Horses and mules have never been famous for their cooperative spirit. They may know you well enough to have no reason to doubt you when you give them directions. Yet they have a problem: their own indomitable, stubborn self-will. It is always there and you never know when or how it will erupt. The horse may express it by refusing to stop. Sometimes he starts galloping home toward the barn and there is nothing you can do to stop him or to change his direction. The mule usually expresses it by refusing to go. You can pull him, push him, whip him, or tease him with carrots, but at times he simply will not budge. Neither one of them can ever know the destination to which you want them to go, nor what you will allow them to do there, while they are exerting their own will.
That is exactly why God said, “Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding.”117 The greatest obstacle to knowing God’s plan for our lives is the persistence of our own unbending purposes and preferences.
Dealing with that stubborn will may be the most important single factor in discerning and doing the will of God. How can we deal with it? The answer was most lucidly given by the Apostle Paul: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer yourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—which is your spiritual worship. 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.”118
The subject of these verses is finding the will of God. More specifically, the subject is testing and approving what God’s will is—discerning his will accurately in our experience and accepting it as the only tried and proven way to live. Paul established two basic criteria for such an experiential involvement in the will of God. The first one is presentation and the second is transformation. Let us look at the first one in this chapter.
“I urge you,” says Paul, “to offer yourselves as living sacrifices.” That word offer literally means “to place beside.” It was used of a worshiper placing his sacrificial animal on the altar as an act of consecration to God. To offer that animal in sacrifice was to give it up completely to God, to surrender all rights to use it as the offerer pleased. It was no longer his but God’s. God had the prerogative of doing anything he pleased with it.
In the same spirit, God wants us to offer him our bodies, not to be killed and burned on an altar, but as “living sacrifices.” He wants all the rights to our total person. He wants the privilege of doing with us as he pleases. “Give me your body,” he says, “so I can use it as the vehicle for accomplishing my will.” And with our bodies goes everything we are and have—our time, our abilities, our resources, our personalities, our plans, our desires, our aspirations, our affections. He wants us to give them all to him to use as he desires.
He isn’t going to force us to do that. He will not invade our lives and brutally take control of us. He asks us to offer ourselves voluntarily in grateful response to the boundless mercy he has extended to us in Christ. If we want to know his will, then we must become his living sacrifices.
But the word offer also meant “to place at one’s disposal, to be there to help.” It was used of a servant who was completely at his master’s disposal, whose will was always subordinate to his master’s wishes. There was no point in a master’s telling his servant what he wanted him to do unless he was assured that the servant would do it. A profitable servant had to be totally available to do his master’s bidding. Paul is urging us to make ourselves that available to God. And unless God can be assured that we will carry out his directions, there is really no good reason for him to tell us what those directions are.
Suppose for a moment that you are standing in a recruiting office of the United States Army. While the modern army gives you some choice before you join, there is a great deal the recruiter is not going to tell you. There will be hundreds of directives issued throughout the course of your military career, but he isn’t going to stand there and try to explain to you every detail of the army’s plan for your life, every place they’re going to send you, and everything they’re going to ask you to do. That would be absurd. When Uncle Sam says, “I want you,” he means that he wants an unconditional surrender of your entire being to him. And not until you make that commitment and put yourself at the army’s disposal will the entire plan begin to unfold for you.
God wants you far more than Uncle Sam does. God urges you, begs you, beseeches you, pleads with you to offer yourself to him. And the tense of the verb offer indicates that the presentation he seeks is a decisive and determinative act that takes place at one crucial point in time, similar to signing the dotted line in the recruiter’s office. It’s like saying, “Here’s my life, Lord. There are lots of things I would like to do with it, but what you want me to do is more important than all of my wishes. I am putting myself completely at your disposal for the rest of my life.”
Not many of us think that far ahead when we come to God for guidance. We pray rather glibly, “Lord, show me your will,” but we forget that God requires us first to put ourselves at his permanent command. This lifelong commitment may be the only way he can be sure we will do his will after he has revealed it to us.
You see, God’s will is something to do, not just something to know. There are more references in Scripture to doing God’s will than to knowing it. In fact, the Apostle James warned us that knowing it without doing it is sin.119 And when we want to do it as much as we want to know it, God assures us that we shall know it. Surrender is the key to knowing God’s will.
