The Question

We sat across from each other. Fear, concern, confusion, and sincerity painted across his face. I listened and wondered, how can I help him? How do I say what I need to say without being dismissive or ignoring what’s important? 

He was asking, “What do I do? Should I go back to my home church and be a youth intern or should I be a counselor at this summer camp? How do I know what God wants me to do?” 

“Which one do you want to do?” I wondered. He replied with the pros and cons of each summer job, how each gave him an opportunity to do things he loved. But in the end, the only thing that mattered to him was what God wanted. He just didn’t know what that was. Long, hard praying, asking advice, and waiting for the Spirit hadn’t given any clarity or confidence. 

I took the chance: “What if God doesn’t care? What if, between these two great options, he’s giving you the choice to do what you want to do? What if he’s less concerned about what you are doing than who you are and how you do what you do?”

Unfortunately, that didn’t help. He was convinced that God’s will meant a single option, and he desperately wanted to get it right.

Whether it’s a job, a relationship, a move, or some other event, big or small, our prayers sometimes desperately reflect the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples: Your Kingdom come, Your will be done. We want God’s will to be accomplished in our lives! That’s a good thing, right? 

Fear is no small motivator either. Making the wrong choice is bad enough when it can lead to difficult and unforeseen circumstances. But if we make the wrong choice when it concerns God’s will, then we see ourselves as “outside” God’s will. It’s not often said, but the implication is if we’re outside God’s will, we must be living in sin—a place no follower of Jesus wants to be. But consider the example above, would the guy who asked for my advice really have been in sin if he served God at a summer camp or served God as a youth intern?

There’s another possibility we must consider. What if we’re asking for an opinion God doesn’t have? What if God doesn’t have a specific will for you when it comes to that job or that relationship?

The Problem

It’s unclear when or how the question of God’s specific will for us personally became a central question for Christians looking for guidance. Maybe the question’s been around since Adam and Eve left the Garden, and God no longer walked with them in the “cool of the day” (Gen 3:8). Perhaps they were the first ones to ask, “What does God want us to do?”—the irony being that God had already told them, and they didn’t listen. 

Several possible threads have led many to embrace the idea of God’s personalized will for their lives. One is our tendency to over-personalize interpretations of certain passages of Scripture, which causes us to extrapolate principles on God’s attentiveness that aren’t actually there and fit them to our individual needs. 

I understand, support, and even celebrate the desire of the person seeking God’s will for them, but there are two concerns with this approach (see footnote about omniscience). 

1. When do we stop asking the question?

What kinds of issues are too small to ask God to help us decide? And, even if we stop asking the question about something that seems trivial, how do we know God stops having a will for us at that point? 

It’s tempting to simply answer that common sense is the dictator. But common sense isn’t necessarily common. That’s not an intelligence comment, but a sensitivity comment. Someone may be convinced that God’s will for them extends to more decisions than you or I may think necessary. And, for obvious reasons, it doesn’t work to say that God’s particular will extends to certain specifics for some but not for others. 

Should we be asking God which clothes to buy, where to shop, how often to mow our lawn, what sports our kids should play? Before your eyes roll across the floor, there are legitimate issues behind each of these questions. Our clothes are made by corporations; do we know how those companies treat their employees or what concerns and agendas they support? The same can be said for where we shop. How do we know that the dollars we spend there do not go to support things we are morally and spiritually opposed to? Mowing our lawns can be an issue of creation care as well as loving our neighbors. Mowing too frequently may be unhealthy for the lawn and create unnecessary emissions; too little and we can disrespect our neighbors and make the neighborhood unsightly.

If we’re asking God for his will for our decisions, where do we draw the line and stop asking God to show us what he wants us to do?


2. The consequences of making the wrong decision. 

Take the marriage question, for instance. “Does God want us to get married?” Assume a disastrous wrong choice. The consequence is exactly what we were trying to avoid. We’ve missed God’s will and are now living in a situation that is not what God wanted. We’re sinning, right?

But then the consequences of that choice ripple out to affect people outside of ourselves. What happens to the person God wanted us to marry? If they marry another, then they’re living in sin and forcing the issue further down to more and more people. And if they do not marry anyone? Aren’t they still living outside of God’s will since God wanted them to marry the “right” one? 

We could easily push this question deeper into the potentially ridiculous here. If God has a specific will for all of our decisions, what happens to his larger will if we make the wrong choice? Suddenly, a lot of God’s will is controlled by us and our decisions, and not by God. 

The concept of God’s specific individual will for each of us is an idea that seemingly reinforces our special and individual value in God’s eyes… but God’s individual will isn’t something we find in the Bible. And, if we think about it, God giving us agency to make these decisions ourselves is what really seems to establish us as unique and valuable. If you’re finding yourself growing tense with objections right now, hang on for a while. We’ll get there.


