“How can I be absolutely certain that I want to do God’s will?” Sharon was a college student who had come to my office for counsel concerning her future. She was earnestly seeking the will of God, but she doubted her own yieldedness to Christ. “Am I really willing to do anything he asks? I think I am, but how can I be sure?”
Her question has been asked by many Christians at some point in their lives. If knowing the will of God depends on our total surrender to him, how can we be sure we have actually done it and meant it? The answer comes to light where Paul explains another essential prerequisite for discovering God’s plan for our lives, that of transformation. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”145
The first thing Paul mentions in this verse is our tendency to conform to the philosophy of this age. This tendency constitutes a pressure against transformation. The word conform means to fashion or shape one thing like another, particularly in its outward appearance. Phillips’ now famous paraphrase still conveys the idea best: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.” The tense Paul used indicates that this is the very thing we are prone to do. He said literally, “Stop being fashioned by this age.”
If we have yielded our wills to Christ, Satan is going to try to water down our decision by subtly introducing traces of self-will. Before we met Christ we operated exclusively on that basis. That’s the only way the people of the world know how to live. They do not even think about doing the will of God. They do as they please, “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind.”146 Satan wants us to revert to that basic life style, that “do your own thing” philosophy of this age. And in his attempt to push us into the world’s mold he attacks us from within and attacks us from without.
For one thing, Satan uses our emotional immaturity and our personality defects to cloud our commitment to Christ and to confuse our understanding of his will. A Christian psychiatrist, writing on the will of God, has explained how childhood conflicts which were never resolved can lodge in our subconscious and affect our decisions.147 Something such as the unfulfilled need for parental affection could cause us to jump into an unwise marriage. Or resentment against a parent could result in our shutting out of our lives someone else with similar traits, without our ever consciously recognizing why we did it.
Defense mechanisms help us rationalize our erroneous and childish ways of thinking, so that we fool ourselves into believing that what we are doing is actually God’s way. We may need professional counsel to uncover these subconscious conflicts. But in many cases an honest admission of what God has said in his Word would expose our self-deception, and an honest surrender to Christ would make us put away our rationalizations and help us conform to God’s way instead of our own.
But the temptation to succumb to our own desires is going to be a daily battle. Satan will see to that. In addition to these areas of immaturity, his arsenal will include an infinite variety of fleshly motives by which he will try to lure us away from God’s will. Money is one of his favorites. We say it doesn’t affect our decisions, but it does. “A man has to provide for his family,” we protest. Sure he does! The Scripture establishes that principle.148 But the primary issue in a decision is simply what God wants us to do, not how much money it pays. If we are doing what he desires, he will see that our needs are met.
Other considerations that may also muddle the issue include the prestige of position, or the possibility for advancement, or the potential for praise and commendation, or mere convenience or personal advantage. The desire to escape some unpleasant situation may influence us too. Even the weather could become a determining factor. Climate is important to unbelievers when they consider a relocation, and Christians may let it color their thinking as well.
“But we’re in love,” is probably the greatest rationalization of all when it comes to discerning God’s will in marriage. That ecstatic state of hormonal magnetism which is often mistaken for true love has been used to justify a great many mismatched marriages that have dishonored the Lord. But that is the basis on which the world operates, and we must not be pushed into its mold. God knows whether we have true love, which lives for the happiness of its object, or merely infatuation, which seeks happiness for itself. And he can help us determine which it is if we are willing to know. “All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, but the Lord weighs the motives.”149
Maybe we should cultivate the habit of asking ourselves why we think a particular course of action is right, and then list the reasons. We may be surprised to see how many reasons on our list are the same ones the people of the world would give. God says, “Stop being fashioned by this world.”
It’s easy to see rationalizations in the lives of other Christians, yet it’s difficult to recognize them in our own. But God’s help is available. With the Psalmist we can pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test my thoughts. Point out anything you find in me that makes you sad, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.”150
In addition to these attacks from within, Satan relentlessly bombards us from without with his attempts to implant the philosophy of the world in our minds. He uses every possible means at his disposal—television, radio, newspapers, magazines, books, motion pictures, music, unbelieving friends, loved ones, fellow workers. Sometimes he even uses Christians, particularly carnal Christians. We hear so much that contradicts God’s Word from so many different sources that we soon begin to accept the world’s standard and doubt God’s.
