“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”Micah 6:8
One of the blessings of Scripture is that God has revealed his will for mankind. He has clearly told us what he expects of us, so that we do not have to wonder or worry about what kind of life is pleasing to God. Of course, he speaks generally, and his prescribed will needs to be worked out in specific ways by each individual. However, it isn’t a mystery. He has told you, O man…” With this in mind, it is helpful to think through how we can organize God’s prescriptive will: by this I mean all of his commands, both positive and negative, and his wisdom found in books like Proverbs. Here are three ways to categorize God’s will.
1. God’s Will Prohibits Behavior
First, there are laws, commands, and wisdom that prohibit behavior. These inform us what God forbids us to do. The Ten Commandments, for example, are largely expressed in negative terms: ‘You shall not _______”. Commandments 4 (on the Sabbath) and 5 (on honoring authority) are the notable exceptions. They set the boundaries of our conduct, fencing in the yard, so to speak, making it clear what is off limits. To cross these lines opens us up to the harmful consequences that follow, affecting others as well. However, to remain inbounds will generally result in God’s blessing. For example, adultery is forbidden by the 7th commandment. This is not all the Bible has to say about marriage for certain, but it is a boundary that should never be crossed. Those who instead walk in faithfulness in marriage, walk more secure and happier. Nothing else good can be accomplished in marriage, according to God’s will, if the covenant is broken by adultery. We should praise God for the boundaries he sets on our lives, rather than resent them. God is keeping us safe in this way.
2. God’s Will Permits Freedom
Second, God’s will permits freedom in some areas that allow us to make wise decisions according to conscience or preference. God sets the boundaries, but allows us to have freedom within those boundaries. Using marriage again as an example, God’s word does not command everyone to be married. Jesus wasn’t. Paul wasn’t. Other apostles probably were not. Most Christians will choose to marry and honor God in their marriage. Some Christians may choose to honor God by remaining single and celibate (see 1 Corinthians 7). For those who do marry, God has a revealed will for them: Christians should not enter into marriage with an unbeliever (2 Cor 6:14), nor commit adultery (Ex 20:14), but should live in love that reflects Christ and the church (Eph 5:22-33), and raise their children in the knowledge and discipline of the Lord (Eph 6:4; Ps 78:4). However, the Lord does not command a man specifically which woman to marry. There is no index in the back of the Bible that gives an assigned spouse to each person. Rather, those who marry are called to seek a spouse with wisdom. Each person will have different preferences when it comes to their spouses physical appearance, personality, interests, abilities, career path, goals, wealth, etc. While I believe God is sovereign over all things and has a will for all things, including our spouse, he has not made this known to us. So we have freedom to act according to godly wisdom, conscience, and preference.
This is true in other areas as well. We typically think of these as areas of Christian liberty. Where God has not made a specific prohibition or commendation, we ought not to either. Instead, we make personal decisions before the Lord. We may pursue any number of honorable careers, so long as they are not innately sinful (prostitution or dealing drugs, for instance), and we work diligently to the glory of God (Ecc 9:10; 1 Cor 10:31). God likewise gives us freedom in where we live and manage our money and time, so long as we are wise stewards. This freedom extends finally to debatable issues, such as alcohol, tobacco use, entertainment choices, schooling, diet, and more. Since God has given us freedom, we should give him praise and thanks for his kindness, using our freedom not for sin, but for our own good, the good of others, and God’s glory (Gal 5).
3. God’s Will Issues Positive Commands
Thirdly, and I think most importantly, God’s will includes positive commands to specific actions and courses we must pursue. These include positive commands. For example, we have to look no further than the greatest and second greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matt 22:37-39). We could also include the Great Commission to make, baptize, and train disciples of all nations (Matt 28:18-20). These commands– and many more like them– instruct us most clearly what life goals we should pursue. Prohibitions tell us what to avoid at all costs. Permissions give us freedom to make decisions on less important matters. But it is the positive commands, more than the others, that instruct us on what we ought to be at work doing with our lives. I argue that it is in obedience to God’s positive commands that we find the greatest blessing and the most fruitful lives. Therefore, we should take special note of God’s will revealed in this way, and give careful attention to obey here.
Some may think that the sweetness in life is pursued in what God allows us freedom in. They seek to find happiness in merely what God permits. As I said before, there certainly is blessing there. But I contend that the weightiest areas of God’s will, is what he positively commands us to do. There is the greatest return of joy in seeking these areas diligently. If God gives more weight to the goal of your marriage (Eph 6) than he does the physical characteristics or wealth of your spouse, you should pay attention. Pursue most diligently to what God values most clearly, and you can be sure he will reward you.