God’s will isn’t complicated. But we sure make it sound so.

When I was a kid, parents and pastors encouraged us to learn and follow God’s will. Wasn’t just a kid thing either. Churches encourage everybody to learn and follow God’s will. It’s what churches do.

How do we do this? “Read your bible!” we were told. So we did. And… we found it had a lot of interesting stories, good advice, confusing visions, super boring genealogies, clever advice, inspiring poems, commands which were sometimes startling (“Wow, look at all the weird stuff God made the Hebrews do. Wait, does he still want us to do this?”) and sometimes made total sense (“Don’t eat bats. Well duh.”).

But… we were still generally confused about where to find what God’s will is.

Ah, said our youth pastors: It’s in the biblical principles. Apparently once we read enough bible, we’ll notice certain common themes throughout, and realize, “This seems like something God cares about.” To hear our youth pastors explain it: Turns out this—the connecting the dots between verses to find the underlying philosophy—is how we deduce God’s will.

And we can totally do this on your own, but lucky for us young people, the youth pastors already knew a bunch of the principles. So that’s what they taught us: Things like tithing to your church, and obeying your parents no matter what, and courtship instead of dating, and only voting for prolife candidates. And various other things which oughta make us into good conservative churchgoing citizens.

If you wanna learn a bunch of these principles, we were told, Bill Gothard has seminars! So, in my early 20s, I attended one. Gothard has books full of biblical principles: Stuff he extrapolated from bible. Well, more accurately, already believed… but then Gothard went digging through his bible for proof texts, found ’em, and insists his principles are bible-based, not merely bible-compatible. (Okay, you gotta massage some of those verses to make ’em fit, but still!)

I already explained how these “principles” too often get deduced improperly, or get read into the bible instead of read from it. This article’s not really about them anyway. Lemme set ’em aside.

’Cause whenever newbies and kids come to me, or pastors, or any other mature Christian, with questions about God’s will, they’re not asking about biblical principles. When I had questions about God’s will, I usually wasn’t thinking about biblical principles either. (Yeah, sometimes I was… ’cause sometimes I’d stumble across a scripture which ran contrary to the biblical principles I was taught. As happens whenever a principle ain’t all that biblical.)

Nope; what Christians wanna know is about God’s particular will for them personally. Not God’s will for humanity; not God’s will for his followers; not even God’s will for our country or church or family. It’s always “What does God want me to do?”

And to nail it down more precisely: What does God want me to do when it comes to major life decisions? What career field does he want me to pursue? Where should I go to college? What should I study? Should I join the military? Whom shall I date court and marry? Where should I live? Should I buy a house? A car?—and which car? Ought I make certain investments? Are there certain tips for success I oughta be following?

In short, we wanna know God’s will… because we don’t wanna make those major life decisions.

We’re afraid we’ll screw ’em up! We’ll choose wrong. Instead of making the best possible choice and living the best possible life, we’ll likely blow it and make the worst choices… or more likely make mediocre choices where we’ll have an okay life, but it’s not the best life. We’ll have the good-enough job, the hot-enough spouse, and get by… but if we only knew God’s will, we could be happy, rich, and having freaky (but totally marital!) sex twice a day instead of twice a week.

God knows all possible timelines, right? So make with the data, God! Give us the absolute best outcome. Give us heaven.

Well, lemme let you in on a rather obvious fact: God’s absolutely gonna give us heaven. It’s always been his goal. Thing is, it doesn’t look at all like the hedonistic, Mammonist fantasy of your typical horny Christian teenager. The “absolute best outcome” they’re aching for, is nearly always absolutely wrong for them. Because it’s totally based on gratifying their senses instead of following Jesus.

And what’s God’s will? For us to follow Jesus. Duh.

Decision-making and God’s will.

In college, to fulfill my general-education philosophy units, I took a class called “Decision Making and the Will of God.” (Really shoulda taken Philosophical Ethics instead.) The textbook was a book of the same name by Garry Friesen and J. Robin Maxson. It’s a good book; I recommend it.

It, and the class, emphasize the fact this whole popular Christian fixation on our best possible timeline is unhealthy, unbiblical, and unwise. Really, what we oughta be doing instead of fretting over “missing out on God’s best for my life,” is getting wisdom. Because part of God’s will is that we do get wisdom. Don’t just sit there like the donkey in Aesop’s fable, who starves to death ’cause he can’t choose which haystack to eat from! Learn how to choose. How to think for yourself. How to figure out all the moral and ethical factors in your choice. How to use the brain God built into you, instead of filling it with stupid country lyrics.

Moral considerations are a big deal in the decision-making process. Because God does consider certain things right and wrong—and he plainly states ’em in the bible, and no you don’t have to deduce the “biblical principles” to know what he really thinks. Read Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Read the LORD’s commandments. That’s his will; now take it into consideration when you make your major life decisions.

Yeah, it’s way harder than having God simply tell us what to do. (Or even take away our free will, and simply make us do stuff!) Sometimes it means we gotta research stuff. Sometimes we gotta weigh one good decision versus another, just-as-good decision! Sometimes we even gotta choose between two evils—we don’t want either of ’em, but we’re obligated to make a choice. And sometimes we gotta resist temptation in so doing: The choice we want most, has strings and sins attached, so we know we can’t pick that one… but we just want it so bad. Again, it’d be way easier if God told us no. (Or so we imagine. But the fact we already know it’s a sinful choice, means God already has told us no.)

Plus there’s the fact we can make the best possible choice… but good choice or not, it has unexpected consequences which make us totally regret it. If only we knew the future…. And yeah, sometimes we’ll blame God for not forewarning us (“Hey, you coulda said something, you know!”) and kinda wish he could always forewarn us when our choices have lousy consequences. It’d be great to have that safety net, right?

(Well… in my experience we do have that safety net. You realize when you submit your plans to God, and pay attention when he talks back in our prayers, he often forewarns us when unexpected consequences are coming. It’s just so few Christians bother to do this.)

Much of this is in the book, which I read the weekend after I purchased it… and therefore didn’t really need the three-unit class which expounded on all this. It makes total sense. But when you grow up in churches where the pastors confound God’s will with biblical principles, and teach that instead of common sense… common sense is gonna feel like this weird new foreign thing. One which many a Christian will actually balk at: “God wants me to think for myself? I don’t wanna think! I thought the whole point of Christianity is God tells us what to think!” Um… it’s not, but I can’t help it if the legalists in your church have f---ed up your thinking that much.

But in short: Get wisdom. Get familiar with the scriptures. Deduce the wisest course of action. Submit your plans to God for his approval. If he vetoes you, don’t do it! Otherwise, act. It’s not rocket science.

And in the meanwhile, when you’re not making those major life decisions (or even minor life decisions), concentrate your energies on getting familiar with those scriptures. Your wisdom is gonna be considerably less wise when you’re not familiar with Jesus’s wisdom. So learn it!