Sunday, May 10, 2015

ISI 10: Understanding God's Will

[This Bible study starts here.  And remember that my answers to some of the questions are in [brackets].]

Icebreaker Question:
If you could invite any five people (living or dead) to a dinner party at your house, who would you invite?  Why?

Open With Prayer

Read Lesson: 

            (This is a huge topic to explore.  And if you want to get deep into this topic, I recommend that you read the “Understanding God’s Will” series.  It will take a while, but it will give you a lot to think and talk about.  And then you can get together and discuss those posts and the following questions.  But if you do not want to do that much, I have given a much shorter overview of it here.  FYI: Those posts do included other things that we look at in this Bible study, too.  So some stuff will be familiar.)

            “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.”  (Romans 12:1-2)

Defining God’s Will

            We all want to know what God’s Will is, don’t we?  But do we really know what we are asking?  Are we willing to put in the required effort to know it?  Do we really know what the Word means when it talks about “God’s Will”?

            If we want to talk about God’s Will, we need to first define it.  When we say, “God’s Will,” I think there are (at least) three different things that we could be referring to:  God’s desires, God’s plans, and what actually happens. 

            If you said, “It’s God’s Will that I got this new job,” it could mean that you think it’s what God desired for you, or that it’s what He preplanned for you, or that it was God’s Will because you got the offer and it all worked out.  So if it happened, it must have been God’s Will.  You know, the whole “Whatever happens is what God wanted because God always does what He wants” idea. 

            I think it causes a lot of confusion when we lump them all together as “God’s Will,” because they are all different things.

            And we add to the confusion when we believe that since God is all-powerful, He’ll always do whatever He wants to do, His plans are fixed.   But are they really?  Does He plan and cause everything?  Does He always do whatever He wants?  Do our prayers make any difference at all? 

            Or is our understanding of God’s Will off?  And do we have more of a role in and responsibility for making God’s Will happen than we realize?  

            So to better understand “God’s Will,” we need to first define it.  Is it what He wants for us/asks of us?  Is it His pre-made plans for our lives?  Is it whatever happens because God always does His Will, such as “Well, it must have been God’s Will that I got pregnant . . . or lost my job . . . or that our house got destroyed in a tornado, etc.”? 

            Personally, I think that “His Will” is most accurately defined as what He desires.  It’s what He desires for us (the choices He wants us to make and the path He wants us to take, etc.), and it’s what He desires from us (living God-glorifying lives and being obedient, etc.).  (And sometimes, it’s about His over-arching, pre-planned plans for mankind.)   

            His Will isn’t (in general) about some pre-set path that we have to figure out in prayer, crying out to God, “Lord, what is Your Will for my life?”  It’s bigger than that.  And yet smaller.  It’s about how He wants us to live daily - abiding in Him, walking in daily obedience to Him and His Word.  It’s more about the moment than it is about the future.  About the small daily things than the huge future things. 

            And if we are living as He wants us to live daily, “the next step on our path” will become clear . . . as we walk with Him. 

            But if we just focus on finding “the next step” instead of being more concerned with how we walk with Him daily, we will be off-track.  We are pursuing the wrong thing.  Yes, it’s great to want to know His plans for our lives, but He doesn’t reveal those before it is time.  He doesn’t often explain why He’s allowed something in our lives and where it will take us. 

            But He will reveal to us how we are supposed to live today, how we can be obedient today and what changes we need to make and how we can walk closer to Him.  Focus on that, and the next step becomes clear when it needs to become clear and we will always be on the path He wants us to take. 

            I also think we are off-track to think of His Will as “whatever happens must be God’s Will because God always does what He wants.”  Living like that – like we have no effect on whether God’s Will gets done or not and like He always does His Will regardless of us - will cause us to be lazy in our daily pursuit of God, lazy in prayer, lazy in obedience, and lazy in reading and applying His Word.  God is very clear that our obedience is critical in obtaining the blessings He wants us to have, in staying on the path He wants us to take, in staying in His Will for us.

            Consider the Israelites at Passover.  It was God’s Will that they be spared when the Angel of Death came and killed the firstborn of the Egyptians.  But in order for God’s Will to be done, they had to be obedient in putting the blood of a lamb on their doorframe.  God had a Will, but it was carried out by the people’s obedience.

            God’s Will was to get the Israelites from Egypt into Canaan.  But in order for this to happen, Moses had to be obedient in getting them set free and the people had to be obedient in following him to the promised land.  Disobedience and a resistance to follow Moses was equal to resisting God’s Will and plans, and they earned themselves death through an extended stay in the desert.  Had they just obeyed and followed God’s directions in the first place, they would have obtained the blessing.

