Poet Robert Frost famously wrote about two roads that “diverged in a yellow wood,” and he expressed regret that he could not take both paths. This captures a universal human experience: as finite humans, a “yes” to one path is necessarily a “no” to the others. By the end of the poem, Frost reveals which path he chose—a less common one—and proclaims that this choice “has made all the difference.” I think that is what we all hope for. We want to make the best choice, but we often struggle to know what that is.
Have you ever found yourself asking the question: What is God’s will? Similar questions come to mind: What does the Bible say about God’s will? How can we know God’s will? Can we know God’s will? How do I discern God’s will for my life?
These are massive questions we could spend months, even years, unpacking—and many people much wiser than I have done this work. But on a basic everyday level, when we start asking questions about God’s will, what we usually mean is more specific: How do I know the right thing to do here? Should I take that job? Have that hard conversation? Move to that neighborhood? Break up with this boyfriend? Sometimes it is very hard to know what the right thing to do is in life, and we can be paralyzed by indecision or filled with anxiety when weighing our options.
But we can’t make the right choice in the yellow wood if we have never been up above it, catching at least some glimpse of the entire thing. I’d like to suggest that before right choices can be made on the ground, we have to travel to the heights. I invite you, then, to come with me to the book of Ephesians—which shows us first the big picture and then the nitty gritty of God’s will.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians on God’s will
On a macro level, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians gives us a great deal of insight into what God’s will is, as well as how to do God’s will. Ephesians is devoted to helping the early Church of Ephesus (and us) understand the will of God. Paul uses the first three chapters to describe God’s ultimate, overarching will for humanity. Just look at the first chapter:
For he chose us before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless. … In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will. … He made known to us the mystery of his will … to bring unity to all things … under Christ. In him we were also chosen … according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. … That you may know the hope to which he has called you, and his incomparably great power. … That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand … and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
So according to chapter 1, it was God’s will for us to be brought into God’s family and united under Christ for the praise of his glory, which fills everything.
In chapter 2, Paul describes how we were adopted into God’s family through the new life available in Christ—despite having been dead in our sins and despite having been “outcasts” and “strangers.” The walls that kept us far from God and each other were torn down because Christ himself is our peace.
And Paul ends chapter 3 with a prayer that we would have power to fully comprehend our new identity as God’s adopted children, that we would “be rooted and established in love [and] have power … to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ”—not for our own sake, but for his “glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations for ever and ever!”
In summary, this is God’s will for us: to bring God glory by comprehending his love; and understanding how we are united to him in order to spread his fullness to every corner of the earth.
This is God’s will for us: to bring God glory by comprehending his love; and understanding how we are united to him in order to spread his fullness to every corner of the earth.
Ephesians 4 and the will of God
It’s all very beautiful. I’m tempted to close my Bible and just soak it all in. But it’s also a bit abstract, as Paul knew. He knew that the Ephesians—like us today—struggle to apply high theology to our very real lives. So in chapter 4, Paul starts spelling out what it actually looks like to bear the identity we’ve been given in Christ and how we go about “spreading his fullness”; in other words, what it looks like to live out God’s will.
Given everything he discussed in chapters 1–3, Paul says, “Live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” He’s saying, Live into and out of your new identity. He gets practical: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, and bearing with one another in love.” Also, “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
He then describes this unity, emphasizing that unity is not found in uniformity but in each individual contributing their diverse gifts. When we all contribute the unique perspectives and skills we have been given, we are like a well-oiled machine, a healthy body. As we work together and serve in the ways for which we have been designed, the body functions in such a way that Christ’s power and love pervades everything, filling everything and everyone it touches.
God’s will for his people is to live in such a way that your individual comprehension of your identity as a beloved child in God’s family contributes to how you steward your unique passions and skills, which contributes to the flourishing of the body as a whole—a body which doesn’t exist for its own sake but for the sake of Christ, who is our head.
And when we function as part of Christ in this way, his power and love spreads everywhere. This is what 1:23 means by Christ being “head over everything for the church which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” So when you serve—in humility, gentleness, patience, and love—with your unique gifts, you contribute to the expansion God’s kingdom, because Christ’s hope and power are filling you, building up the body of Christ, and causing the fullness of Christ to expand into the world around us.
