A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
Knowing God's Will
Nestling quietly in the background of traditional
God-talk is a fundamental assumption often referred to, but seldom
questioned. It is that Christians are - or should be - committed to
carrying out God's will on this planet. But is it as simple as that? Is it
possible to know God's will at all, and if so, how?
The practice of testing people for
whether or not they know God's will is almost universal in the Christian
Searching questions are asked at
baptism, for example. "Do you renounce the devil and all his works? Will you
constantly believe God's holy Word? Will you obediently keep his
commandments? Do you promise obedience to God's holy will?" - these reflect
the kind of test usually made. Even so important a matter as becoming a
Christian isn't therefore necessarily simply a matter of conducting the
right rituals. Nor is it only a matter of a candidate's desire.
Similarly when a person claims that he or she is called to serve in an
ordained ministry, all the Church's major parties routinely accept that such
a calling must be tested. If a person persists and successfully jumps the
various hurdles erected by ecclesiastical authority, a final question is
usually asked of the candidate: "Do you think in your heart that you are
truly called according to God's will ...?"
Church, it seems, places great emphasis on an ability to know God's will. If
any teaching is universal in Christianity it is that everyone without
exception should know and then do God's will. Anyone proclaiming the
opposite would without a doubt be regarded as on the wrong track.
In a search of an online bookshop for "God's will" I discovered no fewer
than 230 titles which one way or another addressed the subject. A Google
search on the other hand gave 33 million results for "How to
know God's will". In a small sample of library books, knowing God's will was
usually dealt with only in passing or in relation to problems of biblical
scholarship. The vast majority of websites appear to refer the enquirer to
the Bible as the instrument for revealing God's will. Catholic sites also
refer primarily to the Bible, but supplement this source with "Church
I have found no-one wondering why God
should have made it less-than-easy to know what God's will is.
Let's assume that traditional assertions are correct, that [a] God's will is
knowable and [b] we should spend time and energy discovering it. If so, and
if Church and other Christian leaders do know God's will, it's obviously
most important that their conclusions be broadcast as quickly and as widely
as possible. If God's will on the multitude of problems which plague the
world can be known, we should all be told what it is.
This is because by definition God's will is the will of that which is
greater than all that is. (Note that talking about God can be difficult.)
God's will is by definition always consistent. For example, if it's God's
will that we never use nuclear weapons whatever the situation, then it must
always be wrong to use them unless God changes his mind (to use a human
So if you or I think we have discovered
God's will with respect to nuclear weapons, we have a duty to  tell
others about it, and  let others know how we've discovered God's will so
that they can verify it for themselves.
This is not
merely a facetious or disputatious suggestion. True, it begs the question
that there is a God whose will we can know. It also assumes that God is
interested enough in our small affairs to have a will for them at all. Given
that there is a God with whom we can have some sort of personal
relationship, however, it follows that knowing God's will is all-important.
God's will is by definition the right thing to do in all circumstances. We
may not always carry out God's will. But unless we know it, we can't
be blamed for doing the wrong thing - that is, for doing what's not
God's will, what traditional doctrine calls "sin".
I intend for the moment to treat "God's will" as information passed to us
from God "out there" (which applies also for God as the "ground of our
being," to use Paul Tillich's phrase). That is, a human being is at one time
unaware of God's will and at another time aware because there has been
communication between God and the human. This is essentially the same as me
not knowing what you want for breakfast until you tell me. (You may not get
what you want, but that's another story.)
As far as
I've been able to discover, there are two main traditional ways of learning
 We learn God's will direct, that is,
at first hand.
So, for example, I have come across
publicity for workshops for discovering God's will via a direct hotline. One
proposal is that God "speaks" to us through our dreams. In an activity
called "dreamwork," the group leader claims to enable participants to recall
and interpret dreams effectively. Through their dreams they can know what
God is saying to them and thus what God wants them to do. They can discover
God's will for them.
Very similar in my view are the
many books, workshops, quiet days and retreats aimed at prayer and
meditation. They usually claim to present activities which will enable us to
improve our perceptions of, and relationship with, God (to use metaphors for
"knowing" the unknowable). Many also claim that prayer and meditation are,
in addition, an effective mechanism for knowing God's will.
