By Pastor Glenn Pease
There was a day when it was not considered out of order to challenge a preacher from the congregation, even in the middle of his sermon. In that day there was a preacher who spoke in favor of shoeing horses, and a mule skinner stood up and took issue by saying, "If God almighty had thought it right hosses should have iron on thar feet, he'd a put it thar himself. I don't pretend to be a pious man, but I'm not a goin to run against the will of God almighty, though there's some that call themselves ministers that does."
Times have changed, to be sure, but man has not, and conflicts similar as this go on all the time over a multitude of matters. Every serious minded Christian is concerned about the will of God, and must stand for his convictions. The problem comes when equally serious minded Christians have opposite convictions, and both are justifying their convictions by saying they are following the will of God. What if John is convinced that its the will of God that he marry Jane, but Jane doesn't get that message, but one just the opposite? Obviously we cannot equate the will of God with man's convictions, even the most godly of men, for man's convictions are always most strong in those areas where men are in most disagreement. Every error that has ever been a threat to truth has been held with deep conviction. Therefore, deep conviction is no adequate measure of the will of God.
If you equate God's will with conviction, then God's will becomes utter chaos, and is used as a weapon to try and block opposition. After all, if you say God led you to your conviction, those who oppose it are oppose to God. This is the logic that leads to so many religious battles. If God's will is at the mercy of man's subjective taste and feelings, then it no wonder that it is such a major problem for Christians to be sure of God's will. Life seems to be so complex, and controversy seems to be so wide spread, that many lose confidence that God's will can be known with any certainty. We know we are in the world to serve Christ, and to strive toward the goal of being Christ-like, but the roads to that goal seem so complicated that we stand at crossroads every day trying to decide which is the best road to take to reach the goal.
We often feel like the man trying to direct some tourists to a certain hotel in downtown New York. After several futile attempts to point out the complicated route he gave up in frustration, and said, "If you're going there I wouldn't start from here, its to complicated." That sounds silly, for you have to start from where you are, but on the other hand, it may provide an answer by which we can make a complicated subject more simple. If we start from where we are, it will be difficult to get everyone on the same road, for we all have different problems, and we all stand at different crossroads, wondering which road will take us in God's will. We cannot begin to cover all of the many subjects that are on the minds of a whole congregation, but we can establish some basic principles that will fit every situation.
We could start with Paul, for he gives us these basic principles, but we want to go all the way back to the beginning in order to get a picture in our minds that can be of help. Back in the days of ultimate simplicity in the garden of Eden God said to Adam and Eve that they could eat of all the trees in the garden but one. God's will for them fell into a simple negative and positive. There were no complex decisions to be made as to what was right, and what was wrong. They were free to do anything but what was forbidden. Even then they stepped out of God's will, and so we see that simplicity and certainty are no guarantee of obedience.
Nevertheless, we can look back and think how marvelous if we could know God's will so clearly. We feel the complexity of modern life has made it almost impossible, but I am convinced this is not the case. Most of our problems are of our own making, and all the fretting and worrying that many Christians do is self-inflicted torment. I cannot believe God has made His will so obscure that His children must go through frustrating and agonizing efforts to discover it. I believe the same basic pattern that was in Eden still applies today.
God did not control Adam and Eve like puppets. He did not say, now eat a banana; now pick a flower; now go for a swim. He created man with a mind and a will, and a system of desires, and let him live freely without dictating every move. He only made it clear what he was not to do. God commanded him to keep the garden, and he was forbidden to eat of a certain tree, but everything else God permitted. So here we have a pattern that fits all time, and all of God's people. God's will falls into these three categories: The commanded, the permitted, and the forbidden.
Because of the fall and man's sin, there are now many more prohibitions, but God's will still falls into these three categories. The very fact that Christians are so often in turmoil over the will of God indicates they are operating under a misconception. I do not believe God expects us to have to worry about His will any more than I want my children to live in constant uncertainty as to what I expect of them. Parents who do so produce unstable children, and we dare not accuse God of this abuse. God's will, like mine for my children, falls into the simple categories of the negative, positive, and the neutral. The first two are to be made clear, and they are free in the third area.
On the level of action, the Scriptural admonition, "Cease to do evil; learn to do well," is a good example of what I mean. Ninety % of God's will is already revealed. No one can read the Bible and not see what God expects, and what He forbids. It is clear and simple. We don't understand it all, of course, but our responsibility is to follow what we do. As your children grow up you teach them what you expect of them, and you teach them what is forbidden for them to do. You don't teach them what you expect and forbid for all of life, but only for what they can understand right now. It would be foolish for me to forbid a young child to stay out until 2:00A.M., or to drive too fast. These things will come in due time, but they are irrelevant right now. God likewise does not reveal His whole will to us right now, but only that which applies to us at the moment. That is why we must continue to read the Bible as long as we live. It has new revelation for every stage of life. Don't worry about all you don't understand, just take what you do and obey it, and greater understanding will come when you need to know. The point is, we are just like Adam and Eve, for we have what is clearly commanded; what is clearly forbidden, and we are free in all the rest.
