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WHAT IS GOD’S WILL?
“The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know His will.”—ACTS xxii. 14.
WE resume to-day a subject, the thread of which has been broken by the interval of a few Sabbaths—the subject of the Will of God.
Already we have tried to learn two lessons:—
(1) That the end of our life is to do the will of God.
(2) That this was the end of Christ’s life.
It will help to recall what has gone before if we compare this with another definition of the end of life with which we are all familiar.
Of course this is not the most complete statement of the end of our life; but it is the most practical, and it will recall the previous conclusions if we refer to this for a moment.
Our Shorter Catechism, for instance, puts the end of life in quite different words. “Man’s chief end,” it says, “is to glorify God and enjoy Him for ever.” But this answer is just too great for us. There is too much in it. It is really the same answer, but turned towards God. It is too great to understand. It is as true, but too profoundly true. It is wonderfully conceived and put together, but it goes past us. It expresses the end of life God-ward—determines the quality of all the things we do by the extent to which they make way in the world for the everywhere coming glory of God. But this is too wonderful for us. We want a principle life-ward as well as God-ward. We want something to tell us what to do with the things beneath us and around us and within us, as well as the things above us. Therefore there is a human side to the Shorter Catechism’s answer.
What is the chief end of man?
Man’s chief end is to do the will of God.
In one sense this is not such a divine answer. But we are not divine. We understand God’s will: God’s glory, only faintly—we are only human yet, and “glory” is a word for heaven.
Ask a schoolboy, learning the first question in the Catechism, to do a certain thing for the glory of God. The opportunity of doing the thing may be gone before the idea can be driven into the boy’s head of what the glory of God means. But tell him to do the thing because it is God’s will that he should do it—he understands that. He knows that God’s will is just what God likes, and what he himself probably does not like. And the conception of it from this side is so clear that no schoolboy even need miss the end of life—for that is simply doing what God likes. If our souls are not great enough, then to think of God’s glory as the practical rule of life, let them not be too small to think of God’s will. And if we look after the end of life from this side, God will from the other. Do we the will of God, God will see that it glorifies God.
Let us suppose, then, that after casting about for an object in life, we have at last stopped at this—the end of my life is to do the will of God. Let us suppose also that we have got over the disappointment of finding that there is nothing higher for us to do in the world. Or, perhaps, taking the other side, suppose we are beginning to feel the splendid conviction that, after all, our obscure life is not to be wasted: that having this ideal principle within it, it may yet be as great in its homely surroundings as the greatest human life,—seeing that no man can do more with his life than the will of God,—that though we may never be famous or powerful, or called to heroic suffering or acts of self-denial which will vibrate through history: that though we are neither intended to be apostles nor missionaries nor martyrs, but to be common people living in common houses, spending the day in common offices or common kitchens, yet doing the will of God there, we shall do as much as apostle or missionary or martyr—seeing that they can do no more than do God’s will where they are, even as we can do as much where we are—and answer the end of our life as truly, faithfully, and triumphantly as they.
Suppose we feel all this, and desire, as we stand on the threshold of the truly ideal life, that, God helping us, we shall live it if we may, we are met at once with the question, How are we ever to know what the will of God can be? The chief end of life is to do the will of God. Question: How am I to know the will of God—to know it clearly and definitely? Is it possible? and if so, how?
Now, to begin with, we have probably an opinion on the matter already. And if you were to express it, it would be this: that it is not possible. You have thought about the will of God and read and thought, and thought and read, and you have come to this conclusion, that the will of God is a very mysterious thing—a very mysterious thing, which some people may have revealed to them, but does not seem in any way possible to you.
Your nature is different from other people’s; and though you have strained your eyes in prayer and thought, you have never seen the will of God yet. And if you ever have been in the same line with it, it has only been by chance, for you can see no principle in it, nor any certainty of ever being in the same line again. One or two special occasions, indeed, you can recall when you thought you were near the will of God, but they must have been special interpositions on God’s part. He does not show His will every day like that: once or twice only in a lifetime, that is as much of this high experience as one ever dare expect.
Now, of course, it is no use going on to find out what God’s will is if the thing is impossible. If this experience is correct—and we cannot know God’s will for the mystery of it—we may as well give up the ideal life at once. But if you examined this experience, even cursorily, you would find at once how far away from the point it is.
1. In the first place, it is merely an experience; it is exclusively based on your own experience, not on God’s thoughts regarding it, but on your own thoughts. The true name for this is presumption.
2. It assumes that, the end of life being to do God’s will, and you not being able to know God’s will, are therefore not responsible for fulfilling the end of life. This is self-deception.
