The year was 1915, and America was inching toward World War I. In Liverpool, England, a young man decided to return to New Hampshire while he still had the chance. As he prepared to leave England, he composed a poem that he later insisted had been simply a gentle joke written for a good friend. Yet that composition became one of the best-loved poems of the twentieth century.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The poet was Robert Frost. His poem is known around the world as “The Road Not Taken.” All of us have been there! We have all come to a crossroads of life where two roads diverged, one winding off to the left, the other disappearing in the distance to the right. We stood at the fork in the road and wondered, Should I go this way or should I go that way?
OUR DECISIONS MAKE US
Our decisions really do matter. We make our decisions, and our decisions turn around and make us. We face so many questions:
• Should I get married? If the answer is yes, should I marry Joe or Jake? Should I marry Susan or Sally?
• Should I go to college? If the answer is yes, should I go to Alabama or Penn State or UCLA?
• I’ve been offered a new job. It’s a good one. But I already have a good job. Should I take the new position? Or should I hold on to what I have?
• We have two children. We’re thinking about having a third. Should we have another one? Should we think about adopting?
• Is God calling me to the mission field? How can I be sure? Three mission boards are interested in me. How do I know which one to choose?
YOU CAN’T GO BACK
We make our decisions, and our decisions turn around and make us. If you go to UCLA, you won’t go to Alabama or Penn State or anywhere else—at least not this year. Even if you think you might transfer next year, that won’t be the same as going there this year. You can major in biology or business administration—you can even take a double major if you like; but whichever path you take, you can’t go back and be an eighteen-year-old college freshman again. And if you marry Sue instead of Barbara, that one decision will stay with you—for better or for worse—for the rest of your life. Even if for some reason you get a divorce that ends your marriage, you’ll live with the consequences forever.
Sometimes the slightest decisions, made in haste and without much thought, turn out to have the greatest impact. Years ago while pastoring a church in the Los Angeles area, a letter arrived one day asking if I would consider moving to Texas to become the first pastor of a new church in a Dallas suburb. I had never heard of the church or the man who signed the letter. That particular day I was not in the mood to consider moving anywhere. Nothing in the letter sounded particularly inviting or intriguing. In fact, I couldn’t think of a single reason to get excited about moving to Texas. But what should I do about the invitation? I had to respond one way or the other. As I stood by my desk thinking about it, the envelope in my hand, I tried to decide whether to throw it away or toss it on my desk. For some reason that I still don’t fully understand, I tossed the envelope on my desk.
From that rather haphazard, spur-of-the-moment decision came a major redirection of my life. One thing led to another, and I ended up as a pastor for five and a half very eventful years in Garland, Texas. I didn’t see it then, and I couldn’t have known how important that casual decision was. I’m sure I didn’t pray about whether to toss the envelope in the trash or on my desk.
Looking back on it, I had no sense that I was standing at a crossroads. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood that afternoon in California, and by choosing not to throw away an unexpected letter, I unknowingly chose the road “less traveled.”
THE ROMANCE OF GOD’S WILL
Most of us have similar stories. Just as a massive ship is guided by a tiny rudder, our lives often turn on small decisions and unexpected events. An unplanned phone call, a “chance” conversation in the hallway, a friend we “happen” to meet in a restaurant, a fragment of a remembered dream, a book we meant to return but didn’t, the dry cleaning we forgot to pick up, a newspaper story that led to an idea that became a dissertation topic that earned a degree that opened a door to a job in another country. It happens all the time.
Life is unpredictable. That’s the romance of trying to discover God’s will for your life. Does the word romance sound unusual to you in connection with God’s will? It shouldn’t. As we move on together through the chapters of this book, we’ll discover that knowing God’s will is really all about knowing God. But knowing God can never be reduced to a mechanical formula, any more than the marriage between a man and a woman can be reduced to Three Steps or Four Keys or Five Rules. Since knowing God is central to knowing his will, what you will find are biblical stories that, like pieces of a puzzle, fit together to give us a better understanding of what it means to know God personally. Out of those stories we will draw principles that show us how God’s will is discovered in the outworking of the ordinary affairs of life.
