Chapter 2: Finding Where We Fit: Finding God’s Will and Plan For My Life
The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. (Frederick Buechner)
God has plans for us. God has made us for a purpose. We have a calling. We have a SoulPurpose.
But just where do we fit into God’s purposes? What does God want us to do? – the question that consumes the energy of those who want to make their lives count for God. This one great problem for Christians has generated endless seminars, books and sermons. “Are you in the centre of God’s will?” “Five easy steps to finding God’s will.” “Discover your spiritual gift.” We’ve almost made an industry of guidance!
Of course, the drive for purpose and significance is a basic instinct amongst humans. So as Christians we have no trouble believing that God wants to use us for his purposes. We are special. We are unique. We are deeply loved by God. We are called. Therefore he has a purpose for our lives.
So we are right to look for direction and purpose. The question is – are we asking the right questions and are we looking in the right place?
“God has a wonderful plan for your life,” declares a well-known tract. The lesson is, it seems, that we need to find God’s will for our lives and then live by it. Under this teaching, God’s individual will for us is often described as a road map, or a blueprint. All of life is planned. We simply need to discover what church God wants us to attend, who he wants us to marry, which job he wants us to take, where he wants us to live, etc., etc.
And how do we find God’s will for us? The blueprint model generally teaches that we look for “road signs” such as circumstances, inner witness, “fleeces”, “open and closed doors” and wise counsel. When we do this right we’ll find ourselves there in the very “centre of God’s will”.
It doesn’t require too much thought to see that this model is inherently flawed. Yes, I know who God wants me to marry (or at least I fondly imagine that I do) … but what happens if that person chooses someone else? Am I then ”stranded” with no hope of fulfilling God’s will for me? Thinking of God’s will as a blueprint, or detailed road map for our lives, simply does not take into account that there are many circumstances in life which are outside our control and yet affect the choices we can make.
And what about my failures? Whenever I make a mistake or a bad choice, does that wreck the whole plan? Is my life for God doomed to mediocrity because I missed out somewhere along the line? – or more accurately, because I keep messing up on a regular basis all the way down the line! Does God have an infinite number of backup plans?
Another problem with this model is that it can easily lead to “divination” – employing “supernatural” methods to somehow work out God’s will. This is simply not biblical.
The blueprint approach suggests that God has every last detail of our lives mapped out, and expects us to play complicated guessing games to find out where our next move is.
There is a much healthier way of approaching this question of leading. Rather than thinking of God as having a “wonderful plan” for our lives, it makes much better sense to think of him having a “wonderful purpose”. A plan ties us down to precise demands; a purpose provides us with direction and a goal. A plan is unforgiving. Make an error at the beginning – while you are laying the foundations perhaps – and all the following work and effort could be wasted; the whole building might collapse because of that one error. In contrast, as Paul Stevens points out, a purpose is like a stream that flows to a distant sea. The stream may be diverted from time to time. It may even wander aimlessly in swamps for a period. But it can also recover its way further down the valley and still has the potential one day to become a great river.
So what is God’s purpose for us? Fundamental to this is the concept of God’s will. Bruce Waltke suggests that God’s will is for you “to be a mature man or woman of God … He wants to see your character develop. He wants you to draw close to Him and be changed.” Furthermore, “God’s will is that you be holy, wise, mature, joyful, prayerful and submissive.” There is no secret code required to discover this. God’s will for us is as plain as the scriptures.
“One does not divine God’s will. One lives God’s will as one comes to know Him through His Word. This concept of growing close to God so that you can live out His will, or live to please Him, is consistent throughout the New Testament.”
God’s intentions for us are clear. But what about the many decisions in life (large and small) which are choices between two or more good options. Does God have a fixed agenda in these matters? Does he have anything to say at all about each point of decision?
Yes he does … but so should we.
Gordon Smith makes the point that rather than try to “find” God’s will, we need to learn how to make wise choices by discerning God’s direction. Smith uses the analogy of a figure-skating pair on ice to describe how God leads with us. The person who follows the lead still has a choice and still contributes to the shape and form of the dance.
In a similar vein, Annette remembers a Life Boys’ poster that used to hang in the Sunday School hall of her church when she was a child. The poster showed a boy (in full Life Boys’uniform, of course) with his hands on the ship’s wheel. Standing behind him was Jesus (flowing robes and all). Jesus had one hand on the shoulder of the boy as if to steady him. His other arm was outstretched, fingers pointing into the distance. The boy’s gaze was also fixed on that point far ahead. All very dramatic! But it strikes us that the picture got it pretty right. We need to take hold of the wheel of life … we are active participants in the course we follow … but God is right beside us, providing encouragement and strength for the voyage, and helping us keep our eyes on the goal.