            [Interesting and disturbing note: In Numbers 14:26-35, we see that after the Israelites refused to go into the Promised Land because they were afraid of the people that lived there, God decided to do to them the very things that they were afraid would happen all along, as punishment. 

            It makes me wonder . . . Can our refusal to follow God in the path He leads “earn” us the very things we are afraid of, the things we are afraid that God will do to us or allow into our lives?  If we live in fear of the bad things that might happen to us, might that actually “cause” them to happen?  Because we are cowering in fear of life’s terrors, instead of fearing God, trusting Him, and following Him in faith?]      

            But God’s Will was still accomplished; He took the next generation of Israelites into the Promised Land because they were willing and obedient.  

Our Responsibility to Obey

            Getting God’s Will done requires our obedience, a responsibility on our part to follow Him in His plans for us, to live as He wants us to live.  He does not force His Will upon us and not everything that happens is because He planned it that way, because He caused it, or because it was His Will.  Many times what happens is a result of our sin and our failure to seek His input and our failure to pray.  The Israelites didn’t have to die off in the desert, but they resisted doing it God’s way.  Yet, God made a way to accomplish His ultimate Will for the people, just with the next group of willing people.  

            Let’s look again at Romans 12:1-2: 

            “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. 

            This is to be our daily lifestyle. 

            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 righteousness, holiness, and God’s Kingdom and seek to be pleasing and submissive to Him - 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!  And as we walk in obedience, the path will become straight and we will know the “next steps” when it is time.

            “If the Lord delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm.”  (Psalm 37:23) 

            “The righteousness of the blameless makes a straight way for them, but the wicked are brought down by their own wickedness.”  (Proverbs 11:5)

            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 going about our business while neglecting a serious pursuit of God and our responsibility to be obedient.  We have a lot more to do than just “going with the flow,” thinking we’ll stumble into God’s Will for our lives. 

            We need to be delighting the Lord by being spiritual sacrifices - by letting the Spirit transform us into humble, righteousness-seeking, God-honoring, God-fearing, totally-committed and radically-obedient Christians - if we want to remain on His best path for us, if we want to know what His good, pleasing, perfect Will is.

            I think we cause problems 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)

            “ . . . 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 that He will always do whatever He plans.  We think that they are set in stone and it’s going to happen regardless of what we do.  Right?

            And in a way, that is true.  God’s plans eventually get done.  But we have a right to refuse to follow Him in His plans.  And if this happens, He will just find someone else to work His plans through.  Just ask the Israelites who were led out of Egypt but died off in the desert because they refused to follow God in His plans.  His Will does get done.  But it is up to us if we will be a part of it, through our obedience and humility and spiritual transformation, or if we will fall outside of His Will, die off in the desert, and miss out on the blessings because we chose to do it our way. 

            Philippians 2:12 echoes the need for daily obedience in order to see His purposes accomplished.

            “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed. . . continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. . . .” - and then comes verse 13“for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” 

            We are to continue in our obedience, in fear of the Lord, because God works in us to accomplish His purposes.  But if we are not living in active obedience – if we are just floating through life thinking God’s Will for us will always be done because God always does whatever He wants regardless of our responsibility or obedience – then we cannot expect to be accomplishing His purposes. 

            Usually, when we float through life without consciously and actively abiding in Him in reverent fear, we are just accomplishing our own purposes and putting His name on it, even though they might seem good, godly, and reasonable to us.

            Yes, God is all-powerful and He does indeed know what is best.  And whatever He does is best.  But just because He knows what’s best and wants what’s best doesn’t mean that He always causes those things to happen, apart from man’s cooperation.  I believe that He voluntarily limits His use of power in causing things to happen.  He does not always use His power to force things.  He doesn’t always do “His Will,” regardless of us.  There are times that He hinges it on us.  (Of course, as I said, His Will does eventually get done, but through people who are willing to do it and to follow Him His way.  Those who neglect to do it His way miss out.)

            Our problem is that we would much rather seek His plans than seek Him with our whole hearts.  We would much rather believe that His Will has to do with finding out His plans or the next step on the path than it does with transforming our life. 

            We want a quick open door, not a total makeover of our spiritual lives and disciplines.  We want the blessings without any work or responsibility on our parts.  We’d rather just convince ourselves that everything that happens is because God planned it that way and made it happen, that we don’t have much responsibility because God always does what He wants anyway.  And we want to believe that every problem we have in life is because He made it happen for a reason, not that it might be some consequence of our own doing or a result of our disobedience or just a part of life that we have to deal with.

            Seeking “the next step in His plans for us” is a lot easier and a lot less disruptive than transforming our lives and our minds.

