do not live this way, the simplest statement becomes a boastful evil (v. 16). If you have been taught this principle, to refuse to do it is an overt sin (v. 17).
The sin that James identifies here is that of saying, “I am going to do this or that,” when your life is a vapor, and you can’t know that. Now, suppose a man desperately wants to live in the will of God, and wants to do nothing unless it is the will of God. He prays all night, and tells his friends that he wants to move forward on this business venture, and God will surely bless it “because I am confident that it is the will of God.” Is his life still a mist and a vapor? Yes. Has he received a special revelation from God? Is he a prophet? No. Then this means that his pietism has driven him a great deal further into the sin that James is condemning, which is the sin of presumption. Presumption doesn’t cease to be presumption because you bring in the name of God, and pretend to know His unrevealed will. This merely heightens the presumption that James already condemned as evil.
DECREES AND COMMANDS
There is another important distinction that we have to master when considering this subject. If we don’t we will find ourselves all tangled up because we have not carefully distinguished what we mean by “the will of God.” The phrase can refer, with equal appropriateness, to the decrees of God, or to the commands of God. We can and should use the phrase both ways, but if we think we are talking about one when we are talking about the other, the result will be practical mayhem. The decrees of God are the will of God for how every detail of human history plays out. This is basic Calvinism. “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matt. 10:29). “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28). Jesus, when He prayed about what these men were going to do, spoke of it as the will of the Father (Luke 22:42). Used in this sense the will of God cannot be thwarted.
But there is another use, and in this sense the will of God is thwarted all the time. Is it the will of God for us to refrain from adultery? Of course. Do all Christians refrain from it? Unfortunately, no. This is why the apostle Paul had to warn the Thessalonians against sexual impurity. Note how he puts it. “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thess. 4:1-3). This is the preceptive will of God (referring to His precepts), which can be thwarted, and frequently is. So then, distinguish the decrees (which are hidden from us beforehand; our lives are a mist), and the commands, which belong to us and our children (Dt. 29:29).
MAKING AN ACTUAL DECISION
So, then, we are not supposed to try to figure out the (decretive) will of God beforehand, getting a pre-printed agenda from the Holy Spirit, so that we can go off and do it. But we are still responsible to walk in the will of God, honoring Him. But how can we do this without figuring it out beforehand? There are two elements to living in the will of God—obedience and wisdom.
First, obedience. You never have to pray about whether to marry an unbeliever. You never have to pray about whether to violate a lawful contract you made. You never have to pray about whether to break a lawful promise to someone. God’s Word, God’s preceptive will, given to all Christians, directs you.
What about wisdom? Assuming the choice before you is lawful—the job offer is not to become a hit man for the Mafia or to enter into prostitution—what do you do then? You seek the wisdom of parents, family, friends, and counselors as you seek to answer the following questions: what are your abilities? what are your opportunities? what are your desires? “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14).
Abilities: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Rom. 12:3). Opportunities: “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word . . .” (Col. 4:3) Desires: “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4).
TRUSTING IN GOD
We should labor to make what we understand to be important decisions in this careful way. But we must never believe that everything rides on us. We do this because God is growing us up into maturity, and not because we have a clear list of which decisions before us are crucial and which are unimportant. We don’t know. Never forget that God is God, and we live our lives trusting in Him.
These notes came from a sermon preached by Douglas Wilson, November 4, 2007
Gary Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God
Kevin DeYoung, Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will
John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life