MORE THAN A BIRTHDAY CAKE
I can’t say that I’ve always looked at God’s will this way. Years ago I looked at the subject in a rather mechanical fashion—“Do these three things and you’ll discover God’s will.” Unfortunately, the only thing I discovered was that the “three things” don’t always work as advertised. The “three things” are indeed helpful, and even essential, just as remembering your spouse’s birthday is essential to a healthy marriage. But marriage is more than a birthday cake, and knowing God’s will is more than having a quiet time in the morning.
What, then, is this book all about? I propose to share the theme of this book in one sentence. If you want to know what Discovering God’s Will for Your Life is all about, here it is: God wants you to know his will more than you want to know it, and therefore he takes personal responsibility to see that you discover it. Knowing God’s will is ultimately God’s problem, not yours.
The sooner you realize that, the happier you will be. Too many people agonize over God’s will as if God were playing a cosmic game of hide-and-seek. The entire Bible teaches us the opposite, that our God seeks us. He continually takes the initiative to reveal himself to us. Therefore, knowing God’s will is simply a subsection of the larger question of knowing God personally.
That’s the whole book in a nutshell. If you’re looking for a quick-fix approach, this is probably not the book for you. But if you would like to know God better, and through knowing God learn more about knowing his will, read on.
WHAT THIS BOOK CAN’T DO
One disclaimer: If you are currently in the yellow wood standing at the crossroads as you read these words, and if you are hoping that this book will tell you which road to take, you will probably be disappointed. Nothing in these pages will make your decisions for you. You’ll still have to choose between UCLA and Florida State or between moving to South Carolina or staying in Oregon.
If you’re wondering whether to marry Joe or Harry, you’ll have to decide that for yourself. No book written by mortal man can make your choices for you. But as you move through these chapters, I can promise you some new insights into who God is and how he reveals himself to his children. I’m sure that you’ll approach your decisions with more confidence and less fear once you discover how much God wants you to know his will. Nothing is more comforting to the child of God than knowing that amid the confusion of everyday life God is slowly leading him or her along the path of his will. In fact, he is working in and through your decisions (and often in spite of your decisions) to see that his will is actually done in your life.
A PERSONAL WORD
I have a personal interest in this subject because I have agonized over the will of God. Recently I took a look back over the fiftyone years of my life. I realized that who I am today is the result of all the decisions I have made until now. I am the result of hundreds and thousands of decisions, many of which did not seem very important at the time. I have already mentioned tossing the envelope from Texas on my desk instead of in the trash can. But there were many others.
• When I was in the fourth grade my friend Tommy Thompson joined the band. I joined soon after he did, learned how to play the trombone, and saved up money to go to the Cotton Carnival in Memphis, Tennessee, when I was about thirteen years old. There I visited a radio station and met a disc jockey who showed me the news as it came off the AP wire. When he gave me a handful of yellow sheets with news reports on them, I was so excited I could hardly sleep that night.
• When I was in the seventh grade I began stopping by Ira’s Gift and Book Shop. Every week Ira Schnell gave me a copy of a Christian magazine. It was the first place I ever saw the Gospel of Jesus Christ clearly set forth in print.
• When I was a senior in high school, I decided to enter the Junior Civitan Public Speaking Competition, won the local contest, and went on to the regional competition.
• When I graduated from high school I was offered a college scholarship, and without much thought I said no because it wasn’t the right place for me.
• Three years later I took a deep breath and said hi to that cute girl who was the secretary of the music department in the college that I attended.
• The year after my father died and my faith had taken a major hit, I chose—almost by throwing a dart at a piece of paper—to go to Paraguay for a summer missions trip that turned my life and our marriage completely around.
From one decision came a love of music and journalism, from another the realization that yes, I could stand and speak well before an audience, from yet another a courtship that led to marriage, from another a major moment of personal renewal. Over the years I have made thousands of decisions, many of which seemed trivial at the time. But taken together they have made me exactly who I am today. The same is true for all of us. We make our decisions, and then our decisions turn around and make us.