            But we do have responsibilities and we do create consequences.  His best plans for us don’t always happen because we can choose to obey or disobey.  We can choose to pray or not.  He allows us to be disobedient, to not seek answers in prayer, to fail to pray for His Will to get done. 

            And He allows us the consequences.   He honors our free-will and our choices and allows us to have an influence over what happens in life, for good or for bad.  We have a hand in (and a responsibility in) making His Will happen and in reaping blessings instead of curses.  By obedience, righteous living, and prayer.

            “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. . . . Who, then, is the man that fears the Lord?  He will instruct him in the way chosen for him.”  (Psalm 25:9, 12) 

            “My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding . . .  Then you will understand what is right and just and fair - every good path . . . Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you.”  (Proverbs 2:1-2, 9, 11) 

            “The integrity of the upright guides them . . .”  (Proverbs 11:3) 

            “He who walks righteously and speaks what is right . . . this is the man who will dwell on the heights, whose refuge will be the mountain fortress.  His bread will be supplied, and water will not fail him.” (Isaiah 33:15,16)

            “This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.  But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’“  (Jeremiah 6:16)

            “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed. . . continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”  (Philippians 2:12-13) 

            Humility, wisdom, understanding, discretion, integrity, righteousness, seeking “the good way” and walking in it, obedience, and reverent fear of God are what will take us down the good, restful path.  It’s what will keep us safely within His Will for us. 

            But that path is not pre-set and fixed.  Because we can refuse to look for or go down that path.  We can refuse to include Him in our choices.  We can disobey.  We can fail to put the blood on the doorframe.  We can fail to trust that He will lead us into the Promised Land, fail to follow in faith.  His best plans for our individual lives don’t happen apart from our obedience. 

His Will is a Verb

            When it comes to our daily lives, the way I see it is this: His Will is a verb.  It is how we are supposed to live daily.  The Bible talks about doing the things that God wills, things that He desires us to do.  It does not as often talk about waiting for His Will or trying to find it as though it is a pre-set path or plan. 

            Matthew 7:21:  “‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. . . .’“

            John 7:17:  “If anyone chooses to do God’s will . . .”

            Psalm 143:10:  “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground.”

            Ephesians 5:17, 18:  “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. . . . be filled with the Spirit.” 

            1 Thessalonians 4:3:  “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified . . .”

            1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:  “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

            And a line in the Lord’s Prayer says, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  (Matthew 6:10)  I used to read this as “May Your plans come to pass,” as though we had no real responsibility for that happening and that it would happen no matter what.  We were simply acknowledging that we wanted His plans to happen.  But I’m beginning to wonder if it really means, “May Your Will be obediently done by us on earth, as it is done up in heaven by your angels.  May we do what You want us to do, and may what You want to have happen, happen; by our obedience and prayer.” 

            It seems that, in general, His Will for us is how He desires us to live, in obedience to His Word.  But if we are focused on trying to decipher what His future plans are for us, we will exhaust ourselves.  Because the future is His to know, not ours.  We just have to concentrate on how He wants us to live today, and our path will straighten out when it is time.

            His Will - what He desires from us, how He wants us to live - is not a mystery; it’s all there in His Word.  But do we take the time to discover it?  Do we abide in Him?  Do we put aside our own selfish desires and plans in obedience to Him instead?  Or do we waste our time and energy pursuing “the next step” instead of pursuing Him, or trying to figure out what the future holds instead of trying to figure out how He wants us to live today?

Focus on These:

            So if you really want to know what the Will of God is and how to stay on the path He wants for you, let me put it this way: 

            “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. . . . Love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22:37, 39)    

            “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.”  (John 14:21  

            “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  (Matthew 6:33) 

            “I am the vine; you are the branches.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  (John 15:5)    

            “ . . . whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”  (1 Corinthians 10:31)

            “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”  (Psalm 46:10)

            Love God and others with all you’ve got!  Obey His commands!  Seek His kingdom and seek righteousness!  Remain in Him always, through prayer and His Word!  And if you are living for His glory, your life will be fruitful and God-glorifying!  And we don’t have to know everything; just be still in Him, for He is God!  He will be exalted!  If we do these things, we will be walking safely within His Will for our lives. 

            The thing is, we were made to love (really love!) Him.  And to be loved (really loved!) by Him.  And our lives will reflect it.  It doesn’t mean that the closer you walk with God, the less pain, heartache, trials, obstacles, and doubts you’ll have.  In fact, I find that the closer I try to get to Him, the harder it gets, the more questions I have, the more resistance from the enemy I sense, and the more I struggle and wrestle with Him and my fears and my faith. 

