What does God want for your life? How does He want you to live? What is the will of God for your career, ministry, relationships, family, or friends? These are the kinds of questions every Jesus-follower asks, especially when facing important decisions or major life transitions.

We also find ourselves asking about God’s will when crises or unforeseen disasters occur. We wonder if somehow that hardship is evidence that we took a wrong turn somewhere and are somehow “outside” of God’s will. When people tell us that God is in control of our lives, we wonder why He would will suffering or painful circumstances.

Understanding God’s will for our lives and acting on that understanding is a primary practice for Christians, but one with which we often struggle.

What Is the Meaning of the Will of God?

In its simplest notion, we all understand that God’s will refers to what it is that God wants. What does He want for Himself, for creation, for humanity, for you, and for me? The more we know God and trust His character, the more we desire to do His will because we understand it is best for us.

God’s will can also be a complex theological topic. Entire books have been written about the meaning of God’s will. There are many ways of talking about it, but they often fall into two distinct definitions of God’s will.

First, there is God’s “Sovereign or decretive (decreed) will”—His overarching plan for creation.

God put a plan into motion for the salvation of fallen humanity and the redemption of the world before time began. Nothing will thwart His plan.

Job 42:2 ESV says exactly that, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” Isaiah 14:27 ESV reads, “For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?”

When Jesus prayed in Gethsemane knowing the path that lay before Him, He said “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” Matthew 26:39b ESV. God’s will for Jesus was that through His death, He would pay for our sins and provide for our salvation and eternal life. It was also God’s will to raise Him from the dead to live forever.

Christians believe that God’s plan of redemption through Jesus Christ, His plan to put an end to evil and death, to create a new heaven and earth, and to enjoy eternity with the redeemed will not be thwarted and will come to pass in its time. God is All-powerful, Almighty, and Sovereign over all things.

Christians aren’t promised easy lives, but we are promised that God has the last word in our lives. Romans 8:28 ESV says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Our focus is on eternal things as we’re told in Colossians 3:2-4 ESV “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” God’s will for us will prevail.

Second, there is what some refer to as God’s “permissive will.”

This is the idea that there are some things God desires but He permits other things to happen. God desires our obedience, but we disobey. God desires fellowship with us through His Son, but we choose not to access the salvation He’s provided in Christ. 2 Peter 3:9 reads, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” Other people’s sinful choices and just living in a fallen world, impact us in ways that are damaging and painful. While God doesn’t currently isolate us from the consequences of living in a world full of sin, that doesn’t mean that sinful actions are what He has willed.

This is often what people reference when asking how we can know God’s will. We may understand God’s overarching redemptive plan for all creation and yet have a need for immediate information about how we should live our day, respond to our culture, or choose a path. We may trust that God has granted us eternal life but wonder if the specific suffering we endure is something He has allowed to happen and why.

What Does the Bible Say about the Will of God?

While at any given time we may wrestle with understanding God’s will for specific situations, He has revealed much of His will or the actions that please Him in the Bible. Micah 6:8 NKJV says, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you, But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?”

Both the Old and New Testaments are filled with stories that demonstrate how individuals and nations learned to follow God’s will and how they fared when they didn’t. There are countless passages with commandments for how to live, love, give, and serve. Obeying what we already know from what God has clearly revealed in Scripture will put us in the strongest position to know His specific will in individual situations.

Romans 12:1-2 ESV tells us, “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. 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.” In other words, do what God has clearly told you to do and let His Word have a bigger impact on your mind than the world does, and you will be positioned to figure out what He wants for your life.

God also encourages us to ask Him for wisdom. We can know hundreds of Bible verses but without wisdom, we may be hampered in applying them to our lives. James 1:5-6 ESV says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.” 

Because of Jesus, we can approach God’s throne boldly, asking for wisdom and trusting, in faith, that He will supply it. This will lead us into His will for our lives.

And, God has placed us in a family of believers where we find other Christians who pray, study His Word, and worship regularly. In this family, the church, God has gifted everyone with special gifts to serve others like teaching, shepherding, wisdom, or mercy. When wrestling to determine a specific area of God’s will, we benefit from asking one or two mature believers to help us in our search.

What Is the "Wrong" Way to Determine God's Will?

Our God is a communicator! He provided the prophets of old, His entire creation, His Word, and now His Son, Jesus, who left the Holy Spirit to show us who He is and to help us with our lives. He’s not playing hide-and-seek with His plan for us. Don’t despair and approach the subject trusting that God wants you to know His will for your life.

Romans 8:32 ESV says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” God hasn’t made His will for us something beyond our understanding or too hard to determine.

Still, He does want us to seek Him with all our hearts.

It will be harder to determine His will if we are solely focused on having a perfect life, being obedient just to get what we want, or giving God minimal attention. Harboring unconfessed sin, even if no one else knows about it, will interfere with understanding God’s will. Nothing is hidden from God. He calls us to be like Jesus because that’s where we thrive, that’s our design, that’s His purpose for us. If we hedge our bets and follow Him half-heartedly, we’re likely to run into a lot of closed doors or even walls in trying to determine His will. His love demands our all, not out of selfishness, but because in giving our all to Him, we discover the joy of our design.

Is There a Right Way to Find God's Will for Our Lives?

The apostle Paul cautioned the Galatian church to “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is,” Ephesians 5:15-17 ESV The implication here is to be mindful about our lives, wise, but focused on action, not anxiety. 

Finding God’s will for our lives is a lot about living with a focus on God’s character and a persistent willingness to obey and to keep walking in faith. While there isn’t a strict prescription for knowing God’s will, there is guidance provided by His Word and by all who have gone before us. In a nutshell, you’ll be well on your way to understanding God’s will for your life if you:

Enter a relationship with Jesus Christ and trust Him for your salvation. Love the Lord with everything you have in you.

Know the Bible and put into practice what you understand. Pray in the Holy Spirit, ask for wisdom, and trust that God will provide it.

Live in relationships with other Christians who love God’s word and are growing in the faith. Ask your faith community for feedback, confirmation, and accountability.

When the way isn’t clear, do the next right thing.

Related Ministries Episodes:

Knowing God's Will By Knowing Yours

The Place for You

Practical Steps in Discovering God's Will

Finding God's Will for Me

Knowing God's Will

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Lori Stanley RoeleveldLori Stanley Roeleveld is a blogger, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits who enjoys making comfortable Christians late for dinner. She’s authored four encouraging, unsettling books including Running from a Crazy Man and The Art of Hard Conversations. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com.