(related essays in German, with different content:
Wie erfahre ich, was Gott will?
Unsere WŁnsche und Gottes Wille)
Matth. 6:33: ``Strive primarily for the kingdom of God'' (= that He rules your life) ``and His righteousness'' (= what is right in His sight), ``and everything else will be added by Him.''
Abraham was tested by God to sacrifice his only child, the pride of his life (Gen. 22). How did he know it was God's will? The evading instructions and answers Abraham gave suggest that he had not been completely sure until the end. But he trusted and tried to act upon it. Probably he thought, `Maybe I am now making the biggest mistake in my life...'. This made him wide awake for not missing any sign of God, especially when the point of no return approached. And God's timing was very careful; just at the climax of tension, he modified the script for action. God wasn't only testing Abraham's commitment but also his vigilance; failure to immediately recognize the change in God's plan would have cost the son's life and would have spoilt the plans of God.
God's test showed Abraham that God, though demanding and at times inscrutable, was reliable even in extreme situations, and it strengthened his faith to completion. And the test confirmed God's plan, that Abraham was indeed suitable for the role he should play as the father of faith. God had designed him that way and thus expected him to stand the test (1 Cor. 10:13); but as a cautious engineer He double-checked. Because of the free will of people, these checks appear necessary: Earlier, the design of Adam and Eve was less successful; they failed when tested by the snake (Gen. 3:24). This caused God to modify His original plans, and He was even thinking of scrapping the whole experiment (Gen. 6:6-7).
(For the scientists among my readers: This is typical for optimal planning: the crucial decision variables are at their extremal values to achieve optimal performance of a device, and the optimal strategies are often discontinuous, requiring sudden and carefully selected changes in the controls. In mathematical terms, the essential constraints are active at the optimum. To ensure proper functioning of an optimized device in practice, it must be made certain that all parts work reliably under these extremal conditions. Uncertain elements in a design - here corresponding to the free will of men - introduce a probability of failure and hence require quality checks on each item, if used in a vital context.)
It is not surprising that most people, when confronted by the power of God, become very afraid, and it is interesting to note that in all accounts of such confrontations in the bible, the angels (or Jesus) must calm people down! It is like being required to work with high voltage equipment - if you dare to work with it at all you make completely sure that you always obey the safety instructions.
Love of God and fear of missing His will usually go together. Deut. 5:29; Prov. 14:2; Jer. 32:39; Mal. 2:5; Apg. 10:35. Not the fear of a slave fearing punishment but that of a loved child, striving to match the expectations of the parents, and fearing it might fail. Rom. 8:14-15. A slave's fear is depressing and creates bitterness and hate; but fear of the right kind is an incentive to become wiser, more aware, more skillful, more understanding. Ps. 111:10; Prov. 9:10; Is. 33:6.
The books in the bible (and many other books of less normative character, too) are full of stories of successful communication with God, and it is profitable to read the stories with a desire to discover how and under which conditions the heroes of the stories succeeded (and you may expect to succeed as well). What follows cannot really replace your own discoveries; lots of surprises await you as you proceed. Both your longing for understanding what God says and what He wants from you will increase, and your ability to understand Him, too.
A.W. Tozer comments in his book `The Pursuit of God' on John 1:1, ``... and the word was God.'' In the chapter `The Speaking Voice', he writes: ``A man... tries to think of God as mute everywhere else and vocal only in a book. I believe that much of our religious unbelief is due to a wrong conception of and a wrong feeling for the Scriptures of Truth. A silent God suddenly began to speak in a book and when the book was finished lapsed back into silence again forever. Now we read the book as a record of what God said when He was for a brief time in a speaking mood. With notions like that in our heads how can we believe? The facts are that God is not silent, has never been silent. It is the nature of God to speak.''
All of the silent activities - that God does to sustain this world and to enforce His will - speak of God and may remind us of His will (Rom. 1:20).
