Discerning God’s will for your life.
In 1999, I learnt the hard way, the basic truth about God’s will for my life. I would have saved a lot of anguish if I had a better understanding of what Scripture tells us about God’s will.
Nine months, or so, ago – I read Francis Chan’s book ‘FORGOTTEN GOD – Reversing our tragic neglect of the Holy Spirit‘, it’s a great book. Chapter 6 has this challenging title; ‘Forget About His will for Your Life’.
I think the message Francis is trying to convey with that title, is that God has never promised that He will reveal a detailed, life-long project plan from the moment we start to follow Him.
The key thought, in Chapter 6 of Francis’ book is this: ‘God cares more about our response to His leading today, in this moment, than about what we intend to do next year. In fact, the decisions we make next year will be profoundly affected by the degree to which we submit to the Spirit right now, in today’s decisions. … God wants us to listen to His Spirit on a daily basis, and even throughout the day, as difficult and stretching moments arise, and in the midst of the mundane. …
To say that we are not called to figure out “God’s will for my life”, does not mean God doesn’t have purposes and plans for each of our lives or that He doesn’t care what we do with our lives, He does. The key is that He never promises to reveal these purposes all at once, in advance.‘
In summary, the answer to knowing God’s will is to live, in step, with God’s Spirit – each day. As Paul says in Galatians 5:25, ‘Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.’ To keep in step, is to seek God’s guidance on each one of our decisions; if, we fail to do this with each step that we take – we can, over time – find ourselves, being guided by our own desires.
Paul in Romans 12:1-2, also tells us; ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the ‘daily’ renewing of your mind (through the power of the Holy Spirit). Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.‘
If you agree with Francis Chan’s position on this issue, then you should read no further; because you will only shake your head at my woeful approach, which came to a head – some fourteen years ago.
The wrong approach in seeking God’s will
It was in the year 1999 – I had taken early retirement from the public service and was taking advantage of my free-time to have a holiday in Israel. I was fascinated by the history of the country and I had planned to tour the various biblical sites and museums at a leisurely pace – not rushed along on a tourist orientated, packaged holiday.
I had developed what I thought was a good plan; to spend a couple of months in Israel with a goal to keep travel costs to a minimum. The plan was to work as an ‘aged’ volunteer in a kibbutz. At first, I was very pleased to be allocated a placement at a nice kibbutz, Newe Ur. [Located in the northern Jordan Valley, approximately 10 km north of the town of Beit She’an, and 15 km south of the Sea of Galilee. It is named after the Biblical town of Ur Kasdim in Mesopotamia, where Abraham lived, before he left for the land of Israel. There are two common spellings: ‘Newe’ or ‘Neve’, either way I couldn’t correctly pronounce the name.]
After three weeks at the kibbutz, I discovered that working six days a week provided little opportunity to visit historical sites – a lot of places were closed on the Sabbath, which happened to the day I had off! Consequently, I left Newe Ur and rented a room in the then Scottish Hostel (once a hospital run by the Church of Scotland); it’s now a very modern and very expensive hotel (Scots Hotel), located in the city of Tiberias on the shore of Lake Galilee.
Guests were given a key to a gate that gave entry to a walled garden – opposite the hostel – which provided private access to the lake’s foreshore. Only a few people took advantage of this facility, however, I took every opportunity to take my bible down and read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry in that area – it was a very beautiful setting and I spent hours gazing across Lake Galilee and seeking out the various landmarks, while mediating on what I had read.
One day I made an error of judgement; the error was my decision to walk from Tiberias to Capernaum (just over 15 kilometres) on an extremely hot day (close to 40 degrees) without taking adequate water with me. Later in the afternoon I realised that I had made a terrible mistake and was starting to feel the affects of heat stress.
Against this backdrop of feeling very unwell, I had been wrestling with the question of – ‘What was God’s plan for my life?’ I was becoming distressed that my pleas for His project plan for my life, were being met with silence. Random and depressing thoughts kept rearing and filling my head with noisy, unanswered questions. What should I be doing? Why doesn’t God answer me? Can I do anything useful – am I, just wasting time seeking answers – perhaps I just don’t have the skills to be of much use – for anything?