THE CRUCIAL QUESTION
There are many different ways to ask this question. You could ask: How can I, a mere mortal, ever discover what Almighty God wants me to do? Or you might wonder, how can I bring God into the reality of my daily life? Or you could go right to the bottom line: Where is God when I have to make a really tough decision? Or you could ask it this way: Does God still guide? In the moments of life when you have to make a tough decision, when you are in the woods with the two roads diverging in front of you, can you count on God to help you?
Some years ago when I was in a desperate moment of my own life, I stumbled across Psalm 48:14, “This is God, our God forever and ever. He will guide us forever.” I had lost my job and had no prospects on the horizon. I had a wife, three children, and a mortgage payment to make. When I desperately needed to know what God wanted me to do, this verse was precious to me. It sustained me in some dark moments when I wondered if I would be able to take care of my family. Out of that crucible I discovered that God does indeed guide his children.
FOLLOW THAT CLOUD!
Many stories in the Bible illustrate this truth. But few episodes grip the imagination like the story of the cloud and the pillar of fire that led God’s people through the wilderness. The nation of Israel was leaving the land of Egypt. After they crossed the Red Sea, they would go to Mount Sinai, and eventually they would come to the Promised Land. In the process of leaving the safety and security of Egypt, something amazing happened. Exodus 13:20-22 tells the story:
And they moved on from Succoth and encamped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.
The desert was behind them, the Red Sea was in front of them, and the Egyptians were closing fast from behind. Unable to go back to Egypt, trapped between water in front of them and the armies of Pharaoh to the rear, the people of God found themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea, you might say. Even if they somehow made it across the vast stretch of water, they faced an unknown future. As bad as Pharaoh had been, at least in Egypt they felt secure—they knew what to expect. But what would they do now that they were leaving their security behind them?
God answered their concern by sending them a moving pillar to guide them on their way. During the day the pillar was a visible cloud in the sky. During the night the cloud became a blazing pillar of fire that provided visible, unmistakable guidance twentyfour hours a day, seven days a week. All they had to do was follow the cloud and the fire and they would be safe.
Numbers 9:15-23 explains how the cloud and pillar of fire actually worked. The passage is a bit long, but I find it fascinating in its details:
On the day that the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the testimony. And at evening it was over the tabernacle like the appearance of fire until morning. So it was always: the cloud covered it by day and the appearance of fire by night. And whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, after that the people of Israel set out, and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the people of Israel camped. At the command of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the LORD they camped. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. Even when the cloud continued over the tabernacle many days, the people of Israel kept the charge of the LORD and did not set out. Sometimes the cloud was a few days over the tabernacle, and according to the command of the LORD they remained in camp; then according to the command of the LORD they set out. And sometimes the cloud remained from evening until morning. And when the cloud lifted in the morning, they set out, or if it continued for a day and a night, when the cloud lifted they set out. Whether it was two days, or a month, or a longer time, that the cloud continued over the tabernacle, abiding there, the people of Israel remained in camp and did not set out, but when it lifted they set out. At the command of the LORD they camped, and at the command of the LORD they set out. They kept the charge of the LORD, at the command of the LORD by Moses.
Using this story as a guide, I want to share with you four lessons from the cloud and the fire that explain to us something about how God guides his people.
God’s guidance is revealed to us one step at a time Numbers 9 makes this very clear. The cloud would lift, and they would go. As long as the cloud kept moving, they would follow. When it stopped, they would stop. Sometimes it would stop for a night and go on the next morning. Then it would stop for a few days, and they would stop for a few days. The Israelites never knew from moment to moment or day to day what the cloud was going to do next.
Many Christians trip over this very point because they want to see ten steps ahead before they will take the first step. But life doesn’t work that way. God rarely shows you ten steps in advance. He normally leads you one step at a time. He will lead you a step, then he’ll lead you another step, and then he’ll lead you another step. After he’s led you ten steps, you look back and say, “How did I get from there to here?” Then you realize it was just step by step by step.