            But we were made to love Him and be loved by Him.  And our obedience will show if this is true for us or not.  Our pursuit of righteousness and His Kingdom.  Our desire to get to know Him as He is, in His Word.  Our desire to include Him in our lives and decisions and to open our hearts to Him fully in prayer.  Our willingness to follow instead of lead, to humble ourselves instead of trying to sit on the throne. 

            And if our lives do not show evidence of these things then we are outside of His Will - His best plans - for us.  And we need to get on our knees and ask His help in making it right.


            So why am I saying all this?  Why such a huge post on God’s Will and our responsibility to seek righteousness and be obedient and abide in Him?  Why repeat it over and over again in various posts?

            For one, I am saying this because I think that many of us are missing out on a genuine, loving relationship with Him.  Maybe because of our own negative self-views, because we are not comfortable trusting others (even God), because we don’t know how to let ourselves be loved, or because of our misconceptions about who He is. 

            And our lack of obedience and lack of abiding in Him reflect that.  And we are probably creating serious, negative consequences for ourselves, missing out on the kind of healing, love, peace, joy, and blessings He wants for us.  And it’s time to seriously take a look at the walls that we have up between us and God.  (If this is the case, maybe give the “Through the Refining Fire” series a look.  There might be something there to help you work through the things that block you from a real, genuine relationship with our heavenly Father.) 

            But mostly I am saying this not for the hurting Christians who struggle with letting Him love you but for the multitudes of apathetic Christians who are coasting and compromising in their spiritual lives.  I think that lazy, lukewarm, self-serving, comfortable Christianity is what has greatly helped our country get into the moral mess that we’re in. 

            We are ruining our “Promised Land” because we are becoming the Israelites who died off in the desert: too focused on our own comfort and happiness, complaining about our circumstances, forgetting what God has done and Who He is, worshipping “golden calves” in our hearts, hardening our hearts to God’s convictions, and failing to fall down before the Lord in humility, failing to live in reverent fear, and failing to be obedient. 

            I have been there before – lazy, lukewarm, self-serving, and comfortable. Not truly understanding the incredible responsibility and need for seeking righteousness, for actively pursuing Him daily in His Word, for praying for His Will to get done, for doing my part to make it happen, and for walking with Him moment by moment in humble dependency.  I figured that God would just do whatever He wanted anyway, regardless of me.  And I didn’t understand that prayer really does matter, that God works His Will through willing people. 

            But a five-month stretch of demonic harassment (in the lesson, “Supernatural Stuff and the Armor of God”) opened my eyes to the spiritual battle that rages around us, to the reality of the invisible world working alongside this one, and to the very real need for us to get off of our lazy, lukewarm, self-serving, comfortable, Christian butts and get on our knees and get into the Word and pursue Him, His Kingdom, and His righteousness with all we’ve got.  That is how we are a part of His Will getting done!  That is how we impact the world for His glory!

            If only we will begin to take our Christian responsibility seriously then we might see God intervene in our country.  We might see revival!  This is why I am writing this lesson.
            “Help, Lord, for the godly are no more; the faithful have vanished from among men.”  (Psalm 12:1)

            The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.”  (Psalm 14:2)

            “Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares.  If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.”  (Jeremiah 5:1) 

            “I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none.  So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.”  (Ezekiel 22:30-31)

            “For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.”  (2 Chronicles 16:9) 

            “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.  Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.”  (2 Chronicles 7:14-15) 

The Next Step

            Okay, now onto something a bit more practical.  Sometimes figuring out the “next step” is the next thing that God wants us to do.  We are standing at a crossroad and we ask God, “What do You want me to do next (or do about X,Y, or Z)?”  And the thing we need to figure out is How can I recognize His guidance when He is revealing the next step? 

            When we were house hunting, I really wanted the next step to show up in neon lights.  But that obviously wouldn’t happen.  And the weight of that decision was crushing me.  I was a panicky mess, feeling like I would fail at sensing God’s guidance.  I trusted Him; I just didn’t trust myself to hear Him.  (The fact that we were living in a very moldy rental that was making us sick really added to the stress and my panicked need to find a new place.) 

            But then I found a book that gave me some really good advice on how to know when God shows “the next step.”  And I really have to thank Gigi Tchividjian here.  Through her book, A Woman’s Quest for Serenity, she helped me understand how to discern God’s guidance, when so many other things were making it hard to hear His leading.  (If you can find her book, it is well worth reading.) 

            Though He won’t give us a neon sign, I’m learning that He has given us other “keys” to help us find the right path.  (Gigi calls them “lights,” and they are what I based these “keys” on.)  To boil it all down, God guides us in three different ways: guidance from the inside, indications from the outside, and confirmation from God’s Word. 