Ephesians 5–6 and the will of God
It may feel as if we’ve strayed from the topic of God’s will. But the topic apparently has not left Paul’s mind because he continues on, discussing the topic again in chapter 5, verses 15–21:
Be very careful then how you live—not as unwise but as wise. … Do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. … Be filled with the Spirit: Speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. … Always giving thank to God the Father for everything … and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Paul expands a bit on that last point and then in chapter 6 he adds an addendum to remind us that the truth of God’s will for us—our identity as children in the family of God and unique, important parts in the body with Christ as our head—arms us against falsehood, fear, and doubt. The armor of God, our defense against evil, is the reality of who we are and whose we are. We’re not just changing our behavior and being humble, gentle, and patient out of the blue. We are living into the hope and power of the new, resurrected life that we’ve been given through our union with Christ and identity as God’s children.
When two roads diverge
Now, how does Paul’s theological talk, and even his practical talk, help me when I reach the fork in the path in that yellow wood? How do I know what God’s big will for all mankind has to do with his “small” will for me, right now?
It’s time for me to acknowledge that knowing about God’s grand plan probably won’t light one of those paths in the woods up with a red or green light. But this knowledge has nonetheless provided us some tools that are really helpful for making wise decisions, for knowing when we’re aligned with God and his will.
Here is what we know: It is God’s will for us to be humble, gentle, patient, and to bear with one another in love. So when facing any decision, ask yourself: In this choice, am I practicing humility, gentleness, and patience? Am I bearing with my brothers and sisters in love when they mess up (when they are not humble, gentle, or patient with me)? Is this decision coming from a place of humility, gentleness, patience, and confidence in my calling as a beloved child of God equipped for service—or it is coming from a place of anxiety, anger, or discontent?
Also, will this choice help me or hinder me in my pursuit to more fully grasp God’s love for me and understand the grace I have been given?
Based on how you answer those questions, God’s will for you then is to simply do what you want! In choosing the path you most desire, within the parameters of humility, gentleness, patience, and love, as you walk out your standing as one chosen and loved by God, you contribute to the growth and flourishing of the overall body of Christ. Your passions, skills, and perspectives reflect a unique facet of God’s image. God didn’t put you together by accident, and you didn’t get to the crossroads you are at by accident. He specifically equipped you to function as an important part of the body as we grow together towards spiritual maturity.
So, what is God’s will?
The idea that you’ve been uniquely designed by God to play a significant role in the functional growth and maturation of the larger body of Christ is exciting and empowering. I find it encouraging and energizing when I am reminded that I am part of something much larger and more significant than myself.
But it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and start looking for fulfillment in the gifts themselves, or the exercise of them. But spiritual gifts—and all the ways they may overlap with our natural attributes—are meant to flow through us. If these gifts exist for their own sake, they become stagnant and idolatrous. This is important to remember when we are making big choices. Paul is reminding us that Jesus gave us those gifts out of his grace for a larger and more satisfying purpose.
Paul says to the Ephesians in chapter 4,
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.”
Paul is quoting Psalm 68 here. The Psalm celebrates God’s presence and care for his people and presents God as a conqueror of his enemies. In the culture of Old Testament times, when a ruler conquered another people, that ruler would take spoils: clothing, jewels, animals, women, and children. Whatever and whomever the winner wanted, he and his army violently took. Paul is telling us that Jesus is the true conquering king, but instead of taking, he’s giving.
Remember how chapter 2 described us as “strangers” and “outcasts” who have been brought near? We were the enemy, Paul is saying—but instead of destroying us, Jesus is making us part of his family and giving us gifts. He explains this by saying,
(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?1 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Eph 4:9–13)
What is God’s will? It is God’s will for the fullness of Christ to fill us and the whole earth. This knowledge is meant to help me be more humble, gentle, and patient—it reminds me that my life is about something bigger than myself. Sometimes I can feel anxious about stewarding my gifts well. I worry that they’re being wasted. As Francis Chan put it, I am “succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.”
But what does actually matter? According to Ephesians, it’s living loved. Paul didn’t say, “Take care then that you figure out which gifts you have, which ones you don’t, and that you’re not being successful at the wrong things.” Nope. He said, “Be careful then how you live.” Your status as God’s beloved child doesn’t change based on your vocation or neighborhood or relationships. You are loved. You are part of the family of God and the body of Christ because it was God’s will for you to be included.
So when you feel paralyzed or overwhelmed trying to make the right decision, know that you are already on a path that is spreading the fullness of Christ wherever you go. So let go of your worries and fears around your choices and trust in the one who loves you. As you do, you will become more humble, more gentle, more patient, and more unified with the rest of Christ’s people. And just like that, Christ’s kingdom will be a little more full in you—and that is God’s will.
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