Pitfalls in Finding God's Will for Your Life
R. B. Kuiper
How am I to know the will of God concerning my life?" That question presents itself time and again to every Christian.
Its answer is really very simple and can be stated with utmost brevity. The Word of God, the Bible, is our one and only infallible rule of life as well as of faith.
To be sure, it must not be forgotten that for a true understanding of God's Word, the illumination of the Holy Spirit is indispensable. But it does not follow by any manner of means that God reveals his will to his children in two distinct and separate waysby his Word and by his Spirit. He makes his will clear in just one wayby his Spirit through his Word.
The fact remains that we have but one objective and infallible statement of the will of God concerning our lives. It is the Bible. Says the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.6):
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.
That infidels and modernists reject the Bible as the infallible rule of life is a matter of common knowledge. What is not so generally understood is that a great many erroneous views on this subject are prevalent among those who would be known as conservative Christians. Right within Christian circles are those who would discover God's will for their lives by other methods than the study of his Word and who, in so doing, deny, perhaps unwittingly but nonetheless really, the sufficiency of Holy Scripture.
A brief consideration of some instances of that sort of thing may prove helpful.
When our Lord Jesus was on earth, he rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for placing the tradition of the elders on a par with, or even above, God's law. He charged them with making God's commandments of no effect by their tradition. Suppose a man had needy parents. God's law declared that it was his sacred duty to aid them to the utmost of his ability. But according to Jewish tradition, he could escape this duty by the simple device of declaring that what he might otherwise give to his parents was corban, that is, an offering devoted to God and under no circumstances to be diverted from this sacred purpose.
The Roman Catholic Church has a large body of traditions which find no support in the Word of God and yet are made binding on church members. That is as might be expected, for Rome frankly acknowledges not only the Bible as infallible, but the Church as well. Therefore, ecclesiastical tradition is considered as authoritative as Scripture itself.
Protestantism from the beginning firmly rejected the authority of tradition and made the sole authority of the Bible its controlling principle. But what poor Protestants many of us are today! How difficult we find it to distinguish between human tradition and divine precept! How prone we are to make the traditions of men as binding as God's commandmentsor a bit more so!
In the kind providence of God, I had God-fearing parents. The home in which I was reared was pervaded with a pronounced Christian atmosphere. It was customary, for instance, not only to have prayers before and after meals, but also to read a chapter of God's Word at each meal. I consider the last-named custom a most commendable one. Not only does it insure regularity in family worship, but it gives beautiful expression to the significant truth that man's need of spiritual food is at least as great as his need of food for the body. Therefore, I have not the slightest inclination to depart from that custom. So dearly do I love it that I confidently expect to hold to it as long as I live. More than that, I strongly recommend it to all Christians. But have I the right to force this particular system of Bible reading on others? May I count those guilty of sinful neglect who have another system? In a word, may I elevate this most excellent tradition to the rank of divine law? Of course not. Emphatically not!
If even the best of human traditions are not to be compared with God's commandments, then surely less noble traditions do not deserve our respect.
May we ever be on guard against those who in the name of religion would add to God's law. To be stricter than God is no evidence of piety but, on the contrary, of abominable presumption. To add to God's law is just as heinous a sin as to subtract from it. He who does either puts himself in God's place.
Therefore, it is not at all strange that he who today forbids what God allows will tomorrow allow what God forbids. That is precisely what one may expect of him who sets himself up as lawgiver in God's stead. He is sure to topple from the cliff of rigid moralism into the abyss of reeking immorality.
The Individual Conscience
It is very generally held, both in and outside Christian circles, that the conscience is an infallible guide for right living. Often the conscience has been defined as God's voice in man.
The fallacy of this belief is easily shown. The conscience is indeed a precious gift of God to man. But, like everything else in man, it was corrupted by sin. In consequence, it has become extremely fallible.
It has been truly said that only one dictum of the conscience is thoroughly reliable, namely, that it is wrong to do the wrong. On that all consciences are agreed and rightly so. But when it comes to the question of just what is wrong and what is not, consciences give a wide variety of answers and not infrequently flatly contradict each other. It follows that, if we were to permit men's consciences to decide what may or may not be done, we should be compelled to admit that there is no such thing as objective good. The question What is good? would become unanswerable.
