Tonight’s question is “Does God have a plan for each of our lives? If so, how does he reveal it? How do we hear him and discern his voice from others?”
The verse many Christians think of with regard to this is Jeremiah 29:11, which says, “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.” It might be argued that this verse properly speaks of the nation Israel and not of any individual, yet Christians rightly connect this to God’s relationship with believers under the New Testament. The matter is made clear by verses like Ephesians 2:10: “For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do;” and Acts 17:26, where Paul argued to the Athenians that “from one man [God] made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”
Christians often wonder if God has a specific plan for their life, where they will live, what their life’s work will be, etc., and the Bible clearly teaches that God does. The question therefore becomes, “How do I know God’s plan?” The answer is that you do not know God’s foreordained plan for the details of your life, at least you don’t get to know it in advance. The apostle Paul tells us that “the righteous shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17), not by knowing what God’s plan is. I often say this about our journey through life: out the rearview mirror we can often discern much of God’s plan – although probably not as much or as clearly as we think – but out the windshield it is all faith!
People usually seek to know God’s plan because they have decisions to make, and they don’t want to make them badly. We are seeking direction, as we should, so we want to know God’s plan. Let me say that there is something of a category error involved here. When the Bible speaks of God’s plan, it relates it to the sphere of his sovereignty and not to the sphere of our responsibility. God never tells us to figure what his secret plan is for us. We do, however, have quite a bit of knowledge about God’s will, not in terms of the details of our lives but in terms of what obedience to him demands. God’s will is that we should obey his Word, that we should glorify him in all things, that we should love him with all our hearts and minds and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves. That is God’s plan for your life, so far as your responsibility is in view.
In that respect, God’s Law is an outstanding help in Christian decision-making. Perhaps you have a job decision, and you are seeking God’s will. But he has already told you how you are to live, what constitutes a godly decision, what it means to follow his will. A good place to start is the Ten Commandments.
John Calvin spoke in terms of the double will of God. He did not mean by this that God has two wills, but that there are two ways we should think of God’s will. First, there is the secret will of God, his foreordination of all things for his glory and our good. We only get to know this as he unfolds it in history, and even then we know it only in part. But then there is God’s revealed will, which is plainly declared in his Word. This is right before us; we find it in the Bible. Deuteronomy 29:29 relates these two categories of God’s will, his secret and his revealed will, saying, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”
What we need for our decision-making is not new revelation about what God wants us to do, but rather obedience to what he has already revealed, along with wisdom to make good choices. James wrote, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all” (Ja. 1:5). Instead of revealing his plans for our future, God wants us to seek his wisdom in prayer and his will in the Bible.
Let me offer some cautionary words about seeking God’s will. First, We want to avoid following intuition or feelings in discerning God’s will. Contrary to what our culture says today, our hearts are not reliable guides; they are prone to idolatry and folly, they are infected with evil. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Therefore, we want to be very reticent about labeling hunches as the will of God.
How do we hear God and tell his voice from others? The answer is that God speaks to us in the Bible, which gives us a yardstick for assessing every other voice. God speaks to us in Scripture; we speak to him in prayer. I personally have had very strong “hunches” about what God was doing in my life, only to find by events that I was completely mistaken. Listening to God often means waiting for events or for godly wisdom as you seek to honor him with your life. Psalm 27:14 tells us, “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.” Often God will providentially open or close a door, asking us to biblically reflect on what is before us and act faithfully, seeking to honor him and be a help to others.
We hear the expression, “being in the center of God’s will,” which I think would be best replaced by the expression, “obeying God’s Word.” Usually we think we are “in God’s will” when things are going well, when the sun is shining and we are receiving the things that we want. But God often leads us into difficulty, into trials and hardship. That is often his will, as it was for Paul and Silas who followed a vision to Macedonia only to end up in jail. Were they out of God’s will? They didn’t think so, nor did they spend time wondering about it. Instead, they went about their work and God used them mightily from their cell.
God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life – but it probably isn’t the plan you have in mind, unless you were hoping for difficulty and pain and hardship and toil. What you want is success and comfort and temporal happiness; what God is aiming for is glory – his and yours – through the refining of your faith and the conforming of your life to Jesus Christ. Those are two different plans altogether, and you can be grateful that God is not going to set aside his plans the sake of yours.
The most significant plan God has, and the one that we ought to pay closest attention to, is the one revealed in Romans 8:28-30, which tells us that the burden really does not rest on our ability to perceive God’s plan, but rather his faithfulness to the plan he has for our salvation, as well as his sovereign ability to bring us through to the destination he has ordained. Paul writes:
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. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
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