God’s guidance demands our obedience whether it makes sense to us or not One day the cloud would just stop in the middle of the desert; so that’s where the people of Israel set up camp. Ten days later it would suddenly begin to move again. Why? Why not ten weeks? Or ten months? Or why not just keep moving? No one—not even Moses—knew the answers to those questions. Many days it didn’t make any sense at all.
God’s guidance is often like that. Sometimes God keeps you moving when you would rather stop. That’s happening to one of my close friends as I write these words. All his life he has lived in the Chicago area. His life is here, his children are happy here, his wife is from this area, he knows and understands Chicago. Several years ago he started a new job with a national firm headquartered in a major southern city. For a year he flew in and out of Chicago, visiting customers from coast to coast. As a reward for his good work, his company offered to make him president of a brand-new division. There was only one condition: He had to move to the home office. For months he agonized, prayed, sought godly counsel, waited for God to open other doors. At the same time he became an elder at our church, and he and his wife became leaders in our contemporary worship service. More than once I have heard him say, “I have no idea why God is doing this because I’d rather stay in Chicago.” But in spite of all that, he is moving to a new state and entering a new culture, because for him and his family the cloud is moving on.
KEEP YOUR BAGS PACKED
Can you imagine what it was like to wander in the wilderness for forty years? Say, you’re in year twenty-three—only seventeen more years to go! For the last fourteen years it seems like you’ve been moving in circles in the desert. Finally the cloud stops. You’re somewhere south of Kadesh-Barnea, about a hundred miles from Zoar, twenty-seven miles from Hazeroth, and roughly three miles from the end of the world. They call this place “the Desert of Zin.” It’s hot, rocky, barren, dusty—not a sign of life for miles in any direction. But the cloud has finally stopped. So you start to set up camp. You get the tent up and find some rocks to make a temporary sheepfold. You think to yourself, Well, it looks like we’re going to be here for a while. There’s an oasis just over the next hill where you can get water.
The next morning the cloud lifts. That makes you angry; so you look at the sky and have a conversation with the Lord: “What’s going on? We just arrived. I just fed the sheep. I just put up the tent. What are you doing?” And the Lord says, “What I’m doing is moving. If you are going to follow me, you are going to have to move with me.”
“LORD, WE’VE BEEN HERE LONG ENOUGH”
The other side is also true. Sometimes the Lord says, “Stay” when we would rather be moving. A friend wrote to say that she is struggling over this very point. Now that she and her husband have retired, they have plenty of time on their hands. Both of them would love to use their gifts in the Lord’s work. But no opportunities have presented themselves. My friend wrote of “times when God puts you (the empty vessel) back in the cupboard, clean, but doesn’t use you to cook his soup. I know that our part is just to be there—ready for his use, but it’s boring.” Then she added these perceptive words: “Shame on me for saying I am bored with my Christian life. But—this restlessness, yet not being able to change anything—is hard!” She and her husband are ready to move on. Why is the cloud standing still? I don’t know the answer to that question. All I know is this: Sometimes God says, “Wait” when we would rather move.
Chuck Swindoll calls waiting the hardest discipline in the Christian life. I agree. That is why the psalmist says, “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7). Let this lesson soak into your soul: God’s guidance demands our obedience, even when it makes no sense to us. Sometimes God moves when we want to stay. Sometimes God says, “Stay” when we would rather move on and get our life going again.
God’s guidance changes its character according to the need of the moment.
During the day when the Israelites needed to see a cloud, God provided a cloud; but at night when the cloud would be invisible, the cloud looked like fire. God had one way of showing himself to them during the day and another way of showing himself at night.
That leads me to this conclusion: God’s guidance is always there, but his various means of guiding us change from moment to moment. Consider the implications of that statement. God is not obligated to lead you in the same way he leads somebody else. God is not obligated to deal with you today in the same way he dealt with you yesterday or the way he is going to deal with you tomorrow.
