The If Statement…
For those who are familiar with the intricate workings of Microsoft Excel, the ‘if statement’ provides the user with a choice within a process. It facilitates differing outcomes in any flow chart or system. One definition provides the following explanation:
“A conditional statement often used within a spreadsheet. An IF statement checks to see if a statement is true or false and then does one of two things depending on the result. It looks like this in Excel:
=IF(Condition check, Do this if true, Do this if false)” [www.teach-ict.com]
And, of course, we apply the same principles when it comes to deciding outcomes in our own lives.
We might pray something along these lines – “Lord, if I get a text message from someone at such and such a church, then I will know it’s Your will to go to their conference next month.”
Of course it might well be God’s will for us to go to the conference. That’s not really the point. The outcome is not the problem. It’s the process where the problem is.
Most of what we do in today’s Christianity is based upon common practices and conventional wisdom. That is to say, we do things the way we do because we have always done it that way. When I first started to experience church life in the late 1980s, the practice of ‘laying a fleece’ in order to determine what God wanted us to do in a given set of circumstances was widespread and had been part of many church cultures for some time. Please stay with me on this. I know that there is biblical precedence for ‘laying a fleece’. Gideon, one of God’s unlikely heroes, from the time before the kings of Israel, used a fleece to determine whether God was with him. He laid the fleece on the threshing floor and said to God –
“if there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on the ground, then I shall know that You will save Israel by my hand, as You have said.” [Judges 6:37 NKJV]
And then he did it again…just to check he had got it right.
Now, we often take examples from the Old Testament and use them as valid methods for working out our salvation. We will say that Gideon’s method is valid because it is in the Bible. And the Bible is God’s word to us, so by that rationale, everything’s good…if it’s in the Bible. Except that it’s not, is it? Animal sacrifice is in the Bible but we understand that Jesus became the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, and so we no longer use it as a valid practice. And the same with circumcision. And all of the law for that matter too. Why should we treat ‘laying a fleece’ any different? If Jesus came to fulfil the law and give us a new covenant why do we still cling onto certain things, which in New Testament teaching, have no setting? Like tithing. Why do we cherry-pick some things and say they are still valid? What if they are not? Do we keep up these practices just because ‘we have always done it that way’, despite the fact that the New Testament has nothing to support some of the practices and methods we use?
Let me be clear. I believe in New Testament Christianity. I see absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be seeing the same out-working of the Holy Spirit that we read in the book of Acts. In fact, I am actively seeking such a life. Over the years I have seen many things within church which have no grounding in the New Testament whatsoever. When I was younger, I simply accepted them as the norm. Fear of being declared a trouble-maker or subversive prevented me from asking ‘why’ we do this or that. Today, in my search for the authentic, I am less worried about what others may think and more concerned with what Jesus taught as a blueprint for life. Of course, it could be easy to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. But I don’t think so. Let’s look at what the New Testament actually says about how to determine what God’s will actually is.
First of all, let us agree, that many things that are God’s will don’t actually need a ‘sign’ from God for us to do them. For example, praying to God to bless and forgive someone who has insulted me is clearly a no brainer. As is feeding the poor, clothing the naked and loving each other, and a whole myriad of other things that we often question. How do we know they are God’s will? Because Jesus told us to do it. They are His commandments to us. They supersede everything because Jesus came to fulfil the law (Matthew 5:17). Just read the gospels and you will find endless things that are all pre-approved by God. No need to ask. No need for confirmation. Just do it.
Secondly, let us also agree, that there are countless occasions throughout the gospels where the writer records one person or another coming to Jesus and asking about a certain situation and what they should do. Jesus always has a simple answer. Sometimes it comes in the form of a question designed to make us stop and think. Sometimes the asker of the question doesn’t like the answer, but there is always an answer. As a rule, the answer is usually about self-sacrifice. But don’t take my word for it. Read the gospels. All the way through, Jesus points us to a closer relationship with the Father; to a life of selfless living; to justice; to mercy…to kingdom living. To living as a subject of the King of Kings. A servant. A humble servant.
“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all of these things will be added to you.” [Matthew 6:33 NJKV]
The simple model when we are unsure of one path or another is to ask God. Ask, seek, knock. He will answer. You might not like the answer, but He will answer nonetheless. Remember: A.S.K.
But let us look at specifics. In Acts chapter 1 we see the disciples tasked with choosing a replacement for Judas. They chose two candidates. They prayed and then they cast lots. We are not sure what form this casting of lots took but, being Jews, it is likely that is was in line with Mosaic Law. They observed the outcome and they acted accordingly. [Acts 1:23-26]
As the casting of lots was a provision of the law, the disciples had defaulted to the convention. At that point they didn’t know there was another option. Look at the timeline. Jesus had already ascended. He had told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, the helper to be given to them. Whilst they were waiting, and having no real idea of who or what they were waiting for, they got on with what they could manage.