Clearly, God does want to provide direction in our life choices. However, it’s a growing partnership, where we have freedom to make the calls as we understand more and more of his heart for us. God treats us with astonishing respect. We are not just pawns in some great cosmic game of chess. We are junior partners with the Master of the Universe.
For when it comes to our decision-making, God too has a purpose. And that purpose is not just utilitarian, getting us to find the right answers. God certainly desires that we make good choices, but he has a much bigger scheme. He uses these times of choice to grow relationship, trust, character and maturity into our lives.
Bruce Waltke, Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion?, page 78.
Waltke, p. 86.
Waltke, p. 86.
See Gordon T. Smith’s book, Listening to God in Times of Choice (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), page 22.
First and foremost, decision-making for the Christian is a relationship issue. Often the reason we have so many problems discerning God’s leading is that we just aren’t close enough to him. We cannot clearly sense God’s heart if we are not consistently developing an intimate friendship with him. Gordon Smith comments:
“We can be discerners only if we are pray-ers. We discern the voice of God within the context of relationship. If that relationship suffers, so will our ability to discern what is best.”
The more we walk with Jesus, the more we understand his intentions for us and the world. We pick up his heartbeat. Our hopes and aspirations become more closely aligned to his.
When faced with a decision it is worth asking ourselves the question, “What is more important to God – that I get this decision right, or that I honestly attempt with his help to make the best possible choice?” At the end of the day (we believe), God is more concerned about our heart relationship with him, and with our growth as people, than anything else.
For that reason we suggest that decisions are really an issue of trust. We need to trust God, that he will not trash us when our human inadequacies mean we miss the mark. The Psalm-writer had no doubts on this issue:
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion to those who fear him.
He knows how we were made;
He remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103: 13-14, NRSV)
Why do we construct this ugly picture of God as being intent on smacking us into line? God’s whole objective is to make us more like himself. We need to trust that his love – just like a human parent’s love – will be what guides him in this aim.
Perhaps some of our pre-occupation with decision-making shows that we want to control our future and make things comfortable, safe and predictable. But the reality of life is that what lies ahead is unknown. It’s that very uncertainty which forces us to trust God.
For example, have you ever thought what it might be like if you knew the future? Suddenly your decision-making would be a simple matter. You could always get it right. Very comfortable, of course … but a bit like playing every game of tennis knowing that you would always win. Where would be the satisfaction? Where would be the tingle of excitement? The whole challenge of sport would trickle away. Each game would become predictable … and boring.
But it’s worse than that. If you were always destined to win, why strive any more? Why subject yourself to all the training and discipline? Why strain to outdo all competitors? In short, why go to any trouble to develop your talents and skills? You would have no incentive to make yourself better.
The same applies to our living for God. If we knew what lay ahead each time we faced a decision, why strain to understand the issues? If we were always bound to get it right, what growth would we achieve?
The reality is that we don’t know the future – good or bad – and it’s best that we don’t. James comments that planning for certainty about tomorrow is nothing less than presumptuous (see James 4: 13-17). Jesus also promotes a trust approach in his Sermon on the Mount, where he says:
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now; and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time arrives." (Matthew 6:24, The Message)
As Gerald Sittser puts it: “The will of God concerns the present more than the future.”
So perhaps our longing to know the right solution in advance is misleading us. Much better to step out in faith with God, knowing that he will be with us whatever the results of our choice.
In thinking about where we fit in God’s purposes it’s easy for us to focus on what we are called to do. But God is also concerned about who we are called to be. And this is a question of character and integrity. The people of God are called to be like God as well as to join in his work. God uses the process of decision-making to grow character in our lives.
One of the difficult things about character is that mostly it is forged in the midst of challenge and struggle. Moral integrity grows as our character is tested. And this is a process that takes time. 2 Peter 1:5-9 (NIV) says:
“Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, kindness; and to kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if any of you do not have them, you are short-sighted and blind.”
People who seek to express God’s character, will also find it easier to experience God’s leadership in their lives. God’s priorities are clear in these words from the prophet Micah:
“He has showed you, O people, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8, NIV)
Micah has no doubts about our priority. It’s our relationship with God – and our desire to become like him in thought and action.