3. It suggests the idea that God could teach you His will if He liked, seeing that He had done so once or twice by your own admission. And yet, though He wants you to do His will, and you want it too, He deliberately refuses to tell you what it is. This is an accusation against God.
It is something worse than unreasonable, therefore, to say that we think it hopeless for us ever to know God’s will. On the contrary, indeed, there is a strong presumption that we should find it out. For if it is so important a thing that the very end of life is involved in it, it would be absurd to imagine that God should ever keep us the least in the dark as to what His will may mean.
And this presumption is changed into a certainty when we balance our minds for a moment on the terms of this text. “The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know His will.” It is not simply a matter of presumption, it is a matter of election. Have you ever thought of this strange, deep calling of God? We are called to salvation, we have thought of that; we are called to holiness, we have thought of that; but as great as either is this, we are called to know God’s will. We are answering our call in other ways; are we answering it in this? What is God’s will? Are we knowing God’s will? How much have we learned of that to which we have been called? And is it our prayer continually, as it was his to whom these words were said, that we may be “filled with the knowledge of His will”?
It is a reasonable object of search, then, to find out what God’s will for us may be. And it is a reasonable expectation that we may find it out so fully as to know at any moment whether we be in the line of it or no; and when difficulty arises about the next step of our life, we may have absolute certainty which way God’s will inclines. There are many kinds of assurance in religion; and it is as important to have assurance of God’s will as to have assurance of God’s salvation. For just as the loss of assurance of salvation means absence of peace and faith, and usefulness, so absence of assurance of God’s will means miserable Christian life, imperfect Christian character, and impaired Christian usefulness.
We start our investigation, therefore, in the belief that God must have light for all of us on the subject of His will, and with the desire to have assurance in the guidance of our life by God as clear and strong as of its redemption and salvation by Christ.
In one sense, of course, no man can know the will of God, even as in one sense no man can know God Himself. God’s will is a great and infinite mystery—a thing of mighty mass and volume, which can no more be measured out to hungry souls in human sentences than the eternal knowledge of God or the boundless love of Christ. But even as there is a sense in which one poor human soul can hold enough of the eternal knowledge of God and the boundless love of Christ, so is there a sense in which God can put as much of His will into human words as human hearts can bear—as much as human wills can will or human lives perform.
When we come to put this will into words, we find that it divides itself into two great parts.
I. There is a part of God’s will which every one may know—a universal part.
II. A part of God’s will which no one knows but you—a particular part.
A universal part—for every one. A particular part—for the individual.
I. To begin with the first. There is a part of God’s will which every one may know. It is written in Divine characters in two sacred books, which every man may read. The one of them is the Bible, the other is Nature. The Bible is God’s will in words, in formal thoughts, in grace. Nature is God’s will in matter and tissue and force. Nature is not often considered a part of God’s will. But it is a part, and a great part, and the first part. And perhaps one reason why some never know the second is because they yield no full obedience to the first. God’s law of progress is from the lower to the higher; and scant obedience at the beginning of His will means disobedience with the rest. The laws of nature are the will of God for our bodies. As there is a will of God for our higher nature—the moral laws—as emphatically is there a will of God for the lower—the natural laws. If you would know God’s will in the higher, therefore, you must begin with God’s will in the lower: which simply means this—that if you want to live the ideal life, you must begin with the ideal body. The law of moderation, the law of sleep, the law of regularity, the law of exercise, the law of cleanliness—this is the law or will of God for you. This is the first law, the beginning of His will for you. And if we are ambitious to get on to do God’s will in the higher reaches, let us respect it as much in the lower; for there may be as much of God’s will in minor things, as much of God’s will in taking good bread and pure water, as in keeping a good conscience or living a pure life. Whoever heard of gluttony doing God’s will, or laziness, or uncleanness, or the man who was careless and wanton of natural life? Let a man disobey God in these, and you have no certainty that he has any true principle for obeying God in anything else: for God’s will does not only run into the church and the prayer-meeting and the higher chambers of the soul, but into the common rooms at home down to wardrobe and larder and cellar, and into the bodily frame down to blood and muscle and brain.
This, then, is the first contribution to the contents of the will of God. And, for distinction, they may be called the physical contents.
Next in order we come to the moral contents, both of these coming under the same head as parts of God’s will which every one may know.
These moral contents, as we have seen, are contained in the Word of God; and the Bible has a variety of names for them, such as testimonies, laws, precepts, statutes, commandments.
