I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12:1-2)
According to the Apostle Paul, followers of Jesus prove/show what is the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God by:
- Presenting their bodies as living sacrifices to God (which is their reasonable service to God)
- Not being conformed to the “world”
- Being transformed by the renewing their minds
Those of us raised in Evangelical and Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches heard countless sermons and admonitions about doing the will of God. We were told that the Holy Spirit lived inside of us; that he was our teacher and guide, giving us everything we need for life and godliness. We were also frequently reminded to avoid the “world” and abstain from the very appearance of evil.
Most Evangelicals believe Christians have two natures: the flesh and the spirit. There’s a constant battle between the flesh and the spirit. The only way to overcome the flesh is to crucify it, giving no place in your life for carnal, worldly behaviors or the Devil. The only way to crucify (kill) the flesh is to explicitly, and without reservation, follow the will of God.
So what, exactly, is the will of God? Typically, Evangelicals believe the will of God is known three ways:
- The inspired, inerrant, infallible words of the Protestant Christian Bible
- The still small voice of the Holy Spirit in their heads
- Personal feelings/intuition
The Bible is, of course, the gold standard for knowing the will of God. While the Holy Spirit can speak to Evangelicals or prompt them to do certain things, their behaviors must align with the teachings of the Bible. One problem is that there is no singular interpretation of the Bible. Every church, pastor, and congregant interprets the Bible his or her own way, often coming up with competing and conflicting interpretations. Thus, the “will of God” ultimately becomes whatever the believer thinks it is, regardless of what other Christians might think. Most Evangelicals believe in the priesthood of the believer. Every Christian has direct access to God, no go-between like the Roman Catholic pope between the believer and God. Of course, all the priesthood of the believer does is make every Christian their own pope.
I came of age in the Evangelical church in the 1970s, specifically the IFB church movement. My pastors implored me to seek and follow the will of God. At the age of fifteen, I went forward during a revival service invitation and asked Jesus to save me from my sin. I was baptized the following Sunday, saying to the church that I was a follower of Jesus Christ. Two weeks later, I went forward again, this time to tell the church that God was calling me to preach. From that point forward, my life was a string of choices that were me allegedly following the will of God. I say allegedly because long, painful reflections after I deconverted on the decisions I made that were the “will of God” led me to conclude that the only will that I was following was mine.
I went to Midwestern Baptist College to study for the ministry, married Polly, pastored this or that church over the course of twenty-five years in the ministry because it was the will of God for me to do so. I made countless decisions, from buying cars to moving into new houses to having children, all because I believed it was the will of God to do so.
How did I know doing these things was the will of God? I prayed and consulted the Bible. If it felt right for me to do something, that meant it was the will of God. Sometimes, I would talk to colleagues in the ministry about whether I should do something. Of course, I was looking for affirmation and approval for doing what I wanted to do. I made several decisions over the years that my preacher friends said were a bad idea. They, of course, were wrong. 🙂 As most Christians would testify, if they were honest, the will of God always lined up with my own wants, needs, desires, and ambitions. Isn’t it funny how that works? It is almost as if WE are God. 🙂
My life is filled with good and bad decisions. In 1994, Pat Horner and Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf, Texas offered me the position of co-pastor of the church. I prayed on the matter for a few days before declining their offer. I believed it was the will of God for me to continue pastoring Somerset Baptist Church. Several weeks later, I was studying in my office, in preparation for the Lord’s Day. Suddenly, I had a profound spiritual (emotional) experience. I began weeping as “God” made it clear to me that he wanted me to leave Somerset Baptist and move to Elmendorf, Texas to become the co-pastor of Community Baptist. Two months later, we moved to Texas. I was certain that I was following the will of God. Seven months later found me back in Ohio, mentally and spiritually destroyed. My time at Community Baptist proved to be a disaster. (Please read I am a Publican and a Heathen — Part One.)
What I am to make of God telling me one thing one week and another thing two weeks later? Was God the problem? Of course not. God is a myth. What triggered God (Bruce) to lead me to move to Elmendorf was a series of experiences that said to me it was time for me to move on. Have you ever thought it was time to work somewhere else, date someone else, sell your possessions, buy/sell your home, have children, or get married/divorced? Live long enough and you will make a few life-changing decisions. Sometimes these decisions work out, sometimes they don’t. I have made decisions that had disastrous results. I have also made decisions that worked out well for me. Marrying Polly forty-five years ago is a decision that definitely worked out well for me. Yet, there was a period early in our marriage when its long-term success was in doubt. We could have divorced. That’s a story I haven’t told, but one day I hope to do so.
