The Puzzle of the Will of GodErwin W. Lutzer | October 11, 2009
Selected highlights from this sermon
Did you seek God’s will regarding your marriage? Or did you follow what was right in your own eyes?
We should always seek His guidance, especially on the momentous things in our lives. His will may mean doing something that’s very difficult, but it’s always the best path to take.
And though we may not see His guidance in dramatic ways, we can look back and see exactly how He has led us throughout our lives.
We’re so glad that you have joined us today as we continue this series on the topic of marriage, specifically The Marriage Puzzle, and it is a puzzle. In this series of messages, we’re trying to put some pieces together.
Today’s message is a little different even though it is part of the series. It’s entitled The Puzzle of the Will of God. The reason I’ve decided to speak about that is because, when you stop to think of it, there are many couples who wrestle with whether or not they should have been married at all. Have you ever noticed that there are some people who go from one destructive relationship to another? If you begin to analyze why, there are many different reasons but one question I have sometimes asked couples who haven’t married well (they have married badly, shall we say) is, “Did you really seek God about your marriage and about your wedding?” Oftentimes they say, “No, we just simply assumed that we were both Christians and it seemed reasonable.”
My friend, when it comes to momentous decisions, and marriage certainly is the most momentous decision next to whether or not you’ll be a Christian, it is not enough to say, “Well, yeah, we kind of did,” and today that’s why we’re talking about the will of God.
Now in some instances it’s very clear as to why the marriage didn’t work out. I remember a young woman whom I shall call Ruth who was involved with a man. She was warned to not marry Dan because Dan had a host of problems. She said, “I’ve seen him at his worst, and I can endure it,” and so she negated all of the good advice that she was given, and we should not be surprised that they were divorced perhaps two or three months later. Many stories like that could be told, but I am talking today about those who say, “Yeah, you know we did ask God’s blessing on our marriage,” and yet in retrospect you question whether they were really following God’s lead.
So today’s message isn’t so much a sermon as it is you and me sitting down for a cup of tea, and I’m looking into your eyes, and we’re talking about the will of God. This message is directed to those of you who are not married who think at some point you might be, or you are seeking God’s will in any other aspect—your vocation, your education. All of that is going to be involved in the principles that I am going to be giving you in a moment. Or maybe you are in a marriage and you say, “What is God’s will within this situation?” I hope that that becomes clear as well.
You know, James 1:5 says, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it shall be given him.” There is no way I could possibly count the number of times I claimed that verse. Sometimes I have been on the telephone. People have asked me a question and I haven’t known how to answer and I just shoot up a prayer to God—James 1:5, “Lord give me wisdom because at this moment I don’t have any,” and sometimes after I pray that prayer I wish that my conversation had been recorded because I come up with good stuff. (laughter) It’s too bad that it is lost—all attributed to the grace of God.
So with that introduction let’s bow for prayer, because I want you to ask for wisdom regarding the decisions that you make and that God would guide us. Please join me.
And so, Father, in these moments we ask You to give us wisdom. Give me wisdom. I’ve prepared this message but Lord, only You can direct me. Even as I give it, may it be a message filled with Biblical wisdom. And for those, Lord, who are facing decisions about their future, whether it is marriage or other important choices, give them wisdom and help us to be able to accept how You direct us. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Before we get to the seven principles I want to share with you, let me just simply give you a few preliminaries. First of all, I don’t think that God is reluctant to guide us. I really don’t believe that God is in heaven saying, “Oh, you sent your application to three schools? You said whichever one you’d be accepted in you’d go to that school and now you are accepted in all three. I dare you to choose the right one.” God isn’t playing games with us. He’s not saying, “You know I have a mate for you somewhere but she’s in Philadelphia and you are in Chicago. I dare you to try to get together on this.” That’s not God. He delights to guide us. In Romans 8 it says, “For as many as are the sons of God, they are led by the Spirit of God.” I believe that God loves to lead us.
Second, I think it is very important to really understand that knowing God’s will ultimately boils down to knowing God, and the better you know God, the better you are going to understand His leading and have the assurance of being led. See, there are many people who turn away from God and they do so for many different reasons. Many do because they think that God is only vengeance. Because they have sinned and they’ve messed up, they don’t go back to God. What a huge mistake!