Now this is a much more formidable array than the physical contents. It is one thing to be in physical condition—a prizefighter may be that—but it is quite another to be in moral condition. And it is a difficult matter to explain exactly what God’s will in this great sense is; for, on the one hand, there is the danger of elevating it so high as to frighten the timid soul from ever attempting to reach it, and, on the other, the insensible tendency to lower it to human standards and aims.
It must be understood, however, to the full that, as far as its formidableness is concerned, that is absolutely unchangeable. God’s moral law cannot be toned down into anything less binding, less absolutely moral, less infinitely significant. Whatever it means, is meant for every man in its rigid truth as the definite and formal expression of God’s will for him.
From the moral side there are three different departments of God’s will. Foremost, and apparently most rigid of all, are the Ten Commandments. Now the Ten Commandments contain, in a few sentences, one of the largest-known portions of God’s will. They form the most strict code of morality in the world: the basis of all others, the most venerable and universal expression of the will of God for man. Following upon this there come the Beatitudes of Christ. This is another large portion of God’s will. This forms the most unique code of morality in the world, the most complete and lovely additional expression of the will of God for Christians. Passing through the human heart of Christ, the older commandment of the Creator becomes the soft and mellow beatitude of the Saviour—passes from the colder domain of law with a penalty on failure, to the warm region of love with a benediction on success. These are the two chief elements in the moral part of the will of God for man. But there is a third set of laws and rules, which are not to be found exactly expressed in either of these. The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes take up most of the room in God’s will, but there are shades of precept still unexpressed which also have their place. Hence we must add to all this mass of law and beatitude many more laws and many more beatitudes which lie enclosed in other texts, and other words of Christ which have their place like the rest as portions of God’s will.
Here, then, we already know a great part of what God’s will is; although, perhaps, we have not often called it by this name. And it may be worth while, before going on to find out any more, to pause for a moment and find out how to practise this.
For, perhaps, when we see how great a thing it is, this will of God, our impulse for the moment is to wish we had not known. We were building ourselves up with the idea that we were going to try this life, and that it was easy and smooth compared with the life we left. There was a better future opening to us, with visions of happiness and holiness and even of usefulness to God. But our hopes are dashed now. How can we do God’s will?—this complicated mass of rules and statutes, each bristling with the certainty of a thousand breakages? How can we keep these ten grave laws, with their unflinching scorn of compromise and exacting obligation, to the uttermost jot and tittle? How can our coarse spirits breathe the exquisite air of these beatitudes, or fit our wayward wills to the narrow mould of all these binding texts? Can God know how weak we are, and blind and biassed towards the breakages, ere ever we thought of Him? Can He think how impossible it is to keep these laws, even for one close-watched experimental hour? Did Christ really mean it—not some lesser thing than this—when He taught in the ideal prayer that God’s will was to be done on earth even as it is done in heaven?
There can be but one answer. “God hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know His will.” And God expects from each of us neither less nor more than this. He knows the frailty of our frame; He remembers we are dust. And yet such dust that He has given each of us the divinest call to the vastest thing in heaven. There, by the side of our frailty, He lays down His holy will—lays it down confidingly, as if a child could take it in its grasp, and, as if He means the child to fondle it and bear it in its breast, He says, “If a man love Me, he will keep My words.”
There must be something, therefore, to ease the apparent hopelessness of doing this will of God—something to give us heart to go on with it, to give strength to obey God’s call. We were not prepared to find it running in to the roots of things like this; but there must be something brighter somewhere than the dark side we have seen. Well, then, let us think for a moment on these points.
1. In the first place, there must be such laws. God is a King—His kingdom the kingdom of heaven. His people are His subjects. Subjects must have laws. Therefore we start with a necessity. Laws must be.
2. But who are afraid of laws? Good subjects? Never. Criminals are afraid of laws. Who dread the laws of this country, cry out against them, and would abolish them if they could? Drunkards, thieves, murderers. Who love the laws of this country? The honest, the wise and good. Then who are afraid of God’s laws—would abolish them if they could? The wicked, the profligate, the licentious. But you would not. The just and holy, the pure in heart and life love them, respect them. More still, they demand them. It would be no kingdom without them—no kingdom worth belonging to. If it were not for its laws of truth and purity, and its promise of protection from unrighteousness and sin, it would have no charm for them. It is the inaccessible might and purity of will in the kingdom of God that draw all other wills as subjects to its sway. It is not only not hard, therefore, that there should be such elements in God’s will as law; it is a privilege. And it is more than a privilege to have them.
