So you want to do God’s will? Just do something

Communications Staff — October 13, 2009

Author and pastor Kevin DeYoung on discerning God’s will

This blog is the cover story from the Oct. 12 Towers. DeYoung serves as senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Mich.

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We have all heard it before: “Man, I don’t know. I think she might be ‘THE ONE,’ but I’m not sure. Pray for me.” Such a conversation often occurs in a college dorm room — sometimes multiple nights per week — in a work break room or via a long distance phone call.

Such a question for a Christian is usually framed as: “What is God’s will?” Should I marry this girl or that girl? Should I major in applied economics or animal science? Is God calling me to go overseas or go back to my hometown to minister? What about buying a house?

While such questions are important, Kevin DeYoung argues that placing them under the banner of discerning God’s will is fundamentally misguided.

“I think living in God’s will is the daily decision to live for Christ, die to self and obey the Scriptures,” said DeYoung, senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Mich. “It is sort of like what Augustine said, ‘Love God and do whatever you want.’ Now, obviously you need to fill up love God with a lot of good, biblical truth. Otherwise, people will excuse a lot of sinful behavior.

“But I think living in the will of God and pursuing God’s will is not asking Him about every single possible choice you have to face and expecting Him to give you an answer. Instead, it is so being transformed by the renewing of your mind that you are learning to think God’s thoughts after Him.”

DeYoung is the author of “Just Do Something: a Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will” (Moody 2009). Instead of God’s will being about decision making, DeYoung notes that Scripture centers it in growth in Christlikeness.

“1 Thessalonians 4:3 says, ‘This is the will of God: your sanctification,'” he said. “The will of God is for us to be like Christ. The will of God is for us to be holy. So, we need to put away passivity, which we excuse as being very spiritual when often it is just laziness or cowardice.

“We need to be willing to take risks for God and trust that He doesn’t have to show us the future because we trust that He holds the future. And we need to go out and do something and trust that if we are seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness … then we will live a life that is pleasing to God.”

Making decisions: seek wisdom from God, not divine guidance

When it comes to decision making, DeYoung said there is usually not one single right answer. Clearly, if a decision would violate the moral standards of God’s Word then it is out of bounds. But beyond that, DeYoung suggests there are multiple paths each Christian can take.

“I don’t people see in the New Testament approaching decision making questions in that way (pursuing one right answer),” he said. “Most of those decisions are amoral: they are judging between two things that could both be right.

“For example, for marriage — providing you are thinking about marrying in the Lord and you are marrying somebody who is equally yoked — there is not just one person who could be the right answer. That is just living in fear and trepidation in a way that the Lord does not intend. People are well-intentioned, but are often hyper-spiritual with something that I think could be much simpler and more freeing.”

DeYoung said one reason Christians in America are so enamored of a pursuit of God’s will that centers on decision making is because of the abundance of choice in today’s society.

“Fifty to one hundred years ago our grandparents didn’t have 10,000 choices,” he said. “You lived in the same place, married one of the few people in town and worked on the farm or taught in school. It is only with the explosion of choice that this has become such a pressing issue, which makes me think that it is not mainly spiritual. … We make it more complicated by making it this grand spiritual pursuit.”

Of course, there are still decisions to be made. So how should Christians make decisions?

“First, ask ‘Is it biblical?'” DeYoung said. “Second, you want to seek counsel from other people. Third, you pray. You aren’t praying so much, ‘God tell me what to do,’ but ‘Help me see who I am. Help me be honest in this job interview. Help me have a clear sense of where my heart is at.’ Then you go and do something.

“I think one of the main motivations or impulses people should have is they need to think in terms of wisdom, instead of guidance. Guidance suggests that there is a right answer and a wrong answer here, and I might screw it up. Wisdom suggests I am learning, I am seeing my sin, I am figuring out who I am, God is with me, He is helping me in the process and there is not necessarily one right or wrong answer.”

Growing in wisdom

To grow in wisdom, which will lead to sound decisions, people should immerse themselves in Scripture, DeYoung said. James 1 also encourages those who lack wisdom to ask God for it, he noted. In his experience, DeYoung said God has helped him grow in wisdom by walking him through difficult situations where he did not know what to do.

“I think one of the reasons that God does not give us all sorts of special messages to tell us what to do is because that short circuits the process of wisdom and the process of sanctification,” DeYoung said. “Usually, we get in a situation where we totally don’t know what to do and we say, ‘Give me wisdom’ and we fail to realize, ‘He is giving you wisdom by putting you here.’

“So, we need to realize that part of cultivating godly wisdom is trusting God that we are going to have to live through some experiences to get that kind of wisdom and we are going to make some mistakes. God is interested in our whole lives being transformed.”

DeYoung also said God works through the guidance of other people, whether through books or personal conversations, in people’s lives to help them grow in wisdom.

“I think Tim Keller has a line — I am not going to get it exactly right — if you read one author, you will be a follower; if you read two different authors, you will learn and if you read widely from a whole bunch of different authors, you will be wise,” DeYoung said.

“Don’t just read books that are going to tell you everything you already know, everything you already agree on. Don’t just surround yourself with people who will constantly affirm you. Iron sharpens iron.”

The “call to ministry,” feeling a “peace” and mental impressions

DeYoung said he encourages people to get away from the idea of receiving a “call to ministry,” particularly the notion of an internal call.

“I think the traditional notion of a call to ministry is overblown,” he said. “As in the rest of life, most people won’t consider vocational ministry unless they feel like they might like it or be good at it. Is this a call? I would say ‘call’ language is not the most helpful because it makes it sound like this one job is the only possible thing I could do and be obedient to God.

“If we do use the language of ‘call,’ I think an external sense of call is more important than an internal sense. I am more impressed when a church urges a young man to consider pastoral ministry than I am when a young man feels like he should be a pastor.”

DeYoung said that in particularly weighty matters, some people will never feel absolutely certain that what they are planning to do is the right thing. In contrast, easy-going people sometimes feel good about a choice they have no business making. Thus, whether or not someone “feels a peace” about something is not a good barometer, unless biblical convictions and one’s conscience are involved.

“I could imagine a guy going to propose to a girl and she is not a believer,” he said. “People have been telling him not to do it and he wants to do it, but he is not feeling right about it: that could be his conscience. If there is something revealed to us in Scripture, then we need to pay attention to our conscience in telling us that something might not be right.”

While some decisions don’t require extensive thought, DeYoung suggested people should not rely on feelings or impressions in their decision making.

“Sometimes we do go with our gut, where we think, ‘You know wait, I just don’t feel good about it,’ and you don’t do it. That’s fine,” he said. “I don’t want us to be robots who make all of our decisions based on Excel spreadsheets. I would just caution people to not put too much stock into those sorts of things (gut feelings). Not to over spiritualize the sort of messages that you are getting from a peaceful feeling.”

DeYoung said he wants to give people the freedom he believes the Bible extends in the area of decision making.

“The important thing is realizing — as long as we are not dealing with blatant, sinful vocations — that there are many different things that can please God,” he said. “It is going to be in the context of friendship, community and church leaders that people are going to sort through their desires. There are no simple answers, but often I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer.

“We just need to help people be willing to really think about decisions and pray, ‘Lord help me see if I am motivated by the right things.’ At the end of the day, we have to believe in some Christian freedom, that if people have a clean conscience toward a decision to move to Manhattan and work in finance, then they can do that to the glory of God.”

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