For example, the world says that you can always divorce your mate if your marriage does not work out well. The message is repeated until we begin to believe it. Christian parents may even say it: “Divorce him; he’s nothing but a bum.” And so, without any biblical grounds, a Christian may take the easy way out. It seems so much simpler than working at the marriage, giving up personal rights, swallowing pride, and giving one’s self sacrificially for the good of the mate and the marriage.
And again, the world keeps talking about the alleged merits of living together without marriage. They keep saying it and saying it until Christian young people begin to think that God can’t really mean what he says in his Word. They begin to think that God’s Word is outdated and irrelevant. So they enter into a sinful relationship which God warns will leave scars on their souls and disrupt their lives for years to come. If we ever hope to find God’s plan for our lives, we must stop being fashioned by the people of the world and by the philosophy of the age.
Paul turns now from the negative prohibition to a positive plea for transformation: “But be transformed,” he exhorts. The word he uses means “to change into another form.” We get our English word metamorphosis from it. God wants us to undergo a complete metamorphosis of inward character which finds expression in a different kind of outward conduct, much as a caterpillar is transformed into a beautiful floating butterfly. And the tense here indicates a continuous process. Day after day we are to be experiencing continual changes that bring us progressively into the likeness of Christ.151
The lives of Christians are to be different! They are to be marked by increasing obedience to the Word of God. And we shall not be able to discern God’s guidance apart from this kind of transformed living. Why should God reveal his will to us in matters not specifically mentioned in his Word when we have shown little interest in obeying what he has already revealed? It’s not fair of us to ask him for direction in one matter when we have willfully rejected his clear direction in other matters.
We pray, “Lord, show me your will.” But he has already shown it to us in areas which we may have conveniently ignored. And we cannot discover the next step in his plan for our lives until we demonstrate our sincerity by obeying what we already know. The key to knowing the will of God is not only a decisive act of surrender, but also a daily life of obedience.
We have a tendency to seek God’s will for big decisions of life such as schooling, marriage, vocation or an important relocation, but neglect him in the many little issues he talks about in his Word. This may indicate that our motive is not to please him, but merely to avoid the unpleasantness that inevitably accompanies a major mistake.
One man asked his Christian friends to pray with him about accepting a new job offer. He said he wanted to do God’s will. It was later revealed that he had been slipping items into his pockets at the end of each workday and bringing them home with him. He didn’t want to do God’s will at all, at least not to please the Lord. He just didn’t want to get stuck with a new job that was worse than the one he had. His motives were selfish.
That man knew very little about transformed living. God says, “He who has been stealing must steal no longer.”152 If that man really wanted to do God’s will he would have stopped taking things that didn’t belong to him, acknowledged his sin and made restitution for everything he had taken. To request divine guidance about a job offer before he had done that was outright hypocrisy.
Christians are told to “walk in the light,”153 which means walking in obedience to God’s Word. Paul says, “Walk as children of light . . . Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord.”154 Interestingly enough, the words proving and acceptable here are the very same Greek words used in Romans 12:2 about God’s will. The apostle is affirming that we must be walking in the light of God’s Word if we wish to discern the will of God.
Did you ever get lost in a strange place and then try to follow somebody’s directions in the dark? It’s almost impossible. Just so, the darkness of sin clouds our ability to distinguish God’s guidance. We must be living in obedience to the Word of God.
Some folks may be getting discouraged by now. “How can I ever know God’s plan for my life if first I must be obeying everything the Word says? I don’t even know everything it says, or all that God expects from me.” Don’t be discouraged. Nobody else does either. We’re all still learning, and God doesn’t expect any finite human being to know everything. As we learn one truth from the Word, we claim his grace to obey it and we make it a part of our daily lives. Then we learn another truth and build that one into our habit pattern of daily living. That is spiritual growth, and by that process our lives are gradually transformed.
Are you beginning to see the answer to Sharon’s opening question? How can we be sure we really want to do God’s will? By doing what we already know to be his will! The more important question is not, “What does God want me to do with my future?” It is, “Am I living as God wants me to live today?” When we get today squared away, we can rest assured that God will guide us tomorrow.
