Jack was madly in love with a girl named Alice. Alice was smart, confident, and gorgeous – and according to Jack, she was also his future wife as chosen by God. Again and again, Jack asked her out, and again and again she turned him down. Finally, in frustration, he told her that they had to be together – it was God’s will. “If it’s God’s will for us to be together,” she told me one afternoon, exasperated, “I’ll wait for him to let me know too.”
Today, Jack and Alice are happily married – to other people. God did not back Jack up, and he eventually got over his crush. The experience, however, left Jack wondering what it truly means to understand God’s will for your life. How do you determine God’s will? How can you be certain that what you feel driven to do is the will of God, and not just your own desires – or even a mental illness. As atheist writer Sam Harris snarks, “George Bush says he speaks to God every day, and Christians love him for it. If George Bush said he spoke to God through his hair dryer, they would think he was mad. I fail to see how the addition of a hair dryer makes it any more absurd.” Clearly, the difference between understanding the will of God and using your belief to justify your actions must rest on something firmer than a hair dryer. So how do we get there?
On the one hand, some people leave things up to chance. To determine God’s will they’ll open to a random Bible verse, or – in my best friend’s aunt’s case – they’ll commit to marrying the next boy who walks by (she did!). This method can be risky, and comes awfully close to violating the command quoted by Jesus from Deuteronomy 6:16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (NIV).
On the other hand, we have the story of Gideon, a “mighty man of valor” who God called to liberate the Israelites. In Judges 6:36-40, Gideon asks God to give him signs to prove that he really wants him to lead the people of Israel. On the first night, he leaves a fleece outside and asks God to make the fleece wet while the ground stays dry. The next morning, the ground is dry as ever but the fleece is wet enough to wring out into a bowl. In case it’s just a fluke, he asks for a reversal the next day: wet ground and a dry fleece. Once again, God comes through, and Gideon proceeds with God’s plans.
I’ve often wished I had things as easy as Gideon does in this story. I spent a lot of time as a kid looking for signs that might be in my imagination, like significant billboards or sermon topics at church. Was I really receiving a message – or was I just experiencing the psychological phenomenon of stochasticity: the brain’s picking out of false patterns where only randomness exists.
On the other hand, I used to spend a lot of time worrying that I was missing obvious signs from God. Was I acting like Bruce in this scene from Bruce Almighty, ignoring God’s commands because I was too blind or too rebellious to see them?
Of course, God’s will always seems a lot clearer in hindsight. As Maria Augusta von Trapp – yes, the one who inspired The Sound of Music – writes, “It will be very interesting one day to follow the pattern of our life as it is spread out like a beautiful tapestry. As long as we live here we see only the reverse side of the weaving, and very often the pattern, with its threads running wildly, doesn’t seem to make sense. Some day, however, we shall understand. In looking back over the years we can discover how a red thread goes through the pattern of our life: the will of God.”
Today, I tend not to think that following God’s will means following a set of step-by-step instructions or a predetermined plan. Rather, I see God as being like a GPS – no matter which way you turn, he can always recalculate a route back home. Sometimes those routes require U-turns, but sometimes there’s more than one perfectly good way to go.
What do you think? Does God have your life all planned out? What’s the best way to determine God’s will? Should we ask for or expect signs?
Related texts or passages to consider: Jeremiah 29:11; Psalms 119:1-5; Proverbs 3:5-6; Hebrews 10:36
• Can we sometimes look for signs that aren’t there? Can we ignore ones that are?
• Some people argue that God doesn’t give us clear signs because then we wouldn’t have any faith. Why did he for Gideon, but not for us?
• What’s a time when you felt that God’s will for your life was clear?
• Reading Gideon's story in context sheds some light on the signs he asked for. Read Judges 6:11-40. How many signs does Gideon ask God for in total? Does this seem reasonable to you?
• People like to say they are "laying out a fleece" when they test God or set out conditions for knowing whether God wants them to do something. Sometimes God honors these requests, as he did with Gideon. From reading the story in Judges, what are some things that Gideon saw and experienced that would have confirmed his faith, but are not typically things we see or experience today when we talk to God? Can we compare our situations to Gideon's?
• Read Judges 7:1-8. We have seen Gideon testing God. Do you think this passage shows God testing Gideon in return? How would the removal of soldiers from his army have tested his faith?
• Read Judges 7:9-11. Did God care about the fact that Gideon was afraid? What did God suggest Gideon do if he felt afraid to go to the camp alone? Does this have any application for us today?
• Gideon's great victory was won in a very strange way. Read Judges 7:19-22. The Bible says that "The Lord set every man's sword against his comrade and against all the army." God "caused" the Midianites to fight amongst themselves. Do you think God directly took over their minds in some way, or do you think God simply allowed the situation to play out in a way that left the Midianites confused? In other words, do you think God's providence in the world is direct and active, or passive and permissive? Can God be active in the natural occurrences in life?
• Judges 8 tells the final chapter of Gideon's story. It is a strange ending. Gideon not only captures the Midianite leaders, but he also tortures and kills civilians from neighboring nations on his way back from the war. He then makes a golden Ephod and puts it in the city of Ophrah as a sign that God rules over the Israelites, not Gideon himself. Instead of honoring God, the Israelites worship the ephod. What does this ending reveal about the meaning of the story overall? Can God work through people who are still unfaithful? What does it say about God's grace and patience?
• In your mind, is Gideon a hero? Is he someone you can relate to or someone you are offended by? Maybe a bit of both? Why do you feel this way?