You have to understand that guilt and a mess is not God trying to push us away. They are God’s means of trying to embrace us and invite us into a closer relationship. God never rejects someone who comes to Him. He is a welcoming God, thanks to Jesus. So you need to know that, because we all mess up in one way or another. And then you also have to believe that God is good. One of the reasons people go their own way (and we know that they do) and do their own thing is because they believe if they really surrendered to Him, I mean seriously laid it out, He might do something that would really rob them of happiness and what is best for them. Like one woman said, “Lord, I know the man I am going to marry is an alcoholic but I also know I can handle him, so You may be opposed to this but I’ll take care of it, Lord.” Why does a woman or man say that? It’s because at root we don’t believe that God is good. You need to believe, my friend, that God is good, and there’s no place better to be than in the middle of His will, even if you are in a desert, than to be in a land of plenty doing your own thing.
So, it’s all about knowing God and also, it’s important to realize that oftentimes God guides us in ways that are really not dramatic, and yet we look back and we say, “Now that was God.”
Someday I’d like to tell you the story of my life. In many ways it is very, very uneventful and uninteresting. If it were written up in a biography I think I’d have a hard time getting my kids to read it, and yet in other ways, it is absolutely filled with providence. I could tell you about sitting in a high school classroom, refusing to fill out an application to go to a certain Bible school because contrary to all reason, I was going to go to another one, and how that decision impacted everything. I don’t know that I would be living in America today. I certainly don’t see how I could have been the pastor of Moody Church if I had made the wrong choice, and at the time, I had no idea that the choice that I was making was that impactful.
Let me give you another example. Some of you know this. The first Sunday Rebecca and I came to Moody Church was in 1977. I had been the pastor of a Baptist church north of here. They had a farewell service the last Sunday of March of that year. It was the first Sunday we woke up without a church to go to. I wanted to go to a different church. Rebecca said, “Let’s go to Moody Church,” because I had come to know Pastor Wiersbe. Don’t tell people this, but God often leads me through my wife. All right? (laughter) Don’t let that out.
So we came here and parking was as tight as a drum. It was far worse than the parking situation is today. I dropped her off. We only had two children at the time. This is 1977. I dropped them off and said, “I’ll meet you in the lobby,” because I had to find a parking space. As soon as they got out of the car, right here on LaSalle Street (I can go to the place) somebody pulled out, and I thought, “My, this is fortunate,” and I backed in. I went into the lobby and found Rebecca, and Pastor Wiersbe walked past me with his overcoat on. I put my hand on his shoulder. He didn’t see me. I saw him, and I said, “Pastor Wiersbe, where are you going? It’s only ten minutes before the morning service.” He said, “Erwin Lutzer, I am sick. I am on my way home. Will you preach for me this morning?” (laughter) I preached at Moody Church that morning. I stood on this platform. Someday I’ll tell you what I was thinking about when I was here. (laughter)
Whole steps of God’s providence—just nothing but providence! And that became a link in a chain that eventually led me to become the pastor. Now was I conscious of God’s leading when I was back there? No, I was thinking, “This is my lucky day.” I had no idea that behind it was God, and many decisions that I have made have been that way, and you’ve made them that way too, and God has led you.
Well, folks, I think that’s enough chitchat, isn’t it? Don’t you think it’s time that we get down to the seven principles? Not all of them might apply directly to you but for many of you I am praying that this message will just be absolutely what you needed to hear. Wouldn’t that be great? And now I’ll give you the seven principles quickly, or as quickly as God wills.
Number one, the will of God is more about being than doing. Character is more important than your vocation. It is who you are, and once you take care of being, God will guide you in those matters that are unrevealed. The only verse I am going to ask you to turn to today is 1 Thessalonians 4:3, and we’ll look at it quickly. This message will be filled with Scripture but largely I will be quoting it since the verses come from various parts of the Bible. First Thessalonians 4:3 says, “This is the will of God.” Well, you come and say, “Pastor Lutzer, I don’t know God’s will.” Well, aren’t you ever lucky that you came to church today if you believe in luck. “This is the will of God (We finally found it.), (namely) your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality, that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God….”
Wow! Well, there’s the will of God, that you be morally pure. See, that’s why it is that if you are sleeping with your girlfriend, you’ll never be in a position where you’ll know that you are being led by God. You won’t know what to do. You are only going to make a whole series of bad decisions. You don’t know whether to get married and you are going to have trouble making other decisions too. Why? It’s because you are disregarding the clear Word of God. This is His will.
David committed murder and adultery, and he hung out for several months, not really willing to deal with it until Nathan the prophet came to him, and then in Psalm 32 he said, “Lord, I confess my sin. I was under all this pressure. My conscience was bothering me and I was trying to put it off.” He said, “I confessed my sin and my iniquity I didn’t hide, and now you have forgiven me,” and what does it say in verse 8? God says to him, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you will go. I will guide you with my eye upon you.” Sin is confessed. Guidance is back.
