Common phrases in evangelicalism today include “I felt led to…”, “God told me to….”, and “The Lord laid it on my heart to….” I now cringe every time someone uses these phrases because I’ve heard so many unbiblical endings to them. In fact, I’ve seen people’s lives take a million tough twists and turns because they were “following the promptings of God.” For one example, I hesitate to think that God would “prompt’ somebody to avoid the ER when their daughter gets a deep cut that probably needs stitches.
If I can speak candidly, I believe this has to do with lack of biblical knowledge. Sinclair Ferguson says that perhaps one reason why our Christian forefathers rarely wrote about finding God’s will is because they knew the Bible better than most Christians today know it. “They concentrated on teaching themselves and others the will of God which they discovered in Scripture, and the life of obedience to God in a daily submission to and application of his truth.” Another example: If you know that the Bible says Christians shouldn’t mary unbelievers (2 Cor 6.14), you won’t need or care about “promptings.”
What is God’s will for us? To know his word (cf. Ps 119, Ps 143:10), to grow in godliness, faith, and obedience (sanctification – cf. 1 Thes. 4.3), and to give thanks always (1 Thes. 5.18). Instead of going by our gut feelings, promptings, or some kind of leading, we go by the word first and foremost. God’s will is that we obey his law – our duty is to know it, study it, and meditate on it (Ps 119). We do not and cannot know the big part of God’s will that is secret, but we can and should know the part that is revealed in the Bible (Deut. 29.29).
Ferguson says it well. He writes that our own thinking that has to do with discerning God’s will.
“Do you speak about God’s guidance as ‘discerning the will of God?’ Or, do you usually speak of it in terms of ‘I felt led to do it?’ Guidance, knowing God’s will for our lives, is much more a matter of thinking than feeling. We are not to be ‘foolish’ (literally ‘mindless’) says Paul, but to understand what the will of the Lord is (Eph. 5.17).”
That’s exactly right. The Christian life doesn’t need to be a constant, subjective, and often frustrating attempt to step into God’s will. We don’t need to treat scripture like a lottery system (in John Newton’s terms) and hope for some single random verse to spark a prompting. We have God’s revealed will in the Old and New Testaments. Our duty is not to pry into God’s secret will, but know his revealed will, both the law and the gospel, praying for the Spirit’s help in applying the word and giving us wisdom to make those tough choices in life. We know the first Q/A of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, but we shouldn’t divorce it from the second Q/A!
In summary, instead of saying “God really spoke to my heart and told me…” we need to say this: “I prayed, read through God’s commandments and his promises, asked a few friends, and these things helped me decide to take that job on the other side of town instead of move to another state.”
By the way, I highly recommend Ferguson’s book I quoted (pages 34-36): Discovering God’s Will. In fact, since it is inexpensive, get two and give one to the next person who tells you that God has been prompting him to do something obviously unbiblical (and probably quite foolish).