We were supposed to have our first informational meeting for planting a church in Asheville, North Carolina exactly one year ago, today. Instead, I sent out an email to the forty-plus people on my prayer team announcing that we would not be moving forward with the new church. I mentioned the reasons why in my 2012 Year in Review, so you can check that post out for some background info.
After that post, a friend of mine sent me a message on facebook asking some good questions about how I knew it was God’s will for me to stay in Louisville, and how I interpreted my previous calling in light of staying. I wanted to post my reply, somewhat edited in order to make it more of a blog post, so here we go.
God’s Will and Our Freedom from Fear
In order to know God’s will for our lives, we have to understand what we mean by
God’s will. I know that seems elementary, but many times we ask this question assuming just what it is we are looking for. I come from a broadly reformed view on the will of God, so I recognize that some people will disagree with my premise from the start of this post—and that’s fine. That’s actually my point. How we understand the will of God influences how we seek to live out the will of God. My aim is not necessarily to defend my view, though I will explain it somewhat, but to answer a question from someone who is largely in agreement with me.
God’s Will and Tim Keller
One of my favorite stories from Pastor Tim Keller is when he talks about planting Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In the pre- and immediately post-planting days of Redeemer, Pastor Keller was often asked whether he was confident that God was calling him to such a task. He would answer, very plainly,
No. His reasoning: It would be impossible for him to know such a thing definitively until he actually did it. In other words, God’s will for our lives can only seen for sure with 20/20 hindsight. For some of you, just thinking about doing such a large work without that confidence makes your heart race.
So why did Pastor Keller decide to plant Redeemer, even with his doubts? Broadly speaking, first, he saw the need and felt it’s urgency. Second, he sought out through self- and community-based assessment as to whether he had the skills and gifting necessary to plant the church. Third, he made a decision to go. Of course, there was bible study, prayer, and development that was done, but these were the three broad steps. It wasn’t until after the decision was made and Redeemer planted that he could say for sure it was God’s will. But how could Pastor Keller be so flippant about something as serious as being in God’s will? I don’t believe he was flippant at all, but was rather exercising a freedom found in his trust of God’s sovereignty.
God’s Will: Freedom or Fear?
In order to understand seeking God’s will we must first understand something about the Gospel itself. One of the effects of the gospel is that it brings freedom. Jesus taught that “the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32), and Paul wrote that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Now, these verses are more nuanced in their context, but it provides a starting point. The Gospel frees us. Before we enter the Christian life we were enslaved, but God shatters our enslavement through the gospel and the Holy Spirit. Therefore, God’s will, insofar as it’s centered in the gospel, is something that should be freeing rather than enslaving.
But many of us feel paralyzed by the thought of God’s will. We stand at a fork in the road, and—weighted down with fear of making the right choice to make sure we’re in God’s will—are paralyzed from taking another step.
But, again, the biblical concept of God’s will is meant to be freeing, not enslaving. Comforting, not paralyzing. As John wrote, “Perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18). God’s will is an expression of his perfect love, and to be afraid of whether you should make this or that decision in order to remain in God’s will is a betrayal of its very nature. This doesn’t mean we are flippant about God’s will—Neither Pastor Keller’s decision to plant Redeemer, nor my decision to not plant Christ the King were flippant, but heavily weighted. What it means is that, in our pursuit of living a Godly life, we can be confident and trusting of God’s love for us and his goodness in guiding us.
What is God’s Will?
That being said, in order to see how God’s will is freeing rather than enslaving, we must first see what God’s will is biblically. Those who are reformed or reformed-leaning in their understanding of the Bible have talked about the
two wills of God. Such an understanding understandably may make a lot of you nervous. By
two wills, it may seem that those who are reformed (-leaning) place in God’s will two competing, or contradictory, wills, but this is not what is meant by the phrase. Perhaps it’s more helpful to think of it as the two aspects of God’s single will. God’s will is not divided, but it is multi-faceted. These two aspects are often labeled something like
God’s secret will and
God’s revealed will.
God’s Secret Will
God’s secret will is that aspect of God’s will which is commonly called his providence or sovereignty. Again, this is where our beliefs about the sovereignty of God may put us at odds. Again, that is fine. This secret will (or providence, or sovereignty) is the will by which God orchestrates all of history, ruling and reigning over the universe. It is is divine purpose by which he has foreordained all which comes to pass. To put it yet another way, it is God’s divine authorship of the whole of history from eternity past.