You’re living in sin and you have no idea. You can’t hear God’s voice, and then the next verse says, “Hey, don’t be like the horse and the mule. You know they need bridles so that they stay close to you and don’t run away. Don’t be that kind of a Christian that God always has to have a bridle on or a hook to keep bringing you in. Be an obedient Christian and hear His voice.” Now this isn’t the only passage in the Bible (in the New Testament) where it says, “This is the will of God.” There are others. When you begin to do the will of God in matters that have been revealed, God will begin to lead you in matters that are unrevealed— your vocation or your choice of a mate, etc.
So, first of all, the will of God is more about being than doing.
Secondly, the will of God doesn’t mean that our decisions are trouble free. There’s no use second-guessing on this point. Jesus said to the disciples, “Get into a boat and go to the other side,” and they were in the will of God. Don’t you wish you’d hear Jesus that plainly? Wouldn’t that be wonderful if you heard the voice of God with that clarity? “Get in the boat and go to the other side.” In the middle of doing the will of God, the biggest storm that they had ever encountered came upon them. Just because you are seeking God’s will and you do God’s will in relationship to a mate does not mean that your marriage is going to be conflict-free. It’s no guarantee that one of you may become unfaithful. It’s no guarantee that you might run into a lot of problems, and there’s no use second-guessing it at this point because “blessed is he who swears to his own hurt and does not change,” and the point to keep in mind is that the will of God is not trouble-free.
Here’s a couple that makes a decision to buy a house. This is a true story. They pray about it. They give it to God. God leads them. The money is provided for, and after they move in they discover that the value of the house falls. It has more problems than they realized. It is a money pit, and now they are beginning to ask if they were led by God or weren’t they. Well, didn’t you give the decision to God? Didn’t you submit it all to God and say, “God, whatever Your will is, that’s what we want”? Yes, we did that. Who is to say then that you weren’t led by God? Listen, there are lessons maybe that old rickety houses will teach you that nothing else will teach you. It doesn’t mean that you are out of God’s will. God’s will is often really, really filled with trouble.
Third (and this highlights it), the will of God supersedes our personal happiness. Mark that down. Write it in your Bible. Don’t forget it. It supersedes personal happiness. In Matthew 26:39 Jesus said, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” And then He said those memorable words that we all know by memory: “Nevertheless, not as I will but as thou will.” Was Jesus in the will of God when He went to the cross? The answer, of course, thankfully is yes, and what He said was, “It is not my will but yours.” Are you willing to say that in relationship to marriage? I’m speaking now to you singles. Are you willing to say that in relationship to the mate that you are dating? Not my will, Lord, but Your will. Whatever it is that You want, that’s what I want. Are you willing to say that?
You see, whenever there is trouble in our lives, the first thing we ask is, where’s the escape hatch? Where is the divorce lawyer? How can I get out of this pain? Well, there’s another question that we should try to ask and that is, “How do I bring glory to God in the midst of my predicament?” and the answer to those questions might not be the same. How do we bring glory to God in the midst of our need because it supersedes personal happiness? God isn’t into saying, “Now, you know I am committed to your happiness.”
I remember a woman saying to me, “I want out of this marriage because I can’t believe that God would want me to be unhappy.” Lady, what if Jesus had said that in Gethsemane? “I can’t believe the Father wants me to go through this pain. Let me go back to heaven and leave the world unredeemed.” The will of God sometimes is very difficult. Rebecca and I know a couple that have worked as missionaries and they had to send their children to a school far away and those children missed their mommy and daddy so much, and before they left their daughter, who perhaps was (I don’t know) eight or ten years old, said, “Mommy, why does Jesus ask us to do such hard things?” Sometimes Jesus asks us to do very hard things. So the will of God supersedes our personal happiness. It is God’s will and not ours that is the big issue.
Number four, God’s will can be communicated in various ways. You say, “Well, how does He guide us?” There are various ways that He guides us. For example, it says in Proverbs 11:14, “In the multitude of counselors there is wisdom.” One way that God guides us if you are facing an important decision is get with someone who has some wisdom and ask their opinion, or ask the opinion of a group of people whose opinions you can trust. Nowhere is this more important than in the business of finding a mate. Love is blind, but believe me, the neighbors aren’t, and if you have a good family, your family isn’t. Take their advice. So one way is the multitude of counselors. The other is Acts 17 where Paul says, “We wanted to go to this certain place to preach but the Holy Spirit prevented us.” How did the Spirit prevent them? I’m not sure, but I know this. The Holy Spirit has prevented me from some terrible, terrible decisions.