            1.  Guidance from the inside would be what our conscience tells us, what our heart tells us, and, most importantly, what the Holy Spirit tells us.  This would be the impressions or convictions that we have from the Holy Spirit about what He wants us to do or what the next step is. 
            Sometimes it coincides with what we want to do, sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes it makes sense, and sometimes it confuses us even more.  Sometimes it speaks to the current concern or situation that we are praying about, and sometimes it hits us out of the blue, completely unrelated to anything we were thinking about.  But we need to be deliberate about being receptive to the Holy Spirit, about actively listening for Him to speak to us.  And we need to expect that He will.  If we don’t expect Him to, we won’t notice when He does. 

            2.  Indications from the outside would be open doors or circumstances falling into place that seem to be saying “this is the way you should walk.”  Maybe it’s about an issue you are praying about, or maybe it’s God interrupting your plans with something new that He wants you to do.  It could be a need that comes to your attention or a fork-in-the-road that calls you to make a choice.  It could be a call to move forward, or it could be a call to take a step backward.  And these indications could also come from other people.  It could be impressions that they have had about you, or it could be wise advice from godly people.   
            [But as we consider “open doors” here, remember that not all open doors are from God.  Satan would love nothing more than to get us out of God’s perfect plan for us by dangling enticing, counterfeit offers before us.  With every open door, we need to seek God’s wisdom, be discerning, and be willing to obey whatever God calls us to do in that situation.  Maybe it is an open door from God, or maybe it’s just a test or a distraction from Satan.]   

            3.  And confirmation from God’s Word is just what it sounds like.  It’s when God leads us, through His Word, in the right path.  Sometimes, after praying for guidance, the Spirit leads us to a passage that speaks directly to our problems.  And sometimes, we find God’s message to us as we go about our normal Bible reading.  We should be regularly reading God’s Word - immersing ourselves in it - so that we can know it as a whole, and not just pulling out the verses that we want when we want them. 
            While we do our regular reading, we should always be alert for any passage that speaks to us, because there is so much more to glean from Scripture than just the answer to a particular problem or prayer request.  In the course of reading God’s Word (even if we are looking for specific guidance about something else), we may be led to passages that speak to us about something we weren’t even considering.  Such as about forgiveness or how we use our tongue or how we treat others, etc.  It may be that God wants us to settle these areas before He guides us to the answer that we are looking for.    
            Guidance from God’s Word also means that we check the steps we want to take against His Word.  He will never, NEVER ask or tell us to do anything that violates a biblical command that He has already revealed to us in His Word, no matter how strongly we feel that He wants us to do it. 
            Therefore, things like affairs, cheating, lying, harshness, premarital sex, jealousy, idol worship, gossiping, dabbling with the occult, contacting the dead, taking an ungodly job, spousal abuse, practicing homosexuality, taking a life, etc., can never be God’s Will for us.  Even if our inner convictions and the outside circumstances are telling us to do it, God’s Word says, “Don’t do these things!” 
            And His Word is the Truth, The Measuring Stick.  So to try to find permission in His Word to do these kinds of things would mean that we would have to twist what He has already clearly revealed as His Will in these (and many other) areas.  (Hey, I’m just the messenger here.  Read the Word for yourself and take it up with God if you think I am wrong.)    

            Those are the keys to discovering God’s Will for us, the next step.  And when all three of these “keys” say the same thing, we can confidently take the next step as it has been revealed.  But if any one of them says something different, we need to wait.  Wait and recheck Scriptures and pray some more until all the keys match.  And then, if we are right, the doors will open smoothly in time.  We are just responsible to do the next step as we best believe that God is leading us. 

            [But we need to be careful to resist the urge to be hasty or to interpret subtle or ambiguous signs as saying what we want them to say.  We should be cautious about interpreting any guidance that we get.  And even more so when the decision is a significant one.  Proceeding cautiously and wisely also involves asking God to (and trusting God to) close the door if we are not on the right path.  In fact, we should always include “Lord, close any doors that are not right” in our prayers for guidance.  Because He does answer this one.  And then, if He does shut the door or change our direction, we need to just trust Him and be willing to wait for Him to open the right door at the right time.]       

            Here is another little help for when you are faced with multiple options or paths, and you need to know which one is the right one.  When I struggle with wondering if I am making the right decision (or made the right one), it helps to ask myself “Why am I making this particular decision?”  I let my mind wander and try to figure out if I am choosing (or not choosing) a particular option . . .

            - for my own selfish or self-glorifying reasons?

            - because it seems wise to me?

            - because I am seeking my own happiness or making myself feel better, as opposed to seeking holiness and joy and contentment in the Lord?