The Bible is clear that God is in meticulous control over all things. The Psalmist declares, “The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19), and again, “The Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths” (135:6). The author of Proverbs tells us that God is sovereign over even the smallest detail: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33). Isaiah’s view of God’s sovereignty helped him faithfully prophesy of a particular event, “From the east I summon a bird of prey; from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose. What I have said, that I will bring about; what I have planned, that I will do” (Isaiah 46:11). Finally, Paul clearly teaches that “In [Christ] we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). However you understand the first part of Ephesians 1:11, the latter half is clear: God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”
This aspect of God’s will is called the
secret will because it is impossible to know until it has already happened. Deuteronomy 29:29 is instructive:
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. Here, the author makes the same distinction we are making: there are things God keeps secret, and things that God reveals to us. It’s also apparent from this verse that it is only the revealed things for which we are accountable. We are not obligated to figure the secret things out, nor are we guaranteed that we will find answers if we try. The secret things belong to God, and are kept secret for a reason; what has been revealed belongs to us, and it is our obligation to follow those things.
Which brings us to the second aspect of God’s will: that which he has revealed to us. It is this revealed will that we are held accountable for, and so we better have a decent concept of what it is if we hope to make decisions well.
God’s Revealed Will
For his own reasons, God has seen fit to not reveal all things to us. This doesn’t mean that he hasn’t revealed anything. The last part of Deuteronomy 29:29 explains what exactly it is that God as revealed and for what purpose:
…that we may follow all the words of this law. God has revealed himself through the Scripture of the Old and New Testaments, though law and gospel, and ultimately through Jesus himself (Hebrews 1:1-2). I’m not going to belabor this point as it’s fundamental to Christianity itself, but it’s important to note that this revelation of God from God is what we are held accountable to.
It’s vital that we understand this if we want to comprehend the freedom we have in making decisions and God’s will. When we try and figure out what God’s will is, what we usually mean is,
What is God’s will for me personally? But by the very nature of the Scriptures as God’s revelation of himself to all of humanity, his personal will for our lives is necessarily, though as we will see not completely, excluded. God’s will for us personally is therefore firmly entrenched in the secret aspect of his will. And that means most of the time we will have the clearest view of God’s will for our lives only after it has happened. This is why Pastor Tim Keller was able to boldly say
no when asked if he was confident that God was calling him to plant Redeemer while also feeling the freedom to move forward and attempt to start the church.
By not knowing God’s will for our lives, we often feel paralyzed in our decision-making, afraid to move forward. Paradoxically, the Bible seems to say that it is not knowing God’s will for every detail of our lives that truly frees us to make decisions. By not revealing such things, God is granting us the freedom to choose—not that we can choose whatever we want in all situations, but more will be said on the decision-making process later.
God’s Will for Me
While I think that God’s will for us personally is necessarily part of the secret aspect of his will, it is not totally a part of it. There are two places where God states his will for us. The first such place is 1 Thessalonians 4:3:
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified.
That’s pretty much it. The following verses go on to give some examples of what sanctification looks like in a particular context, but this is the over-arching statement for God’s will in your life. He wants you to become more and more holy. But there’s just a little more to it, as Paul writes a few chapters later in 5:16-18:
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
It would interesting to explore the connection between sanctification, rejoicing, praying, and being thankful, but that’s another blog post. Suffice it to say that we are held accountable for knowing God’s will only insofar as he’s revealed it to us, and this is the extent of what God has revealed to us about his will for us personally (not including the totality of law and gospel themselves, of course). To be holy, with the ability to rejoice in all things, pray continually, and always be thankful.
Have you ever considered that the filter for determining whether or not you’re in God’s will?
Will this help sanctify me? Of course, I think there’s more to making a decision than that, but we are freed from having to spend countless hours worrying about God’s will for us. That doesn’t mean we don’t have any concern, however, because we do have God’s revelation of himself in the Bible that gives us the guideline, or paradigm, we need in order to make wise choices. In the next post, I will write more about the decision-making process, and how I made the decision for staying rather than going to Asheville.