3. It is a privilege to do them. And it is a peculiar privilege, this. It consists partly in forgetting that they are laws—in changing their names, commandment, precept, testimony, statute, into this—the will of God. No sternness then can enter with the thought, for God’s name is in the name, and the help of God, and the power of God, and the constraining love of Christ. This takes away the hopelessness of trying to keep God’s will. It makes it a personal thing, a relation to a living will, not to didactic law.
And there is, further, a wonderful provision near it. When God puts down His great will beside me telling me to do it, He puts down just beside it as great a thing, His Love. And as my soul trembles at the fearfulness of will, Love comes with its calm omnipotence, and draws it to Himself; then takes my timid will and twines it around His, till mine is fierce with passion to serve, and strong to do His will. Just as if some mighty task were laid to an infant’s hand, and the engine-grasp of a giant strengthened it with his own. Where God’s law is, is God’s love. Look at Law—it withers your very soul with its stern inexorable face. But look at Love, or look at God’s will, which means look at Love’s will, and you are re-assured, and your heart grows strong. No martyr dies for abstract truth. For a person, for God, he will die a triple death. So no man will die for God’s law. But for God he will do it. Where God’s will, then, seems strong to command, God’s love is strong to obey. Hence the profound texts, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” “And this is the love of God that we keep His commandments, and His commandments are not grievous.”
God’s will, then, is as great as God, as high as heaven, yet as easy as love. For love knows no hardness, and feels no yoke. It desires no yielding to its poverty in anything it loves. Let God be greater, and His will sterner, love will be stronger and obedience but more true. Let not God come down to me, slacken truth for me, make His will weaker for me: my interests, as subject, are safer with my King, are greater with the greatness of my King—only give me love, pure, burning love and loyalty to Him, and I shall climb from law to law through grace and glory, to the place beside the throne where the angels do His will. There are two ways, therefore, of looking at God’s will—one looking at the love side of it, the other at the law; the one ending in triumph, the other in despair; the one a liberty, the other a slavery. And you might illustrate this in a simple way, to make it finally clear,—for this is the hardest point to hold,—in some such way as this.
Suppose you go into a workshop occasionally, and watch the workmen at their task. The majority do their work in an uninterested, mechanical sort of way. Everything is done with the most proper exactness and precision—almost with slavish precision, a narrower watch would say. They come exactly at the hour in the morning, and throw down their work to a second exactly when the closing bell has rung. There is a certain punctiliousness about them, and a scrupulosity about their work; and as part cause of it, perhaps, you observe an uncomfortable turning of the head occasionally as if some eve were upon them, then a dogged going on of their work again, as if it were always done under some restraint.
But among the workmen you will notice one who seems to work on different principles. There is a buoyancy and cheerfulness about him as he goes about his work, which is foreign to all the rest. You will see him at his place sometimes even before the bell has rung, and if unfinished work be in his hands when closing time has come, he does not mind an extra five minutes when all the others are gone. What strikes you about him is the absence of that punctiliousness which marked the others’ work. It does not seem at all a tyranny to him, but even a freedom and a pleasure; and though he is apparently not so mechanical in his movements as his mates, his work seems better done and greater, despite the ease and light-heartedness which mark him through its course. Now the difference between them is this. The first set of men are hired workmen. The man by himself is the master’s son. Not that he is outwardly different; he is a common workman in a fustian jacket like the rest. But he is the master’s son. The first set work for wages, come in at regulation hours lest aught be kept off their wages, keep the workshop laws in terror of losing their place. But the son keeps them, and keeps them better, not for wages, but for love.
So the Christian keeps the will or the laws of God because of the love of God. Not because they are workshop regulations framed and hung up before him at every moment of his life; but because they are his Master’s will. They are as natural to him as air. He would never think of not keeping them. His meat is to do the will of his Father which is in heaven. There is no room for punctiliousness in this the true way of doing God’s will. A scrupulous Christian is a hired servant and not the Master’s son.
II. But now, very briefly, in the second and last place, there is an unknown part of God’s will—at least, a part which is only known to you. There is God’s will for the world, and God’s will for the individual. There is God’s will written on tables of stone for all the world to read. There is God’s will carved in sacred hieroglyphic which no one reads but you. There is God’s will rolling in thunder over the life of universal man. There is God’s will dropped softly on the believer’s ear in angel whispers or spoken by the still small voice within. This, the final element in God’s will, to distinguish it from the moral and physical contents which go before, one might call the more strictly spiritual content.
This is a distinct addition to the other parts—an addition, too, which many men ignore, and other men deny. But there is such a region in God’s will—a region unmapped in human charts, unknown to human books, a region for the pure in heart, for the upright, for the true. It is a land of mystery to those who know it not, a land of foolishness, and weaknesses, and delusive sights and sounds. But there is a land where the Spirit moves, a luminous land, a walking in God’s light. There is a region where God’s own people have their breathing from above, where each saint’s steps are ordered of the Lord.
