Maybe you’re thinking, “If only I had learned this years ago, my life could have been different. But I’ve wasted it now, and it’s too late to change direction.” I’ve heard that from folks who believe they’ve married the wrong person, or who failed to go to college when they had the opportunity, or who now think they’ve been pursuing the wrong career all these years, or who closed their spiritual ears once long ago when God called them into some form of Christian service. What happens when we miss the will of God?
We can miss it, you know. God made us with volition, and we are able to exercise that volition contrary to his wishes. We can thwart his perfect plan for our lives. We can go our own way.
The Bible frankly tells us about people who resisted God’s will. In fact, the very first people we meet in its pages did that very thing. God created Adam and Eve to glorify himself through worship, fellowship, and obedient service. But they decided that their way would be more exciting and satisfying than his way, so they exercised their wills in opposition to him. Their descendants have been following their lead ever since.
People assert their own wills for many different reasons. Abraham took his wife’s handmaid and had a son by her because he thought it was the smart thing to do. He wanted a son, and God had promised to give him one, so he thought God might like to fulfill his promise through Hagar. But he never thought to ask God about it.124 It was human wisdom, fleshly reason. And we too can get sidetracked by listening to the wisdom of this world rather than to the voice of God. As one man confessed, “I thought God needed my money more than he needed me. So I went into business when he wanted me in the ministry, and now that my business has failed, God doesn’t have either me or my money.”
David committed adultery and then had the woman’s husband killed. That pair of sins placed him far from the path of God’s fellowship. And it all started when he failed to fulfill his responsibilities. He should have been with his armies, providing encouragement and leadership for them. Instead he was lounging around on his rooftop patio.125 We too can get derailed from God’s best when we shirk our God-given obligations. I’m thinking of a man who failed to show his wife the sympathetic tenderness that God requires of every Christian husband. Her negative responses to his inconsiderateness gave him all the justification he wanted for an escapade with another woman, and his sinful experience now has him on the shelf of uselessness.
Jonah found himself running in a direction opposite from God’s, and it was nothing but stubborn self-will in his case. He didn’t want to do what God had told him to do. God had instructed him to go to Nineveh and preach against its wickedness. Jonah said, “No way, God; I’m heading for Tarshish.” And some of us have been running from God because we don’t want to do what he has commanded us to do.
Peter denied his Lord three times, and but for Christ’s intercessory prayers it would have wrecked the rest of his life. It seemed to be the result of a human weakness—his proud, presumptuous self-reliance. He had emphatically insisted, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”126 But he did! Our weaknesses may be different from Peter’s, but unless we recognize them and trust God for victory over them, they can get us off the track of his will.
Two other men who had contact with Jesus missed his plan for their lives because of procrastination. Jesus wanted them to follow him and be his disciples. One wanted to wait until his aged father died. The other wanted to go home and get everything in order, then come back when it was more convenient.127 Some of us have put off doing God’s will for so long that now we are convinced it is too late to follow his leading.
Whether it is due to human reason, or to nonfulfillment of our responsibilities, or to stubborn self-will, or to human weaknesses, or to procrastination, or to anything else, there are certain consequences for failing to do God’s will.
Surprisingly enough, we may be quite happy about it at first. After all, Abraham did get his son, whom he named Ishmael. David had an exciting fling with a beautiful woman. Jonah got out of doing a disagreeable job. Peter got to see what they were doing with Jesus without exposing his identity. And those other two men got to go home where they wanted to be.
We may have gotten everything we were looking for back there—at the time we considered God’s way but willfully set out instead on our own course. We may have money, material possessions, status, acclaim, comfort, security, physical pleasures, marriage to that person who meant so much, or something else we considered important then. The writer to the Hebrews admitted that there are pleasures in sin for a season, and he was talking specifically about the glamorous things Moses gave up to do the will of God—the worldwide prominence of being in the royal family, and the fabulous wealth of Egypt.128
You may have it all. Everything may be going your way. And you may be quite pleased with yourself about it. “I did what I wanted to do and it turned out just fine. Why should I yield to God’s will?” May I remind you that the game isn’t over yet. Another biblical principle will certainly swing into operation, and it could begin at any time. It’s the principle of sowing and reaping. “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”129
For one thing, we will reap a harvest of guilt, remorse, and shame, just as Peter did when he went out and wept bitterly. Then we will reap the natural consequences of our sin. In Abraham’s case, Sarah and her handmaid became insanely jealous of each other; turmoil invaded Abraham’s happy home. Later, when Isaac was born to Sarah, rivalry broke out between the two sons—a rivalry that has continued to this day in the Arab-Israeli conflict. That’s a rather long-lasting effect for one act of fleshly reason, isn’t it? Some of David’s children followed his poor example and brought heartache and grief to his family.