When I was in seminary I met a young woman whom I shall call Anna. If you were to look at the way in which we met and all of the circumstances, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that this was a match made in heaven. I mean, really, I won’t go into the details except to say that nobody could have put the pieces of this puzzle together except God. So that seemed to indicate that it was God’s will. That’s what really threw me off is the circumstances. Furthermore, we really loved each other. That was a second component that was important. But there was something else, and that was this business of personal peace. The Spirit of God leads those who belong to God, and something happened within me as we got to know each other that brought me such deep depression and agony. I’m being very vulnerable here today, but it was like two rivers within me, one wanting to go this way and one wanting to go that way. I could hardly live, and yet all of the signs were that obviously she was for me. My friends were saying, “Well look at the way God brought you together,” and on and on and on, but within my soul there was this anguish. Finally, let me make a very long story short (a story that should be short but turned out to be long because you know it takes God a long time for God to get through to some of us). It’s like the farmer who said, “The way to get a mule’s attention is first of all to hit him over the head with a two-by-four.”
I said to God one evening, “If you are not in this, throw a brick at me.” In the morning I was so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed, and I got the message. Folks, if I had married that woman, subsequently knowing the way things turned out for her, I probably would not be in the ministry today.
There are a couple of lessons here for you young people. It’s possible to be madly in love with someone who you should not marry. Remember that. Another lesson is the peace of God should rule in your heart. There was a check in my spirit, a huge check, and I look back at that time with deep gratitude to God and say, “God, how could you be this good to me to have spared me?” I don’t know why God doesn’t spare other people. He had another young woman in mind for me whose name was Rebecca—the right one.
Folks, God communicates His will in various ways. Don’t tell me that just because you happen to meet at an airport in Seattle and you get along so well and you fall madly in love that that’s a basis for finding the right one, unless there are some other things in place.
Number five, doing the will of God is not doubt-free. It’s not doubt-free. It’s not as if we can say all of our decisions can be made with 100 percent certainty. I wish that that were true, but that’s not been my experience. I don’t know about you, but in 2 Corinthians 1 the church was criticizing Paul because he planned to come and then he changed his mind. And they were saying, “Does this mean that you are vacillating? First of all, it’s yes and then it’s no, and so forth, and Paul is defending himself and saying, “When it comes to Jesus, it’s not yes and no. It’s only yes.” What he’s saying is that the important thing is the Gospel is to be preached. But here’s the mighty Apostle Paul changing his mind because he’s not sure exactly what the mind of God is. Oftentimes, we walk with God and we have to make decisions. I mean, you know you can’t endlessly sit on an opportunity to leave Chicago and go to Atlanta. They give you two weeks to decide. You can’t do that forever. You have to decide and sometimes we make a decision with trepidation and misgivings, but as we submit it to God, we do that trusting God. And my experience has been that after we make a decision like that then God begins to confirm it in this way and that way, and we look back and say, “I wonder why I agonized so much over this, because it’s so clear that this is what I should have done.”
A number of years ago I was walking through the forest preserve near our condo with little Samuel, our grandson. We actually have three grandsons, and I was walking with him when he was about five, and we took a trail and then we were coming back and I said, “Samuel, we have to go on this trail.” My grandchildren call me Papa and he said, “No, Papa, no, Papa, we have to take this trail,” and he was off by about 85 or 90 degrees. He would have gone to a river actually. I knew that forest preserve. I’ve walked in it a hundred times. I could even see the top of our condo above the trees. “No, Papa.” I said, “Samuel, you have to trust,” and he said, “Yeah, Papa, but it is so hard to trust,” and then he walked behind me kicking leaves as he went. Was he confident that this was going to end up right? No, he had some misgivings, but after we turned the corner and saw the condo I’m sure he thought, “Well, Papa’s right.”
Listen, my friend, God knows all the trails in the forest preserves. He can see around corners. You know what? It’s hard to trust but that is the best policy. I’d rather trust Somebody who can see the future. We should always trust Him.
Number six, the will of God is often found not by walking so quickly but rather by waiting. Now this one needs explanation because it says, “They who wait for the Lord, their sole expectation is from you.” “I wait before the Lord,” the Psalmist says over and over again. Now, don’t misunderstand. When I say that we should wait before God I do not mean passivity. J.I. Packer tells the story of a woman he knew who never got out of bed until she felt led of the Holy Spirit to do so. And then after she got out of bed she needed to feel led before she put her socks and shoes on. That’s just silliness. That’s not what it means to wait on God. Some of you are maybe looking for employment and you’ve got no resumes out there. You’ve got nothing going on. All that you are doing is saying, “I’m waiting on God,” which is another way of saying, “I’m doing nothing.” That’s not what the Psalmist means. What the Psalmist means is you are waiting on God with a sense of expectation, a willing obedience. You are not manipulating. You are not panicking, but you are waiting, and you are working while you are waiting, and you are investigating while you are waiting because what you want to do is to walk with God, and you are trusting Him to guide you. Eager dependence on God!
