Is God’s will top-secret? When it comes to God’s will, you may live in fear that he’s holding out on you somehow. What does the Bible reveal about God’s will for your life? Are you in God’s will now? Is a confident answer to that question ever possible?
In your book, you write, “God’s will is not about where we are or even necessarily whom we are with, but about who we are.” Please unpack that.
James MacDonald: I think 1 Thessalonians 4:3 speaks to this pretty directly: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” When we’re increasingly becoming the people God wants us to be, then we can be confident we’re with who he wants us to be with, and where he wants us to be.
In other words, your character traits, spiritual priorities, and manner of living—what Christians have for 20 centuries called “holiness”—are the will of God. And when your life increasingly conforms to God’s prescription for holiness, all of these nonsensical sidetracks of geography, or which couch to buy, or where to go for dinner, fade into the shadows. Then you can live in the glorious freedom of what the will of God is, instead of searching out a nonexistent who, what, where, when, what color, etc.
Stated simply: the will of God is about who you are. The will of God is about your sanctification—that refining process in which you’re conformed more and more into the image of Jesus Christ.
So you don’t need a roadmap for life, spelling out every twist and turn, every choice you need to make. There’s no specific blueprint, and God’s knowledge of the future means you don’t have to figure it out in advance of joyfully experiencing it under his watchful care.
We hear a lot of talk about “sanctification,” but what does that really mean?
James MacDonald: Here’s a definition: Sanctification is the lifelong process in which Christ-followers are refined and increasingly conformed to the behavior pattern of Jesus Christ. It’s the work of God in the lives of forgiven sinners that takes them step-by-step away from selfish, sinful patterns of living and more and more into a life that’s wholly holy, and set apart entirely for the glory of Jesus Christ.
God uses hardship and the circumstances of life to shape and show our character. To be sanctified is to live in complete, continuous submission to him.
Proverbs 3:5-6 is familiar to many, yet do you think it’s biblically understood and rightly applied?
James MacDonald: This is a much-loved passage for many people (including me), yet it’s often misquoted and misunderstood. I’ve heard these verses twisted to mean, “See, there’s the path! It’s a series of dots and I have to be on the exactly right dot all the time. I must make the right choices! I need to discern exactly what God wants me to do at every bend in the road.” But God isn’t worried about whether you choose Chinese or Italian food for dinner. Go to a place you can afford!
These beloved verses do not teach that there’s a path of dots you’d better get on or your life is going to be a travesty. The passage is saying that if you trust God with your whole heart (when you’re making decisions), if you don’t lean on your own understanding (when you’re making decisions), and if you acknowledge God in every decision you make, he will make your paths straight.
The assumption is not that you have to know or even guess the will of God before you make decisions, because the Lord will make sure you don’t take any deadly detours. Even when life is difficult, you won’t be wasting your time. Even when life is painful, you won’t just be marking off days on the calendar. God promises that your path will be straight.
He retains the right to intervene and adjust (straighten) your course, but he also gives you plenty of room to obey. No wasted steps, no wasted anything. God will guide and lead you so your life unfolds in such a way that his highest purposes are accomplished in you. None of this depends on where you work or live. God’s highest purposes are about the kind of person you are. This is the will of God—your sanctification.
How should Christians make decisions?
James MacDonald: The Scriptures make some choices explicitly clear, and our decision on those matters should be no-brainers. For example, should you take something that doesn’t belong to you (also known as stealing)? What’s God’s will for you in this choice? The fact that God included “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15) in the ten cardinal rules we call the Ten Commandments should clue us in clearly to what God wants. Easy decision. Don’t steal!
But what do you do when the choices and alternatives are not as clear? What do you do when the choice is not a matter of a specific, biblical mandate that distinguishes right and wrong?
When handling equal choices, God wants you to make the decision that would please you. God is a good Father who loves you! Within the boundaries of God’s Word, we find structure, direction, protection, and freedom. We don’t have to live in terror of making a wrong choice and violating his purposes.
Think about it—God has revealed himself to us as our Shepherd-Guide. When life is hardest, when circumstances are most difficult, when we feel the deepest pain, he is tenderly guiding, gathering, leading, and carrying us. Always! A loving shepherd would never paralyze his sheep with fear over where to roam or rest. And in the same way, that’s not God’s heart for you. Once you’re safely inside the pasture of God’s Word, God leaves the choices up to you. As long as you don’t jump over the fence, you’re free to choose within its protection.
Doesn’t following a Shepherd-Guide sound like a more joyful life than following a divine architect who hides the blueprint and leaves us guessing in the dark? Being a Christ-follower is meant to be a joyful endeavor—and it is, when we set our hearts on God and enjoy his gifts.
Bio: James MacDonald (DMin, Phoenix Seminary) is the founder and senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, leading the church since its inception in 1988 with 18 people, to the present with seven campuses in Chicagoland and 13,000 weekly attenders. His practical teaching of God’s Word is broadcast daily around the world on radio and TV through the program Walk in the Word. Dr. MacDonald also founded Harvest Bible Fellowship in 2002, a church-planting ministry which has started more than 150 vertical churches on four continents. He’s authored several books and Bible studies, including The Will of God is the Word of God, Act Like Men, Authentic, When Life Is Hard, Always True, and Vertical Church. He and his wife Kathy live in the Chicagoland area. For more information and teaching from James MacDonald, visit jamesmacdonald.org.
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