I believe that it is highly significant that this practice of casting lots is never mentioned again. Once the Holy Spirit had been poured out and He had became their helper, they didn’t need to rely upon the old religious practices afforded by the law. Jesus had been the fulfilment of the law. His blood sealed the New Covenant and His Holy Spirit was given to provide all the guidance we need.
Neither do we see anywhere in the New Testament the practice of ‘laying a fleece’. Not once. So, why do we do it? Take the time to read through the New Testament and look. Jesus actively promoted a close relationship with the Father. And once the Holy Spirit has been imparted the book of Acts shows the disciples listening to the Spirit of God. Take a close look at Philip. In Acts 6 he is one of seven men chosen to help run the growing church. Then two chapters later he is just listening to the Holy Spirit and acting directly according to God’s will.
Throughout the book of Acts, there are accounts of the disciples walking ‘in the spirit’. The law represented the flesh but they were now dead to that and alive to Christ. They walked so closely with God that they didn’t need signs…they just needed the Holy Spirit to guide them…in everything.
Then, after the initial birth and dramatic growth of the church, we have the letters from apostles to churches urging them to live by the Spirit; to pursue the things of the Spirit.
This becomes a life choice, not a choice about individual aspects of life. The apostle Paul manages to sum it up very succinctly in his letter to the Romans.
“Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” [Romans 12:1-2 NIV]
So, to paraphrase, If you want to find out what God’s will is for you then make a choice to give yourself totally and completely to God. Stop thinking like the world thinks about everything. And allow God to renew the way you think. If you do, you will be changed. Only the Holy Spirit can make this happen. Without Him, we cannot know God’s will.
The principle is simple. Allow the Holy Spirit to guide you in all things. Don’t think like you used to. Let God transform your mind into a new way of living.
I want to share with you an example of how I have come to think like this. It is something that has happened recently and has led directly to this revelation about seeking God’s will. It has also, for me, make a connection with many other aspects of kingdom living.
I am not going to go into actual specifics here…as you read you will understand why…but I will explain what happened so you can see the process.
For sometime we have understood from God that there was a particular course of action that we wasn’t to take. He had shown us a better way – even though the better way was much harder. It was a matter of faith, as many of these things are. So, trying to emulate the cloud of witnesses like Abraham, we stand in faith upon what we believe to be God’s will. Then, something happens. Something knocks your confidence in the process and you start to take your eyes off of God and start looking at the situation around you. As a result, you panic and start to sink. Sound familiar? Read Matthew 14. Peter suffers the same problem when he takes his eyes off of Jesus.
As you flail around in the water you start questioning all sorts of stuff. In this example I read two pieces of scripture that could be interpreted as being completely contrary to what we believed to be God’s will. ‘Perhaps He has changed His mind’, I thought. And I began to pray about it. And because I didn’t get the answer that I was looking for (I did get an answer but I thought I knew better), I decided to ‘lay a fleece’…just like I had been taught in church. Now, when it comes to something specific I use a journal to record stuff. You know, you might pray if such and such happens, I will do this or that. Easy to forget so I write it down. My journal read something like this:
‘If such and such happens then I will know it is Your will for us to do option B instead of option A.’
Can you guess what happened? Yes, that’s right. Such and such happened. There was a moment of euphoria, for it was a much easier option. But also an uneasy feeling. I spoke to Caz. She also liked the idea. We prayed. We wanted it to be so. But it still didn’t sit right. Someone once said if there is doubt then it is not of God. I think it is a good rule. I went back to God. Something in me reminded that God is I AM. Rather someone. The Holy Spirit simply reminded me that God is the same today as He ever was and always will be. Nothing had changed. And a lesson was learned. For me the lesson was to rely upon the Holy Spirit for guidance and not on fleeces or lots. I might as well flip a coin or roll a dice to decide which option to choose. God has a plan for all of us. The plan doesn’t change half way through. But it can if we allow doubt in. If we take our eyes from Jesus then we will doubt. If we doubt we open ourselves up to all sorts of opportunities to be steered off course. Am I saying that the enemy was able to read what I had written in my journal and effect such and such to happen? I’m not sure. But what I am sure of now is that God didn’t change His mind…I did.
I implore you to check any methods you use for seeking God’s will and hold them up to the light of the New Testament. If it’s there then it’s fine. Just because you find an example of a practice in the Old Testament doesn’t mean it is good for us. If you want the authentic life that Jesus showed His disciples then fix upon what He said and did. He spent hours alone with His Father. That is where He learnt the will of God. Start praying The Lord’s Prayer every day. Slowly. Think about the words. They bring freedom. If we pray ‘you will be done’, we must also accept that what happens is God’s will…even if we don’t like it. We must learn to trust Him…not doubt Him.