Number seven—oh, this is such good news. Could you handle a little good news today? You know, you watch television and it’s all bad news. Well, here’s good news. The will of God encompasses our mistakes and our regrets. It encompasses it. God is adequate for it. You look at the past and you say, “Well, you know I got off the trail,” like the old saying goes, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” So you say, “I made these wrong decisions, and one wrong decision led to another, and that led to another, and that took me to a part of my life where I didn’t want to go, but I was in a box, and I made that….” Listen, God is bigger than all of that.
Joshua does not ask the counsel of the Lord. He doesn’t pray about his decision with the Gibeonites and believes their story, and then they are stuck with the Gibeonites because, “Blessed is he who swears to his own hurt but doesn’t change.” So Joshua is stuck with the Gibeonites. Does God say, “Well, that’s it; I’m pretty well through with you; you didn’t ask my counsel so go ahead and live with it?” Yeah, God says that maybe, but then he says something else. He says, “I’ll make the Gibeonites a blessing to you,” and they were hewers of wood and carriers of water, and then they ended up going back and helping build the temple.
You know, there’s Adam and Eve in the garden. Is there any chance that Adam married the wrong one? (laughter) Notice this. He did blame her even though he didn’t have that chance. You know, Adam says to the Lord “The woman thou gavest me—if you had led me a little better God, I wouldn’t be in this mess.” So you know, they mess up, right? In Paradise! They mess up and what does God say in Genesis 3:15? He says these words to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed, and her seed will crush you on the head, and all that you’ll be able to do is to nip his heel.” It’s a contrast of wounds. It’s the first prediction in the Bible that Jesus was coming. And Jesus was going to come in the middle of a world broken with sin, broken with stupid decisions and foolishness, and Jesus was going to come and straighten that out, and He still straightens it out because God is a redeeming God.
True story. Nice Christian girl meets boy in Christian school. They get along very well. They take a long trip so that she can introduce him to her family. They are on the way back and it’s getting late and they decide to spend the night, and of course they don’t have much money, and so his intention is that they stay in the same room. And there’s a check in her spirit that says this isn’t right. What she should have done is to holler and say, “No, you go ahead and use the room. I’ll spend the night in the car,” but many women do not have the power (we need to empower them) to make those right decisions for reasons that will become clearer in a future message. So, they spend the night together. Later on he confesses the reason he did it. He said, “I knew that if you slept with me you wouldn’t say no to me when I asked you to marry me.” And that’s right. You have a relationship like that and the person you have a relationship with has power over you. It’s called a soul tie. It’s huge. It’ll either end in anger or end badly in other ways. It’s inevitable.
But anyway, she now feels an obligation to get married, so she wrote me a long letter telling me this story, and then later on I met the couple, and she is planning her wedding with shame and regret. Isn’t that awful? A day that is supposed to be a day of happiness! She said she was like a robot. She was just doing what needed to be done, putting all of her emotions on hold.
Well, they had a few rough years of marriage for various reasons, but I’m telling you this story because it has a happy ending. They are in Christian work today, and they are serving the Lord in a very responsible position, and after she gave me the letter and I read it, I contacted her and said I’d like to meet your husband. I’d like to see this guy that you married back then, with your marriage having begun so badly. It was great to see them, and it was great to see that they are happy, that they have children, and that God is using them mightily. Why? It is because God is a redeeming God. Aren’t you glad that He is? He’s a redeeming God. I think you ought to clap there if you’re awake. (applause) If He weren’t, where would we be?
If you are here today (and I don’t know what your need is), or if you are listening by whatever means, the fact is that God is a redeeming God. Would you come to Him? Would you finally get dead honest? Would you say, “Not my will but Yours be done?” And would you trust Him, not when the mess gets better, but in the middle of your mess and your decision-making, and trust Him all the way home?
Father, guide us in all of our decision-making, we ask. Guide those who are unmarried. Guide those who are married. Help us to seek Your will alone, and may we say from the bottom of our hearts, “All for Jesus.” We want to give it all to You today. Help us to give it up and to trust You alone. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.