TEXT: Judges 6:36-40; Mark 12:28-34

When people come to me with a question about faith, the single most frequently asked question is the question about how to figure out God's will. So I was not at all surprised to find it among the topics that you submitted to hear sermons about. I will say from the outset that I don't believe there is a simple, 7-step answer to the question. It is a complex issue. But I will also say that there are many times when we make it a more difficult thing than it needs to be.

It also needs to be said that the Methodist answer to this question is going to differ in some fundamental ways from the answer you might get from some other Christian traditions. That is because Methodists do not believe that God has every detail of everybody's life all planned out ahead of time. Some Christian groups teach that, and then people panic that they might choose something that God doesn't the extent that they find it nerve-wracking just to get dressed in the morning, in case they wear jeans when God intended for them to put on a suit.

In the Methodist tradition, we don't believe God has every minute planned out ahead of time. We believe God has a general plan and direction for our lives, but that we work out the details with God as we go along. Those two pieces...the general plan and the specific details, I will call the general and specific will of God. In that system, God might have an opinion about your dress on a given day...but God might also not care. It might be simply up to your own taste and preference.

Many, many times people have come to me frustrated because they have been praying and praying about a decision but are not getting a clear answer. Those cases are inevitably looking for the specific will of God. It could be which house to buy, which job to take, which person to marry, or whatever. My response is always the same. It is always good to pray about such things, because God may have a preference or may know something you don't. But if no answer is forthcoming, it could also mean that God is leaving you free to simply choose what you like best. It might only be the general will of God that applies. I think as we mature in our faith, this actually happens more and more.

Think about parenting. For a very young child, the parent is involved in almost every minute of the child's life. You do decide what the child will wear, where they will go when, when and what they eat, and even the position in which they will sleep. As the child grows, however, they begin to learn; and as they learn, they gain more responsibility and freedom. To continue to make all the choices for adult children is actually psychologically harmful, while it is needed for infants.

Our Christian walk is that way. I have found God to be much more involved in the particular decisions when we are in our Christian infancy. It is needed there because we are learning how to live a very different kind of life. As we mature in our faith, however, we are left more on our own for a lot of things, free to make our own choices and decisions once we have mastered the basics.

Now, that being said there are times, even as mature Christians, when God wants something specific from us. As we have matured in faith, we have learned to hear God's voice more clearly, and we generally get what God is trying to say. There are times, however, when God might be trying to give us some guidance, but we are too emotionally caught up in the situation to hear God's voice. Take the situation of Gideon, who we read about in Judges. The stakes were really high for Gideon. He was about to launch a war, which always means death and destruction. He thought he was hearing God right, but when the stakes are that high, he wanted to be really sure. So Gideon devised a test.

The test involved a fleece...a sheepskin...and today when you hear about someone putting out a fleece, this is the sort of testing they are talking about. Gideon says to God...OK, if I have heard you right, then show me in a physical way. I'm going to put out this skin overnight. If I come out in the morning and there is dew on the fleece only and the ground is dry, I'll know it's you. So he puts out the fleece and that is exactly what happens...wet fleece, dry ground. But he is still nervous and so he reverses the test the next night. OK, God...I'm going to put this thing out again and this time, if I have heard you rightly, let there be dew all over the ground, but none on the fleece. Again, that is exactly how it turned out, and Gideon led the nation, confident in God's guidance.

I used that tactic once. I had written a letter. I really, really wanted to send the letter, but it was risky. So I prayed. But I found prayer difficult, because I was too emotionally involved. I wanted to send the letter, so I was honest with God about that. I said something to the effect of..."God, I really want to mail this letter. I know it is risky, but I want to send it so much that I don't think I could hear you if you were trying to get through. So...I'm going to get in the car and head to the post office. If you don't want me to mail this letter, then put a red car in the post office parking lot...and not a car that's sort-of red...maroon or something where I can fudge. I mean red." And I set out for the post office.