Insisting on our own way will eventually have a devastating effect on our lives. God has established basic principles for successful living. After we violate them we usually regret it. Mothers and fathers, for example, who neglect their children in order to enhance their careers or enlarge their net worth, eventually experience anguish of soul over those children. Husbands or wives who leave their mates for others often feel trapped in the tangled and complicated web they weave. These are some of the natural consequences of sin, and there may be no way to erase their marks from our lives.
Sometimes God intervenes directly with divine discipline as he did with Jonah when he sent a ferocious storm, fixed the sailors’ election, fingered Jonah as the culprit responsible for their plight, then prepared a great fish to swallow him.
God can actually arrange a tragedy like that to stop us in our tracks and turn us in the right direction. And he does it because he loves us.130 He knows that we can be totally happy and fulfilled only in the center of his will, and he wants us to have that fullness of joy. But the discipline itself is never an enjoyable experience. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful,” the writer to the Hebrews reminded us.131 Insisting on our own way always brings unpleasantness.
Maybe you’re saying, “That’s right where I am—out of the will of God, under his disciplinary hand, and feeling miserable about it. I don’t want to keep on going this way any longer. What can I do?” For one thing, you need to be assured that your waywardness did not catch God by surprise. He knows everything! And he knew from eternity past that you would disobey him and go your own way, so he planned for it. He knew Adam and Eve would sin even before he made them, and before he ever created the world in which they would live he arranged a perfect plan to reclaim them and their sinful descendants for himself.132 It was the best way to demonstrate the glory of his grace.
That’s the kind of a God he is. He knew about our sinful self-will before he drew the blueprint for our lives. And now he is able to weave even our past sins and failures into a future that will glorify himself. As the Psalmist put if, “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee.”133 Everything that happens is permitted by God. And he promises ultimately to use all of it to accomplish his own purposes. That’s what Paul meant when he said that God works all things after the counsel of his own will.134 “All things” must include our sin as well as everything else. God can make even our sins to praise him, as strange as that may seem.
Did you ever play the game in which one person scribbles a few lines on a piece of paper, then someone else has to draw a picture around it, using that meaningless scrawling as part of the picture? God is a master at that! He is the Great Adapter. Before we were ever born, he anticipated any mess we might make of our lives, and improvised an alternative plan in which our disobedience itself would ultimately serve a useful purpose.
Christ can take a shattered life and remake it into something more wonderful than it was before the wreckage. In fact, our serious mistakes and failures may be necessary to make us see how weak and sinful we are, and only when we recognize our weaknesses can we know Christ’s power.135
So it makes no difference where you have been or where you are right now. God has a plan for you from this point on, and it is the very best plan possible. It may involve going back and doing what God wanted you to do in the first place, as it did with Jonah, who finally went to Nineveh, where God blessed his ministry.
But if it is impossible for you to go back and start again, God has a perfect alternative. I hesitate to call it “second best” as some have done, because right now it is the very best thing you can possibly do. You may have missed opportunities and joys that can never be recovered. But God has a plan for you to follow from this day forward that is absolutely perfect. It has to be, for it is his plan and he is perfect.
So don’t look back with regrets. Preoccupation with previous mistakes will only contribute to future failures. Don’t let the past deprive you of present blessing. Follow the example of the Apostle Paul: “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”136
But how can we forget all those wasted years? How can we forget the brokenness and strife which our self-will has left in its wake? There is only one possible way, and that is to confess our sins to God, forsake them fully, and then accept the gracious forgiveness which he offers. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”137 He says that he removes our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west.138 He says he remembers our sin no more.139 He says he casts them into the depths of the sea.140 If God is willing to forgive and forget, the least we can do is to accept his forgiveness and go on afresh.
That was what David did. His sin with Bathsheba made him miserable, “until,” he says, “I finally admitted all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide them. I said to myself, ‘I will confess them to the Lord.’ And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.”141 And God was pleased to salvage his life and bless him. He did the same thing for Jonah, and for Peter, and he wants to do it for you. If you will acknowledge your sin, you can enjoy the sweet assurance of his forgiveness. If you will put yourself at his disposal, he will take you right where you are, make something beautiful of your life, and begin to use you for his glory. It’s never too late to do the will of God.
