1. You say that we have an effect on the path that we walk in this life, that God’s “best path and best plans” don’t just happen apart from our cooperation. Do you have Scripture to back that up?
Well, I’m glad you asked. And let me ask this: If God always did whatever He wanted to do in our lives, regardless of us, why are we told so often in the Bible to pray for wisdom, to seek it, and to be discerning? If our choices and actions don’t matter and don’t have an effect on what He does in our lives, then it doesn’t matter if we live with wisdom or foolishness. Whatever happens is God’s plan, right?
Proverbs 4:7 tells us “Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, get understanding.”
Proverbs 2 tells us to seek wisdom diligently. And when we do, as I mentioned earlier, we will “understand what is right and just and fair - every good path.” (Proverbs 2:9) Wisdom is necessary to figure out the “good paths” that God wants us to take. He doesn’t just do what He wills or what He wants to have happen in our lives. We have to be walking in wisdom to figure it out.
I think the problem comes when we misinterpret verses like “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord . . .” (Jeremiah 29:11), “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9), and “. . . for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:13).
We hear these and we think that it means that He has plans, and so He’ll do what He plans. They are set in stone and it’s going to happen regardless of what we do. Right?
And I’m sure there are people that can find Biblical support for this. After all, there are times in the Bible where we read about certain people being called up or raised up by God for a certain purpose, like judges, Pharaohs, and prophets. And maybe He did "force" them to do what He wanted. At the very least, He orchestrated events to get them to the point He wanted them to be. Whether or not they had a choice to obey or disobey, I don’t know. And God has the right to do that.
(But maybe God didn’t really override their free-will? Maybe it’s that He looked ahead and saw the person that would be the best fit for His purposes at that particular time in history? And so He foreknew who He could use, and how and for what purposes He could use them. And He weaved that into His plan. That’s how I best understand it.)
But I think that the majority of us do not have a pre-set path waiting for us that will happen no matter what. God has plans for us, but we can chose to follow His ways or not, like the Israelite nation as a whole.
As I said, we read many times in the Old Testament that God lays out blessings and curses and then tells the people to choose. (Read Deuteronomy 30) He tells them that their choice to obey or disobey His commands, and whether or not they follow Him, determines if they take the blessing path or the curse path. Obviously, it’s God’s desire that they take the path to blessings, but He doesn’t force it. He allows them to choose and He allows them to disobey. And then, He allows them to face the consequences.
Yes, He has plans. And He asks us to join Him in those plans, but He doesn’t force us to. I think that verses talking about God “determining out steps” need to be viewed in light of all the other verses that talk about our steps being guided as we obey God, as we walk in His ways and use wisdom. It’s not that He forces us down certain paths; it’s that He guides us down the path and “determines our steps” when we are actually obeying God, walking in His ways and using wisdom. It doesn’t just happen, apart from our obedience. We cannot just do what we want and expect to be on God’s best path for us.
Exodus 19:5: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.” (If the Israelites obeyed, then they would get the blessing.)
Deuteronomy 6:3: “Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your fathers, promised you.” (God’s promises and His best plans for us hinge on our obedience.)
Psalm 119: 1-4, 9-10: “Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord. Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart. They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways. You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. . . . How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.” (Those who walk according to His law are walking in His ways. If we want to find the best “way” and reap the blessed path, we have to obey Him. They don’t just come to us apart from our obedience.)
Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Our paths are straightened out by the Lord as we trust Him and acknowledge Him in all our ways.)
Matthew 6:33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Once again, we’ll get the blessings that God wants to give us when we put our focus on seeking His kingdom and His righteousness.)
There are some things - some overarching plans - that He has decided will happen, and we can’t change those, such as having all people eventually recognize that He is God. This will happen in the end, when every eye sees Him and every knee bends. That is going to happen regardless of what we do. (God has ways of getting us to our knees. If not in this lifetime, then in the next . . . when the chance to choose to be on His side has passed.) But we do have an impact on how we get to that point. We can rebel, we can harden our hearts, we can backslide. Or we can seek Him, obey Him, and honor Him as God now. Basically, it’s kind of like a cop saying, “We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way; but either way, you’re going with me!”