Now this region may be distinguished from the other regions by its secrecy. It is a private thing; between God and you. You want to know what to do next—your calling in life, for instance. You want to know what action to take in a certain matter. You want to know what to do with your money. You want to know whether to go into a certain scheme or not. Then you enter into this private chamber of God’s will, and ask the private question, “Lord, what wouldest Thou have me to do?”
Then it is distinguished by its action. It concerns a different department of our life. The first part of God’s will, all that has gone before, affects our character. But this affects something more. It affects our career. And this is an important distinction. A man’s career in life is almost as important as his character in life; that is to say, it is almost as important to God, which is the real question. If character is the end of life, then the ideal career is just where character can best be established and developed. A man is to live for his character. But if God’s will is the end of life, God may have a will for my career as well as for my character, which does not mean that a man is to live for his career, but for God’s will in his character through his career.
I may want to put all my work upon my character. But God may want my work for something else. He may want to use me, for instance; I may not know why, or when, or how or for whom. But it is possible He may need me, for something or other at some time or other. It may be all through my life, or at some particular part of my life which may be past now, or may be still to come. At all events, I must hold myself in readiness and let Him trace my path; for though it does not look now as if He had anything for me to do, the next turn of the road may bring it; so I must watch the turnings of the road for God. Even for the chance of God needing me it is worth while doing this—the chance of Him needing me even once. There is a man in Scripture whom God perhaps used but once. He may have done many other things for God; still, there was one thing God gave him to do so far overshadowing all other things that he seems to have done but this. He seems, indeed, to have been born, to have lived and died for this. It is the only one thing we know about him. But it is a great thing. His name was Ananias. He was the instrument in the conversion of Paul. What was he doing in Damascus that day, when Paul arrived under conviction of sin? Why was he living in Damascus at all? Because he was born there, and his father before him perhaps you will say. Let it be so. A few will be glad to cherish a higher thought. He was a good man, and his steps were ordered—by ordinary means, if you like—by the Lord. Could Ananias not have been as good a man in Jericho or Antioch or Ephesus? Quite as good. His character might almost have been the same. But his career would have been different. And, possibly, his character might have been different from the touch of God upon his career. For when God comes into a man’s career, it sometimes makes a mighty difference on his character—teaches him to live less for character and for himself, and more for his career and for God, rather more for both—more for his character by living more for his career. Gold is gold wherever it is; but it is some difference to the world whether it make a communion cup or gild the proscenium of a theatre.
There is a difference, then, between God in character and God in career. You may have God in your character without having God in your career. Perhaps you should have been in London to-day, perhaps in China. Perhaps you should have been a missionary; perhaps you should be one yet. Perhaps you should have been in poorer circumstances, or in a different business altogether. Perhaps you have chosen a broader path than God would have willed for you. Your character may not seem to have suffered; but your career has. You may be doing God’s will with one hand consecrated to Christ, and making your own autobiography with the other consecrated to self.
Would you know the will of God, then? Consult God about your career. It does not follow because He has done nothing with you last week or last year, He may have nothing for you now. God’s will in career is mostly an unexpected thing—it comes as a surprise. God’s servants work on short notices. Paul used to have to go off to what was the end of the world in those days, on a few hours’ warning. And so may you and I. It is not a thing to startle us, to alarm us, to make us say, “If this might be the upshot we would let God’s will alone.” It would be a wonderful privilege to come to you or me; yes, a wonderful privilege that He should count us worthy to suffer this or anything more for Him.
But you are old, you say. Ananias was old. Or steeped in a profession. Paul was steeped in a profession. Or you are inexperienced and young. A lad came to Jesus once with five loaves and two small fishes, but they fed five thousand men. So bring your lad’s experience, your young offer of service, and God may use you to twice five thousand souls. That does not mean that you are to do it. But be in God’s counsels, and He will teach you whether or no.
How are you to know this secret will of God? It is a great question. We cannot touch it now. Let this suffice. It can be known. It can be known to you. The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord. “I will guide thee with Mine eye.” Unto the upright in heart He shall cause light to arise in darkness. This is no mysticism, no visionary’s dream. It is not to drown the reason with enthusiasm’s airy hope or supersede the word of God with fanaticism’s blind caprice. No, it is not that. It is what Christ said, “The sheep hear His voice, and He calleth His own sheep by name, and leadeth them.”
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