Then too, the conscience is pliable. Everybody's conscience is strongly influenced by the traditions of childhood. As these traditions are left behind, the conscience frequently changes. And will not the voice of conscience be stifled if one repeatedly does what it forbids?
It is altogether possible for a person to feel in sacred duty bound to do what is absolutely wrong. The Bible contains a striking instance of that. The apostle Paul tells us that before his conversion, he genuinely thought within himself that he ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. When the grace of God opened his eyes, he saw that by doing these things he had become "a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious" (1 Tim. 1:13).
When one is born again, the new life which is his affects him all around. He has received a new heart and, since all the issues of life are from the heart, all things have become new to him. He now thinks differently, wills differently, feels differently. His conscience also is enlightened. But sin and its consequences will not vanish entirely until death. And so it comes about that the consciences, even of Christians, differ on details. I know a Christian worker whose conscience forbids him to walk as little as a mile on Sundays, except for going to church. Personally, I can take a walk of more than three miles on the Lord's Day without compunction of conscience. In fact, my conscience sometimes troubles me a bit for not walking more than I do on each of the seven days of the week.
We conclude that the conscience is no substitute for the Word of God as a rule of life. Not even the Christian's conscience is that. And this means, among other things, that no one has the right to impose the dictates of his conscience on others.
Satan likes to ape God. Magic, for instance, is his imitation of the miracle, and soothsaying is his substitute for prophecy.
The heathen often take recourse to soothsaying in their efforts to discover the will of the gods. They may slaughter an animal. Some sacred person, as a priest, will examine the entrails. Presently he is ready to declare what the gods will have done.
It goes altogether without saying that no Christian will consciously resort to anything even remotely resembling such practices.
And yet, strange to say, well-meaning Christians occasionally do seek to learn God's will by a method not wholly unrelated to pagan soothsaying. They are convinced that the Bible is our only source of knowledge of the divine will. So to discover that will, to the Bible they turn. But how? Do they study its content? No. They offer a brief prayer for divine guidance, open the Bible at random, and then seek the answer to their query in the first verse on which their eyes light.
That this practice is dishonoring to the Bible must be clear to every thinking person. Dr. Machen once likened it to the use of the ouija board. To use the Bible thus is to abuse it. God's Word is not an instrument of magic. This practice may be described fairly accurately as pious soothsaying.
An Abbreviated Bible
Modernists tell us that not everything in the Bible is God's word. Orthodox Christians insist that the whole Bible is God's word. And yet there are those in the latter group who abbreviate Holy Scripture after a fashion. To be sure, it does not occur to them to say that any part of it is untrue, but they do teach that certain portions are not intended for us Christians of the new dispensation.
Our Dispensationalist brethren hold that the Lord's Prayer, for instance, is not for us. And so sharp a line of demarcation do they draw between the dispensation of law, under which Israel lived after Sinai, and the dispensation of grace, under which we live today, as to deny that the Ten Commandments are for us. A famous Dispensationalist preacher in New York City once said that the Lord's Prayer "has no more place in the Christian church than the thunders of Sinai." Not all Dispensationalists are equally radical, but at least one extremist has come to the conclusion that the only part of the Bible intended for us lies within the compass of the so-called Imprisonment Epistles.
When men deny that Christians are obligated to obey the Ten Commandments, the implications for Christian ethics become extremely serious. This denial is the very essence of that old and devastating heresy known as Antinomianism. The history of the Christian church tells us that Antinomianism has not been conducive to holy living. How could it be? It would deprive us of God's own summary of his will concerning our lives. It seeks to rob us of that revelation of the divine will which is an expression of the very nature of God, and to which the apostle Paul could therefore ascribe the divine attributes of holiness, justice, and goodness (Rom. 7:12).
It is not strange that those who deny the eternal validity of the moral law should seek a substitute for it. And so at least a few of them have come to rely for the disclosure of God's will on a vague, mystical guidance of the Holy Spirit.