In an attempt to divert my attention away from the grip of these paralysing thoughts, I decided to call my wife at home, in Australia. I had about ten minutes credit left on my international phone card. Soon after she answered my call and we had exchanged greetings, someone came to the door and she left the phone to see what they wanted – the minutes passed – when she did return, the credits on the card soon ran out – I had enough time to briefly tell her of my long walk to Capernaum and to say a hurried goodbye.
I felt very alone, very tired and very, very sick.
Now, it was night – I had no appetite for food but knew that I had to keep drinking fluids to alleviate the heat stress symptoms. So, I walked along the promenade on the waterfront where the boats are moored that take the tourist out onto the lake. There are a number of restaurants and bars in that area where I could get something to drink.
As I approached the entrance of St Peter’s Church, which is set a little back from the promenade. I’m not certain of the number, but perhaps four or five young Arab men, marshalled me into an alcove – they were standing very close to me – the one, right in front of my face, starting asking me meaningless questions, such as; ‘Did anyone know that I was there? Where was I staying? What was I doing?’ There was a sense of urgency in his voice, which I was not responding to – I just couldn’t make sense of why I was being asked these sort of questions.
I was too tired, too exhausted to care much about what was going on. I answered with something along these lines: ‘There is someone who knows my every move – they know where I am – at all times.’ They quickly moved away and I continued ambling along.
Somewhat confused, I thought I would go into the little Church of St Peter and just rest for a while in a quiet place away from the people and gather my thoughts – but that also proved to be an uncomfortable experience (for reasons I won’t go into).
By this time, I was feeling very unwell and just wanted to be by myself – the thought of sitting down in a noisy restaurant or bar, now, wasn’t an option. I made the decision to go back to my room, drink lots of water and then sleep for as long as possible with the hope that the light of a new day may make things a little clearer.
I found my room to be unbearably hot, so I laid down on the floor, where the cold marble tiles provided some relief. Totally exhausted both physically and mentally, I quickly fell asleep. A long time later, I awoke – light was streaming into my room, it was mid-morning, was it the next day? I wasn’t sure.
As soon, as I started to get myself organised, by having a shower and changing my clothes, the pounding relentless thoughts started flooding back – ‘What should I be doing? Where should I go? What was God’s will for my life?’ Mixed in with these questions were the negative, nagging torments: ‘Who cares, what you do?’ ‘You are of no use to anyone, you have no useful skills.’
Overarching this cauldron of swirling, out of control thoughts was a constant stream of prayers, seeking God’s help – to be delivered from this chaos. I decided to go for a walk around the streets of Tiberias, hoping that some exercise would help clear my head, and getting out of my room might divert my attention away from feeling so down and ill.
Yet, the opposite happened, the more I walked, the more I thrashed around the question: What should I do with my life? I was walking up a main street, approaching the large post-office in Tiberias, there were lots of people on the footpath, hurrying about their business. I stopped walking – just stopped in the middle of the footpath – people had to walk around me, as if I was a rock – suddenly planted, in their way.
I remember, very clearly – the nature of my prayer to Jesus: ‘Well, I’m not moving – I don’t care what people might think – but, I’m not taking another step unless I receive some indication that You are listening to me and that You will soon answer my questions.’
Time, in a sense stood still for me, I have no idea how long I stood motionless on the footpath. The locals probably just saw me as another crazy tourist. No one asked me if I was okay. It felt like a long time, but perhaps no longer than ten or twenty minutes.
Suddenly, a feeling of peace came over me – the nagging questions ceased. I realised I was feeling a lot better – as if, a heavy burden had been lifted off me. I was convinced that God had heard my prayers and He would soon respond. I started walking – my normal self, had been rescued from its self-imposed prison – it was a very joyful moment.
The rest of the day was good – full of expectations. I spent a lot of time reading Matthew’s gospel; and then I wrote down a number of dot points in a little pocket book (which I still have), concerning the areas I would like God’s input on. After that, I decided to book a hire car for a few days, so I could drive to some of the historical sites in the Golan Heights, and further north as far as the border, towards Mt Hermon.