I would guess that there were about four red cars that passed me on the way, and when I got to the post office, there...sitting directly in front of the mail drop box...was a bright, fire-engine red car. I didn't mail the letter. I think the practice of putting out a fleece is valid. It is not a first-line approach. We should do that only when we have not been able to receive an answer through prayer, but I don't think it is something objectionable to God.

There have been times when I have done it and received no clear response. And there have been times when my prayer has been something like, "God, I haven't gotten any clear answer from you on this. So, I'm assuming that the choice is really mine and this is the choice I am about to make. If you have a problem with the direction I'm going, you are going to have to speak up a whole lot louder, because I'm not hearing you. So...stop me if you don't like this, but this is what I'm going to do."

It is important to ask God whether there is something specific we should be doing. Often there is. I do think, however, that there are many good Christians out there who are far too worried about being in God's specific will, when they could relax in God's general will instead. My apologies to the source of this story, because I don't remember where I read it, but a man was comparing God's will to his own will for his daughter. He used the example of his daughter being outside playing on the swing set, and then asked the question, "Is she doing my will?"

He had not told her to go out and play on the swings, but neither had he told her she needed to be inside cleaning her room. He had given her no specific instruction at all, and she had decided she wanted to play on the swings. Was she in her father's will? Yes, he said...because his general will for her was that she engage in happy and healthy activities. If she were needed at another task, he would have called her in and asked her for something more specific. But there were plenty of times that he simply wanted her to be happy doing something she enjoyed doing. This was one of them.

And that is why I chose the Gospel lesson for this morning. The specific will of God comes and goes in our lives. There are times when God cares very much that we do a particular thing, and because of that, prayer needs to be a continual part of our lives.. But there are a lot of times when it is only the general will of God that governs us, and Jesus sums up for us what that is. It is the Great Commandment...a commandment made up of two Old Testament passages. The first is to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength and the second is to love others as we love ourselves.

That's it, says Jesus. All the Scriptures are really only about that....all God really wants from us is to live that love God with absolutely everything we've got and to treat both ourselves and others with love. That is the general will of God for every human being from birth to death. If that is in the forefront of your thinking, you might miss an opportunity for the specific will of God, but you will never be entirely out of God's will.

The general will of God actually governs many, if not most, of the specifics in our lives. You do not have to pray about whether to take money out of someone else's wallet. It violates God's general will and the answer is no. You don't have to pray about whether to continue an affair or whether to punch someone who has upset you. It violates God's general will, and God's specific will is always going to be in harmony with God's general will.

It also needs to be said that the outcome of a situation is not necessarily an indicator of whether you have heard God rightly or not. Results are God's responsibility, not ours. Let's say I feel nudged to give someone $20. Now let's say that the person blows it on drugs. Did I misunderstand? Maybe...maybe not. It could be that there were two of us who needed to accept God's guidance that, who did my part, and the person receiving the money who squandered an opportunity from God. Sometimes results depend on a whole lot of people hearing and obeying God's voice. Because one person doesn't do it and the project flops, does not mean that the five people who did what they should have misunderstood God's voice.

It could also be that God knew the person I gave the $20 to would blow it on drugs, but the results were in a person I never noticed who saw what I did and learned to be generous. Judging God's will by results will lead you astray. It is better to learn to recognize and trust the voice.

If you focus on the spiritual disciplines...on prayer and Bible study, worship and will find that you become more and more attuned to the voice of God. I have said before and will say again that in order to recognize God's voice, you have to get to know God. It's just like a person. A couple married 50 years has a much better success rate at predicting the desires of the other person than a couple married six months. Even after 50 years, your spouse can still surprise you...but not nearly so often as at the beginning. It's like that with God. Engaging the spiritual disciplines helps you to know God, and in knowing God better, you will have a better success rate at discerning God's specific will when it comes.

Jesus made God's will very plain, even if it is not always easy. Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Then extend that love to others...even your enemies...and treat them with all the care and compassion that you give yourself. Or, as some of us need to hear it...treat yourself with all the love and mercy that you extend to others. Love that encompasses God, neighbor, and self, is always in the will of God.


2002, Anne Robertson

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