But more personally, God may speak to us through scripture, other people, fitting circumstances, and much more rarely (though more conspicuously) through dreams, voices, visions, and anything else of His choice. Especially in these powerful cases, it is essential to double-check with other signs (1 Sam. 3; Acts 10:9-21), in order that we are not mislead by false coincidences or our own desire for power (Jer. 23:25-32).
In a modern version of the image of the body of Christ, each Christian can be likened to a cell. The written scripture is then like the chromosomes, a library of vital information written in the genetic code, with a copy of the same library for every cell. Each cell only activates the part appropriate for its current function in the body; the rest of the genetic scripture remains silent to allow the cells to unfold the diversified behavior needed to make the whole body function. The fellowship of other Christians is like the exchange of chemical information between cells so that each one knows what to do and which part of the genetic information to utilize in the current situation. The spirit of God is like the electrical impulses carried by the nerve system that connects each cell directly with Christ, the mind governing the body. And to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel, cells also receive part of their instructions from the outside world, different cells in different ways.
God is consistent; this allows us to check whether or not something is from God. The more far-reaching the consequences, and the more powerful we are, the more important it is that we check carefully, so that we do not do harmful things thinking we do God a favor with it (John 16:2). Be wary of counterfeits; don't be deceived when Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14).
Don't forget your part in successful communication - prayer. Be genuine (James 1:5-8). Share your true feelings with God, even when they don't show you in the most favorable light. To convince yourself that this is a successful strategy, contemplate the many psalms, and the examples given by Elijah (1 King 19), Job (Job 13+14+40-42), Jeremiah (Jer. 20:7-18) and Jesus (Matth. 26:39; 27:46). Talk with God, not like the pagans but in the same way as children share their life with their parents (Matth. 6:5-9).
To avoid pitfalls in understanding the will of God for you, ask Him for (and train yourself in)
If we are uncertain although we tried our best to understand and follow God, we may confidently proceed with what seems best (or least objectionable in case of situations where nothing seems right). We may trust God that He guides us even when our sight is clouded and limited, and that He corrects us when we do wrong, and even turns our mistakes and failures into something which ultimately brings good. Prov. 19:21; 24:16; Eccl. 11:9; 1 Cor. 15:9-10; 2 Cor. 12:9-10; 1 John 3:19-22; Rom. 8:28. Learning to trust that God is powerful enough to guide our life in the present (Matth. 6:25-34), especially when we don't know the way to go, is an important step towards a strong faith.
And if we realize we didn't do our best, it is important that we don't shy away from the presence of God but accept His forgiveness and return to the full commitment of our first love (Rev. 2:1-5; 3:14-22).
Like everything, things may begin with a question: Is this God's will? Keep the question around, it opens your eyes to signs you'd miss otherwise. Do what, to the best of your efforts, you found to be God's will; act or wait when you think He wants you to act or wait, respectively. Act or wait tentatively (like Abraham) even while you are uncertain. But keep watching and trust that He'll correct you as long as you are attentive, and sometimes (Numbers 22) even when you are not.
The apostle Paul was saved by this attitude from his destructive belief that he serves God by persecuting Christians (Acts 7:56-8:3; 9:1-31). The damage he had done, though bitter for the early church, was turned by God into a blessing for the world, both by the increased range of action of the followers of Christ because of the enforced dispersion, and by the powerful mission of Paul after he had understood God correctly.
Lord, help us to understand you more clearly, to speak with you more from our heart, to put into practice what we know you'd like that we do. Give us determination and persistence in following your will, and increase our desire to live for you and with you. Thank you that you care for us and lead us safely along a path that - accompanied by peace and danger, by success and failure, by joys and difficulties - brings out the best in us, purifies our interests, and makes us fit for service. Amen.
Discovering the Will of God
A Course in Spiritual Discernment
Arnold Neumaier (Arnold.Neumaier@univie.ac.at)