You may be a little fuzzy at times about which gifts you’ve been given. You may be uncertain about which roles you’re best fitted for. (The following chapters will help you deal with these issues.) But you don’t ever need to be confused about the character you should strive for. You’re called to become more like Jesus. You’re encouraged to let the fruit of the Spirit grow in your life.
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22, NIV)
If we get these priorities right, then the small choices we make each day to follow God and to become like him will make it much easier to decide on the bigger issues. As Gerald Sittser notes: “How we choose to live each day creates a trajectory for everything else. Perhaps that is why the Bible says so little about God’s will for tomorrow and so much about what we should do to fulfil his will today.”
Everyone knows that adolescence is a critical period. Here is where young people begin making decisions that have serious consequences for their lives. Less well-known is that parents too have tough learning to do at this time. For years they have been responsible for the behaviour of their children. Now, during the teenage years, those parents will steadily lose control of their children. Teenagers are moving from childhood to adulthood, from dependence to independent maturity.
Two things are important: (1) the teenager must learn to make wise decisions; (2) the parent must learn to hand over responsibility for those decisions. If the teenager fails, maturity will never be reached. If the parent fails, the teenager will be shackled in a childlike dependency.
Those of us who are parents know that the key is progressively allowing our adolescents to make their own choices – even if that means we must sometimes watch them make mistakes. That’s the only way they can grow, learning what works for them, learning the consequences of poor choices, and learning the reward of good choices.
“Letting go of the apron strings”, handing over the “control button”, these are essential to growth. It can be painful to stand back, but even more painful if we don’t allow the maturing process to take place. Of course, one of the keys is laying the foundations for young people to make judgement calls for themselves, and this starts much earlier than adolescence. Good parents use all of childhood as a preparation for the time when their children will leave and become independent, mature adults.
Consistently the Bible refers to us as God’s children. The question is: what stage of development does this image bring to mind for you? Many of us seem unable to disentangle ourselves from the “small child syndrome”. Our view of discipleship is of a little baby or toddler who is unable to do anything of real substance for him/herself – or for others. Totally dependent on the father or mother, in every way.
Yet the New Testament consistently calls us to mature. Paul scolds the Corinthians: “I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.” (1 Corinthians 3: 1-2, NIV) The writer of Hebrews shakes his head sadly: “You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature….” (Hebrews 5: 12b-13, NIV)
A constant cry of the New Testament leaders to their people is, “Grow up!”
With this in mind, we need to see the imagery of childhood as a process of growth and change. God does not want us to remain babies. He wants mature disciples, able to make wise choices, in dependent obedience to Him.
Making choices is a wonderful opportunity to grow some of this maturity. So when we puzzle over what God wants us to do, could it be that God is working on a different plan altogether? Rather than deliberately making life difficult for us by veiling the answer, it may be that he is grooming us to take responsibility for our own decisions. He may be willing us to exercise our freedom and choose our own path – confident that whatever we do, we will serve him and he will bring about his purposes in and through us.
Is there risk involved in this growing-up process? For sure.
Will we sometimes make bad calls? Definitely.
Will God love or use us less if we get it wrong occasionally? We firmly believe, no. We are convinced that what God wants from us is not mindless obedience, but mature co-operation.
A common myth in Christian circles is that the paths we ought to choose are usually the ones we least want, the ones we long to avoid. (You know how it goes: “I dread the thought of being a missionary in China, so I bet that’s what God will tell me to do!”) As if the less we like it, the more determined God is to make us do it. A sort of punishment for our unwillingness. Or a grim belief that it’s only the toughest and most unpleasant tasks that will make us truly submissive to God.
What a grim picture of life with our Father in Heaven! Whatever happened to the loving Father that Jesus constantly talked of?
No question about it – for all of us there are times when we need to take the harder, more difficult road. But we are convinced that God’s primary concern is for us to concentrate on and excel at what we do best.
Seldom is the future God has prepared for us completely divorced from our past, and alien to how we are wired. Throughout this book you will be given the opportunity to reflect on the journey you have already travelled. For it’s our past (and our present) which will offer the best clues to our future. Although there may be changes ahead for us, it is still essentially the same person we take into the future. And although there may be some things God is inviting us to leave behind, it is the essence of who he has made us to be that we need to understand. With that knowledge we are in the best position to achieve the God-given potential he has placed within us.
