I prepared for the ministry (as much as you can) at a small school in the Ozarks called Baptist Bible College. It was located in Springfield, Missouri, and I received a wonderful theological education there. I had many wonderful teachers and professors, and was influenced by a lot of godly men and women.
One of them was a man named Elmer Deal. To be honest with you, he wasn’t a very good teacher. It was almost always hard to stay awake in his class. His teaching style was a little, um, disorganized, and it wasn’t always easy to follow him.
He taught a class on Missions, i.e., the importance of missionary work in other lands and how that work is done. And Professor Deal may not have been a great teacher of Missions, but he had been an outstanding missionary. Somebody said, “Agriculture is like farming, only farming is doing it.” When it came missionary work, Elmer Deal had done it.
Dr. Deal and his wife labored for many years in Africa among the people of the Congo. He had planted seven or eight churches there. But then the political climate changed, and he and his wife were forced to leave the country for their own safety.
But the Congolese Christians he’d left behind in those churches continued to be faithful, and they often wrote to him as is he were the Apostle Paul. He’d show us pictures of him standing with the people who had come to faith in Christ there in the Congo. They built simple church buildings that would be quite lacking by our standards here in America. But they stood arm in arm with Elmer Deal, and their smiles radiated their joy. The contrast couldn’t have been more striking: a middle-aged white man standing with a group of dark-skinned Congolese people, all smiling at the camera. For all the differences in race and culture and country of origin, their common faith in Jesus Christ united their hearts across all barriers. That’s what the Gospel of Jesus Christ does, when people believe it and proclaim it and receive it with ready hearts.
One day in one of Dr. Deal’s less-than-riveting lectures, we heard him say something that woke us all up and made us scramble for pens and paper so we could write down what he was saying. For some reason, he began to talk about how to discern the will of God for your life. And he said, “There are three things you always need to look at in order to know God’s will for your life…” That’s when we scrambled for pens, pencils, and paper.
When you are a high school or college age and trying to live for the Lord, knowing God’s will is something that gets a lot of your thinking and praying…and worrying. “What am I supposed to do with my life? Where am I supposed to go? Should I go to college? Which college should I go to? What vocation should I prepare for? Should I get married? (I hope!) Who should I marry? Where should we live?” And on and on. We need to know God’s will for our lives at any age, but the issues often feel more like a crisis when you’re younger.
So, we hurried to write down what Dr. Deal was about to say. I wrote it down, too, but I didn’t really need to. What he said has been firmly embedded in my memory ever since. Here’s what he told us:
“First, there’s the Bible. If the Bible tells you not to do something, you don’t have to think about it, you don’t have to pray about it. Just don’t do it. It’s not God’s will if the Scriptures forbid it.
“Second, there’s your circumstances. What do your circumstances tell you about God’s will? Are there any open doors or opportunities? But be careful here. Circumstances can place us in temptation, and we get opportunities to sin all the time. This goes back to the Bible. If your circumstances make it easy to do something the Bible tells us not to do, then it’s not God’s will. But if Scripture doesn’t forbid it, then circumstances are another thing that can point to God’s will for you.
“And third, there’s your heart’s desire. What is it you want to do or love to do? Now, if it’s something that goes against the Bible, don’t do it. And if it’s something your circumstances won’t allow, then maybe it’s not God’s will for your life yet. You have to wait on God’s timing.
“But when all three of those things line up, then I can be pretty sure that this is something God wants me to do.”
And in all the years since then, with all the books I’ve read, the sermons I’ve heard and the advice I’ve been given, I’ve never come across anything on finding God’s will for your life that is any clearer, more concise, or more Biblical than that.
Seeking God’s will for our lives is simply acknowledging that God is sovereign over our lives and circumstances, and that He is our Lord. The best and happiest life for us on this planet is going where He wants us to go and doing what he wants us to do. And that’s the way we bring the most glory to God, too, which is our ultimate purpose in this life. And the next.
But God doesn’t intend for us to be afflicted with “the paralysis of analysis,” either.
In Acts 16, the Apostle Paul and his companions wanted to take the Gospel to Asia. But Luke tells us they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” (Acts 16:6) So then they tried to go north into a region called Bithynia, “but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” (v. 7) Then one night Paul had a dream, a vision of “a man of Macedonia” who “was standing there, urging him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” (v. 9) Then Luke records, “And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” (v. 10)
If you look at a map, what you find is that they first tried to go east, but somehow the Holy Spirit made them know this wasn’t where He wanted them to go. We’re not told how the Holy Spirit communicated this to them, but believe me, when the Spirit of God wants you to know something, He is totally capable of telling you what it is. Maybe it was something in their circumstances that prevented them from going east, along with a strong feeling in their hearts that east wasn’t the way. Then they tried to go north, and the same thing happened. Going south would be going back home. But during an overnight pause Paul had a special dream, and when he shared it with the group, they all agreed that it meant they should go west, into Macedonia. And apparently the circumstances must have opened up for them to go that way, because that’s where they went. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history. (Luke’s history, in the book of Acts!)
So, we shouldn’t be paralyzed with indecision. It’s like trying to find an open door to get out of a building. If one door is locked, you don’t sit down and be sad. You go try another door. As a friend of mine says, “When one door closes, another door opens. Other than that, it’s a pretty good car.”
Come on, lighten up! God loves you, Christian, and He doesn’t play hide-and-seek games with His will. Now, often we have to wait on His timing. The idea of waiting on God is all through the Bible. But you don’t do nothing while you wait on God. Keep doing the last thing He told you to do. Keep doing the things He told us to do in His Word. Stay at your post and keep doing your duty, until He gives you a new task and a new place of service. And if He doesn’t, then pray like Jesus did: “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
I’ve always been grateful to Dr. Elmer Deal for what he told us that day. He was “the real deal,” and so was what he told us about how to know God’s will.
Soli Deo Gloria!