How often do the Scriptures refer to ‘the will of God’ and how we can categorize those references to help us understand the will of God. Caution: many such references were not intended to serve as a guide for decision-making!
For example, the Apostle Paul often spoke of ‘the will of God’ within the introductory descriptions of some of his New Testament letters. Here is the header he used to introduce himself to the Corinthian church: “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus…” (I Corinthians 1:1 - ESV). This being a common feature of apostle’s epistles, Paul used the phrase ‘will of God’ in this way five separate times (I Cor. 1:1, II Cor. 1:1, Eph. 1:1, Col. 1:1, II Tim. 1:1).
The phrase ‘will of God’ is also used to make passive descriptions in situations where a person recognizes that they themselves do not have ultimate no control over their future circumstances. We find a well-known New Testament example of this in James 4:13-15 (ESV):
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
A number of these passive descriptions mentioning the will of God involve the matter of suffering. For example, I Peter 4:19 says, “let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”
That’s a difficult one for people to accept or appreciate because, as I wrote two weeks ago, many Christians, in the interest of understanding God’s will, live as if they are entitled to a measure of certainty devoid of any risk that something might go wrong (i.e., suffering). In such cases, this quest for certainty about God’s will becomes a veiled attempt to keep from having to walk by faith and trust God.
Renewing The Mind
While such references to the will of God may seem less-than-helpful in terms of trying to understand and do the will of God, there are a handful of New Testament passages that speak more directly about God’s will, perhaps none more significant than Romans 12:1-2:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (ESV)
While we might think it preferable for a magic path to appear before our feet and direct us through all of life’s decisions, Paul instead gives us a broader directive for our lives. The will of God isn’t as much of a mystery as we might fear it to be so long as we commit ourselves to the life-long process of renewing our minds.
The obvious unspoken question here is, ‘How are we supposed to renew our minds?’ It comes back around to knowing Scripture. More precisely, it comes back around to committing our lives to a life-long process of learning and (as we learn) allowing ourselves to be transformed by what we read in the Scriptures.
Growth Takes Time, Maturity and Understanding the Grace of the Gospel
When I was in college, I got into the practice of reading one chapter of Proverbs a day. It’s a practice I’ve continued off and on ever since. By the way, not once do we ever find the phrase “will of God” or “God’s will” used in the Old Testament, but becoming intimately acquainted with the book of Proverbs is a very helpful means of allowing our minds to become gradually transformed in our understanding of “what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect”.
Now, nearly three decades removed from my college days, I recall some of the decisions I made and the mindset that I had in making those decisions. As a young Christian, I deeply wanted to honor God with my life and do His will. In one sense, on many fronts, I made some wise and good decisions. On some other fronts, I made some choices that, at the time, were intended to be honoring to God and in accordance with what I believed to be His will. In hindsight, however, on many of those same fronts, I cannot imagine even considering making similar choices today.
For example, 30 years ago, I was very devoted to God but some of that devotion came from my being very legalistic and thinking that it was incumbent upon me to prove to God that I was somehow worthy and deserving of His mercy. Consequently, many decisions that I made with the intent to honor God were actually motivated by guilt and a lack of understanding of the grace of God. As much as I read the Bible as a young Christian, I remained, for a number of years, severely stunted in terms of real inward transformation. Martin Luther described my predicament well: “The more we work and sweat to extricate ourselves from sin, the worse off we are. For there is no way to remove sin except by grace. ...[In] temptation, it is the hardest thing possible to be surely persuaded in our hearts that we have the forgiveness of sins and peace with God by grace alone, entirely apart from any other means in heaven or on earth.”
I also needed to grow in maturity and that cannot be gained outside of time and experience. There is a reason why we see the frequent appeal in Proverbs for the young man to pay attention to the wisdom of older counsel. The Scriptures work from the premise that the maturation process takes time. Therefore, a significant part of growing in maturity lies in the recognition of our own limitations (regarding maturity, knowledge and experience) and having the humility to realize that we need to glean from the wisdom, experience and maturity of others around us.
We’ll pick up there next week as we consider the practice of seeking godly counsel and how that practice helps us in understanding God’s will for our lives.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Lectures on Galatians – 1535, Chapters 1-4, Translated by Jaroslav Pelikan, (St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), pp. 26-27.