Living Will and Testament
If I told you that the will of God for your life was explicitly stated in Scripture, would you believe me?
It doesn’t seem to be all that easy, does it? I remember as I was finally coming into adulthood that I was often concerned with one, very big question: What is the will of God for my life? Oh, the hours and days I spent poring over that question looking for an answer; it seemed as if every speck of every decision I had to make as a young adult would be analyzed under the all-powerful microscope of God come judgment day. Moreover, the direction the will of God seemed to be pointing in these decisions appeared murky on even the brightest and clearest of days.
There was something that my younger self missed as I pondered things such as which major to study, which career to pursue, and whether or not I should seek marriage. Looking back, that anxiety was entirely of my own doing, a byproduct of sinful beliefs and mistrust of God. The truth of the matter is that God is concerned with facets of our lives sometimes entirely different from what we think is important.
A Little Thing Called Sanctification
During the Apostle Paul’s second missionary journey throughout the ancient world, he and his companions helped establish a church in the city of Thessalonica, a place teeming with all the hallmarks of worldliness. The Thessalonians accordingly faced a number of difficult life decisions just like we do today. To encourage them, Paul wrote them a pair of letters. Specifically, in the first, he implored:
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7)
The will of God for our lives is first that He would sanctify us and make us holy – that is, that He would set us apart from the world and its sinful practices. The Apostle John would likely describe the factor that ultimately separates us from the world as love (see 1 John for reference). The love of God brought us into a new kingdom, a new calling, and a new relationship through the finished work of Jesus Christ; now He wills for us to live according to that same love. He wills for us to love Him, the Creator of all things, and He wills for us to love those around us as well (Matthew 22:37-39).
This directly contrasts the love we initially had in the deadness of our sin. Paul refers here to the Gentiles submitting themselves to the passions of their lusts and ultimately to their love of the world, and he explains that this is different than a person submitting his body in honor and holiness to the Way. Paul curates in this letter the idea that God calls believers to sexual purity. While the grievousness of sexual sin cannot be overstated, the reality is that committing any sin is unloving to both God and brother. As any sin is grievous in this way, we should note that the mention of any pattern of the world that is detestable in God’s sight or contrary to God’s original plan could fit in these verses as well. For the Thessalonians, following Jesus meant prioritizing honor for God and brethren over the desires of their flesh – the two will always be in conflict.
We will undoubtedly feel this same conflict in our own lives as we try to walk by the Spirit. It can feel discouraging as the process of sanctification continues because it is in the light of the Spirit that our shortcomings seem clearest. However, sanctification not only provides us with a knowledge of our sins; it also provides us a way out of them (1 Corinthians 10:13). One of my favorite recovery testimonies features a young woman explaining how she felt like all of the bad decisions she had made and the idols she had worshiped had ruined God’s plan for her life and made her unlovable. On the other side of copious, though not complete, sanctification, she encouraged others by saying, “If you think you’ve blown God’s plan for your life, rest in this: you, my beautiful friend, are not that powerful.” The will of God is to make us holy regardless of the magnitude or quantity of our impurities, and as in all things, God will not be stopped. So what might sanctification look like practically?
What The (New) Heart Wants
In the same letter, Paul goes on to say:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
Before going any further with this verse, something deserves mention. We should always be on the lookout for the phrase “in Christ Jesus” when we read our Bibles. This phrase likes to show up in all sorts of places, and it is too often overlooked. Let us consider the progression here: We, being sinners, alienated ourselves from God and also enslaved ourselves to Satan, the world, and our sinful flesh. Jesus came to our world, lived a perfect life, suffered and died as a sacrifice for our sins, and rose again in triumph on the third day. In this way (and only in this way), we were reconciled to God and freed from our bondage. Now that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father, the Holy Spirit has come to dwell in the hearts of believers as a seal of the promise of God (John 16:7, Ephesians 1:13-14).
Returning to our original context, God’s will is for His children to be sanctified. The problem tends to be that, just like we were powerless over our sin before believing in Christ and his finished work, we find ourselves in dire straits trying to grow in holiness by our own power. We can’t do it, but God wants it. So how can we hope to see it happen? The answer lies in the presence of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers, something that is only accessible “in Christ Jesus”.
The Holy Spirit works in our hearts to bring about our sanctification. Practically speaking, Paul states that this will include a change of habit involving three things: rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks. Note first the timeliness of these actions: Rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks are all actions that are centralized in the present. In other words, by the nature of what is involved in these actions, we can only truly rejoice over the things that are the case today, only really pray over the things we have knowledge of today, and only actually be thankful for all things up to and including today. The consistency of this with Jesus’s words in Matthew 6:34 is hard to miss: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” We might rejoice or be thankful for upcoming prospects or pray for a potentiality on the horizon, but these are all things we do in the present and from a present perspective with no guarantee of what the future might hold. To put it plainly, as we walk with Christ, we cannot take tomorrow’s steps today, especially if we have not endeavored to take today’s steps first.
We additionally need to note the focus of these three actions. The verse does not promote asceticism, which is a type of harsh, religious self-discipline. Neither does it promote any tangible work or thirty-point plans. It promotes reliance on God. We rejoice to the Lord because of the joy we have in Christ. We pray to the Lord because we know that only God has the power to overcome. We give thanks to the Lord because we know that only He truly provides and knows best.
Sanctification will separate us from the trappings of the world and bring us to a fuller reliance on the Lord every day. Certainly, the process of sanctification is never as cut and dry as continuously improving and not “backsliding”; however, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit will work faithfully in us so that the will of God for our lives will be continue to be done. As this happens, and if you try, I think you will be surprised how three such simple exercises as what Paul lists here will illuminate the questions about God’s will that seem so hard to answer.
That of Eternal Worth
When it comes to discerning the will of God for our lives, I think we have made it deceptively complicated. I thought that God had meticulously prepared a perfect spread of choices and life goals for me, should I figure out the right way to seek them with diligence and patience. In fact, God was much more focused on those things of eternal worth: character, worship, and holiness, to name a few. God wishes for us to be separate from the world, to be sanctified by His grace and restored into a relationship with Him that has imperishable value. There’s plenty of discussion to be had regarding vocation and hobbies and all the things that seem so important to us in our worldly existence. Wisdom in these areas is good for us to seek! What is more important, however, is for us to rely on God for His true will to be done in our lives. “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:24)
Verses for additional study:
Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians isn’t the only place in Scripture that directly treats the will of God for our lives. A few additional verses have been provided below for additional study, should you be interested in discerning what a sanctified life might look like:
Colossians 1:9-12, 1 Peter 2:13-15, Matthew 18:14
Referenced Re:generation testimony
The Next Right Thing Podcast by Emily P. Freeman (start from the beginning!)
Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will by Kevin DeYoung