Successful and failed decisions are part of the human experience. What complicates things for Evangelicals is God. When things work out well that is considered “the will of God.” When things don’t work out, Evangelicals often blame their “flesh” or Satan. God is, of course, never to blame. God is good all the time, all the time God is good, Evangelicals are fond of saying.
It is hard to look at the decisions you have made in life and realize that the only “will” in the equations is yours. To whatever degree we have free will, we choose, we decide. The next time Evangelicals say to you “this is the will of God,” ask them how they know this. What evidence can they provide that will show a particular decision/choice was God’s will? Often, Evangelicals will simply restate that their decision was the will of God. No evidence will be forthcoming. Much like the unwashed Philistines of the World, Evangelicals make their own choices — good, bad, and indifferent.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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One of my big “failures” as a Christian was that I couldn’t discern the “will of God”. God never spoke to me, no matter how hard I tried to listen, pray, read the Bible, beg, etc. My fallback was that if something worked out, it must have been the will of God. But hearing “you need to x” never happened.
I would feel impressed by God’s spirit, and try to do God’s will. But it was a FEELING. Not a fact. I fled to a Christian college to avoid a bad relationship. I did meet my husband there. Also, my teachers had the freedom to teach what they wanted and different professors would teach conflicting points of view. Turns out going there led me, not Becky, to keep using my own rational thinking. I think my professors would be disappointed in how I turned out, leaving the church. But you’re right, Bruce, that Christians have the same worldly problems as us Philistines. Drugs, adultery, divorce…it’s all there under the surface. (And not so under the surface!)
I’d have to say that for most Christians,current and former, that the ” open door/ closed door” that one is taught to watch for, was the starting gun for following God’s will,aside from any Bible verses that could apply. I’d always went by that. Because I was taught that this is how God guides people. And if you’re poor though, your circumstances are pretty limited. Only so many open doors out there,for YOU. A tightly closed door means that God says ” no” and won’t let you go through that particular door. Ditto for ” yes.”. As for that lousy Pat Horner, he’s a blight in that church community and ought to be shunned. He’s bad news, period. His actions against you Bruce,that was pure,raw jealousy and envy. The congregation felt safe with you and were bonding on you,and he just couldn’t accept the fact ! He sucks as a human being,and his willingness to shoot a wandering pet, that’s all the proof one needs.
The will of God is a confusing thing.
Some Calvinists, with a high view of God’s sovereignty, will declare that all things happen according to the will of God. Sin is a paradox because a perfect God doesn’t will sin but somehow he permits it, while remaining completely in control, leaving sinners responsible for their own sin and therefore reprobate and rightfully condemned by God’s perfect will. The more honest (IMO) Calvinist will acknowledge that God’s complete sovereignty includes sin. They won’t go so far as to accuse God of sin himself, but his perfect plan included humanity’s downfall and every sin committed since. Somehow, this sin-by-proxy keeps God’s hands clean while letting him program humans to sin and be condemned to hell for it. This is all a “mystery” that our feeble human minds cannot comprehend. Apologists will dispute my interpretation of these positions with lots of proof-textings and theological double-speak goobledygook, but in all the time I’ve been exposed to the Doctrines of Grace I have never gotten a logical explanation for how this all makes sense.
I’m often a little perplexed when I hear a Calvinist preacher give a sermon on aligning oneself to God’s will (or, for that matter, on the value of prayer, evangelism, and similar topics).
Less dogmatic Christians seem to allow for some leeway in God’s will. Being omniscient, he can allow humans to make some choices and reap different outcomes, but this will never take him by surprise or upset his ultimate plan. My experience has been that most Christians in the traditions I was raised in, even those professing Calvinism, fall into this latter group. When questioned, many say God is in complete control, but they still pray for God’s intervention in their circumstances.
For me, belief was never more than seeing a naked emperor bumbling around while minions messed around… the minions were really the ones I feared as a child because they were the frontline, the cajoling pricks and those that smacked us around ‘for our own good’. The naked God was never more than ‘robes’. The will of ‘robes’ is what I KNEW as everyday harm.