Maybe some are thinking, “Well, if God can salvage my life at any point in time and use me for his glory from then on, I think I’ll just keep going my own way awhile longer. He’ll work out the problems I create and his grace will be magnified all the more.” The Apostle Paul was afraid that some of us would think like that when we learned how gracious God is, so he said something about it in his letter to the Romans. “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”142
True believers share in the benefits of Christ’s death, and he died to deliver them from the domination of their old self life. It is difficult to fathom a person who has been freed from the authority of his sinful nature, saying, “I’m going to sin more so God’s grace will become more evident.” Such an attitude casts doubts on his salvation. A desire to do God’s will is one prime evidence of genuine salvation. When that desire is present, it brings assurance; when it is absent, it causes doubts. And one reason some Christians have so many doubts about their salvation is that they are doing their own will rather than God’s.
Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”143 On another occasion he affirmed that only those who do God’s will are rightly related to him.144 The Apostle John added, “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”145 These verses do not say that doing God’s will can secure for us eternal life, but they do indicate that the person who possesses eternal life will prove it by doing what God desires. One great benefit of following God’s plan, then, is a blessed sense of assurance that we belong to him. “Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you.”146
Another powerful motive was suggested by the Apostle Paul: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”147 That word appear means “to be revealed.” Someday every Christian is going to stand before Jesus Christ. There the quality of his life will be exposed. What comes out into the open at that time will be the basis for his reward. The person who has done the will of God by the power of the Holy Spirit and for the glory of the Lord shall receive a reward.148 The person who has lived for selfish interests and poured his life into things of no eternal value shall suffer loss,149 the loss of reward.
Some have said, “I don’t really care about rewards. Just so I get there; that’s all that matters to me.” Do you realize what that means? Think about it for a moment. You do enjoy words of appreciation and commendation, don’t you? It means a great deal to you when somebody says something kind, or does something thoughtful, or shares something nice unexpectedly, doesn’t it? Being completely devoid of approval is more than most folks can bear. They long for some gracious word of praise. Living with no praise at all has led some into depression and despair.
Can you picture what it will be like before the judgment seat of Christ, when our precious Lord Jesus, in whom all of our joy and pleasure will be centered, will evaluate our lives? “Well done, good and faithful servant!” he will say to others around us. “Here is your reward.” One after another, faithful servants of the Lord will be congratulated and honored. And now it’s your turn. What will he say? The issue will not be primarily a matter of whether you went to church every Sunday or whether you gave a tenth of your income. It will be whether or not your will was fully yielded to Christ. Were you available to do whatever he asked? Was your life spent “doing the will of God from the heart”?150
John implied that there may be shame for some. “And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming.”151 Shame! What a horrible thought—to stand before the Lord Jesus Christ with shame, the shame of an entire lifetime misused, misdirected, wasted. That fear should grip our hearts and compel us to do the will of God. That’s what Paul was talking about when he said, “Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.”152
Paul takes us to the stadium again to cement this truth in our minds. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the game goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown of laurel that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”153
In the Olympic games, not every runner can win the race and receive a medal. There are only three winners in each event. But the Christian race is different. Everybody can win if he wants to. In fact, the only way to lose is to decide to lose by resisting the will of God. Why be a loser when you can win and receive a reward? The reward itself should not be our principal motive, but the Scripture still tells us about it and encourages us to run in such a way as to obtain it.
What a beautiful thing it would be to come to the sunset of our lives and to be able to say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.”154
But there is one motivation for doing God’s will that is higher than all others. And again, it was Paul who mentioned it: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again.”155 Christ’s love! Above everything else, it is his love that seizes us and constrains us to live for him.
It was his love that drew him from the supreme glory he had in heaven to a sinful, self-centered world that despised and humiliated him. It was his love that led him to Calvary, where he bore God’s fearful wrath against sin in our place. It was his love that caused him to offer us forgiveness and life when we deserved eternal condemnation. And when we grasp the immensity of that love, we shall live no longer for ourselves, but for him who truly loves us.
Doing the will of God is not a matter of gritting our teeth and toughing it out: “If I have to do it, I have to do it!” It is thinking about the one who gave everything to secure our eternal blessedness and then responding gratefully and joyfully to him. He loves you, just as you are, with all your sins and failures. He is ready to receive you when you offer your body to him as a living sacrifice. He is willing to transform you, empower you, and use you to accomplish his eternal purposes. Yield yourself to him. Then you will be able to say confidently with the Psalmist, “I delight to do thy will, O my God.”156