Vance Havner, the great evangelist and author wrote, "I once thought that every invitation I received as a speaker was the leading of the Lord. But I discovered that I was sometimes invited to speak at two different places at the same time, and I knew the Lord knew I was singular not plural. From that I went on to learn that I had been given some common sense and was expected to use it under the Spirit's direction." We are responsible to chose what God has commanded, avoid what He has forbidden, and then make the wisest judgement we can in all other areas, striving always to chose what we feel would please God.
I may command one of my children to take the garbage out, and forbid them to go across a certain busy street, but after that they may chose to come in and watch TV or play outside. They may chose to ride a bike, or go swimming, or anything else that does not conflict with known rules of the family. None of their choices can be out of my will, and God allows us the same freedom. Many have the idea concerning God's will that it is something that He wants us to do, but which is against our nature and interests, and so it takes real sacrifice to do His will, because you give up what makes you happy to do something you don't like. Why we have this distorted concept of God and His will I do not know, but the Bible indicates everywhere that to be in the will of God is to be in a state of joy. Paul here in Rom. 12:2 calls the will of God that which is good, acceptable, and perfect. Psa. 37:4 says, "Delight thyself also in the Lord and He shall give thee the desires of thine heart."
Like a wise father, God wants the best for His children. He wants them to have fulfillment of their desires. Jesus said that He came that we might have abundant life. We need to rid ourselves of the nonsense that God's will leads to misery, and that it in any way thwarts our highest ambitions. We need to see ourselves as children with a Father who has a negative and positive will which is clearly revealed, and an area of freedom where He wants us to fulfill our desires. God is not like the army, where they take a machanic and make him a cook. A.W. Tozer put it this way, "Never seek the leading of the Lord concerning an act that is forbidden in the Word of God. Never seek the leading of the Lord concerning an act that is commanded in the Word of God." These two simple rules determine the vast majority of the major decisions of life.
But immediately the problem is raised concerning the 1001 things of which the Bible does not speak, either for or against. This is the area where people torment themselves, and fall out of God's will in their very anxiety over what God's will is. Our problem is that we fear freedom. We fear to take the responsibility which God has given us to chose the best in the great area of freedom. Christ has set us free from the bondage of sin, and given us new desires, and opens up a whole new world of possibilities. But instead of launching out in this great ocean of opportunity, we hug the shore, and remain close to the scene of bondage. We are often like the little girl who was asked how she fell out of bed, and she answered, "I guess I stayed to close to where I got in at." Many Christians stay to close to that line that separates the kingdom of God from the world because they are afraid of the liberty which they have in Christ. This kind of Christian often gets so bogged down in the pit of indecision on the commonplace matters of life that they miss the joy of doing what really counts for time and eternity. God's will for them is to recognize the thrill of living for Christ and exercising their freedom.
A.W. Tozer wrote, "Some Christians walk under a cloud of uncertainty, worrying about which profession they should enter, which car they should drive, which school they should attend, where they should live, and other such matters when their Lord has set them free to follow their own personal bent, guided only by their love for Him and their fellow men." He is simply saying that God deals with us just as He did with Adam and Eve. In those areas of life not controlled by what is commanded or forbidden, we are free to excercise our own intelligent choice. I am neither commanded nor forbidden as to where I buy my gas, my shoes, or my groceries, therefore, I chose where to do so on the basis of my own taste, income, and convenience. God expects me to be wise, but He does not make these decisions for me. This is true for the books I read, the sermons I preach, and hundreds of things in life where God has given me the freedom to chose.
For the vast majority of decisions in this area of freedom we need only to pray for God to give us wisdom, and then go ahead and do the best we know. Even if it turns out not to have been the best decision, you are not out of God's will, for it is His will that you be free to decide, even if it is not always the best. If I give my child a dollar to go and buy candy, I don't tell her what to get. When she comes back and I think she made some foolish choices, she is not out of my will, for I willed her to be free to make those choices. If I had commanded her to buy a certain thing, or forbidden her to buy a certain thing then she would not be conforming to my will, but if I leave her free, she can do what is foolish and still not be out of my will.
If we can just see this, it will challenge us to make a better use of our freedom in Christ, and also prevent us from blaming God for some poor decisions. And unwise action is often justified by the person saying the Lord led me; when in reality the Lord only let you excercise your own freedom, and you possibly did a poor job of it. The Lord led, and the Lord let are two different things, and we need to beware of leaving God holding the bag of our own poor choices, just because He permits our freedom. When you come right down to it there is a great area of freedom in life where the Christian cannot know God's will simply because God has no will to know. He has given us a mind and a will, and He expects us to use it in a way pleasing to Him. It is our responsibility, and we cannot throw it off on God.
The searching for the will of God in areas of freedom is often an attempt to dodge our own responsibility by our uncertainty as to God's will. Until we see this third aspect of God's will in its full significance, we are missing a necessary factor in the mature Christian life. God has a positive will which is commanded; a negative will which is forbidden; and thirdly, a will that we take the responsibility to choose wisely. As Tozer said, some people think it is more spiritual to seek God's leading rather than just go ahead and do the obvious wise thing, but it is not. We do not honor God by asking Him to guide us to know the time of day if we have a watch to look at. There are many decisions that are up to us, and we are to make them in the light of the revealed will of God in which He has told us what He forbids and what He commands.