If these claims for prayer and meditation have substance, it seems to me
that practitioners know God's will through two main devices:
[i] The strengthening and focusing of human
consciousness through meditation and prayer somehow allows an individual
to become aware of God's will at a level not usually accessed or not
otherwise accessible. The information we need in order to know God's
will may therefore reside normally in all of us, waiting only for
us to learn how to get to it, to dig deep enough (to use a metaphor) and
[ii] The practice of prayer - and
perhaps certain methods of prayer, if some manuals are to be believed
- may enable us to somehow "tune in" (to use another metaphor) on
information about God's will which he is constantly broadcasting, as
it were, on all frequencies. We're normally plagued by static and
other interference. As a result we can't hear what God is saying over
the spiritual airwaves.
Once in the right frame of mind or in the right place
and doing the right things, however, our usual deafness is relieved and
we can hear God's voice, not literally (though this reportedly happens
sometimes) but in a manner of speaking. I'm here as deliberately as
vague about the mode of communication as those who write and speak about
it appear to be.
I have not come across anyone who claims to be able to
demonstrate the physical mechanisms for either of these ways of knowing
If we suppose that in prayer and
meditation we're, as it were, digging deep to discover what's there already,
it seems that no present theory about how the human brain works will suffice
to explain how God communicates with us. We don't know if God-information is
preserved in the brain in the same way that memories are retained (and more
often not retained), for example. Can one sub-consciously know God's will at
one time and have forgotten it at another?
essence, this possibility merely pushes any explanation back one step. We
still have to ask how the information about God's will got into the brain in
the first place. Is it there as part of our genetic coding? Or does God
implant it when we're born. Or it is downloaded by God (to use yet another
metaphor) when we need it and not otherwise?
sense the digging metaphor isn't useful. The underlying question is how God
communicates with us. How do we know what God's will is? Does God speak to
us using the airwaves, as with ordinary speech? Or does God use some other
method? Or is his way of communicating with us mysterious and there's no
point in asking about it?
If God intervenes in the
physical processes of the universe, then there is every reason to expect and
hope that God can excite or stimulate our neural processes to communicate
with us. If God doesn't intervene in the physical universe then, of course,
a probable conclusion is that we can know God's will only by some other
means than God-to-person communication.
second traditional means of knowing God's will is by consulting another
person or group, or by observing and interpreting some physical omen.
Some sites of the Internet, for example, claim to have information about
what God is saying to us through an activity called "prophecy". As far as I
can tell, this information is received from God by individuals who have some
sort of ecstatic experience. Presumably the experience is both mental and
emotional in its dimensions. At any rate, normal modes of communication are
apparently superceded and the individual somehow hears or knows what God is
saying to us.
Others claim to be able to "read" or
interpret an individual's situation on the basis of an account given either
verbally or in writing. From there it's apparently but a short step to being
able to explain what God's will is in the given situation. It seems that
such "spiritual counsellors" are able somehow to know God's will - though
I've yet to come across a coherent account of how exactly that works.
A more venerable version of the modern Internet comes in the form of
consulting a Church authority. (I am reminded of the Greek Oracle of
Delphi.) This source of information about God's will can be the Roman
Catholic Pope, or a bishop, or an ordained person. Such authorities seem to
often depend on a host of other sources for their information - the Bible,
official meetings such as synods or Councils, or tradition - rather than on
direct access to God.
I have also come across a
number of versions of authority as a source of God's will in the form of
consulting or praying to a holy person such as St Francis or Saint Therese
But the most frequently quoted source of
information about God's will is undoubtedly the Bible. It is supposed to
contain information which comes from God through those who wrote its various
Quite often this information is thought to
be infallible, in the sense that it's literally true. If literally true, the
Bible presumably therefore presents an absolute version of God's will. But
more often the information apparently needs to be interpreted for ordinary
people either by a Church authority, specialist scholars, preachers, or
someone who claims the ability to do interpretation.
There are no doubt many variations of the above supposed sources of
information about God's will. One would be, for example, the sermons
preached to tens of thousands of congregations every week. Few preachers
would, I think, not assert that in some sense they aim to put across to
their hearers an aspect of God's will.
While I think the division
of knowing God's will into two sources - one direct and the other through
someone else - is a fair one to make, I should point out that the latter is
essentially the same as the former. That is, someone has discovered God's
will and then communicated it by some means to other people. The Bible
authors, the Internet, and the Pope must all have had some communication
from God in the first place to be able to tell us about God's will.