            - for other people?

            - just because I want to or I don’t know what else to do?

            - because it’s easiest or most convenient?      

            - because it’s more glamorous?

            - because I feel guilted into choosing it?

            - because I am angry, seeking revenge, jealous, or wanting to set myself above someone else?

            - because I cannot wait and am being hasty or impatient?

            - to distract myself from a different decision I need to make or issue I need to face?

            - for the money or status or possessions?

            - because I am chasing after an idol?

            - because I don’t have enough faith in God to handle it?

            - because I am afraid of something?  Afraid of failing?  Of letting others down?  Of hard work?  Of not being able to see the whole picture?  Of not knowing how it will all work out?  Of embarrassing myself?  Of not having my needs met or my “needs” met (those great big wants that we call needs)?  Of letting go of the control?  Of having to rely on Someone else?    

            Those are all wrong reasons for making a decision.  And if I find that one of those reasons is driving a decision that I want to make then it might just be the wrong decision.  Or at least the wrong timing. 

            (Another question to ask yourself which may make it clearer . . . “Who does this choice glorify more or benefit more: Satan or God?”  Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.  And sometimes it’s not.  So take everything into consideration.)

            But generally, there will be one option that will make me answer something like this, “The only reason I would choose this one is because I feel like it is the one God is telling me to choose.”  And this helps me know which one is the right one, until and unless God brings further guidance.  And interestingly, it’s usually the one that seems more unreasonable or scary or difficult or impossible.  Such as God telling us to “wait” when we really want to force something, which is where I usually get tripped up in the decision-making process.

            But no matter how I feel or how afraid or confused I am, I can trust that the decision is the right one when I can honestly say that . . .

            - I believe it’s what God wants me to do

            - I believe it is the most God-glorifying option, 

            - I have humbled myself before Him and prayed about it and waited on Him for His guidance and timing,

            - the “three keys” line up – inner confirmation, outside confirmation, and God’s Word,

            - I have a deep conviction that it’s right for us,

            - and I am doing it out of faith.

            And so I can go forward in confidence that I am making the right decision (even though I know I will always struggle with fear that I am making the wrong one), believing that God has called me down this path and that He has His purposes for it and that He will work it all out for good, even my mistakes.

Bible Verses:

            Jeremiah 29:11:  “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

            Proverbs 16:9:  “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.”

            Philippians 2:13:  “. . . for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”

            Romans 12:1-2:  “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.”

            Romans 8:28:  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  .  

Questions (These may be a little jumbled and repetitive, but just go with it):

1.  Does this topic trigger any thoughts or questions you want to share?  Any thoughts about the above Bible verses or any other Bible verses you want to talk about?

2.  I think that we tend to interpret verses (like the Jeremiah and Proverbs verses above) to mean that God always does what He wants and causes all things to happen?  Is this what they are saying or could we be misunderstanding them? 

3.  How do you define “God’s Will”?  His pre-set plans, what He desires for us and from us, or whatever actually happens?  Or can you think of another way to describe it?

4.  What are the hazards of defining “God’s Will” the wrong way? 
            [My answer: If we define it in the wrong way, then we can find ourselves running after the wrong thing and neglecting the right thing.  Such as if His Will is really about doing what He asks us to do in His Word but we think it means “the next step He wants us to take,” then we might end up looking for signs that point the way or open doors, when we should simply be abiding in Him daily, modeling our lives after Jesus, and obeying His Word or what He asks us to do at any given time.  I think a lot of us would rather wait for the open door than draw near to Him daily, humble ourselves, and seek righteousness.]