It is of the essence of mysticism to separate the operation of the Holy Spirit from God's objective Word, to hold that the Spirit often reveals God's will without reference to the Bible, and thus by plain implication to deny that the Bible is God's once-for-all, finished revelation of his will.
No student of Scripture will care to deny that before the Bible was completed God frequently revealed his will through such methods as visions, dreams, and the casting of lots. But to assert that God continues to do this after the completion of Holy Writ is to deny its sufficiency. That obviously is an extremely serious matter. And so we are not surprised to find the Westminster divines militating against it in the warning that nothing at any time is to be added to Scripture, not even "by new revelations of the Spirit."
And yet, how very prevalent is the notion that the will of God may be learned through special guidance of the Spirit, apart from the Word!
There is the old story of the young man who imagined he saw the letters P. C. written in the sky, and interpreted them as a divine command for him to Preach Christ. However, soon after his arrival at the seminary, it became clear that he had no capacity whatever for study. So an elderly professor took him aside and in a kind way suggested that he might have misinterpreted his supposed vision. P. C. could stand for Plant Corn.
Then there is the story of the widow who informed a certain gentleman that it had been revealed to her in a vision that he and she should be married, to which he aptly replied that as soon as he received a like vision, their wedding day would be set.
I once met a patient in a psychopathic hospital who had attempted to shoot his pastor because, as he claimed, God had revealed to him with unmistakable clarity that such was his duty. Likely there are men and women outside asylums who "feel led" to do things almost as bad and, while doing them, are confident of being "in the very center of God's will."
To claim special revelations of God's will by the Holy Spirit apart from Scripture sounds pious, but it is in reality wicked presumption, which lays him who makes the claim wide open to deception by Satan.
This type of mysticism frequently expresses itself in prayers that in the sight of God must be abominations. Instead of praying that the Holy Spirit may make the divine will in a given matter clear from Scripture, one prays only to be led to know God's will and puts forth no effort to discover it from his Word. That amounts to tempting God as much as if a drunkard were to enter a saloon with the prayer on his lips: "Lead me not into temptation." And how dreadfully easy it becomes for such a one to convince himself that whatever he feels like doing after prayer for guidance cannot possibly be wrong.
Mysticism flings the door wide open to Pharisaism at its worst.
Few notions are held more widely by Christians than that God is wont to disclose his will by two means: his Word and his providence.
It is not difficult to show that he blunders seriously who coordinates providence with the Word as a source of knowledge of the divine will.
Theologians distinguish between God's secret will, embodied in his counsel of foreordination, and God's revealed will, embodied in his law. The two are often denominated God's decretive will and his preceptive will. Of course, God does not have two wills, but for practical purposes this distinction between two phases of the divine will is helpful. God's revealed will is an infallible guide for the life of his children. But his secret will obviously is no guide at all.
The betrayal of Jesus by Judas was included in God's counsel. Scripture tells us that it occurred "by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23). But that does not in the least lessen Judas's guilt. He sinned inexpressibly because he violated God's revealed will most flagrantly. Here Deuteronomy 29:29 is applicable: "The secret things belong unto Jehovah our God; but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law."
Now providence is simply the gradual unfolding of God's secret will. How perfectly clear it is, then, that it cannot serve as a guide for our moral behavior. It has been said that destiny is duty, but that is pernicious heresy.
Of one piece with this heresy is the widespread notion that God's plan for one's life is to be identified with one's duty. How often it is said that a man by neglecting his duty can defeat God's plan for his life. But that is the baldest kind of Arminianism. The fact is that God's plans never go awry. He declares: "My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure" (Isa. 46:10). All events come to pass in accordance with God's counsel of foreordination and in the way of his providence.
That is as true of the sins of men as of their good deeds. God's plan included the sin of Joseph's brothers against him. Therefore, he could say to them: "Ye meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive" (Gen. 50:20). A most significant part of God's plan was the crucifixion of his Son. But it would be blasphemous indeed to say that this fact rendered the perpetration of that deed one whit less criminal. This crime was unspeakably heinous because it constituted a most flagrant violation of God's will as revealed in his law. How obvious it is that God's secret will as embodied in his counsel and executed by his providence was never intended as a rule for our lives!