Jesus affirmed this principle as well. The Jews were wondering how he knew so much theology, having never attended their rabbinical schools. So he told them. His doctrine was not his; it originated with the one who sent him. And then he told them how they could be sure it came from God. “If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from Myself.”120
While that statement in John 5 refers primarily to his Word, it also applies to his will, since his will is revealed through his Word. How can we know whether we are being led by God or by our own desires? How can we know that our directions are from God? The answer Jesus gave is simply this: if our desire is to do his will rather than our own, we shall know.
Countless Christians through the centuries have testified to the validity of Jesus’ principle. When they have become absolutely certain that they wanted to do God’s will, regardless of their own personal preferences and regardless of what his will might be, then guidance has come. And continual guidance comes to those who have completely yielded themselves to and are continually controlled by his indwelling Spirit.
Others may find direction sporadically and in isolated instances, but only those who have settled this matter for life can be sure of walking uninterruptedly in the center of God’s plan. The surrender of our wills to Jesus Christ is the most important decision we will ever face after we have trusted him as Savior from sin.
The Psalmist established the same basic prerequisite for divine guidance in Old Testament times. “The meek will he guide in judgment; and the meek will he teach his way.”121 Meekness involves surrendering the right to run our own lives. It involves the removal of selfishness and pride. It involves a broken and a contrite heart, a teachable spirit. The teachable person is obviously the one to whom God can teach his ways.
When most of us face a decision, that decision itself is usually uppermost in our minds—where we’re supposed to go and what we’re supposed to do. But God is more interested in the condition of our hearts. He is interested in the absence of our stubborn self-will, and in our genuine willingness to do his bidding. The idea is repeated several verses later: “Who is the man who fears the Lord? He will instruct him in the way he should choose.”122 To fear God is to reverence him, to be humble and teachable before him. The price of knowing God’s will is the total surrender of our lives to him.
Some of us have developed clever ways to avoid paying the full price. One method is to decide what we want to do, then tell God we’re going to do it for him. We take out a mental piece of paper, draw up the blueprint we want, and then ask God to get out his rubber stamp and mark it Approved. “God, I’m going to be a successful businessman. I’m going to make lots of money and give it to missions. I’m going to be active in my church. I’m going to witness to my business associates. I’m going to speak at evangelistic banquets. I want you to bless me.”
Or maybe it will sound more pious than that: “Lord, I’m going to be a missionary. I plan to go to a part of the world that has never had a witness and I’m going to pioneer the gospel there and build a great work for you. And I want you to bless me.” That’s not what God wants at all. He want us to hand him a blank piece of paper, figuratively speaking, and say, “Here, Lord. You fill it in for me. I will do anything you ask.”
Another favorite ploy is to attach a few strings to our commitment. We say to God, “I’ll do anything, but . . . ” We mean, “I’ll go anywhere you want me to go but to Lower Slobovia.” “I’ll do anything you want me to do but give up Zeb.” “I’ll work with anybody you want me to work with except lepers.” “I’ll be anything you want me to be except the church custodian.”
But God is the potter and we are the clay. He wants us to be totally pliable in his hands. And unless we remove the restrictions, we may never find out what he does want us to do.
Sometimes we bargain with God. “OK, Lord, I’ll be a missionary if you let me marry Eloise.” Or, “I’ll take that job, Lord, if it will pay some overtime.” That’s the kind of stunt Jacob tried to pull with God. Jacob said, “If God will help and protect me on this journey and give me food and clothes, and will bring me back safely to my father, then I will choose Jehovah as my God! And this memorial pillar shall become a place for worship; and I will give you back a tenth of everything you give me!”123
God isn’t very excited about that kind of relationship. He wants to be Lord of our lives. It took a wrestling match with Jacob and a dislocated thigh before God got him to surrender his stubborn will.124
Sometimes we ask God to show us his will, and we think we want to do it, but deep in our hearts we know that we may not do it at all if we don’t like what he indicates. We already know what we want to do and we’re actually looking for God to validate our will. Jeremiah ministered to people like that, and what a heartbreaking experience it was! They wanted to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, but they decided they should find out what God wanted them to do first. So they said to Jeremiah, “Beg the Lord your God to show us what to do and where to go.”125 They even added, “Whether we like it or not, we will obey the Lord our God.”126
It all sounded so sincere that Jeremiah inquired of the Lord, who told him the people should stay in Judah. Jeremiah relayed that information to them but suddenly they were singing another tune. “You lie! The Lord our God hasn’t told you to tell us not to go to Egypt!”127 “. . . and all the people refused to obey the Lord and stay in Judah.”128
An Old Testament soothsayer named Balaam was another notorious example of a man who asked God what he should do when he knew all along what his own plan would be. Messengers from the king of Moab wanted him to go with them and curse Israel. God said, “Don’t go with them.”129 That was clear and decisive direction from the Lord. Yet when the messengers of the king came back to plead some more and to offer him more money, Balaam answered, “Stay here tonight so that I can find out whether the Lord will add anything to what he said before.”130 He wanted that money which the king had offered, and he was trying to badger God into approving his own personal plan to get it.