Discerning the shape God has made us is critical for seeing where we fit into God’s landscape. The Apostle Paul puts it this way:
We have been shaped by God, created in Christ Jesus, to do good works, which God has prepared for us. (Ephesians 2:10)
God has taken great care in shaping us. We are his workmanship. The Greek word used (poiema) could as easily be translated “masterpiece” or “work of art”. Imagine that. According to Paul, if we want to find out the type of work God has prepared us for, we need look no further than how he has put us together.
We like what Keith Miller and Bruce Larson have written about this: “All that we’re meant to be! God’s dream for us is so vastly greater than the largest dream we have for ourselves. But what is his dream for us? I believe he has given us clues to what that dream is. And the longings and yearnings buried in each of us often provide those clues. It is like being on a cosmic treasure hunt. Follow one clue and it will lead you to another…and then another…until you find the treasure himself. For to find God and his ultimate will for us, is to find ourselves. This is the discovery for which all of creation stands on tiptoe – to see God’s sons and daughters coming into their own.”
Decision-making is a challenging matter for nearly every Christian we know. It’s not made any easier by at least two differences between us and Paul’s first readers.
The world we live in is very different from that of the early Christians. Over half of the people in the Roman Empire were slaves or servants of some description, and had little control over much of their destiny. Most of life’s circumstances were dictated by the decisions of the master of the household. Yet Paul’s counsel to Christians in slavery is somewhat surprising. He didn’t instruct them to ask God how they might gain freedom. In fact, in one case he recommended to a runaway slave that he return back to his master!
There’s no suggestion that Paul thought slavery an ideal system. However, his point to Christians caught in it was to seek to do God’s will in the midst of their far-from-ideal situation. That is, they were to work diligently for their masters, obeying them, working as if they were serving God.
This should help us to see that “circumstances themselves do not determine whether we are inside or outside the will of God. We decide that by how we respond to God in our circumstances.” The key is learning to do God’s will wherever we are.
An important difference between us and Paul’s first readers is that we live in a modern world which prizes individual and democratic liberty. We are blessed with a wonderful gift of freedom and choice – but it brings with it unexpected complications. We simply have too many choices! We are like small children let loose in a toy shop, told by our parents that we can have any one of the thousands of toys on the shelves … but only one!
No wonder we often find it so difficult making decisions. We are swamped with options and it can easily leave us unable to make a choice. Add to this our incessant busyness … and we have a powerful mix capable of overwhelming and immobilising us when decisions need to be made.
Is over-choice any harder to live with than lack of choice? For our immediate purposes the answer doesn’t matter. What is important is that this is the situation many of us find ourselves in. And – says the Bible – our capacity to do God’s will is not dependent on our circumstances.
The second difference between us and those first Christians is even more subtle. We moderns suffer from a lack of community. Our lives of faith should be inextricably linked with those of our fellow believers. Paul makes this clear in his description of God’s people as a body with many different parts. The parts are only useful when working in combination with the rest of the body.
But in our intensely individualistic culture it is easy to become disconnected and separated from others – from people whom we need, and who also need us. When we set out to make decisions, the focus of our questions is likely to be, “What’s right for me?” This question is not in itself wrong, but we only too easily forget the balancing questions. Like … “How do I fit into what the Body is doing?” And … “What is my role/part?”
Answering all these questions will be greatly assisted by strong relationships with other Christians. In fact, it is our belief that without intentional community we will struggle to find our place. For we need others who know us well and hear our heart. They are able to give us important perspectives on how they see God’s purposes being worked out in our lives.
Not only that, but as we learn to work together we’ll discover new things about our particular contribution. It’s also distinctly possible that where we are called to work as part of a team we’ll discover the exhilaration of realising that the “sum total is much greater than all of the individual parts put together”. Our gifts may only make sense and be maximised for good in the context of community.
Of course, ultimately each of us needs to take responsibility for our own choices but the support and involvement of others can make a big difference.
There are times, even now, when I try to work out how I ended up as a car dealer. It happened so fast and seemed such a radical departure from what I had been doing.
Why was it that I took the initiative to buy a couple of vehicles from the local auction and then sell them on? What caused me to investigate importing direct from Japan … and to go there a couple of months later (with a guy I hardly knew) and buy 30 vehicles? What gall! After all, I knew so little about cars.