The danger is ever present that the human heart, deceitful as it is, will misinterpret the leadings of providence. A man has a strong desire to do something immoral. Down in his heart he knows that it is immoral, but he does not suppress his longing. He tries hard to convince himself that the contemplated thing is permissible. Now he prays a wicked prayer. He asks God to make it clear to him providentially whether or not he may yield to his inclination. One day he is confronted with an opportunity to satisfy his craving. Is there not great danger that he will interpret this opportunity as a divine hint to go ahead? If, on the other hand, he had held to the law of God as his perfect guide, he could have come to no such evil conclusion.
Sometimes providence will bring to our attention a moral issue which we had not seen. A young man works in an office, let us say. Near him works a young lady. He learns to love her and is thinking seriously of asking her to become his wife. Being a godly young man, he makes this affair a matter of prayer. He prays that God may make it clear to him whether or not he should marry her. Then one day he providentially makes the discovery that she is a divorcée and that she obtained her divorce on unbiblical grounds. His duty is clear. But what has made it clear? Providential guidance? Surely not! Providence simply brought the moral issue to the fore. But the moral issue was decided by the Word of God, and by it alone.
We conclude that questions of moral behavior are to be settled, never on the basis of providential leadings, but always and only in the light of God's will as revealed in his Word.
We have dealt with moral issues. Now let us for a moment consider an instance which apparently involves no choice between good and evil, but rather a choice between two courses, both of which are good. A young man feels called of God to become a foreign missionary, but cannot decide whether to go to China or Africa. He knows full well that God would have the gospel brought to both these places, and he has no personal preference, but he is anxious to do what is best. So he prays that God may providentially guide him to make up his mind as is best. Presently a serious obstacle arises which renders it practically impossible for him to go to China. He decides that God would have him preach in Africa. The day of his departure comes. He sails. There is no trace of doubt in his mind but that the Lord has called him to Africa. And well may he be reasonably certain. But, lo and behold, on his journey he is taken ill and dies. The history of Borden of Yale is repeated.
What shall we say? In the first place, that what we are told of David when he desired to build a temple to the Lord is applicable to our friend. It was good that he had it in his heart to become a missionary. In the second place, that the strongest feeling on our part that the Lord would have us do something is not conclusive proof that he really would. And in the third place, that we have no way of interpreting providential leadings infallibly. Providence often takes such unexpected turns that we can never be altogether sure where it will lead us. Nor do we need to know.
It may be added that when we stand before a choice of conduct, we should be very slow to decide that no moral issue is at stake. Often moral questions lie hidden under the surface of things. Yet this is not always the case. Not infrequently we must choose between two goods rather than a good and an evil. To remember this is decidedly in the interest of sanity. When confronting a choice of the former kind, we should not permit our consciences to be troubled, for there is danger that, in the words of Calvin, "the conscience will enter a long and inextricable labyrinth, from which it is afterwards most difficult to escape."
In such instances, we may well pray for providential guidance to do that which is most expedient, but we must not neglect to use our God-given common sense, and ordinarily there can be no harm in following our natural inclinations. I sit down in a restaurant. The menu gives me a choice between lamb and ham. I dislike lamb. I like ham. There is no reason why I should afflict myself with lamb. Nor is there a good reason why I should not thoroughly enjoy my ham.
Again it appears that providential guidance is not intended to solve our moral problems. God has given us his Word for that.
The conclusion of the whole matter is that God's Word is our one rule of life, our sole standard of morality. The Bible is an altogether sufficient lamp for our feet and the only light for our path that we need.
For the discovery of God's will for our lives, there is no substitute in all the world for painstaking and prayerful study of Holy Scripture.
This article (slightly revised) was previously published by the OPC's Committee on Christian Education as a booklet entitled God's Will and God's Word. The author was a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary. He quotes the ASV (1901). Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2004.