We do it too! We ask God to show us his will when we already know what we’re going to do. We just want to check God’s plan to see if we like it any better than our own. And if we don’t, we go our own way. We think we will be happier on the path of our own choosing.
But it can never be so. “Before every man there lies a wide and pleasant road he thinks is right, but it ends in death.”131 We cannot live to please ourselves and still expect the blessing of God upon us. Except in rare instances, such as with Balaam and with people of Jeremiah’s day, God seldom gives directions when he knows we will not follow them. The supreme example of doing the Father’s will was the Lord Jesus Christ. “I do not seek My own will,” he said, “but the will of Him who sent Me.”132 And it was no empty claim. He proved it when he faced the most awesome and fearful experience of all human history, that of bearing the punishment for the whole world’s sin. With utter self-renunciation he declared, “Not my will, but yours be done.”133 He blazed the trail before us. Now through the strength which he supplies, we may follow in his steps.134
Does this mean that we must annihilate all of our own wishes and desires, destroy every thought of what we might like to do? I don’t think it is even possible to do that. Jesus himself admitted that his desires were different from his Father’s when he said, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.”135 And I cannot find any reference to God requiring us to remove every trace of personal desire from our hearts. He simply asks that we be willing to subordinate our desires to his, just as Jesus did.
There is no danger in such subordination. God does not take pleasure in denying us what we want. His will for us may be the very thing we love to do best, and he may reveal his plan to us through those personal desires. He just wants us to be willing to go anywhere, to do anything, to make any sacrifice he asks. He may ask us to give him something, then turn right around and give it back to us, as he did with Abraham when the old patriarch proved his readiness to offer his son Isaac. But he wants us to demonstrate that we are willing.
Some people hold back from yielding their lives to the Lord because they are afraid he might demand more of them than they are willing to give. They are sure he will ask them to give up everything they enjoy, and do everything they despise, as if he were some sort of celestial crank who delights in making everybody miserable. They envision themselves ending up single and lonely, wading through alligator-infested jungle swamps or getting cooked in some hungry cannibal’s caldron. But God isn’t out to get us. He enjoys giving us good things.136 He takes pleasure in giving us the desires of our hearts.137 To the Jewish captives in Babylon he sent this heartening message which we can appropriate to ourselves: “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. They are plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”138 The Psalmist said, “And when we obey him, every path he guides us on is fragrant with his lovingkindness and his truth.”139
If we are truly yielded to him, he will take away the desires that are contrary to his and give us new desires that are consistent with his. As the Apostle Paul declared, “It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”140 We cannot lose by yielding. God either gives us what we desire or in due time plants new desires in our hearts. But when our wills are genuinely surrendered to Christ, we can actually do what we want to do with the assurance that we are in the will of God.
Following God’s plan is never a drag; it is always our highest joy and pleasure. God’s will is “acceptable.”141 The word means “pleasing”—pleasing both to God and to us. As Jesus pointed out to his disciples beside a well in Sychar, doing God’s will can be more satisfying than a delicious dinner.142 Resisting God’s will is a sure road to misery, but surrender brings happiness and delight.
When you present yourself to God for him to use as he chooses, you may find that your new attitude of submissiveness brings an immediate end to your struggle to know his will. That’s what happened with Isaiah. God spoke to him saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah, responding before he knew any of the details of God’s plan, laid his life on the line. “Here am I,” he said, “send me.”143 And immediately the will of God began to unfold before him.144
Are you ready to put yourself at God’s disposal, yield your will to him, offer yourself as a living sacrifice? Tell him right now that you are willing to do anything he desires, whatever it costs you. This may be an emotional experience for some. For others it may be a calm and quiet transaction. But it is essential if we are ever to follow God’s plan for our lives. You may want to write the date of your surrender in your Bible so you will never forget it. You will certainly want to live every day in the light of your commitment, telling God anew each morning of your willingness to do whatever he desires for you that day. Then each sunrise will begin a fresh adventure of walking in the will of God.