I was at peace with myself and what I was doing while I waited for God’s response to my request. After a good night’s sleep, I rose feeling really invigorated and went to the dining room as soon as it opened, so that I could have an early breakfast and get started on the various things I had planned for the day.
The Scottish Hostel, at that time, put on an excellent, smorgasbord style of breakfast, so you could really ‘fill-up’ on lots of good, healthy food. I was their first customer – selected some food – and picked a table; started eating and pulled out my little pocket book, to check my notes on my plans for that day.
In was only a few minutes later, when a second person entered the dining room. He looked a little older than me. He also selected some food, and then walked straight up to my table and asked if it was alright to join me. I though, at the time, well there are lots of vacant tables here; but, I guess, I can put my notebook away and be sociable.
We exchanged the normal introductions; and then he started to tell me about himself – an American who had taking early retirement from a government job (much like myself, except, being an Australian I worked for the Australian Federal government, before I retired), and he was now working for a Christian organisation in Jerusalem. He had arrived in Tiberias the night before, having taken a bus from Jerusalem – a trip of about three hours.
He then went through the various things he had done, since retiring – he added the remark that it was mainly in hindsight that he could see how the Holy Spirit had been directing his life. Long after we had finished eating, he continued to discuss how he approached life. At one point, I asked him if living in Jerusalem was a concern regarding the possibility of terrorist activity.
In response, he told me the following story (my memory might be a bit hazy on some detail, but the main thread is intact): One of the people, with whom he shared accommodation in a suburb of Jerusalem, needed to catch a bus each day to take him into the city, where he worked.
He left the house, and was hurrying along the footpath to the bus stop, while trying to put his door keys into a pocket, his hand hit his leg, and the keys were knocked out of his hand – skidded across the footpath into the front garden of a neighbouring house. Not too worried at first, as he thought his keys would be easy to find and he would still have time to get to the bus stop and catch his normal bus.
[As an aside, gardens in Jerusalem are not usually known for their lushness, because of the general lack of water – many look like gravel deserts with a few succulents struggling to survive. At least that is my impression based on what I saw, when walking around the streets of that great city.]
Puzzled as to why he couldn’t find his keys, he continued to search the garden. Time moved on – his bus came, people at the stop boarded and then the bus left. He had resigned himself to catching the next bus and being late for work. Standing up, somewhat perplexed – he then looked around once more; perhaps thinking that his keys couldn’t have travelled that far from his hand, and they should be close to him.
To his amazement, he spotted his keys, they were lying in the garden close to where he had expected them to land. How could he have missed seeing them?
He caught the next bus without any further drama. Some kilometres further into the city, he passed the smouldering remains of his ‘normal’ bus, surrounded by emergency vehicles – many of the passengers had been killed or badly injured by a bomb blast. It’s only those with spiritual eyes who can see the fingerprints of God on a set of ‘lost’ keys.
I often think back to this story, in a way it highlights the sovereignty of God over all that happens in His created world. Sometimes He intervenes in our normal everyday activities to protect us from unforeseen dangers; or, at other times He allows events to proceed as usual, and our life may end – at a preordained moment when He calls us home. Or, we may suffer some type of injury or disease because He wants us to experience the good that He can produce from such events. (Romans 8:28).
After a couple of hours of discussion (we were the first to enter the room for breakfast and it looked like we were to be, one of the last, to leave), I started to realise that he had covered all of my dot points that I had written down in my little pocket book – the points concerning my desire to know the will of God, for my life.
Just as we were about to leave the table. I asked him what he had planned for the next few days in Tiberias, thinking he had travelled from Jerusalem for a holiday; and, if he had no commitments then he was welcome to join me on my tour of the Golan Heights and surrounds, at no cost for him.
I’ll never forget his answer: ‘Oh – thanks for the offer – but my task here is finished – I’m catching the next bus back to Jerusalem.’ Perhaps, he was just on an overnight business trip – and the objective of the trip had been completed. Or, maybe the thought of spending a few days with an eccentric Australian was a step too far, even if all expenses were covered (I’d already had made arrangements to hire a car.)
He left, and I continued my journey.