Thinking about it, I recognise two forces at work. One was my own determined initiatives, the other an outside propelling force. The picture that comes most readily to mind is a small yacht being swept along by a strong wind. I felt pushed in a certain direction, but also I was working hard to direct the yacht the same way, though I didn’t quite understand where that would lead me. This inadequate picture captures for me something of the dynamic involved – a somewhat mystical collusion between God (the wind), and Wayne (the sailor), jibing and heading in a particular direction to a part of the ocean where I’d never been before and couldn’t even imagine.
Did God’s power “overwhelm” me into starting a car business? No. Was it just me directing the decision-making? Not at all.
Did God “orchestrate” the opportunity? Maybe, though it seems a rather meaningless question. Ultimately, through a series of mini-decisions, I sensed that this was a good choice and took the plunge. What gave me the confidence to do so? Support and encouragement from a colleague who knew me well, an inward burst of adrenaline, and excitement … and also the belief that if it proved to be a bad call it would not be the end of the world, but rather a chance for God to work his purposes in my life.
Looking back, the opportunities I found myself drawn/directed to were ones that appeal to me and that fit me well. My family (parents and grandparents) had been in business – though not selling cars. My maternal grandfather, in particular, was an entrepreneur and salesman. That I had similar motivations and abilities had never really entered my head./em>
But it seems that my venturing brought to the surface what was latent. If I had known myself better, I would have seen a pattern in my earlier experiences which pointed to this being a good fit. My eye for a “good deal”, my attention to detail, the enjoyment I gain from relating to people, the pleasure I get from doing something in a way that is different to the norm, arithmetic and administrative skills – all these aspects of who I am fitted me well for the challenge.
The uncertainty and lack of confidence I felt during those early months was sometimes extreme. It was certainly not plain sailing. I was on the edge, moving at a brisk 25 knots in some challenging seas. Frightening and exhilarating, both at the same time. There were moments when I genuinely thought I had made a bad call, and I don’t know exactly what gave me the confidence to keep at it, short of a sense that God was there in the adventure with me.
In hindsight (a wonderful gift!) I could see the rightness of it all. But that’s no help when you’re in the midst of the decision-making! Even so, it was a period of real growth for me – in my trust, my character, my taking on responsibility for my own decisions, and in the development of my unique “fit”. I’m so grateful the opportunities came and that I was bold enough at the time to grasp them.
Gerald Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), page 20.
Keith Miller and Bruce Larson, The Passionate People (Waco, Texas: Word, 1979), page 14.
Think back to the last major decision you made in your life.
How did you come to your decision?
What factors influenced you?
In retrospect, how can you see God’s part in the decision?
What did you learn from the process?
Are there any important decisions you’re confronted with now? Write down a short list of the factors (either derived from this chapter or more generally) that can assist you to make a good decision?
Feedback from friends; ideas to discuss with a small group
Looking back over your life, what has been your greatest difficulty about finding guidance?
Describe to your friends a time when (especially now that you look back on it) you felt confident you made a good decision. Try to identify some of the reasons you feel happy about it. (Was it just that things turned out well in the end!?)
If you can, try to share about a poor decision you have made at some time. What happened that made you feel it was a bad choice? How has God used this to “grow you”?
What is your reaction to the following statement by Gordon Smith? “We see through a glass darkly (1 Cor 13:12 KJV), which means there will always be an element of uncertainty in our choices. In this life we will not have absolute, ambiguous peace and rational certainty that we have divine guidance… The presence of sin in our lives complicates matters further. What makes discernment so difficult is that we can never really trust ourselves, especially our motives… By not overstating our certainty, by qualifying our statements and not making absolute our sense of divine guidance, we are not negating for a moment the presence and witness of God to our hearts. We are merely affirming our own human limitations and humbly accepting our potential for self-deception.”
Parker Palmer writes: “Let your life speak … Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.” Think about a recent decision you have made. In what ways did your knowledge about how you have been shaped by God contribute to your decision-making?
As a group, draw up a scheme to help you when you face your next major decision. Identify and list the factors you will try to take account of.
The following books are all worthwhile and challenging reads:
Gerald Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life (Zondervan, 2000)
Gordon Smith, Listening to God in Times of Choice (IVP, 1997)
Bruce Waltke, Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? (Vision House, 1995)
Garry Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God (Multnomah, 1980)
David Runcorn, Choice, Desire and the Will of God (SPCK, 2003)
Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Jossey-Bass, 2000)