5.  How might we use “It was God’s Will” to rationalize or excuse our behavior or choices?  Or to explain tragedies?  Do we sometimes confuse natural consequences with God’s divine activity in our lives?  What effect does this have on us and our faith?  What damage might it do?  Examples?
            [Maybe we cheat at work or act lazy, and we get fired.  Then we say, “It was God’s Will that I don’t work there anymore.”  Maybe we contribute to the breakdown of our marriage (actively or by neglecting it), but then say that it was God’s Will that we got divorced.  Maybe we decide to make a big change without consulting God, but then say that this is what He wanted for us.  Maybe we get pregnant outside of marriage and claim that “God wanted this baby and that’s why we got pregnant,” without considering our part in it.  (However, every child is God’s creation and is valuable to God, no matter how it came to be.  So, yes, God created it and wants it, but that doesn’t mean that He motivated someone to have sex before marriage in order to make that happen.)  If we think God will always do what He wants regardless of us then we will simply coast through life doing whatever we want, not abiding in Him or seeking righteousness or taking obedience seriously.  And we may not even recognize when we are being lazy or presumptuous in our spiritual lives.
            And we can mislabel tragedies as “God’s Will,” too.  Someone might claim that a sinful city got what was coming to them when a disaster struck.  Or maybe say that someone deserved to die of cancer because they lived in sin.  Or that someone deserved a miscarriage because they had a baby outside of marriage.  Or that a rebellious Christian was being chastised by God when they lost their house and family and ended up on drugs and homeless. 
            The problem is that this might not be the case.  We don’t know why God allows certain things to happen.  And maybe there are times that God causes a tragedy for a reason or for punishment or discipline.  But it is presumptuous and judgmental for us to say so because we don’t know.  Maybe some tragedies are of our own making, natural and reasonable consequences for our choices.  Maybe some are just the effects of living in a fallen world where things go wrong and where Satan reigns for a time. 
            For us to label these things as “God’s Will” does not take into account free-will choices and the fall of man and nature.  And it makes us look like we have some sort of inside track into how God works, like we really understand Him and know why all things happen.  And we act like it’s our right to point fingers in judgment and declare condemnation on others. 
            I would say that when it comes to what happens in someone else’s life, the best course for a Christian is to reach out to hurting people in love and tenderness and grace and mercy, and to leave the judgment and chastising up to God.  It’s not for us to claim that we have knowledge that we don’t have. 
            And we all need to be more concerned with our own heart’s condition and our own obedience and humility before judging the hearts of others.  Many unbelievers have felt persecution from Christians who condemn their ungodly behavior.  How can this possibly win people for Christ?  How can they experience God’s love and forgiveness and grace and mercy if Christians do not model it for them?   
            Of course, I am not saying that we shouldn’t stand up for morality or that Christians shouldn’t confront other Christians who are in sin, because there is clear biblical support for these.  What I am saying is that we shouldn’t claim to know why things happen in someone else’s life, because most of us hardly even know why things happen in our own lives.  All we can do is work on becoming more Christ-like in our own lives and trust that for whatever reason something happened, God will take it and use it for the good for those who love Him.]          

6.  It’s a common assumption (hope!) that if we are following God’s Will for our lives (going through the doors He opens), things will be easy and pain-free.  We tend to see these as indications that we are on “the right path.”  We think that if we encounter trials, obstacles, loss, and heartache, it might mean that we took a wrong turn somewhere.  What biblical examples can you think of that support or contradict this idea?  What can we learn from these? 

7.  Do we look at the circumstances of our life – the tragedy and pain and heartache – and use it to interpret how God must feel about us?  Such as, does having a bunch of money and lots of happiness mean that God is pleased with us?  Does loss and heartache mean that God is unhappy with us or punishing us?  Where might we be going wrong in our thinking?  And does God always treat everyone the same, or according to our definition of what’s “fair”? 

8.  When and why do we say “It’s not fair” in life?  What is our basis for saying it?  What does this reveal about our understanding of God and faith and life?  How would the Bible address the “It’s not fair” mentality?

9.  What is a biblical way to view life and tragedies and trials and pain?  Are there times when it is God’s Will that we go through painful trials?  What are some reasons why He might deliberately put us in trials?  (Examples from life or the Bible?)

  We looked at this last lesson, but let’s do it again.  How do you define “God’s sovereignty” and how does it relate to your view of “God’s Will” and the circumstances of life?  If you believe that humans have a degree of free-will, what is your view of the balance between God’s all-powerfulness and human free-will? 

11.  How can we know when a circumstance or trial is God’s doing and when it’s from something else?  (Or is it all God’s doing)?  Examples?  How should we respond in these cases?

12.  Are there things that we (or you personally) hold against God – blame Him for – that He is not responsible for?  Or is He responsible for everything that happens?  Is everything that happens His Will?

13.  If not, how do you think God feels when bad things happen to us or when we cause bad things to happen? 

14.  If the painful circumstances of our lives never change – if it’s not His Will to remove the painful trials – what can we do about it and how should we respond?  If He doesn’t take the burdens from us, what might He give us or do for us instead to help us bear the burdens? 

15.  What kinds of “faith struggles” might we have to face in learning to bear the burdens?  What effect might this have on us if we do it wrong?  If we do it right?  Have you been through anything like this before?

16.  Do you agree with my idea that our path will straighten out as we walk in daily obedience to God?  If this is true, how should it affect our faith and the way we live?   

17.  What gets us off of the straight path?  How can we stay on it?  How does God help us stay on it?  What is His part of it and what is ours? 

18.  What does “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105) mean for us?  (Some people think that the Bible is the only source of wisdom and guidance that we need.  Do you agree?  Can God give us wisdom and guidance in other ways?)       