If transformed living is a vital key to knowing God’s will, then we need to know how we can be changed. Paul next shares God’s plan for our transformation. It is by the renewing of our minds.
Medical science has long suggested that the human mind is like a giant computer. The readout which determines our behavior will be the direct result of what we feed into it. If we want to live differently, we will need to reprogram the computer, make the mind new by feeding into it new information by which we can process the decisions of life. That new information is obviously the growth-inducing Word of God. The counsel of the Apostle Peter, for example, is: “Like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation.”155
This will necessitate a systematic program of Bible memorization. We will not get the proper readout unless the information is permanently stored in the computer’s memory bank. Hearing the Word is not enough. Most of us are rather forgetful. We must learn the Word, inscribe it indelibly on our souls.
But memorizing Scripture is not enough in itself either. We can know Bible facts and recite Bible verses without having a renewed mind and a transformed life. We must learn to appropriate those facts to our lives, examine their relevance to the various aspects of daily living, and then apply them when the suitable occasion arises.
Some Christians have read their Bibles and listened to sermons for years with their minds out of gear. They have never honestly applied the truth to their manner of living. They are basically moral and ethical people. They comply with the will of God in certain practices because that is the way they were taught and that is the way they have always lived. But they are not growing. In other ways they still conform to the world because they have not let God reprogram their minds with his Word.
Every day we face numerous choices in which the action we take will be determined by the way our minds are programmed. Let us assume, for instance, that a young man ambles into a drugstore to pick up a tube of toothpaste. His eye catches the newsstand with its alluring array of nude girlie magazines. Will he take a few minutes to feed the flesh or will he resist that temptation by the power of God’s indwelling Spirit? If his mind is programmed with the philosophy of this age, he will probably go right ahead and enjoy an uninterrupted lust break. After all, who is he hurting? Nobody in sight even knows him. But if he is programmed with God’s perspective, he will resist, for Jesus said that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.156
Or suppose the girls at school are sitting around the lounge engaged in a good old-fashioned gabfest. The name of one of their “friends” comes up for discussion and some rather unflattering information is aired. You happen to know something about her that would contribute beautifully to the trend of the conversation. Will you share it or will you claim God’s grace to change the subject to something more beneficial? If you are programmed with the philosophy of the world, you won’t hesitate to tell all. But if God’s Word has been molding your mind, you will endeavor to direct the conversation toward more profitable matters. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”157
Maybe you as a hard-working man come home from the office frazzled from a difficult day of dealing with people. There is nothing you want more than to relax with that ball game on TV. Much to your dismay, you find your wife discouraged and depressed. “Honey,” she says, “I need your help tonight. Will you please spend some time talking to me? I just need to talk.” If you are programmed with the philosophy of this age you will probably say, “Are you kidding? Not tonight! These are the play-offs. You can straighten yourself out if you want to.” But if you are programmed with the Word of God and have thought through the implications of loving your wife as Christ loved the church,158 your reaction will be different. You will probably say something like, “I want to do everything I can to help you. Let’s sit down and talk. You’re far more important to me than a ball game.”
Or suppose you are strolling through a department store and you spot a beautiful lamp. “Oh, that’s just what I’ve been looking for. It will go perfectly in my living room.” But it costs so much you know that if you buy that lamp you will need to cut your giving to the Lord’s work this month, and you may not be able to pay the man who repaired your refrigerator. If you are programmed with the philosophy of this age you will probably buy the lamp and tell yourself that somebody else will support the Lord’s work, and that the repairman can certainly wait one more month to get paid. You may even put it on your credit card and increase the agony by adding interest charges. But if you are programmed with “Owe no man anything,”159 and “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give,”160 you will probably do without the lamp. You don’t really need it.
God’s Word touches every facet of living. If we are really serious about discovering and doing the will of God, then we will get serious about reprogramming our minds with God’s Word and facing every situation of life in the light of it. That kind of living will prepare us to discern God’s plan for our lives as it unfolds before us step by step. “Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”161
148 1 Timothy 5:8
150 Psalm 139:23, 24 (TLB)
151 Cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18 where this same word is used.
158 Ephesians 5:25