WHICH HOUSE SHOULD WE BUY?
That’s an important principle to learn because so many of us have a very narrow view of God. We think that since God dealt with our best friend a certain way, he’s therefore obligated to deal with us in the same way. “Lord, you answered her prayer that way. Now please do the same for me.” God says, “No deal.”
I’ve always admired (and perhaps slightly envied) those people who seem to have a direct connection with the Lord. When the time comes to make a major decision, they always seem to have an unusual experience, a startling answer to prayer, or an unexplainable “coincidence” that happens to them at just the right moment. In fact, some of my friends routinely expect such things to happen to them so that—from the outside at least—decision-making seems to come easily to them. Not so with me. I’ve discovered over the years that I tend to agonize over big decisions. Sometimes the moment comes when you just have to make up your mind. When I wrote the first edition of this book ten years ago, our family was in the midst of moving from one house to another. Let me repeat the story exactly as I wrote it a decade ago:
To be more specific, we’ve already sold our home and as of this moment don’t know where we are going next. This happened because our home sold too fast—in eight days to be exact. The people who are buying our home made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, but they also want to take possession in about five weeks. So for the last few days, we’ve been scrambling, hastily visiting every other available home in Oak Park, Illinois, in our price range. I can summarize what we’ve found very simply: nice houses but too expensive; nice houses but too far from where we want to live; nice houses but too small; or nice houses that need lots of work. (It’s not hard for me to determine God’s will regarding that last category since I’m not a handyman.) But we did find a handful of houses that met our criteria. In fact, the day before yesterday we settled on two houses.
Both are within our price range, and both could potentially meet our needs. One is a charming, eighty-year-old, three-story home. It’s very typical of the homes in Oak Park. It offers lots of room and lots of possibilities for the future. The other is a much newer, ranch-style home in a very nice section of central Oak Park. How does one make a decision when both houses are appealing and good arguments could be made for either one? It is small comfort to say that you can’t go wrong either way (which is true). We have to choose one or the other. Or we have to find another house and start the process all over again.
Yesterday as I walked from the church down to the real estate office to sign some papers, the thought hit me that no matter how much we discuss the matter or how many family discussions we have, there will always be some degree of uncertainty about our decision. In times past God has intervened to show us precisely what he wanted us to do. This time we are left to use our best judgment after spending time in prayer and in the Word and consulting many advisers (who tell us many different things).
Now let’s jump a decade ahead and fast-forward to the present day. We ended up buying the ranch-style home in central Oak Park. It turned out to be a great place to raise our three boys. We have been very happy in every way. Once we made the decision, we never looked back. But now our boys are out of high school, and the youngest will soon graduate from college. My wife and I are now empty-nesters, and our home seems bigger than what we need. So we’re in the market again. This time we’re looking at townhomes, and we’re thinking about moving to a community a few miles west of Oak Park so I can ride my bike on the local trails. A decade ago I didn’t own a bike; now I ride thousands of miles each year. I’ve become such an avid rider that finding a home near the bike trails has become a priority.
That wasn’t on the radar screen the last time we bought a home. Ten years ago we searched, waited, prayed, discussed, compared, negotiated, and sought the Lord’s will. We never heard a voice from heaven or even had a strong inner sense of God’s leading. Up until the very day we bought that ranch-style home, I had some doubts about the decision. Looking back, we made the right decision—no doubt about it. But I couldn’t be certain in advance. To be fair about it, my wife liked the ranch-style home more than I did—she could see what it would become. She was right, and I’m glad we made that choice. Now a decade later we’ve come to the same crossroads, and it’s not any easier. I simply repeat what I said ten years ago. God has promised to guide us, and he will keep his promise. And when the day comes, I’m likely to have the same uncertainty I had ten years ago, and my wife will probably be more persuaded than I am. That thought gives me enormous comfort because it means God’s guidance does not depend on my personal understanding at any given moment.
