I know O Lord, that a man’s life is not his own, that it is not for him to direct his steps. [Jeremiah 10:23]
I graduated college in May of 2002. By January of that year I knew I was going to move to Chicago.
And I have zero doubt that I can say it this way and not be presumptuous or pious: I knew it was God’s will for my life.
I don’t think I even thought of it in terms of “God’s specific will”. I don’t think I would have said, “If I don’t go to Chicago I will be disobeying.” But I knew it was in some sense the right thing to do. And I was so convinced of this that no other option was even considered.
And I suppose I thought at the time that God worked with everyone similarly. So it was surely a God thing that my first roommate in Chicago was Joshua Crowe, who felt pretty much the opposite as me in his approach to God’s will. He felt that upon graduating college he had choices. He could have moved to Japan or France or up the road a few miles and still been perfectly within God’s plan for his life. He chose Chicago because it was, to him, a wise next step to do an internship in an international city before eventually moving to a different country.
And being the young and passionate guys we were, we argued about it. We discussed specific will vs. general will so much that it soon became a joke and we laugh about it to this day and rib each other subtly via text messages and social media. But I owe it to Josh for helping me think through this biblically and changing my mind about a lot of this topic.
I still, to this day, believe God’s will for my life was Chicago and I would even say it was specific. Any belief about God in my worldview must be backed up by Scripture and I can easily see God in both Old (Jonah 1:1-2) and New Testaments (Acts 20:22) telling people to go somewhere specifically and even on occasion God saying to not go somewhere (Acts 16:6-7). That sounds similar to how God led me to where I have been for the last 15 years.
For discussion’s sake, I would even say this is how God worked in leading me to marriage. While I do not believe for one second that God only has one person for every person, it is crazy to look back on my time as a single person where I could have easily ended up with someone before I met Kayla and things beyond the realm of logic kept it from happening. It was confusing to go through, but now I can see that God wanted me to wait and to marry Kayla. She feels the same, about our marriage and God’s will in general.
Yet, I now understand that God does not deal with everyone this way. Biblically and in my conversations with dozens of Christians, I have seen over and over that God often gives people choices and using wisdom to make decisions is how God operates in their lives. Josh and I eventually came to the conclusion that God is far too complex to work with every person the same way. Some people may be similar to Jonah in that God says, “Go to this place” or Isaac in that God says, “This is whom I want you to marry” and others like Nehemiah see a need somewhere and go to help fix it without some great call of God, or David marrying Abigail simply because she was a woman of God1.
Josh also helped me see issues in this debate that really moved me towards a more reasonable middle ground that I described above and by this point I’ve discovered many wise Christians have experienced the same frustrations when this topic comes up. First, he told me it is maddening to think that there are needs all over the world and that some Christians are so busy waiting on a great sign from God to go that they wait and wait and wait and never go. Mission works struggle and churches go without help because everyone is waiting for God to call them specifically and this becomes a seemingly spiritual yet potentially lame excuse for why people do not go.
Trust me, I get this complaint and find it valid.
Secondly, and equally as relevant, Josh told me that if you see God’s will as something specific, then it become a gigantic point of stress when you have to make a major decision, be it marriage, a college major, job or location. What if you get it wrong?
So these Josh-Gowdy conversations in the early 2000s revolutionized my counsel to young people on this topic. By God’s grace I have had the opportunity to talk with hundreds of young adults in my life on the cusp of making major life decisions. And my advice has been much more balanced, and hence, biblical. I tell them it may be that God calls you to some place or person specifically and if he does it will not be ambiguous. If God works the way he has with me, there will be zero doubt about His will. If he does not and you do not sense any specific leading, you should use wisdom from the Bible and godly counselors to go out and do something that fulfills the biblical mandates of serving, evangelizing and discipling people while in Christian community. I would venture to guess that God far more often works the second way and I recommend a book by Kevin DeYoung called Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will. In either case, knowing God’s will should not be stressful at all. Actually doing it may cause anguish, but knowing it should be simple.
So I will wrap up my thoughts on this with something I learned from Nehemiah 1 this past Spring as I prepared to give devotions to visiting mission groups to my church this summer. Nehemiah saw a need in Jerusalem and he spent time fasting, weeping and praying before he did anything else. When he prayed, his heart was so filled with Scripture it overflowed from him as he prayed. Let me assure anyone reading this: if Christians at any point in their lives are so in tune with the Bible they can pray it naturally and are so moved by the injustice around them that they fast, weep and pray “day and night” (Nehemiah 1:6, see also Luke 18:1-8) for a period of time in response, then knowing God’s will be the easiest thing there is. Knowing God is primary. Being broken over the things that break his heart is a result. God’s will should absolutely come out of that and if it does, I doubt words like “specific” and “general” will matter to any significant level.
So my views on this matter are constantly developing and we at REO welcome feedback so please comment below if you so desire.
- This is somewhat off topic, so I’ll relegate it to a footnote. It is supremely interesting to me how little the Bible says about finding a mate in the matter of specifics. The Bible’s narratives feature cultures so different than ours that trying to glean anything about dating vs courting, or whatever method we may consider to be best, is nearly impossible. The doctrinal parts of the Bible are equally as silent on specifics, as far as I know. So I am incredibly hesitant to endorse any one view on how to find a mate. Whatever you want to call the time of getting to know a person before marriage should be selfless and God-honoring and I am convinced there are many terms we could use to describe it. ↩