This makes me think of the Israelites and the trip to Canaan. God wanted them to enter the Promised Land. He desired that and He planned that for them, but they rebelled and grumbled and disobeyed. So as a consequence of their rebellion, He extended their stay in the desert until all the grumblers died off. And then He led them to the Promised Land.
His long-term plan was that His people got to the land He promised. His short-term plan was to get the same people into Canaan that He took out of Egypt. But because of the people’s behavior and choices, they altered the short-term plan and earned themselves serious consequences. And yet, even with the people’s rebellion, He still found a way to accomplish His long-term plan.
But it didn’t have to work out the way that it did. God didn’t “will” that they die in the desert. They could have had the blessings and His original plan for them. We are allowed the right to cooperate or not. He gave us free-will to follow His way or to go our own way. And we have to deal with the consequences of our choices. Our behavior has an effect.
And we are actually told to put a lot more effort into life than just thinking that He’ll always do whatever He wants, “coasting” into His Will.
Reading between the lines of Romans 12:1-2 shows me that God doesn’t just force His Will (what He desires for us) on people, regardless of what man does. Man actually has much greater level of responsibility than just, “This is what happened, so it must be His Will.”
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of the 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.”
Out of thankfulness for the mercy that God has shown us, we are to live holy and pleasing lives as God calls us to (this is what I call seeking righteousness or living righteously). We are to sacrifice our desires and plans for His sake and for His kingdom, offering our bodies to be used by Him and for His purposes. And this includes our minds, which we are to transform and renew by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We need to get our hearts and minds in line with Him. And this can only really happen when we choose to stop conforming to the world. We can’t do both: have our minds conformed to the world and transformed by the Holy Spirit. But when we choose to let go of our worldly pursuits and mindsets - when we seek to be holy and pleasing and submissive to God - we give the Spirit room to come in and transform us. And it is then that we can discern God’s perfect Will for our lives, what He wants for us and from us and the ways that He wants us to walk. And then, it’s up to us to obey!
Psalm 37:23 tells us “If the Lord delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm.” And Proverbs 11:5 says, “The righteousness of the blameless makes a straight way for them, but the wicked are brought down by their own wickedness.”
We won’t know God’s plans for us by trying to “force” Him to reveal it, by trying to make it happen, or by sitting back and waiting for it to come to us, presuming that God will drop blessings in our laps as we go about our business. We have a lot more to do than just going with the flow and thinking we’ll stumble on God’s plans for our lives. We need to be delighting the Lord with our righteous living and our obedience if we want to remain on His best path for us.
Even Philippians 2:12 echoes this (which is just before the verse that says that God works in us to will and to act according to His purposes). It says that as we have always obeyed, we are to continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We are to continue in our obedience, in fear of the Lord, because God works in us to accomplish His purposes.
For some reason, we always skip the part that talks about our responsibility, and we go right to the part that says that God will work in us according to His purposes. And then we think that He’ll just do whatever He wants in us and through us. But I think it’s by our obedience that His purposes are accomplished. They won’t just happen if we are not doing our part.
But most of us don’t want to put that kind of effort in. We’d rather just convince ourselves that every open door is from God and that He does whatever He wants. It’s a lot easier and a lot less disruptive than transforming our lives and our minds.
Posts in this "Understanding God's Will" series:
9c: Verses 9d: Idolatry 9e: Unanswered 9f: Not Listening 9g: More Verses 9h: Effective Prayer 9i: Still Waiting 10: Bad Things Happen 11a: Happens For A Reason? 11b: Marriage Trouble 11c: Deliberate Ignorance 11d: Bad Things Beyond Us 12: God Works Good 13: Limiting God? 14/15: God Forcing Things? 16: Change God's Mind? 17: But God Can't Change? 18: Our Responsibilities