If we need to be in a townhome, that’s where we’ll end up. If the Lord wants us near a bike trail (as I fervently hope he does), he will lead us to the right home at the right time. Exactly how he will do that doesn’t matter. It’s enough to know that God doesn’t abandon us even when we are confused and uncertain about the choices before us.
MANY WAYS, ONE VOICE
How does God guide his people? A thousand different ways. But no matter what form the guidance may take, it will always be 100 percent consistent with the Word of God, because God does not contradict himself. God’s moment-by-moment leading comes through a variety of means. Sometimes through the advice of good Christian friends. Sometimes through prayer. Sometimes by listening to a sermon. Sometimes by an inner conviction that God has spoken to us. Sometimes by a deep sense of inner peace. Sometimes God will guide us through a particular passage of Scripture. Sometimes all of the circumstances of life clearly point in one direction. Sometimes he simply gives us the wisdom to make the right decision. Sometimes he “speaks” to us. Sometimes he guides us by his silence. Very often it is a combination of all of these things put together.
God is committed to guiding his children on their journey from earth to heaven. And though his methods may change, and though sometimes they may be difficult to understand, God is committed to seeing that you ultimately reach your final destination.
God’s guidance is revealed as we stay close to him The Old Testament tells us that the cloud and the pillar represented the very presence of God. They weren’t just symbols of some heavenly truth; they represented God’s presence with his people. We are told in the Old Testament that the Lord spoke from the cloud. So when they saw the cloud, they understood that the Lord himself was leading them.
Do you know what that means? If the cloud went north and you went south, you were soon going to get into trouble. If the cloud started moving and your family didn’t follow, you would be separated from the presence of God. And to correct the situation, you would have to turn around and start following the cloud again.
That leads us to a very important conclusion: God’s will is a relationship, not a location. It is not a question of where you should go or what you should do. Knowing the will of God is not primarily about who you should marry or when you should get married. It’s not about taking this job or that job, or how many kids you should have, or where you should go to school, or whether you should be a missionary or not. Those are secondary questions. The primary question is this: Are you willing to stay close to God and follow wherever he leads you? It’s a spiritual question. When we say to God, “Show me what to do,” the Lord says, “Stay close to me.” We cry out to the heavens, “I’m scared.” God says, “Follow me.” We say, “O God, give me some answers.” And God says, “Give me your heart.”
That’s why Numbers 9:23 says, “At the command of the LORD they camped, and at the command of the LORD they set out.” If you will do the same thing, God will guide you. If the Lord says stop, you stop. If the Lord says go, you go. He will guide you. The only way to hear God’s voice is to stay close to him. This is a moral and spiritual issue. Are you willing to go when he says go, and are you willing to stop when he says stop? If the answer is yes, you can rest assured that God will guide you exactly where he wants you to go. The secret of knowing God’s will is the secret of knowing God; and as you get to know God better, he will reveal his will to you.
What does that mean for our decision-making? I think it means, when you need to know, you will know. If God is God, and if you are committed to knowing him, staying close to him, and doing his will, then the ultimate responsibility rests on him to make his will clear to you. The issue is not mystical superstition. The issue is, are you ready to follow God? If the answer is yes, you may be certain that all your questions about guidance will eventually be answered.
QUESTIONS FOR PERSONAL/GROUP STUDY
1. Sometimes tiny, spur-of-the-moment decisions turn out to have great consequences. Can you think of times in your own experience when what seemed like a small decision at the time came to change your whole life?
2. What is the romance of knowing God’s will? List several times in your life when you experienced this romance.
3. How do you feel about the statement, “God wants you to know his will more than you want to know it”? Do you agree with that?
4. If the above statement is true, why do we struggle so often to know God’s will?
5. Why does God reveal his will one step at a time instead of all at once? What positive characteristics does the discipline of waiting develop in your life?
6. As you think back to the various turning points of your life, make a list of the different means God has used to reveal his will to you. As you study the list, do you see a pattern in the ways God has guided you?
If you could ask the Lord for specific guidance in any three areas of your life, which areas would you choose? Why? Spend some time in prayer, asking God to give you the guidance you need as you read this book.