What the Bible Doesn’t Say

Again—nowhere in Scripture do we read the idea that God has a specific, individual will for his people when it comes to decisions like the ones we’ve been discussing. 

There aren’t any examples of people attempting to discover God’s will for a decision or about an issue on which he’s been silent. The one exception might be in Exodus 15 when Moses is complaining to his father-in-law that all the people “come to me to seek God’s will,” but we’re not told that it worked. We’re only told that Moses was tired out and frustrated by it. 

This isn’t to say that prayers aren’t answered—hopefully, that’s clear! Abraham’s servant prayed for guidance to find a wife for Isaac and put out a test (see Gen. 24:12ff). But this was a man who was already working on a plan and asking for God’s help and guidance to make it successful. 

In fact, outside of a few personal letters to individuals, we don’t find much focus on the individual believer. What personal instruction we do find is for those to whom the letters or verses are addressed: Philemon, and Eudoia and Syntyche come to mind . . . but even in those situations, they aren’t instructed to search for some unknown will of God but to follow the way of life that has already been laid out for them.


What the Bible Does Say?

I hear the objection, “Surely God does call people to do certain and specific things! Look at Noah, Moses, all the prophets, Mary, Paul . . .” Yes, you’re right! God did have a will for all of them. It was specific, and it was individual. But let’s look at those examples.

1. They were key individuals in God’s plan of salvation. For every one of the people that we can point to in Scripture as an example of God’s specific and individual will, that will had to do with furthering God’s plan of salvation. Each person had a pivotal role in moving God’s program of redeeming his creation.

At best, this shows God can have a specific and individual will. We know he can work this way. But it doesn’t suggest he works in this way for every follower of his. Think of all the other God-fearing and Jesus-following people who existed at the same time as these people. Scripture doesn’t record that God was specifically speaking to them and guiding what they were doing. This absence of recording doesn’t irrefutably mean God wasn’t speaking to them, guiding and directing them in specific and particular ways. It only means that it wasn’t recorded as part of Scripture. Of course, God can speak, but perhaps this shouldn’t be the normal expectation.

2. None of these people were attempting to discover God’s will. God called them, and they knew it was God. Some questioned the task given them—Gideon, Zechariah, even Mary. But the mover in the situation was God. Amos was simply minding his business picking some figs and tending some sheep when God spoke to him of his task. Moses was tending sheep and then argued with God, at first trying to avoid God’s will!


The Bible does say that God has a will for us. And fortunately, it tells us what his will is. Think of God’s words through Micah, “What does the Lord require of you? Live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (6:8). 

Our hands are full trying to live up to those three things. Do we really need any more specifics? But there are other places where God’s will for us is explored. 

Writing to the church in Thessalonica, Paul says, “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister (1 Thess. 4:3-6, emphasis added). And later he says, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (5:16-18, emphasis added).

Peter also gives us a quick view of God’s will. “For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15, emphasis added). In this verse, not only do we find explicitly what “God’s will” is, but implicitly as well. The command to do good is surely something God desires of us. 

In all of these things, we see that what God desires of us is connected to the kind of people we are, not to the kind of things we do for a job or the specific person we marry. When it comes to work, the Bible’s instruction is actually quite freeing, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23, emphasis added). It’s important to God how you do your job, not what your job is.

What Do We Do?

Even if we are freed from the anxiety of looking for God’s particular will for our lives, we still have decisions to make. What do we do? 

  1. Pursue God first, delight in him (Ps. 37:4).
  2. Try to live up to what God has revealed in all of Scripture.
  3. Ask God for wisdom (James 1:5).
  4. Seek wise counsel (Proverbs 15:22).

God might lead you into something specific—perhaps a job that best fits your talents or a particular place where you can serve him. It’s also totally fine to ask God if he has a preference on whether or not you serve as a youth intern or serve at a summer camp. But if he does, or if he doesn’t, like the prophets of old, you’ll know it’s him, and you’ll know exactly what it is he wants you to do.

So, instead of asking God what he wants you to do; ask him to help you do what he’s already shown you. 

Footnote: We’re going to leave the discussion of God’s omniscience out of this. The theology of God’s omniscience says that since God is outside of time, all time as we experience it is present to God. So, what lies yet in our future, God knows. In the scenarios in this article, God already knows who we will marry or what job we will take. That, at least in part, has contributed to the search for God’s will, but God’s knowledge shouldn’t be confused with God’s will– after all, God knows when and how I will sin, but that is clearly not his will.