19.  What kinds of things might mislead us when we are looking for guidance?  What might we do instead of seeking godly wisdom?  What kinds of effects might this have on our lives?  Examples?

20.  Does Philippians 2:13 happen only with our cooperation, or does God work in us “to will and to act according to His purpose” regardless of our cooperation?  What effect should your view of this have on your life and decisions? 

21.  While we already touched on this, what is your opinion of the whole “Does God cause it or allow it” debate?  Are there hazards and complications of believing He always “causes” everything?  Of believing He just “allows” things?  Does He work in the world in both ways, sometimes causing, sometimes allowing?  Can we often know whether He caused something or just allowed it?
            [As I said earlier:  “Consider Job.  God did not micromanage every tragedy that came into Job’s life.  He did not tell the “fire from the sky” to strike the animals or the wind to blow the house down while Job’s children were inside.  God gave Satan a certain amount of leeway.  He gave a boundary, such as “Do not touch Job himself,” but then He let Satan run wild and do as he wanted.  God allowed the tragedies and He saw the tragedies, but He did not cause them to happen as they did.”  How does this example affect your view of God’s activity in our lives?] 

22.  How do you think most Christians tend to interpret Romans 8:28?  Do we use it to support the idea that God “causes everything to happen for a reason”?  Is that the same thing as saying He “works in all things” according to His purpose? 

23.  Why might people take comfort in the idea that God causes everything to happen for a reason?  But if that is not true – if God allows man’s obedience or disobedience to affect what happens – how should this sober us up?  And if this is the case, how can we find comfort instead in Romans 8:28?   
            [Sometimes we take comfort in the “God causes all things for a reason” idea because we want to believe that there was a real reason for a tragedy.  We want to trust that God knows what He’s doing, especially when we don’t understand.  There is no harm in this way of thinking, in trusting that God has His reasons for allowing (or causing, as some might say) a tragedy.  This view is about trusting God and leaning on Him in faith when times are hard. 
            But on the flip side, we might take comfort in the idea that God causes all things because it means that we don’t have to give much thought to how we are living and we don’t have to feel like we caused a consequence by our choices.  Like saying, “God caused me to lose my job” when it really was just laziness.  If it all falls on God’s shoulders, then we feel like what we do doesn’t really matter. 
            And this is dangerous because whether or not we obey, whether or not we pray, whether or not we seek righteousness and abide in Him really does matter.  It really does have an effect on the direction our lives take and on the things that happen.  And so the best thing we can do to remain in His Will is to remain in Him daily and to take obedience and prayer seriously.
            And so while we might not always be able to rest on the idea that “God causes all things for a reason,” we can rest on the truth that He will work all things together for good for those who love Him.  He’ll use our mistakes and tragedies and hard times and good times to make something beautiful in the end.  And that should bring a lot of comfort in the hard times when there is nothing else to take comfort in.]

24.  Assuming that God “allows” things based on our obedience or disobedience, how should we be living if we have influence over what happens and responsibility for what happens?  What is our responsibility in making sure that God’s Will gets “found” and done?  (Take into consideration Romans 12:1-2.)

25.  What do you think of Numbers 14:26-35, where God punished the Israelites who refused to go into the Promised Land by causing the very things that they feared would happen?  Can we end up “earning” the tragedies we are afraid of, by our refusal to trust and obey God? 

26.  In your opinion, what is the purpose of prayer?  Does it really have an effect on God’s Will or His plans?  And if so, how can we have the most effective prayers?  (We will look at this issue more in a future lesson.) 
            [There is a post coming up on this, so I’ll simply say here that I think prayer really does matter and has an effect on getting God’s Will done.  It is not just a formality or a show of dependence on Him.  It is not just to share our needs and our thoughts with Him.  It’s also part of getting His Will done!]

27.  What do you think of the “three keys” that help us know how God is leading us?  How have you experienced God’s leading in your life?    

28.  “Our problem is that we would much rather seek His plans than seek Him with our whole hearts.  We would much rather believe that His Will has to do with finding out His plans or the next step on the path than it does with transforming our life.  We want a quick open door, not a total makeover of our spiritual lives and disciplines.  We want the blessings without any work or responsibility on our parts. . . . It’s a lot easier and a lot less disruptive than transforming our lives and our minds.”
            Do you think this is generally accurate?  Can you think of other ideas like this?  How does living this way affect our life and faith?

29.  “I think that lazy, lukewarm, self-serving, comfortable Christianity is what has greatly helped our country get into the moral mess that we’re in.” 
            I know this is harsh, but do you agree or disagree?  How exactly is it affecting our country?  And what can be done about it?